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Blog Tour Day 2 for Explorer Academy Vela, The Sailor Cipher

 

BLOG TOUR FOR EXPLORER ACADEMY VELA
Book 1: THE SAILOR CIPHER

Written by Trudi Trueit

Illustrated by Khadijah Khatib

(NatGeo Under the Stars; $10.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

EAVela-BlogTourBanner

 

GoodReadsWithRonna is delighted to share this excerpt from Explorer Academy Vela: The Sailor Cipher (Book 1) available in paperback now. Get ready to get hooked!

 

ABOUT EXPLORER ACADEMY:

Adventure, danger, and school on a ship! In a special school to become an explorer, Cruz Coronado embarks on important global missions with his classmates. But he’s hunted by a murderous threat. A threat that seems linked to his mother’s murder. Cruz hopes that by finding his mother’s clues left around the world, he’ll learn her secret formula and unmask his nemesis.

 

Blogpost #2: Book Excerpt

by Trudi Trueit

 

The first chapter of THE SAILOR CIPHER has Sailor and the rest of Team Cousteau (Cruz, Emmett, Lani, and Dugan), testing the Universal Cetacean Communicator, a helmet which can translate the songs and calls of whales and dolphins into human language! Here, they’re on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay preparing to rendezvous with a pod of dolphins. Cruz is wearing the UCC helmet. The plan is for Sailor to go into the water with him as his dive buddy, while the rest of the team remains in the boat to direct the mission with Fanchon (the tech lab chief who designed the UCC),

Sailor York called it the do-or-die point.

It was the moment right before a mission began. In those tense few minutes, as you waited for the “go” signal, you could either psyche yourself up or psyche yourself out. Everything depended on the choice you made.

It was exciting. It was exhilarating. And it was . . .

Now!

Looking out across the bay, Sailor filled her lungs with one last breath of fresh sea air before lowering the dive helmet onto her head. She was alone but for a fluttering heart and her own thoughts. As her dive buddy, Cruz Coronado, connected the hoses between her rebreathing helmet and oxygen tank, Sailor tried not to think about her shoulders cooking in the September sun or the swim fin pinching her left baby toe or the grilled cheese sandwich doing cartwheels in her stomach. Most of all, she tried not to think about how much was riding on their mission—because the answer was everything.

Do or die.

“Comms check.” Emmett’s voice rang out in Sailor’s helmet. “Oops! Hang on, minor glitch.”

Sailor couldn’t help a snort. In trying to put on a headset thinner than a spaghetti noodle, Emmett had gotten it tangled in his emoto-glasses. Emmett had a passion for technology, and the frames were his own invention. They tapped into his brain waves, changing shape and color based on his moods. At the moment, the circular frames were switching colors faster than a broken traffic light. It was a comfort to Sailor to know that even cool-headed Emmett was as jittery as she was. “Okay, all set,” said Emmett. “Sailor, do you read me?”

“Affirmative.”

When Cruz, Fanchon, Dugan, Jaz, and Lani gave similar replies, Emmett pronounced all comms operational. Jaz let them know the comm link among everyone would remain open throughout the mission.

“My pre-check diagnostic shows all UCC systems are functioning normally,” relayed Fanchon. “Cruz and Sailor, be sure to keep a distance of at least thirty feet between the dolphins and yourselves. Don’t overstay your welcome. Dugan will start the stopwatch once you’re in position. Remember, if you sense any stress or haven’t made contact in fifteen minutes—”

“We’re to break off and return.” Cruz took the words out of her mouth.

Respect for wildlife was their top priority. Everyone knew they were here to communicate with the dolphins, not to disturb or frighten them.

“The pod is a mile northeast of our position, heading due south,” alerted Lani.

“This is it!” Emmett’s voice rose in pitch. “Divers, stand by for ‘go.’”

Sailor’s heartbeat thundered in her ears. She shut her eyes against the blinding diamonds of sunlight reflecting off the water. Exhaling, she pushed away all the thoughts that cluttered her mind—the scorching heat, her throbbing toe, a somersaulting sandwich . . .

“Sailor?” Cruz’s voice was so quiet she barely heard him.

She opened her eyes and turned to him. “Yeah?”

“Thanks for jumping in with me.” Cruz held out his hand.

Sailor grinned and took it. “Any time.”

“GO!”

 

Sailor is in for a BIG surprise over the next few pages. Read THE SAILOR CIPHER to find out what happens next!

