In the middle-grade novel, The Language of Spells, homeschooled eleven-year-old Maggie lives in a Viennese hotel with her father. She knows many things, but how to make friends isn’t one of them—until she meets Grisha (a dragon who’s spent decades observing humans and has grown up without doing any of the proper dragon things). Born in 1803, he is the last of his kind. “As the world of men built new and extraordinary things, the world of magic began to decline. No creature lives beyond its own world, and a dragon is nothing if not a creature from the world of magic.”
All dragons were summoned to Vienna and, due to the inconvenience of their existence, most mysteriously disappeared. While the Department of Extinct Exotics controls the gold-eyed dragons who were allowed to remain, Grisha struggles to remember what happened to the others. Maggie’s determination to help sets them on an investigative journey. Though they know using magic requires a sacrifice, Maggie and Grisha travel across Europe to fight injustice and face difficult decisions.
The Language of Spells is a different sort of dragon tale—one worth a deliberate read and thoughtful introspection. Each chapter opens with a charming illustration by Katie Harnett. The uplifting scenes enhance the story’s relationships. Weyr’sslow-building, sometimes funny tale has an old-fashioned lyrical feel. The book raises questions about the cost of power, the bonds of families and friendships. When few can see the magic left in the world, does it still exist?
Have you noticed that French Bulldogs are everywhere these days? Perhaps they’re up to something … making the timing for Atomic Frenchie: Sit. Stay. Rule. just right. This non-stop funny middle grade mashup that is part graphic novel, is a perfect late summer read for every kid that aspires to greatness and world domination. You know one, don’t you?
Kirby is no ordinary dog. He’s a power hungry French Bulldog with big plans. He’s just waiting for his chance to escape the prison of his home and his overbearing humans. When his humans pack up the car and strap him into a car seat, Kirby’s life changes forever. At his new home, the dog discovers a secret laboratory and his dream of becoming a super villain begins to be realized. Can his dastardly schemes come to fruition or will his huge ambition be thwarted?
Atomic Frenchie: Sit. Stay. Rule. has a mad scientist with bizarre secrets, a loyal and loveable sidekick turtle, rogue robots, and a host of crazy comic book characters. It’s a fast paced adventure with a super villain that you might actually start rooting for. The best news: this is just the first book in a series so get your kids hooked today by heading to your local independent bookseller to pick up a copy.
Learn more aboutThomas E. Sniegoskihere. VisitInside Editionshere.
WILLA OF THE WOOD Written by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
In Willa of the Wood, a middle-grade fantasy novel, twelve-year-old Willa is one of the last woodwitches in her Faeran clan. Willa lives with her mamaw, who teaches her how to communicate with plants and animals. Their kind are called “the old ones” by the Cherokee and “night-spirits” by the white-skinned homesteaders. Though Willa’s streaked and spotted skin blends into natural surroundings, she is as real as any other creature.
The year is1900 and, in the Great Smoky Mountains, Willa’s world is changing. The day-folk build unnatural dwellings from the carcasses of murdered trees and hunt the forest’s animals with their killing-sticks. The Faeran dwindle under the strict rule of their deified leader, the padaran. He demands that the young ones steal from the day-folk. Willa is the clan’s best thief because those who don’t return to Dead Hollow with a full satchel are denied food or physically punished. The padaran convinces them, “There is no I, only we.”
When Willa’s discoveries make her question the padaran’s decisions, she must choose between subservience to her clan’s new ways or accept the consequences of defiance.
The book’s twists will keep you guessing! Beatty pulls you into this captivating world with depth of setting and by showing us Willa’s many facets. Because of the scenes involving death, the padaran’s cruelty, and other complex issues, younger children may benefit from reading this book with an adult. Rich in story and detail, Willa of the Wood satisfies with its conclusion and promises to make readers eager for the next installment.
Willa of the Woodis the first book in a new series by Robert Beatty, known for his #1 New York Times best-selling Serafina series.
FRONT DESK Written by Kelly Yang (Arthur A. Levine Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred reviews – Booklist, Kirkus and School Library Journal
Where do I possibly begin with Kelly Yang’s FRONT DESK?
FRONT DESK is a timely and needed narrative for so many reasons. And Yang, as demonstrated in her debut novel, is one heck of a storyteller. She’s destined to be anauthor that kids and adults clamor to meet so they can soak up her pearls of wisdom. Drawing from firsthand experiences and keen insights from when she arrived in America as a Chinese child immigrant along with her parents, Yang’s tale provides many kids a chance to find themselves and find hope inside the pages of this moving middle grade historical novel.
