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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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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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Middle Grade Fiction – I’m OK by Patti Kim

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

 

I'm OK book cover

 

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

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

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

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

 

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Finding a Way Forward – Tiny Infinities by J. H. Diehl

TINY INFINITIES
Written by J. H. Diehl
(Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

– A Junior Library Guild Selection –

cover illustration from Tiny Infinities by J. H. Diehl

In Tiny Infinities, the debut middle grade novel by J. H. Diehl, the summer when Alice turns thirteen, her family’s structure disintegrates. Her mother has become a bedridden recluse, her father moves out, and Alice’s two brothers are temporarily placed with their aunt. Alice willfully stays at the family home, erecting the Renaissance tent her parents met in, resolving to sleep in the backyard until her father returns. Due to finances, cell phones, internet, and camps are cut. Earning money babysitting is bittersweet—Alice’s parents are too distracted to pay much attention. Alice discovers each family has complications. Piper, the young girl she watches, has an undiagnosed loss of speech and possibly hearing.

This quiet story considers deep issues including how one family member’s illness or injury affects everyone. Because of her parents’ split and her mother’s inability to recover, Alice loses touch with close friends rather than explain.

Swimming keeps Alice centered; she’s determined to get her name on her swim team’s record board. A friendship with the new girl, Harriet, develops. Harriet’s keen observations while somewhat off-putting are also perceptive: she advises Alice to switch to backstroke. While this is another change, Alice eventually realizes that she likes swimming backwards without seeing where she’s going; it gives her confidence in her ability to maneuver the pool, and life. Alice and her friends learn from one another how to find their way—realizing it is their way to find.

Tiny Infinities is an honest coming-of-age middle-grade novel. Alice understands for the first time that there is “no line between hot and cold, or warm and cool, love and not love. Tiny infinities [are] always going to be there.”

Fireflies play a clever role in the novel throughout. Beneath the book’s beautiful glimmering jacket is a stunning smooth casewrap adorned with fireflies. The brightly contrasting endpapers offer a pop of color.

  • 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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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL

Written by Stacy McAnulty

(Random House BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

Cover image from The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

 

Until now, Stacy McAnulty has been best known for her picture books. (EXCELLENT ED is one of my favorites.) But her middle grade debut, THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL, puts her squarely in the category of must-read middle grade author, as well.

12-year-old Lucy Callahan narrates the book. Thanks to a chance meeting with a bolt of lightning, Lucy is a math genius. She’s been homeschooled for the four years since the accident and, technically, she should be going to college. Lucy’s grandma just has one requirement before sending her young charge off to university: “Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!).” The mysteries of calculus, algebra, and geometry are easy for Lucy to solve. But the mystery of how to survive middle school? It’s an impossible equation—especially for Lucy.

Lucy’s not very good at making friends. And, though she’d prefer to blend into the background, a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (another result of the lightning strike) makes her stand out. For example, she can’t just sit down. She needs to sit, stand, sit, stand, sit (otherwise she incessantly recites the numbers of pi in her head). And a germ phobia means she goes through a good number of Clorox wipes during the school day. (Lucy would want me to give you an exact here, but I can’t.) However, in spite of this, Lucy is comfortable with herself and I love that. In fact, McAnulty never gives the impression that the things that make Lucy so unique (and make middle school so difficult for her) are problems to be solved. They’re just part of Lucy—for better or worse. There are other problems too. Lucy’s mom is dead; her dad is absent; and her grandmother struggles to make ends meet. But these are all just part of Lucy’s life. McAnulty doesn’t let them become the focus of the book, which is just as it should be.

I don’t want to ruin the fun of reading this book by giving too much away. I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the world through Lucy’s eyes. You don’t need to love (or even understand) math to love THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL. It’s a book for anyone who has ever felt out of place, vulnerable, or just plain weird. And I’m pretty sure that’s all of us.

Starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal.

Interview with Author Stacy McAnulty at Librarian’s Quest

Author website

  • Reviewed by Colleen Paeff
    Read another review by Colleen Paeff
    here.
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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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Zinnia and the Bees, An Interview with Debut Author Danielle Davis

MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
AUTHOR OF
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)

 

Cover image from Zinnia and the Bees written by Danielle Davis

 

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. 

REVIEW

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.

Zinnia and the Bees book with wool and some beesOn 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.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel

INTERVIEW

Photo of Zinnia and the Bees author Danielle Davis

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.