 

Author TrudiTrueit 2024
Trudi Trueit, Explorer Academy series author.

AUTHOR BIO:

Trudi Trueit writes the award-winning EXPLORER ACADEMY fact-based fiction series for National Geographic, which has been translated into 20 languages. She is the author of more than 100 fiction and nonfiction titles for kids, including MY TOP SECRET DARES AND DON’TS, THE SISTER SOLUTION, and THE SECRETS OF A LAB RAT series (Simon & Schuster). A Seattle native, she makes her home in Everett, WA with her photographer husband and lives to serve the whims of their three cats. And yes, Trudi Trueit is her real name (by marriage)!

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Middle Grade Book Review – The Jake Show

THE JAKE SHOW

Written by Joshua S. Levy

(Katherine Tegen Books; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

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The Jake Show cover featuring three boys Jacob Jake Yaakov e1709342039991.

 

 

I deliberately avoided reading anything about The Jake Show by Joshua S. Levy before uploading it onto my iPad. I’d also committed to reviewing it for Multicultural Children’s Book Day before it received its esteemed Sydney Taylor Honor. I had no idea what a treat was in store for me.

The main character, seventh-grader Jake, is in a tricky situation at home or should I say homes since his parents are divorced and both have remarried. At his mom’s place, he’s called Yaakov and feels pressured to conform to her wishes. She is a religious Orthodox Jew and her husband is a Rabbi. When he’s with his dad he’s Jacob because his dad is a secular Jew, at one point even forgetting some Hanukkah details, and his second wife isn’t Jewish. Readers will understand this boy’s dilemma. Jake, the middle ground name he uses at school, must constantly perform to please each parent while not knowing what he truly wants, only that it’s taking an emotional toll on him. It’s one thing when you’re in a film, TV show, or on stage; when the project is done you go home and cast aside your role. In Jake’s case, that’s when the acting begins.

Jake starts a new school as the book opens and is quickly welcomed by two classmates, Tehilla and Caleb. Jake is pretty sure he’ll be leaving this school since previously he’s had to attend schools either only his mother wanted or his father wanted. So, why bother making friends when you’re just going to leave because one parent is not happy? This begs the question of why the adults in Jake’s life seem to have all the agency and Jake none.

When Jake decides to attend Camp Gershoni for the summer at his friends’ urging, he knows it’s time to take matters into his own hands since neither parent will agree it’s the suitable choice. I was happy Jake chose to go camp but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the myriad lies he tells. He concocts a wild plan straight out of an “I Love Lucy” episode. That airport scene, which includes outfit changing, is hysterical and I could see the entire scene playing out in my head as I cheered for him. All through his elaborate scheme, Tehilla is urging Jake to come clean but he’s in too deep.

Levy has infused The Jake Show with the perfect amount of humor to counter some of the serious issues presented. Much of the LOL moments are due to his friendship with Caleb and Tehilla who, outliers themselves, may understand Jake better than he can understand himself. I found myself eager to see what antics the trio would get up to next and that was facilitated by chapters that seemed to speed by. Secondary characters including Jake’s stepparents feel well-developed and bring levity into his home life. Jake needed to be seen and they saw him.

Readers learn that Jews come from all walks of life, some well off, some not. Tehilla and her mom struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Caleb, who is wealthy, despite the trying times he’s faced since coming out, can count on the support of his family, Tehilla, and now Jake. Yet the more Jake becomes preoccupied with his elaborate scheme and the more he lies to keep up the pretense, the harder it is to see certain truths: truths about his friendships and his family that he is just one more lie away from losing if he doesn’t own up to his charade.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARI LOWE

WINNER OF THE SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD

FOR

THE DUBIOUS PRANKS OF SHAINDY GOODMAN

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

 

stba24 blog tour schedule banner

 

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

 

 

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD WINNER
NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD WINNER

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

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

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

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

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

INTERVIEW:

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman cover Shaindy in Heelys.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support an independent bookseller and purchase a copy here.

Mari-Lowe-headshotAUTHOR BIO:

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

 

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Middle Grade Novel Review – Remember Us

 

REMEMBER US

Written by Jacqueline Woodson

(Nancy Paulsen Books; $18.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Remember Us cover graffitied wall and basketball.

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Indie Next, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal

 

In Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson, twelve-year-old Sage and her widowed mother live in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the house that was her father’s childhood home. She has strong connections to her firefighter father, who was killed in the line of duty. Like him, she loves basketball and dreams of playing professionally.