It’s 1993 when we meet our heroine Mia Tang. At 10-years-old, Mia is one of the most empathetic, intelligent, persevering characters of this age I have seen in a long time. The truth is there are so many like her whose voices deserve to be heard. I am grateful to Yang that tweens now have a chance to get to know this plucky protagonist and her struggles. Mia’s family are employed at a hotel with unpleasant owners after working for a short time at a restaurant where they were taken advantage of, then fired shortly after. While the hotel seems like a dream come true at first with free rent, the negatives and danger of managing the hotel take their toll on the family.
One of the moments that broke my heart is when Mia is sitting with one of the “weeklies” at the motel she helps run with her parents. The “weeklies” stay at the hotel for a week at a time, paying a lump sum. An older Black gentleman, Hank, is sitting slumped over, defeated by yet another instance in his life where he is targeted for a crime he did not commit simply because he isn’t White. He’s been labeled for so long that at this point he has no more will to fight. He exposes this vulnerability to Mia, and it is a powerful and haunting exchange. Hank isn’t feeling sorry for himself, nor is he bitter or angry when he has every right to be. He’s just tired, the kind of tired you cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been judged by the color of your skin your whole life. Mia later advocates for him and shows us how you are never too young or too old to stand on the side of justice and equality for all.
Resiliency. Mia and her family, along with the “weeklies” and some other friends, have this in abundance. Even when their own families decline to help them in their hour of need, their community rallies around them so they can take control of their destinies.
I dog-eared many pages to go back and look over for this review, and I’m still at a loss as how best to describe my favorite parts because there are so many. I’ve also purchased more than one copy of this book to give to others. It is one of those stories that will creep into your heart and linger there for quite a while.
FRONT DESK needs to be in every school library and as many homes as possible.
Julie Falatko’s new chapter book, TWO DOGS IN A TRENCH COAT GO TO SCHOOL with pictures by Colin Jack and edited by the incredible Matt Ringler at Scholastic, is a book you will want to hug after you finish howling with glee.
I know this book is MEANT for kids (8-12) but I would hand this book to anyone: The Bus Driver. Grandpa. Children of all ages (I understand the audio version is hilarious, making it perfect for summer road trips). Squirrels. Okay, maybe not squirrels, because, as the story’s heroes, Sassy and Waldo, know—like good dogs do—squirrels are unpredictable to say the least. In fact, in TWO DOGS IN A TRENCH COAT GO TO SCHOOL, the squirrels that drive Sassy and Waldo to extreme lengths to protect their home remind me of how many other unpredictable areas of life tween-aged kids go through.
We can’t predict what goes on around us in the world all the time or even half the time. And, if you’re like me, you’re a parent who has no idea when the next bought of tears or drama will unfold at your child’s school. Well, this is a book you can confidently and lovingly put into their hands to give them a break from the intensity the world so often places on their young shoulders.
Meet the doggedly delightful Sassy and Waldo. They’re on a mission to help their boy, Stewart deal with stuff at school. The evil overlord (aka The Dreaded Information Sheet and Big Project Coming Up At School) is causing undue anxiety for their beloved kid. How can they help? When Waldo stands on top of Sassy and covers them with a trench coat, they turn into Salty, a new student at Bea Arthur Elementary School where Stewart is enrolled.
The side-splitting, laugh-out-loud dialogue alone will keep you and your kids eagerly flipping pages and ready for book two in the series so I won’t overshare. This is definitely a book that should be enjoyed to the fullest with fresh eyes.
I will tell you though that Sassy and Waldo have already secured a place in my heart, being the incredible doggy heroes many of us need right now. They deserve all the meatballs they desire and will probably share them with the author of this brilliant new series. Reminiscent of HANK THE COWDOG by John R. Erickson, only instead of two cowdogs from the South caring for a ranch, here we have two dedicated pups keeping their home and favorite human safe.
Julie Falatko’s TWO DOGS IN A TRENCH COAT GO TO SCHOOL will melt your heart. Unless you’re a squirrel just trying to get by in a world that is nuts.
Reviewed by Ozma Bryant
Look for Two Dogs in a Trench Coat Start a Club by Accident (book #2 in the series) due out early 2019.