 

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Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) by Julie Bowe

 

BIG & LITTLE QUESTIONS
(ACCORDING TO WREN JO BYRD)
Written by Julie Bowe
(Kathy Dawson Books; $16.99, Ages 7-9)

 

Big & Little Questions book cover image

 

Find out about this fab new middle grade novel, Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) in Christine Van Zandt’s glowing review. Good Reads With Ronna also wishes author Julie Bowe a very Happy Book Birthday today!

Over the summer, Wren Jo Byrd, a shy nine-year-old, was abruptly sent to stay with her grandparents while her Mom and Dad split up. Rather than confess what was going on to BFF Amber, Wren ignored her.

At the start of the new school year, Wren finds that Amber is best buddies with Marianna Van Den Heuval, the new girl in town; Wren pretends nothing has changed. However, Wren’s lies about her family become hard to maintain because she must split her time between two households. Wren doesn’t understand how this could be good for them.

Marianna, from the big city of Portland, blows into Wisconsin like a diva with an agenda. She peppers her dialogue with wonderfully realistic preteen talk, such as “We’re going to have So. Much. Fun!” Yet, Marianna’s bravado isn’t all it seems. Wren discovers some of Marianna’s secrets and begins a list of questions for Marianna—the only girl she knows whose parents are divorced. As Amber is swept away in Marianna’s coolness, Wren wrestles with what it means to be a friend and dreads what will happen when everyone discovers the truth.

Julie Bowe’s first-person voice captures Wren’s fears and the complexities in her life. The text is punctuated by definitions Wren looks up on her phone, such as to the word “happy” (meaning “content”) and then “content” (meaning “not needing more”). These lead her to wonder, “When did Mom and Dad stop being happy? . . . How come no one told me we needed more?”

Everyone has secrets; Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd), gives us a glimpse into why we hide our truths and the consequences we must endure when we choose to lie. This heartfelt story is about accepting change as friendships and families evolve beyond our control.

 

  • 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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A Talk With The Tiara on the Terrace Author Kristen Kittscher

An Interview With Middle Grade Author Kristen Kittscher
&
A Special Mystery-Themed Giveaway

 

THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE
By Kristen Kittscher
(HarperColllins; $16.99, Ages 8-12) 

 

Tiara_on_the_Terrace

 

Fans of The Wig in the Window eagerly awaited the arrival of its companion book, The Tiara on the Terrace, and were rewarded this past January with its release. But even if you’ve never read Kittscher’s first book, her latest, The Tiara on the Terrace, can most certainly be read as a stand alone and is terrifically entertaining and awash in the adventures of Young and Yang.

Here’s a blurb from HarperCollins’ website:

In this funny, clever novel, perfect for fans of Pseudonymous Bosch and Gordon Korman and a companion to The Wig in the Window, tween sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang go undercover at Luna Vista’s Winter Sun Festival to catch a murderer before he—or she—strikes again.
Sophie Young and Grace Yang have been taking it easy ever since they solved the biggest crime Luna Vista had ever seen. But things might get interesting again now that everyone is gearing up for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival—a town tradition that involves floats, a parade, and a Royal Court made up of local high school girls.
When Festival president Jim Steptoe turns up dead on the first day of parade preparations, the police blame a malfunctioning giant s’more feature on the campfire-themed float. But the two sleuths are convinced the mysterious death wasn’t an accident.
Young and Yang must trade their high tops for high heels and infiltrate the Royal Court to solve the case. But if they fail, they might just be the next victims.

INTERVIEW WITH THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE AUTHOR, KRISTEN KITTSCHER

Good Reads With Ronna: Are detective stories what you read growing up?

Kristen Kittscher:  I was a voracious reader. I read all kinds of things so detective stories weren’t the only things I read but they were some of my favorites. I was a big big Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fan as I’m sure many people are. I love Encyclopedia Brown. I just loved solving the puzzles that were involved. One of my very favorite books as a kid was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and that kind of mystery [where] they’re locked in a museum. I always loved solving puzzles but really I read widely. Judy Blume was an absolute favorite of mine. I think Blubber was a one of my all-time favorite books growing up. And Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming was another book I loved.

GRWR: Empowerment is prevalent in both novels. Was this a goal of yours?