Sage’s tight-knit community is affected by the near-constant threat of fires breaking out all over the city during one summer in the 1970s. Homes and even lives are lost. Survivors leave, the neighborhood changes and childhood friendships shift. Some of Sage’s friends are more interested in being glamorous than in joining her, as they once did, in a game of basketball. Hardest of all is the revelation that her mother wants to leave the only home, her father’s home, that Sage has ever known.

Basketball is the only constant in her life. Freddy and his family move into the neighborhood and she finds out this kind boy loves basketball as much as she does. They become fast friends. One day, Sage experiences a traumatic event that shakes her to her core and leads to a harrowing act of destruction as she wrestles with doubts about who she is and what she wants to be.

Will she join the girls who paint their nails … or will she remain true to herself?

Using vivid and lyrical prose, Woodson draws on her Brooklyn roots and actual events to poignantly and richly capture the story’s characters and Sage’s neighborhood during a tense and fearful summer. Exquisitely written, Woodson once again explores the theme of memory and storytelling (Brown Girl Dreaming, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014) in this spare novel of a young girl grappling with change and learning the importance of memories and the value of moving on.

Click here for a teacher’s guide.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Middle Grade Book Review – New Kids & Underdogs

NEW KIDS & UNDERDOGS

Written by Margaret Finnegan

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

New Kids and Underdogs cover dog doing agility training

 

 

In Margaret Finnegan’s third middle-grade novel, New Kids & Underdogs, she once again convincingly captures the voice of the 10-year-old protagonist, in this case, fifth grader, Robyn Kellen.

Robyn, whose parents are divorced, has moved around a lot because of her mother’s university teaching positions. Now in San Luis Obispo which, according to Robyn’s mom, is going to be the last move, Robyn must yet again learn to navigate a new town, new school, and hopefully new friendships. To do so, she relies upon her handy list of rules for a new kid.

At school, Robyn has initially blended in with two classmates (rule #1 ), Marshan and Lulu, and feels thankful for that. But when Robyn decides to pursue agility training for her beloved dogs Sundae (anxious, and needy of Fudge) and Fudge (almost blind, deaf, and definitely intelligent), it ends up connecting her with kids at school who just might make her break her rules in the best possible way. However, before doing so, she must learn that life experiences do not always fit neatly into a set of rules. And to find true friends, she must stop the rules from taking over.

Early on in the book, Robyn negotiates a trade with cancer survivor, Nestor, and his cousin, Jonathan,  together with “the Grape,” passionate purple wearer and grade-four-skipping, Alejandra. Tutoring and snacks for agility training. The thing is, Robyn ends up enjoying the time she spends with these kids who Marshan and Lulu consider to be sad outsiders.

After Nestor starts successfully teaching Sundae and Fudge to handle an agility, or what he, the most experienced in the group, dubs an “ability” course, Robyn worries she is spending too much time with these kids. If Marshan and Lulu think the agility kids are all sad outsiders, the negative label could stick to her by association. So, Robyn builds an invisible wall to keep her school friends separate from the dog training group and never the twain shall meet.

Eventually this protective wall leads to the kids who meet for agility to stop pursuing a friendship with Robyn when she does not return their interest. But when she changes her mind at Halloween it proves too little too late. Clearly remaining safe behind her wall is what her list dictates. Will Robyn get another chance to befriend the pack of agility training kids and rewrite or even discard those limiting rules?

Readers see that people, like the dogs in this story, are so much more than their abilities or disabilities. They are a whole package, a whole book. And Finnegan has a gift for presenting “underdogs” and empowering them so any kid reading this story will also feel empowered. The challenges Robyn has had to deal with being a new kid time and again ultimately reach a breaking point. “What other people think is their problem, not yours,” Alejandra wisely says near the end. Pretty darn insightful, I’d say.  When Robyn realizes that the underdogs get her and she is one of them, she understands she cannot judge anyone by just one chapter.

This fantastic novel about being seen and accepting one’s worth of true friendship is my recommended read for kids who may be facing friendship issues of their own. It’s a novel I’d have felt comfortable suggesting to my own kids when they were in those often trying middle-school years.

Click here for a discussion guide.

