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Best New Hanukkah Books for Children and Teens 2022

 

BEST NEW HANUKKAH BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS

~A ROUNDUP~

 

 

I’m happy to say this year I’ve received more review copies of new Hanukkah books for children than any previous year! Not only do these books approach the holiday from fresh new angles, but they’ve made the holiday more accessible for non-Jewish readers who want to learn about this joyful Jewish celebration. Enjoy the super selection and be sure to share these books with family and friends.

 

 

HANUKKAH NHanukkah Nights cover menorah picture child sleepingIGHTS
Written and illustrated by Amalia Hoffman
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $8.99, Ages 1-5)

I had a huge grin on my face as I read this beautiful board book because while the concept is so simple, it is gorgeously executed and a treat to read. Using bold black as the background like one of those scratch-away kits, Hoffman has cleverly employed a variety of techniques to depict the candle flames. These include drip, scrape, stamp, crisscross, sponge, spatter, doodle and brush. She shares a brief rhyming description along with a new color for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. A different night equals a different spread and flame style.
“1 light. Special night.”

“2 lights. Happy nights.”

Spare, stunning, and VERY shareable!  I hope your children love this as much as I did. If they feel inspired to reproduce the designs using the back matter spread, Hoffman describes how to achieve the looks so be sure to have plenty of Kraft paper available this Hanukkah.
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

MENDEL’S HANUKKAH MESS UP
Written by Chana and Larry Stiefel
Illustrated by Daphna Awadish
(Kalaniot Books; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

Star Review – School Library Journal

Things never seem to go as planned for Mendel despite loving the Hanukkah holiday. What can be botched up does get botched up. He’s kind of a mash-up of Amelia Bedelia and The Chelm stories. With this top of mind,  Mendel takes a back seat so to speak, and keeps out of harm’s way until his trusting Rabbi asks him to drive the Mitzvah Mobile. His job: spread the word about the big Hanukkah bash and perform “the greatest good deed of the holidaysharing the miracles of Hanukkah for all to see!”

Mendel manages quite well to start with and he’s overjoyed at his success. With his spirits soaring, he doesn’t see the bridge overpass and smashes the menorah, much to his dismay. “Oy! I’m stuck!” Mendel’s disappointment is palpable in a mix of humorous and meaningful text alongside charming and lively illustrations. Even though the police and the tow truck arrive on the scene, it is the reporter from the local news who gives Mendel a powerful platform. On the spot, he draws inspiration from his Rabbi’s words and explains the miracle of Hanukkah and how “we each have a spark to light up the world.” And miraculously, as the damaged truck is towed away, the lights from the menorah glow brightly. Back at his synagogue, Mendel’s congregation is exuberant and when he gets invited to light the giant menorah at City Hall, you can just imagine who at last feels proudest of all! If you’re looking for a timeless tale sure to bring smiles to the entire family, Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up delivers. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel 

 

Ava's Homemade Hanukkah cover girl making menorahAVA’S HOMEMADE HANUKKAH
Written by Geraldine Woberg
Illustrated by Julia Seal
(Albert Whitman & Co; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

In this unique artistic story that gave me ideas for making my own menorah, readers are introduced to a family whose tradition is to create their own menorahs each year. These aren’t just any menorahs. They are menorahs that say something important about each person. This year Ava is old enough to join in the fun, but she worries her ideas won’t measure up to the others.

As the story begins, Ava tells her pet rabbit, Maccabee, named after the brave Maccabees and the oil that lasted eight nights, why Hanukkah is celebrated, and how the bunny got its name. Lined up on the table is a tin Hanukkah menorah that Ava’s mom was given by the army during her first Hanukkah away from home. Pop-Pop’s Hanukkah menorah has corks that float in jars of oil that he cherishes because he is proud that his traditions were different from his childhood friends. Author Woberg takes the reader through each family member’s story, while Seal’s warm illustrations show Ava and Maccabee listening.

The brown-haired pig-tailed girl gathers floor tile, green wire from flowers worn in her hair, and a small twig that fell from her special tree, all to be used for her menorah. She even gathers a friendship pin given to her by a friend. And the best item to be placed on her menorah is the toy rabbit resembling Maccabee. The menorah is complete when Ava uses markers to write the letters of her Hebrew name.