KK: It’s interesting. After the book was out in the world I’d hear that a lot and it wasn’t an actual focus of mine when I was writing … I think it’s because I taught at an all-girls school many years and I was swimming in girl power without realizing it. I was teaching 7th grade where girls are starting to become more self-conscious. But at that school they were very much themselves and not worried about how they were coming across. And I think I was definitely trying to write a story for them and was very influenced by their joie-de vivre and general sense of fun and curiosity and smarts as I was writing. I didn’t think about it. It just came out that way.

GRWR: What qualities do Sophie, Grace and their quirky pal, Trista have in common with you?

KK: Well maybe I’ve given them qualities I don’t have because that’s the fun of writing fiction, right? I’m definitely very curious myself and always loved a sense of intrigue. I’m pretty silly and they’re pretty silly. I think in a way they probably have more attributes of my students but Trista’s practicality and her kind of ability to just sort of, kind of plug on no matter what. I definitely have a bit of that as well. She’s a bit like my father was and I’m a bit like him so I always think I definitely have a little bit of Trista in me. The other quality definitely is the lack of confidence that Sophie has in coming into her own. I just started writing late in life – this is the first thing I ever wrote – or ever finished – and I really was focused on teaching and not writing. So, the thought of saying I want to be a writer is like saying I want to become a rock star or something like that. The story of The Wig in the Window is a mystery but it’s also kind of paralleling my journey in finding my voice as a writer.

GRWR: Getting into the heads of two twelve year olds isn’t easy. What helped you?

KK: Well, it helps to kind of be 12 in my head mostly! Well I think it goes back to my teaching middle school for a long time. I can’t remember what I was like before I was teaching 7th grade, whether I was also still 12 or if they helped me get back in touch with my youthful self. But definitely having that be my world day in and day out for a long time definitely rubbed off on me. As to Sophie and Grace, their perspective was relatively easy for me to access. The other part that makes it easy for me is having moved a lot as a kid. I moved almost every two years when I was growing up. So each place at each age I was, I remember it really vividly. I’s a very separate point in time and it’s relatively easy for me to go back to a certain place geographically in my mind and get back in touch with the feelings I had at that time. So it was a blessing in a way having moved so much because then I can remember each place individually.

GRWR: Where were you at age 12?

KK: At age 12, I was in the South Bay so basically Torrance, Palos Verdes area. For those people who don’t know, it’s this beautiful peninsula at the bottom of Los Angeles. It’s one of the most beautiful places I ever lived. You’re right by the beach. I think at the time as a kid you don’t realize how beautiful it is so when I set out to write something that came back to me very much and I knew it would be a fun setting for other people to read about too.

GRWR: Was there any pushback from the Tournament of Roses organization to change the similarities?

KK: No. But definitely the fictional town of Luna Vista is a combination between Pasadena and the place I just described, Palos Verdes and Torrance area. It’s my observing my students here in Pasadena and my own memories back when I was 12. And the town of Luna Vista has AmStar (which is very similar to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) so we have a great deal of scientists, actual rocket scientists as Pasadena does, and that makes it lots of fun to explore lots of technological things. That’s where the idea of Trista having such technological savvy comes from but as far as pushback from the tournament, no. One of my former students was on the royal court and she sat down with me and told me all about her experience as a princess so I actually had a lot of cooperation. Other former students told me about the audition process, other colleagues, longtime Pasadena volunteers and parade goers definitely helped me with all of their memories and observations. And then when the book was finished the Tournament House was considering even doing a launch there as well. Unfortunately the launch of the book came three days after the Rose Parade itself.  So I don’t know if their lack of cooperation after the fact had more to do with the fact that they were focusing on their event because, as you know, it’s a huge operation and requires thousands of volunteers and all kinds of things. I haven’t experienced any direct pushback, but there is of course some gentle fun that I’m poking at the parade so we’ll see.

GRWR: How did you know the Wrigley Mansion so well?

KK: Well, for those who don’t know there’s a mansion in Pasadena called the Wrigley Mansion, which is the tournament headquarters and it was donated by Mr. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate you all know so well. So I thought it would be fun to create this sort of parallel world where Mr. Ridley who is a root beer magnate has his whole thing because basically I wanted a literal root beer float in the parade. Right? That makes it much more fun. I definitely had that outside of the mansion in my head as I was writing. Also you can take tours of the mansion and while it’s been renovated into offices, some of the rooms I definitely had in mind as I was writing so maybe that helped add a little flair to the setting.