Reviewer Ozma says ”Here is Our family dog, Ruggedo, with a plush co-conspirator ready to save the day should my own child ever need it at school.”
TINY INFINITIES Written by J. H. Diehl (Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
– A Junior Library Guild Selection –
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.
THE DRAGON SLAYER: FOLKTALES FROM LATIN AMERICA By Jaime Hernandez with an introduction by F. Isabel Campoy (Toon Books/Toon Graphics; $16.95 Hardcover, $9.99 Paperback, Ages 8 and up)
The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America, a 48-page middle-grade graphic novel, gives modern readers a way to explore timeless tales. F Isabel Campoy’s Introduction, “Imagination and Tradition,” explains Latin American heritage is “richly diverse, a unique blend of Old World and New, spanning a continent across many geographic boundaries and cultures.”
A “recurring theme in the Latino experience is a celebration of strong women.” In “The Dragon Slayer,” one of three tales in the graphic novel, the youngest daughter is cast out, but her generosity brings her good fortune and, ultimately, a chance to conquer the fearsome seven-headed dragon. In the next story, “Martina Martínez and Pérez the Mouse,” Martina (a human) marries Pérez; soon after mishap befalls him but Doña Pepa’s quick thinking saves the day.
“Tup and the Ants” finishes the trilogy with moral and practical lessons. When three brothers are sent to clear the land for cornfields, lazy but clever Tup enlists the leaf-cutter ants to do his chores.
Noteworthy back matter provides insight into each tale, explaining its cultural significance.
Jaime Hernandez’s illustrations will beguile new generations with humor, memorable characters, and fabulous monsters. This comic is well-suited for visual readers. Released simultaneously in English and Spanish, in hardcover and paperback, Toon Books aims for inclusion. Now celebrating their tenth anniversary, the publisher has over 1.3 million books in print.
Read more about Jaime Hernandez and Dragon Slayer’s special features at Toon Books here.
★ A New York Times Editors’ Choice ★ Starred Review – Kirkus
THE FANTASTIC LIBRARY RESCUE AND OTHER MAJOR PLOT TWISTS Written by Deborah Lytton Illustrated by Jeanine Murch (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $7.99, Ages 8 and up)
Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton
On today’s post I’m excited to share a recent interview I had with author, Deborah Lytton, about book #2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, which came out earlier this month. Having thoroughly enjoyed this chapter book for middle grade readers* that includes illustrations of Ruby’s active imagination at work, I can see how much tweens and bibliophiles will gravitate to the series, and this new book in particular, especially since it tackles two important issues: libraries losing funding and friendship predicaments. I especially like that Ruby’s friend Will P is also in a bookclub, something I don’t usually see depicted in stories. Here’s how Sourcebooks Jabberwocky describes Lytton’s latest:
The second book in this fun series that’s perfect for younger fans of the Dork Diaries and Story Thieves series. Ruby Starr is an older Junie B. Jones with a big imagination and a love of reading.
Ruby Starr’s life is totally back on track. Her lunchtime book club, the Unicorns, is better than ever. And she and Charlotte, her once arch enemy, are now good friends. The only thing that’s really causing any drama is her upcoming poetry assignment. She’s a reader, not a poet!
But disaster strikes when Ruby learns that her most favorite place in the world, the school library, is in trouble. Ruby knows she and the Unicorns have to do something to help. But when Ruby’s plans end up hurting a friend, she’s not sure her story will have a happy ending after all.
Q & A:
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Ruby is a charming, book-loving outgoing yet introspective fifth grader. And while she is not perfect she certainly is someone any parent would be proud of. Do you happen to know any Rubys? And if not, how did you wind up with her as a main character for your series?
DEBORAH LYTTON: I do know a Ruby. My inspiration for this series came from my younger daughter who was in fifth grade when I began writing the first book. My YA SILENCE had just been released, and my older daughter was reading it. My younger daughter wanted me to write something for her to read. She asked for a story that would make her laugh. I based the character of Ruby on her initially, but then as I began to write, the character took on her own qualities. My favorite part of writing is when the characters begin to shape themselves. That definitely happened with Ruby Starr.
GRWR:What do you love most about her?
DL:I love that Ruby makes a lot of mistakes, but always tries to fix them. My favorite thing about Ruby is her kindness. She thinks about other people and their feelings and tries to help them when she can. This is a quality I truly admire. I also enjoy writing Ruby because she is so imaginative.