Read my interview with Margaret about her second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down here.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel
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Middle Grade Book Review – In the Beautiful Country

IN THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY

Written by Jane Kuo

(Quill Tree Books;  $16.99, Ages 8-12)

In the Beautiful Country cover

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

Novels in verse are powerful. Jane Kuo’s debut middle grade, In the Beautiful Country, is a novel in verse set in 1980 about ten-year-old Ai Shi, an American immigrant from Taiwan. What a good format choice for a novel reflecting the experience of children new to the U.S.! Especially accessible for English language learners and for reluctant or struggling readers, the short, straightforward poems are no less engaging for those who read with ease.

I love how a poem gives me broad strokes of what is happening, takes me to the correct emotional address, and then I get to fill in the details. Wait, that sounds wrong. Kuo’s book, for example, gives me many details, things I wouldn’t know to imagine myself, that help me understand Ai Shi’s experience. It’s more like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Rather than broad strokes, the poems set down carefully-placed images and details, the dots. Then readers use their imagination to get from one dot to the next and draw a complete understanding of who Ai Shi is, what she values the most, and what she goes through as she and her parents face the disappointing reality of their new life.

The story begins when Ai Shi is anticipating moving to “the beautiful country” (the Chinese name for America) and follows her through a year of adjusting to life as Anna, American fifth-grader. Before moving, Ai Shi says America is her “happily ever after place,” but once she’s here, reality hits hard. She dreads going to school with her limited English:

I used to love school,

the place where I was the loudest girl in class.

Now I’m robbed of words.

Suddenly, I have nothing to say.

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In the Beautiful Country int WandererHer family struggles to keep their heads above water financially. They sold everything to buy an American fast food restaurant, depending on a fraudulent profit record the seller provided. Ai Shi thinks the items she left in Taiwan will be replaced with better California models, but that’s not how it goes.

I was particularly touched by a poem about the family’s new apartment. Ai Shi sleeps in the lone bedroom; her parents sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. The only entertainment is watching television, and Ai Shi thinks their new set is broken. Really, it’s just black-and-white. The poem ends:

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I sit facing the flickering television.

This TV is twice as small as our old one.

Here,

in the land of more,

our world is so small.

Racism adds isolation and a sense of injustice to Ai Shi’s disappointment. She is teased at school: “It’s as if making fun of my food / has become a group lunchtime activity.” When the class is learning about alliteration, a bully waits until they are on the playground to share his example: “Ching Chong Chinaman.” At the store, her parents face customers who have no patience for their problems with English.

Last week, a man became very huffy and puffy,

as if not understanding English

was some kind of insult.

It gets worse when someone throws a brick through the store’s large front window in the middle of the night. The poem “Nothing is Missing” describes the violation, ending, “They didn’t take anything. / They took so much.”

It is painful seeing through Ai Shi’s eyes when her family is struggling. I always say that if a book makes me cry, it had better be for a good purpose. Being sad with Ai Shi is worth it, helping me develop more understanding of and empathy for immigrants, children and adults alike. But I am especially enthusiastic about recommending this book because Kuo doesn’t leave Ai Shi or the reader in insurmountable pain. When the family considers giving up and going back to Taiwan, their dynamics change. It is a pleasure to keep reading and see how their shared values put them on a path to an authentically hopeful future.

  •  Guest Review by Mary Malhotra
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An Interview with Margaret Finnegan Author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

RONNA’S IMPRESSION

I absolutely adored this perfectly polished middle-grade novel about an imperfect yet endearing protagonist, Susie B. Yet aren’t we all imperfect in some way, shape, or form? That’s exactly what Susie B. realizes in this story that cleverly and humorously addresses several relatable tween issues such as popularity and school dynamics, friendship, flawed individuals from the past and present, and being true to oneself. Margaret’s fifth-grade voice feels spot-on as we get inside her ADHD “butterfly brain” while she navigates both a class Hero Project and student council race.  Her personality jumps off the pages presented in letter format making the read fast but oh so fulfilling. If your middle grader is looking for a book that will keep them smiling from page one, this is it. See the publisher’s page for an excerpt.

 

BOOK SUMMARY 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

Roll with It meets Absolutely Normal Chaos in this funny, big-hearted novel about a young girl’s campaign for student council president, told through letters to her hero, Susan B. Anthony.

Susie B. has a lot to say. Like how it’s not fair that she has to be called Susie B. instead of plain Susie. Or about how polar bears are endangered. Or how the Usual Geniuses are always getting picked for cool stuff over the kids like her with butterflies in their brain. And it’s because Susie B. has a lot to say about these very important things that she’s running for student council president!