GRWR: What else did you do for research?

KK: I was also an embedded undercover agent in float decorating. Every year in Pasadena before the parade begins, students pour out to volunteer in what are called the Float Barns which are these huge warehouses where the floats are. Actually before ever writing the story the inspiration where it comes from is my volunteering as a float decorator on the Trader Joe’s float one year. I was there gluing on flowers and climbing around on scaffolding so in the opening of the novel, Sophie, the main character, nearly falls from the scaffolding. Well that’s directly related to my own fear of heights crawling around on the scaffolding which I thought was highly unsafe for a 12-year-old. I also would constantly be Googling and referring back to different news articles just to get more inspiration and details. I don’t know a lot about flowers and obviously flowers are a very important part of the float decorations.  So all the different kinds of things that are used to create different colors I would constantly be having to check back on, and say oh they used cinnamon for the brown part. I only knew what my tasks were as the decorator. I didn’t know what other flowers are used and I’m sure I messed it all up.

GRWR: Do they use a lot of different flowers?

KK: Oh, no they’re endless- I mean that’s part of their creativity – every single bit of surface area of a float needs to be decorated with some sort of living material. Even the tires of the float – they’re black, right? But we need to keep them black so they cover the tires with sheets of sea weed. Those little squares of seaweed that you got – that is really what they do. In order to win any of the prizes everything needs to be organic material of some kind.

GRWR: And there are people underneath the float?

KK: Yes, a major plot point of The Tiara in the Terrace is Trista working on a driver-less float because she finds that it would revolutionize the festival not to have people in these cramped compartments. One of the other things that is also very true about the parade is the need for what they call the pooper scooper brigade of kid volunteers who shovel up after the horses. The reason for that isn’t just to keep the parade route clear it’s because if they don’t clean up after the horses the wheels of the float kick up the remains of the horse poop into the eyes of the float drivers and gets in the ventilation system of their float. We’re getting right down to the nitty gritty.

GRWR: Because The Tiara on the Terrace is for middle grade students and includes murder, did you have to diffuse it with humor? How do you go about bringing that into a story?

KK: It’s true. It’s pretty hard to write a murder mystery for kids. You have to make it silly in some cases, but you know that kids also love the stakes being potentially high or real. In this case, you have what’s a potential murder. All the adults believe that the Winter Sun Festival president has been the victim of a tragic accident – a giant dancing animatronic S’more on a parade float has swung down and killed Mr. Steptoe. So you have this really really silly situation but also this tragic accident and that gives that distance and silliness that makes it kind of okay. And also it’s maybe a bit silly that the kids think that this could possibly be murder. Right? As the kids say, seriously? murder by marshmallow? … By giving that distance it helps explore a dark er side.

GRWR: How hard was it to put your red herrings into your story because there are a bunch of them?

KK:  Thank you for recognizing that! The Wig in the Window was not hard, because well, it was hard to write for other reasons, but there’s always something, right? But mystery-wise it’s much more of a thriller, like a psychological thriller for middle schoolers where [the questions are] is this person bad, or is my imagination running away with me or not? So that’s a very simple structure, really. The Tiara in the Terrace is much more like an Agatha Christie novel or a typical cozy mystery as they call it, where you have many suspects in a large cast. It was really hard to trickle in all the clues at the same time that we’re exploring all the social dynamics in friendships. I think as you’re reading you can think oh, gosh, here we have some sort of detour, some sort of social friend detour and you don’t realize oh, wow, all the clues are being laid out at the same time. And so it’s kind of hard pacing-wise to keep the tension going at the same time, your reader might not realize that all of those red herrings are being placed in that sense. It takes a lot of outlining and even reverse outlining. Really knowing the crime, if there is a crime.

GRWR: You totally got me … I love being tricked!

KK: And I love tricking people. I think in this one you might know who it is but you might not know why. And then all the why is very, I think, very satisfying and very fun. (Ronna talking). One thing I know about kids is they often don’t just read a book once unlike adults and so it’s very important to me to make sure that everything matches up. That if you’re going to read this again, you’re going to see everything a second time and have just as much fun figuring out how it’s constructed as the reading itself. Also, my favorite scene is the parade scene at the end which of course has to be bombastic and spectacular and I really had the most fun writing that.