GRWR:I realize this is book #2 in the series but yet I felt fully up-to-speed. Can you please tell readers briefly what happens in book #1?
DL: I am so happy to hear that you felt up-to-speed! It was really important to me to write a second book that would let readers jump right in. Book #1 establishes Ruby’s character and her love for reading. The story centers on friendship troubles. When a new girl joins Ruby’s fifth grade class, she begins pulling Ruby’s friends away from her. Then she threatens to destroy Ruby’s book club. Ruby has a difficult time, and then she learns something about the new girl that changes everything. Ultimately, books bring the friends together.
GRWR:Is there a book #3 on the horizon?
DL:Yes, I am really excited about Ruby’s third adventure. I have just finished the manuscript and I can tell you that Ruby and her friends get into a little bit of a mix-up and that it all begins with a very special book.
GRWR:As a kidlit reviewer I love that Ruby is in a book club (The Unicorns), and as a writer I love Ruby’s vivid imagination. Did your own childhood inform these traits or did you feel she’d need these qualities to be a role model for tweens or someone many young readers could relate to?
DL:Growing up, my sister and I were like Ruby. We loved reading. Both of us cherish books and have saved many of our favorites from when we were young readers. My own daughters also love to read. In spending time helping out in their school classrooms and libraries, I have seen how many students enjoy books. I loved the idea that a fifth grade student would be independent enough to start her own book club at school to celebrate reading. Then I thought it would be fun to see where her imagination would take her, especially since she would be inspired by all the books she had read and loved. I hope young readers who have stayed up late just to read the next chapter of a book will connect with a character who is like them.
GRWR:The hero’s journey that Ruby embarks on is to save the school library where the hours have been reduced and new book purchases have been shelved due to funding cutbacks. Was this plot line inspired by stories you’ve seen in the news or even closer to home here in L.A.?
DL:I have volunteered in the libraries at my daughters’ schools so I have seen first-hand the way that budget cuts have impacted the libraries. I have also helped students search for the perfect book to read and then watched their faces light up when they discover something really special. Libraries are so valuable to our youth. I wanted to highlight that message in this story.
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.
THE FIELD Written by Baptiste Paul Illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara (NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)
“is a debut masterpiece of collaboration and skill,” says reviewer Ozma Bryant.
In a friendly game of soccer (futbol), the magic of not only the sport but the players involved, comes into brilliant light splayed across the pages of The Field, a debut picture book by Baptiste Paul.
With a tropical rainstorm threatening the game, the players band together, solidifying their connection through love of playing ball and sportsmanship. Challenges such as the weather won’t intrude on this precious time together. The story, I might add, is really about a group of kids—the “main character” is never mentioned by name but she’s on all the pages.
My favorite moment is when one of the opposing players is knocked down, and our main character, in her white jersey #3, reaches her hand out to him on the muddy ground asking, “Ou byen? You okay?” He responds, “Mwen byen. I’m good.” You can practically reach out and touch the splattered mud and rain that splashes across the pages as the players muscle on through, seeing the game to completion.
The sun creeps back out as the game continues, even as Mamas call the players home. Hearing a firm command “Vini, abwezan! Come now!” the children end the game then go their separate ways to rest up and rejuvenate for a new day of play.
Caked with mud and filth, children slip into tubs of warm water, smiling … reveling in the magic that is a game well played. Dreams of new games and friendship forming float overhead, as the field lingers even in sleep.
Alcántara’s gorgeous art propels the reader forward with spare language infused with Creole words from the author’s native home in the Caribbean. The author of this amazing story explains in the back matter that Creole is rarely written, mostly spoken, and so new words are constantly being added or old ones modified in this language. A Creole Glossary is also included.
One of my dear friends hails from Haiti, and speaks Creole. He was the initial reason I was excited to read this book and learn from it. One of the first things I learned from him was that soccer was also ‘futbol’. When I saw the young girl on the cover, I wanted to put this book into his young daughter’s hands immediately. I must ask if she plans to watch the FA Cup this weekend!
I am so thankful for this incredible book and hope to share it with many readers who can also identify with its themes of friendship, connection, teamwork and not giving up in the face of adversity.