If she’s president, she can advocate for the underdogs just like her hero and fellow Susie B., Susan B. Anthony. (And, okay, maybe the chance to give big speeches to the whole school with a microphone is another perk.) But when the most usual of Usual Geniuses also enters the student council race, Susie realizes this may be a harder won fight than she thought. Even worse, Susie discovers that Susan B. Anthony wasn’t as great as history makes it seem, and she did some pretty terrible things to try to help her own cause. Soon, Susie has her own tough decisions to make. But one thing is for sure—no matter what, Susie B. won’t back down.

 

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome back to the GRWR blog, Margaret, and congratulations on your second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down! How does it feel to bring this new book into the world?

Margaret Finnegan: Very exciting! I feel so grateful to my editor and all the people at Atheneum Books for Young Readers who helped usher Susie B. into the world. I have a special fondness for Susie B. I love her gumption and her heart.

 

GRWR: Please share where the spark for this super engaging and original story came from especially since spark is a prevalent and meaningful word in Susie B. Won’t Back Down.

MF: I started my career as an historian, and a long time ago I wrote a book on the US woman’s suffrage movement. I think about the work I did for that book a lot. You know, it took women almost seventy years of coordinated work to get the vote, and, along the way, some of the women we admire for their activism did some unadmirable things. So what do we do with that? Susie B. was my way of exploring that question.

 

GRWR: The irresistible and honest voice of Susie Babuszkiewicz (aka Susie B.) pulled me in immediately, in fact, I tweeted that the opening made me literally LOL. “Dear Susan B. Anthony: I have very bad news for you. You’re dead.” Was this always how you planned to start the novel? And were you always going to write in letter format? 

MF: From the beginning, I conceived of the book as a series of letters because I always wanted Susie B. to be having a conversation with Susan B. Anthony. However, I don’t think the rough draft started quite that way. But then it occurred to me that some young readers wouldn’t know anything about the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. So I had to get some basic information out there really fast.

 

GRWR: Susie B. is an insightfully portrayed character who beautifully describes her ADHD as having a butterfly brain or at times getting wiggly. Another character, Carson, also seems to have ADHD, perhaps Asperger’s and Tourette syndrome. Can you speak to your inclusion of neurodiverse characters again as you did in your first novel, We Could Be Heroes?  

MF: I’m glad you asked. About one in every seven or eight individuals has some type of neurodiversity. So the real question is, why don’t we see neurodiversity in more books? Also, I guess I’m highly sensitive to this issue because my kids, (both young adults) are neurodiverse.

 

GRWR: I ran for class secretary in my high school government but don’t remember much except that our very laid-back advisor was called Mr. Lincoln. Did you ever run for student council and what are your thoughts about this part of a student’s school life?

MF: I ran for student council in ninth grade—and I lost! So suck it Henry M. Gunn High School. At last, I’ve achieved my revenge, proving that, in many schools, student government is indeed just another scam to shine a spotlight on the very people who need it the least. (Apologies if your experience suggests otherwise. I may still be a little bitter.)

 

GRWR: You weave such fabulous humor throughout this book which helps to lighten some serious issues middle-graders face daily. We see Susie B. cope or not cope with passive-aggressive bullying or word bombing as she calls it by a mean girl named Chloe (aka Old Fakey Fake), feeling constantly overlooked by teachers and peers in favor of the jocks, the “usual geniuses” and popular kids, along with the struggle to keep her anger at perceived injustices at bay. What did you hope readers would feel after finishing this novel?

MF: As with everything I write, my main goal as a writer is to give readers a good time. If they also pick up an idea or two to wrestle with, so much the better. These are the things I want out of books, so why would I want to give my readers any less?

 

GRWR: I love whenever Susie B. discusses the universal mystery of paragraphs and all things paragraph writing-related. Do you have a favorite scene/letter in the book?

MF: I like it when Susie B. owns her anger, telling Susan B. Anthony, “I WAS AN ANGRY GIRL.” Too often, girls are taught to swallow their anger, and—by that time in the story—Susie B. has been trying to do that for a while. But, finally, she accepts her anger and embraces it, and sometimes that is not a bad thing.

 

GRWR: Susie B. experiences a gamut of emotions in Susie B. Won’t Back Down which feels so realistic. Let’s talk about the friendship dynamic you’ve created. Without any spoilers, how would you describe the relationship Susie has with Joselyn? Can you also tell us more about the diverse group of classmates who people this story? I particularly enjoy interactions with Soozie and Daniel Rodriguez.