GRWR: Do you ever find, when you hear from young readers, that they’re inspired to write their own mysteries after reading yours? Afterall it is inspiring to see these three young girls go about solving mysteries in their own communities.

KK: Oh definitely … I also run some workshops in writing mysteries so I get kids going that way as well. Last summer I was at The James Thurber House in Ohio and they have a summer writing camp and they also go out in the community. All the kids would love trying to create their own mysteries after reading so I had a great time teaching those workshops. I think kids love the idea of uncovering secrets, I mean we all do, but particularly adult secrets because they don’t have full access to that world. It’s fun to imagine what could be happening in worlds they don’t know about.

GRWR: Will the girls be back for another adventure?

KK:  Each book was separate. I like that a lot because they stand alone. If you read carefully there might be mild spoilers that you probably wouldn’t remember but each of those books can stand by itself so I didn’t sell The Wig in the Window as a series.

GRWR: So your publisher came back to you after book #1?

KK: Right. So that’s a good transition to say, ” Buy The Tiara on the Terrace, everybody, so there can be a third Young and Yang adventure.

GRWR: Can you speak briefly about the TV show that’s been optioned?

KK: Yeah, I’m really excited that both books have been optioned by a producer and I’m co-writing the first season – the pilot right now. It’s really exciting to be able to imagine giving Young and Yang new life in this form because they can be much more equally represented. You know, both The Wig in the Window and The Tiara in the Terrace are from Sophie Young’s point of view. Now we can step back and look at these families from the outside a little bit and also get much more access to Grace Yang’s point of view and possibly the worlds of the villains. So I’m having a really good time figuring out how to adapt the story and getting a lot of help with it as well. The first season is The Wig and the Window stretched out over 12 episodes so you almost have strangely more opportunity to see more elements of their school life and family life within that kind of episodic structure as opposed to the three act structure of a book. So The Wig in the Window the ongoing mystery travels over the course of the season, but each episode has its own exploration of things that are going on between Young and Yang and their families and school and love interests.

GRWR: Did I leave anything out that you would like to add?

KK: I don’t know if I can think of a direct question but something I really like to get across about why I write in general and especially The Wig in the Window and The Tiara on the Terrace is that I love giving kids a sense of adventure and wonder. In my observations as a teacher, kids can be like little business people these days. They have their rolling back packs and their schedules they have their playdates, they have their extra-curriculars. And their world is very constricted much more so then mine was growing up, and I feel that through books or through these adventures you can kind of restore that sense of wonder but also the feeling that kids can have real power and trust themselves to go on all kinds of fun adventures so I like opening that up to them through books and that’s something that I don’t get asked about much but I love to get across. That books have this power to open up some avenues of freedom for kids in their otherwise sometimes overly scheduled world.

  • Interview by Ronna Mandel (with special thanks to Armineh Manookian for all her help!)

 

Kristen_KittscherThe_Tiara_PrizeKRISTEN KITTSCHER is the author of bestselling tween mystery The Wig in the Window (Harper Children’s, 2013) which garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was on ten Best of the Year lists. A graduate of Brown University and a former middle school English teacher, Kristen was named the James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence in 2014. She lives with her husband in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade—the inspiration for her latest novel, The Tiara on the Terrace. Visit kristenkittscher.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@kkittscher).

Enter below to win a copy of The Tiara on the Terrace by Kristen Kittscher plus an exclusive spy kit with Moleskine notebook. spy pen, magnets and book marks. Receive an extra entry for following Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook.

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Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) by Liz Pichon

The British are coming … Again!

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff)
Written and illustrated by Liz Pichon
(Candlewick Press; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

TomGatesExcellentExcuses.jpgWhile Paul Revere is probably rolling in his grave, Pichon’s American fans will be rolling over with laughter as they read the next book in the hilarious saga of British fifth grader, Tom Gates.

Those who read Pichon’s first book, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, will find that Tom, now on a two week break, is still up to his usual hijinks: finding new and improved ways of annoying his sister, Delia, devising the most ingenious excuses to get out of troublesome situations, eating his favorite snacks (caramel wafers), doodling, and hanging out with his best mate (friend), Derek.