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PET BLACK HOLE Written and illustrated by Michelle Cuevas (Dial BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
“The story began on an afternoon the color of comets, with a girl dressed all in black. A sad girl. A girl with a hole in her heart, and darkness on the horizon.” The year is 1977 and eleven-year-old Stella Rodriguez, the protagonist in The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Holeby Michelle Cuevas,loves science. She’s fascinated by the upcoming Voyager launch and visits NASA to give Carl Sagan a recording to take to space—one of Stella and her (deceased) father, laughing and telling jokes. The Voyager will carry all the “wonderful sounds of Earth” but Stella’s younger brother, Cosmo, asks “Are there sad sounds too?”
Stella’s turned away at NASA, but a black hole who seems to want to be her pet follows her home. She names him Larry, short for Singularity, a place of infinite gravity at the heart of a black hole. Using puppy training books, Stella learns to care for and train her black hole. When, like all unruly pets, Larry consumes inappropriate things, Stella realizes he could serve as a repository for items she wants out of her life along with their corresponding memories. Maybe nothingness is better than the pain of remembering.
Cuevas’s illustrations intersperse her text, adding visual interest. When Stella enters the black hole, the pages turn black. The interstellar adventure inside Larry is riotous fun involving the kids, their puppy, the smelly classroom hamster, an assortment of discarded things, and the family’s bathtub. The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is an entertaining and lighthearted story surrounding the gravity of Stella’s aching grief.
Eventually, Stella realizes even if she has a hole in her center “that’s okay, because it’s full of such beautiful, beautiful things.” In the clever appendix, “A Beginners Guide to the Care and Feeding of Black Holes,” Stella Rodriguez graciously summarizes all she has learned.
THE GREAT RACE: STORY OF THE CHINESE ZODIAC Written and illustrated by Christopher Corr (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books/Quarto; $17.99, Ages 3-6)
A new retelling of The Great Race, a classic Chinese folk tale, comes to us from author-illustrator Christopher Corr. In this version of the Chinese zodiac story, the Jade Emperor, realizing he doesn’t know his age, creates the Great Race in order to start measuring time. The first twelve animals to cross the river get a year named after them. Each animal’s story ensues. For those unfamiliar with the animals, they are the rat, ox, horse, goat, monkey, dog, pig, snake, tiger, rabbit, rooster and last but definitely not least, the dragon.
This 32-page picture book contains an abundance of brilliantly colored illustrations. Shorter scenes are set in oval shapes against bright white backgrounds. In visually exciting two-page spreads, the Jade Emperor interacts with various animals; black text is subdued into the art. Corr “works in gouaches, painting on Italian and Indian handmade papers as though he’s using a pen” and “takes a great deal of inspiration from his travels—to India, North Africa, and New England, for instance.”
All told, The Great Race: Story of the Chinese Zodiac is another wonderful way to enjoy the stories of the twelve animals representing the Chinese zodiac.
OPEN IF YOU DARE Written by Dana Middleton (Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)
is reviewed by Colleen Paeff.
Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton begins at the end. It’s the last day of elementary school and three best friends Birdie, Rose, and Ally are about to embark on their very last summer together. Rose is moving back to England in August and Ally and Birdie will attend different middle schools come September. Nothing will ever be the same again and the girls know it.
They are looking forward to a blissfully predictable summer of swimming, softball, selfies, and lots of time together on their secret island. But the discovery of a mysterious box and its sinister contents takes the trio on an unexpected search for the identity of a dead girl and the villain who killed her.
Middleton expertly weaves mystery with coming-of-age, as the girls experience crushes and rivalries, bad decisions and harsh consequences, parental expectations and annoying siblings – in other words, Life – in the midst of their search for answers. When the clues run dry, Rose and Ally would happily give up the hunt in favor of milking as much fun as possible out of their last summer together, but Birdie, our narrator, can’t let it go. Perhaps it’s because, for her, solving the mystery of the dead girl seems easier than solving the mystery of what life will be like without Rose and Ally by her side.
Like any good mystery, there are twists and turns and startling connections. And the setting, based on Middleton’s hometown in Georgia, comes to life with evocative details and fully realized characters of all ages. Ultimately, though, Open if You Dare is a story about friendship and where Middleton truly shines is in her depiction of the joys and complexities of building relationships with the people who understand us most in the world and the heartbreak of letting them go.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that, by the end of the book, the mystery of the dead girl is solved. But the mystery of what life will be like in middle school? Alone? Let’s just say Rose, Ally, and Birdie are ready to take it on. Let the adventure begin.