MF: Poor Susie. B. She and Joselyn have been best friends for a long time, but friendships change, and a lot of the time those changes begin in late elementary and early middle school. That’s not a spoiler, that is just the way things are, and that is something Susie B. has to deal with.

Susie does have a diverse group of classmates. They are diverse in all the ways you can be diverse, in all the ways our communities are diverse. And they are also diverse in the things we don’t always think about: their personalities, their goals, and their motivations. They are each the main character in their own story. We just happened to be listening to Susie B.’s.

 

GRWR: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh? Also, how do you capture the language of fifth-graders so perfectly when you teach college students and have grown-up daughters? 

MF: Mostly, I read. I read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, books, long-form journalism, kids lit, adult lit. I try to stay curious. I don’t know how I capture the language of fifth graders. I think fifth graders sound like everyone else, it’s just that they have a more limited vocabulary and a smaller share of prior knowledge to help them understand relationships and the world. I guess I try to write about them with respect?

 

GRWR: Novel writing-wise, are you a pantser or a plotter? And did you write the ending first and work your way back or do you approach each new project traditionally from beginning to end?

MF: Oh, I definitely start at the beginning and work my way to the end. But I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I usually start out by writing a page or two summary of what I think the book will be about. That gives me a sense of where things are going, and it identifies a few plot points I want to hit. The problem is, the characters always take over, and if I’m going to be truthful to them, I have to follow them where they go, and that always takes me away from any prior designs I have for things. So plotting too carefully just never really works for me.

 

GRWR: You have a full-time job as a university professor. How do you find the time to write so prolifically since it feels like it’s one novel a year (can we mention that you’ve already sold your next book?)

MF: You can mention I’ve sold my next book! It is called New Kids and Underdogs and it’s about a new kid in town who gets immersed in the exciting world of agility dog training. I think it’s coming out late 2022 or early 2023. I’ll keep you posted.

I wouldn’t call myself prolific. I would say slow and steady wins the race. I write in the morning. I do university stuff in the afternoon. I do all my school prep in the summer. Sometimes it all falls apart. I do my best. Frankly, I’m a little tired.

 

GRWR: I know you have something exciting planned for tomorrow,  Saturday, November 6 to promote this book. Can you tell readers about it and how they can attend?

MF: Yes! Join me on November sixth (please see below) for a very special Conversation with Susan B. Anthony. Yes! She is still dead! But she is coming back from the grave this one time, just so I can interview her. It will be held live and online on Zoom Webinar. So anyone can join in—and even ask Susan a few questions.

 

GRWR: What’s on the horizon, Margaret?

MF: A bath, a good rest, maybe a real laz-a-bout, and then a whole lot of grading before I pull up my sleeves and start writing again. I’m thinking monkey bars that hang just a little too high from the ground. I’m thinking garden apartments. I’m thinking a kid who learns to take charge when the grown-ups won’t. But we’ll see.

 

GRWR: It all sounds wonderful! Thanks tons for taking the time to tell us all about Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony!

 

Register for A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony,
on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at noon Pacific Time.

 https://calstatela.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_7wiUs6McQJuJMGAdHr6fVA

BUY THE BOOK

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/susie-b-won-t-back-down/9781534496361

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: MargaretFinnegan.com

Twitter: @FinneganBegin
Instagram: @FinneganBegin
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Author Margaret Finnegan
Margaret Finnegan ©2019 Skye Moorhead

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Margaret Finnegan is the author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down, a School Library Journal starred review, and We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.

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An Interview with Author Suzanne Kamata About Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR  SUZANNE KAMATA

 

PopFlies CVR

 

POP FLIES, ROBO-PETS, AND OTHER DISASTERS

Written by Suzanne Kamata

Illustrated by Tracy Bishop

(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)

 

 

INTRO

The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters offers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.

SUMMARY

Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.

INTERVIEW

PopFlies int page 031 R
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?

SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.

GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?

SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.

GRWR: Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?

SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them  to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.

GRWR: The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?

SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.

As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.

Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.

While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.

GRWR: A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?

SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.

PopFlies page 205 r
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

GRWR: There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.

SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.

GRWR: Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?

SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! —  and I wanted to put it into a story.

GRWR: I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?

SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.

GRWR: What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?

SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.

I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.

GRWR: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that  have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!

BIO

Author Suzanne Kamata
Photo of Suzanne Kamata by © Solveig Boergen

Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.

Website: http://www.suzannekamata.com

Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.

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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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