Tom’s biggest hope is to find a drummer for his band, DOGZOMBIES and secure the band’s first gig. But in typical Tom Gates fashion, there’s a whole lot of everyday life – and his reaction to it – swirling around: a bad tooth, his prank-playing cousins, the ongoing rivalry with class smarty pants, Marcus, and the field trip from hell. Oh, and as Mr. Fullerman, his teacher, keeps reminding him, there’s still an overdue homework assignment to turn in. To give Tom a little incentive, Mr. Fullerman (who’s wise to this procrastinating day dreamer) has sent one of his prize worthy, tongue-in-cheek notes home to his parents. So now Tom’s got his parents on his back about that (and undone chores),

The DOGZOMBIES land their first gig, thanks to Tom’s zany grandfather, at the Leafy Green Old Folks Home (where many of the residents truly don’t mind loud music). Their success at Leafy Green even inspires Tom’s principal to ask the band to play at an all school assembly (Tom puts him off by claiming Delia injured his arm when she punched him).

In one of the book’s many subplots, Tom becomes suspicious about the growing number of gold stars Marcus has earned on the classroom Gold Star Award Chart. So he begins to spy on Marcus and observes him purchasing gold stars. Aha! Tom brilliantly exposes Marcus’ cheating and finally finishes his homework assignment. In the process, he earns three gold stars, putting him ahead of all his classmates.

Tom’s clever doodles are a treasure and often visually extend the narrative, supporting young readers with additional clues about the story and characters. And for those readers who don’t know “British” check the handy (and well doodled) glossary in the back.

Visit Pichon’s website for more information about the author and the series. You can also find several videos, including book trailers, “How to Draw Like Tom Gates,” and “Fun Stuff” to do. Visit The World of Tom Gates website, too. Click here for a sample chapter.

New to Tom Gates? Read my previous review of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates on the Good Reads With Ronna blog to get acquainted with this terrific series. Highly recommended for tweens, ages 8-12, who enjoy the humorous, diary-style series.

– 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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The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by Liz Pichon

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates (Candlewick Press, 2014, $12.99, Ages 8-12), written and illustrated by Liz Pichon, is reviewed by Dornel Cerro.

The British are coming, the British are coming …

… with the brilliant and hilarious world of Tom Gates.

 

TheBrilliantWorldofTomGates

 

It’s the first day of a new school year and 5th year student Tom Gates writes in his journal:

“Woke up-listened to music
Played my guitar
Rolled out of bed (slowly) …
Played some more guitar
Realized I hadn’t done my ‘summer reading homework’
PANICKED … (p. 3).”

Alongside the words “woke up,” Tom draws a pair of sleepy eyes. This wonderfully chatty middle grade fiction book is accompanied by a multitude of extremely funny doodles and eye catching font types that will draw kids in.

At school, Tom’s teacher, Mr. Fullerman has moved him to the front of class. In his journal Tom wails:

“This is a DISASTER. How am I going to draw my pictures and read my comics? Sitting at the back of the class, I could avoid the teacher’s glares. But I am SO close to Mr. Fullerman now I can see up his nose (p. 6).”

Guess what Tom doodles in after “nose?”

For Tom, forgotten homework assignments, playing tricks on annoying students, and other antics keep him in perpetual trouble – and coming up with convincing excuses for his behavior. Tom’s attempt to get out of an assignment by claiming he spilled water on it is hysterically rendered in a smeared doodle (p. 47).

At home, Tom must also deal with his moody teenage sister, Delia, and his eccentric grandparents, “The Fossils,” who love to experiment with such unsavory food combinations such as pizza with banana topping.

When Tom finds that Dude3, his favorite band, will perform in concert locally, he’s determined to attend. However, things go sour (and get really funny) when his best mate’s dog eats the tickets.

The comic doodles and varying fonts, while creating a busy page, make the story more visual for reluctant readers. This book will be a big hit with children who enjoy the humorous diary/journal formats of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Ruth McNally Barshaw’s Ellie McDoodle series.

Unfamiliar with “British?” Check out Tom’s glossary in the back and learn that a “climbing frame” is British for “jungle gym” (p. 243). Despite the differences in languages, Pichon demonstrates that 5th year kids are the same on both sides of the pond.

British author Liz Pichon won England’s Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize (2011). Visit the author at her blog and sneak a peek into Tom’s world by watching the book trailer below.

Click here to download a sample chapter.

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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.

9781449436353_frontcover

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.

 

Big-Nate-GMTA-int-art.jpg

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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