Review by Colleen Paeff – Colleen lives in Los Angeles, California, where she writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She hosts the monthly Picture Book Publisher Book Club and its companion blog, Picture Book Publishers 101. Look for her on Twitter @ColleenPaeff.
BEST CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS BOOKS A ROUNDUP – PART THREE
Here’s the third of our kids’ Christmas books roundup. There’s really something here for everyone from ages 3 to 12 (we’ve even included some board books for the littlest ones). So please take a look, buy the books at your local independent bookseller then let us know which ones ended up being your family’s favorites. Merry Christmas!
Cynthia Rylant’s Nativity combines the story of Jesus’ birth with well known passages from His ministry in beautiful text adapted from chapters of the Book of Matthew and the Book of Luke. Rendered in acrylic paints, Rylant’s colorful and straightforward illustrations allow young readers to experience the poetry of the King James translation of the Holy Bible.
The story begins on the cover flap: “A child is born…” which brings us to a pastoral setting. The animals are white and cloudy; human figures are faceless but, ironically, it’s the simplicity of their forms that communicates the scene: shepherds with staff in hand guarding their flock. As we follow their visit to the Baby Jesus, we notice familiar features, such as the star and wise men, absent from this Nativity scene. As a result, the presence of shepherds are highlighted all the more; they dominate over half the book — a fact I thought was interesting and appropriate, considering Jesus called Himself the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11). Shepherds are spreading the news of Jesus’ birth to passers-by; in the privacy of their homes, they are wondering “at those things which were told them” by “the angel of the Lord.” Young readers may not understand the deep theological matters raised with the coming of Christ, but they can grasp its contemplative effect in the simple and humble bow of a shepherd’s head.
In addition to such quiet gestures, bold colors also help children connect with Scripture. As the angels proclaim peace on earth and “good will toward men” the sky is illuminated with a rainbow of warm, exciting colors-the colors of pure joy. My personal favorite is the way purple is used to illustrate the most poignant points of the story. Against a backdrop of rich purple, Mother Mary “kept these things” she witnessed “and pondered them in her heart.” The color appears once more when the story shifts to show Jesus as a grown man preaching His famous words (taken from the Sermon on the Mount): “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Both these scenes express powerful and profound principles that invite reflection and meditation. The depth of the color calls readers to pause and wonder about the mystery of God and the peace of His Presence. If you’re looking for a traditional Christmas story, this is a book I’d highly recommend. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Every child hopes to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus placing presents under the Christmas tree or filling their stockings with candies and trinkets on Christmas Eve. Most share the tradition of putting out cookies and milk for the jolly old fellow. There are however, probably a lot fewer who, like Maxwell, a mischievous young ninja, in Ninja Claus!, set traps in an attempt to capture Santa. Utilizing nets, a fishing pole, ropes, hula hoops, and his best ninja tricks, Maxwell manages to capture his dog and his father nibbling the cookies, but he’s swept off to bed by his mother before he can capture Santa.
Arree Chung has written and illustrated yet another Ninja picture book, his third in the series, that is bound to be a hit. With his deft use of acrylic paint and Adobe Photoshop, Chung sets the tone of the night before Christmas, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the pages. And his writing? He had me holding my breath and praying that Christmas wouldn’t be ruined for little Maxwell. And then came the big exhale. The greatest ninja of all, Santa Claus, came and went unnoticed. Hands down, this book is a delight. • Reviewed by MaryAnne Locher
In The Nutcracker in Harlem, Tchaikovsky’s ballet comes to life in the dreams of a Marie growing up in a musical family during the Harlem Renaissance. I love the illustrations, by multiple award-winner James Ransome, most of all. In the opening pages, author McMorrow and illustrator Ransome invite us into a bright and boisterous living room, crowded with happy people enjoying music and each other. The clothing and hats in bold blues, greens, and reds transport us to the 1920s. A Christmas party is underway. Marie’s uncle is playing the piano, her parents are dancing, and Miss Addie is singing. Everyone encourages Marie to participate, but she hangs back, shyly watching and listening. The atmosphere is so real and wonderful it makes me feel nostalgic for a party I never attended. When the story shifts to the world of Marie’s dream, the deep, vibrant watercolor illustrations keep the mood warm and happy even when what could be more frightening elements — such as an army of mice — dance into view. By the end, the dream, combined with the magic of Christmas, gives Marie the courage to join in the jazzy celebration. • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
Thank you, Matt Tavares! As a former New Yorker who experienced the majesty of the Norway Spruce at Rockefeller Center most years of my childhood, I was transported by Red and Luluto Manhattan, not unlike the tree in this simple yet very moving story about love lost then found again during Christmastime. Red and Lulu, cardinals inspired by those in Tavares’ own backyard, make a massive evergreen their home. It’s there the pair see the seasons change in all their glory while always remaining close to the shelter that nature has so kindly provided. “Once a year the people who live nearby string lights on their tree and sing a special song: ‘O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree.'” Then, while Red is away, the tree is cut down and Lulu clings to it not understanding what is happening. Written with few words that speak volumes and powerful and poignant illustrations, the story follows Red as he tracks the tree on its journey. Unlike adult readers sharing the story with their children, Red doesn’t realize the significance of his home being transported to New York City. He searches high and low to find Lulu amidst the twinkling lights, falling snow, skyscrapers and crowds. As carolers sing their special song, O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Red’s determination is rewarded as the magic of the song, the holiday season and the Yuletide spirit in this famous city help reunite the cardinal couple and fill young (and old) readers’ hearts with joy. Don’t skip the back matter which includes facts about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition and an author’s note. Visit the Candlewick website to see a book trailer, some interior artwork and order the book for a 25% discount using the code CANDLEWICK at checkout. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Here’s another great stocking stuffer for fans of outrageous facts. There are dozens of paper back books in the Weird but True!series and it’s no surprise since they are so entertaining. This one is no exception. Just when they think they’ve read all the facts, they’ll want to dive back in to share them and spread the holiday cheer. Included are some whammies such as “One family passed down the same fruitcake since 1878,” or “A whole sheep’s head is considered a holiday delicacy in Norway.” Do your children know that “In India people decorate banana trees for Christmas,” or that “During the Australian gold rush, people baked gold nuggets into their Christmas pudding for good luck?” As can be expected from any National Geographic book, the photographs included are fantastic as are the added illustrations. The 208 page count should not put off any child since the info is written in large font and the graphics are bold and bright.Weird but True! Christmas can be read quickly to get a general overview then returned to when specific facts require further study. If your tweens cannot get enough of all these fun facts, they can download the National Geographic Kids Weird but True app for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Other Recommended Christmas Books This Year Include:
This Little Reindeer Written by Aly Fronis Illustrated by Luke Flowers (Little Bee Books; $5.99, Ages 2-5)
Christmas Eve Annie Auerbach (Barron’s Children’s Books; $6.99, Ages 1-4)
Don’t Push The Button!: A Christmas Adventure Written and illustrated by Bill Cotter (Jabberwocky Kids; $8.99, Ages 2+ )
THE WONDERLING Written and illustrated by Mira Bartók (Candlewick Press; $21.99, Ages 10-14)
Read Our Author Q & A Today & Attend a Book Signing on Friday, 11/10 in West Hollywood Scroll down to find out more!
The Wonderling, written and illustrated by Mira Bartók and soon to be a major motion picture, garnered a great amount of attention, and deservedly so, even before the book deal was done. Reminiscent of classic literary odysseys and the best of contemporary fantasy, with a sprinkling of steampunk, The Wonderling opens in a thrillingly dreadful orphanage for young groundlings – part creature, part human. In this Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Children, all pleasures, especially music, are forbidden. But the hero of the story, a young one-eared fox-like groundling yearns for friendship and love. All he has is a half memory of a special song that will lead him to his destiny. After staging a daring escape with the help of a small mechanical bird, Trinket, the Wonderling sets off on a glorious adventure through forests and wild country, to the shiny city of Lumentown, ruled over by the High Hats, where he will discover the mysterious Songcatcher and unlock the secrets of his past.
Written in stunning prose and decorated with Mira’s exquisite illustrations, The Wonderling is a hugely enjoyable and original fantasy filled with vivid and eccentric characters and a plot that twists and turns. You will find echoes of King Arthur, of Dickens, of Kenneth Grahame; you will find brave mice in armor, and giant crows that terrorize the skies; you will find innocence, humor, hope, and ultimately triumph.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA INTERVIEWS MIRA BARTÓK:
GRWR: Can you please speak to the world building you so brilliantly created for The Wonderling – did you have certain places and buildings in mind when you wrote the novel and drew the map?
BARTÓK: The settings I created for the book came from various places—books, images online, dreams, my imagination, and travel. I probably gleaned the best ideas from looking at Gustav Doré’s images of 19th century London and Henry Mayhew’s 19th century descriptions of London’s poor. Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London was also essential, as was actually walking about in that wonderful city. I also spent many hours looking at maps from classic children’s books and in library archives. The feeling of Gloomintown, the City Below the City, came from a combination of re-reading Dickens’s Hard Times, looking at old engravings of London’s sewer system, and studying Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. A crazy mix!
GRWR: I’m thrilled there’s going to be a second book because I cared about your characters, well the good ones anyway! Who did you have the most fun imagining and why?
BARTÓK: I definitely had the most fun writing about Quintus, my Fagin/Artful Dodger Rat groundling! Mostly because he’s funny, he loves to make up songs (therefore, I get to make up his lyrics), and he’s complicated. He’s a thief, a rogue, and an opportunist, but he’s also a really good guy.
GRWR: In addition to sharing a strong sense of hope and tolerance, your story also touches upon the power of dreams. Do dreams influence your writing?
BARTÓK: I can’t even begin to tell you how much! Sometimes entire scenes are mapped out in my dreams. I have very epic dreams populated with many different kinds of creatures. If only I could sleep all the time and have some machine transmit my dreams directly into books, I’d probably finish my books sooner!
GRWR: The Wonderling gives a voice to the marginalized. I especially liked when Arthur, who was marginalized himself as a groundling, befriended Peevil, the mouse and Trinket, the bird. Was that one for all and all for one teamsmanship one of your intentions?
BARTÓK: Not really. I knew Arthur would make one good friend, but I had no idea he would make so many. I realized half way through writing the book that part of his journey is learning that he has friends who have cared about him all along.
GRWR: Wire, Miss Carbunkle, Sneezeweed, Mardox the manticore and even His Excellency the powerful White Hat, were so vivid and nasty, yet so unique in character. How difficult was it to create the villains?
BARTÓK: Easy as pie! I lOVE creating villains! But Miss Carbunkle was harder to write about since she has more of a backstory. She is and will continue to be the most complex villain, therefore she is the most interesting and difficult to write about. She will transform a little in Book Two, and her character will deepen in surprising ways. The Man with the White Gloves and Wire are really sociopaths and will continue to be nasty little fellows in Book Two. And I will, I am sure, have a ball writing about them!
GRWR: What is it about the Victorian era that interests you?
BARTÓK: I think that era appeals to me because I see such a parallel between the Industrial Revolution and all the problems we are going through today. And in London, things were exceedingly hard for children, women, immigrants, and the poor. When I read about the nightmarish working conditions for children in the coal pits during that time, and how horrible living conditions were for poor immigrants living in Spitalfields, it’s hard not to think of the sweat shops of today, or the global refugee crisis, and the rise in homelessness. The Victorian Era was also a time of great and wondrous technological inventions, just like today. And like today, people often didn’t think of the ramifications of the technology they created, for better or for worse.
GRWR: Quintus, your Fagin of sorts, is an intriguing individual. What can a character like him bring to the story for young readers who may not be familiar with any Dickens?
BARTÓK: I think he can bring a sense that some characters who do bad or illegal things aren’t always bad through and through. Sometimes there’s a good reason for their misconduct. And there’s also room for them to change and grow.
Mira Bartók, Photo Credit: Doug Plavin
AUTHOR BIO: Mira Bartók is a writer and artist whose New York Times best-selling memoir, The Memory Palace: A Memoir, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. The Wonderling is her first novel for young readers. She lives in Western Massachusetts.
MEET MIRA BARTÓK THIS FRIDAY IN WEST HOLLYWOOD!
Mira Bartók discusses and signs The Wonderling at Book Soup on November 10th
Event date: Friday, November 10, 2017 – 7:00 p.m. Event address: Book Soup 8818 Sunset Boulevard West Hollywood, CA 90069
Below is an abbreviated schedule of upcoming appearances. Find a full listing of Bartók’s events on her website. · Monday, November 13 in Portland, OR: Public book reading and signing at 7 p.m. at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 · Saturday, December 2 in New Salem, MA: New Salem Town Library reading and signing event from 2-4 p.m. at Swift River School, 149 West St., New Salem, MA 01355 · Wednesday, December 13 in Northhampton, MA: Local author series event from 7-8:45 p.m. at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton MA 01060