This is a great story to read to children at home or at religious school before beginning their own menorah creation. What a wonderful project for kids and a lovely tradition to begin! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Hanukkah in Little Havana cover with kids on car tripHANUKKAH IN LITTLE HAVANA
Written by Julie Anna Blank
Illustrated by Carlos Velez Aguilera
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $19.99; Ages 4-9)

A young girl narrator explains how each December a crate of fresh-picked oranges, plucked from her grandparents’ Miami backyard, is usually delivered as a Hanukkah gift to her family’s Maryland home. But this year no box arrives. Then, out of nowhere at midnight one December day, the girl and her younger sister are roused from their sleep by their parents in another strange occurrence. The sisters are tired and confused as they are placed in the backseat of the family car with their sweet dog and cat alongside them. When they wake at dawn to unfamiliar road signs and radio ads “Chile Today, Hot Tamale!” they wonder: Are they awake or dreaming? But their parents’ “laughing eyes” hold the exciting clue.

Julie Anna Blank’s first picture book takes the reader on an enjoyable Hanukkah journey to Miami’s Little Havana where the girls happily pick grapefruit, tangerines, and oranges with sun-kissed grandparents, Nonna and Nonno. Carlos Velez Aguilera’s colorful illustrations depict happy faces dancing the salsa and grating potatoes for homemade latkes. The parents’ surprise trip definitely replaced the sadness of not receiving the box of fruit, and the surprise was made better when they were able to spend it with the whole family.

This original take on the Hanukkah story teaches kids about almendrikas pastries and browned bunuelos. The smiles on the family’s faces beautifully depict the happiness of eight days of light and love. The back glossary breaks down the Spanish words. Bunuelo is a fried pastry and is a Hanukkah treat in South America and the Caribbean. Almendrikas is a little almond in Ladino. It was a fun read to learn about the diversity of the Jewish holiday and how it is celebrated with foods from different cultures. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

 The Boston Chocolate Party cover children at HarborTHE BOSTON CHOCOLATE PARTY
Written by Tami Lehman-Wilzig and Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz
Illustrated by Fede Combi
(Apples & Honey Press; $17.95, Ages 5-8)

I adore historical fiction stories where I can learn something new and The Boston Chocolate Party is no exception. Not only does this story illustrate how hot chocolate became popular in America, but it also introduces readers to the Sephardim. These were Jews who fled persecution in Spain and Portugal and came to America via the Netherlands. Many settled in New York and in Newport, Rhode Island where they found religious freedom.

This interesting Hanukkah (or Janucá in Spanish) story introduces readers to Joshua and his father, a wealthy merchant. They await his father’s ship transporting chocolate beans that will be turned into hot cocoa. With the British taxing tea and making it unaffordable, hot chocolate will become a popular and affordable alternative. Meanwhile, at home, on the first night of Hanukkah, Joshua is missing his best friend Isaac. The lad’s mom, now a widow, has relocated the family to Boston to seek work. The artwork is richly detailed and helps bring this story to life. I especially liked Combi’s depictions of the old oil menorahs both Joshua and Isaac’s families had. The scenes of chocolate making and old Boston beautifully conveyed the era when the story took place.

Joseph’s father has plans to send his assistant to Boston with a bag of beans. “He’ll show shopkeepers how to make delicious
hot chocolate and let them taste it for themselves.” Of course, Joshua wants to go to visit Isaac, but his father lets him send a letter instead. Readers get a glimpse the next day of Joshua’s family making chocolate to be stored for the winter. Then the assistant returns with word that the chocolate was a hit. Joshua’s father must now go to Boston “with a supply of beans and chocolate-making tools.” Once again Joshua asks to accompany his father and, with support from his mother, gets the go-ahead. Father and son will travel to Boston and spend the final few nights of Hanukkah with Isaac and his family.

After celebrating Janucá with Isaac’s family and realizing their dire financial predicament, Joshua proposes that a shed outside could be turned into a chocolate house where locals could sample the delicious chocolate. As everyone prepares for opening day, another party is just getting underway— the Boston Tea Party. Angry colonists dump tea into Boston Harbor to protest the high taxes levied by the British. This historic event, we learn in back matter, occurred on the last night of Hanukkah, December 16, 1773. The significance of the Boston Tea Party taking place on the last night of Hanukkah brings to mind the fight for freedom centuries before by the brave Maccabees. Info about What Was the Boston Tea Party?, What Is Hanukkah?, Who Were America’s First Jews?, and two recipes shared in the back matter should not be missed. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Eight Nights of Flirting cover couple in snowEIGHT NIGHTS OF FLIRTING
by Hannah Reynolds
(Razorbill; $19.99, Ages 12 and up)

Star Review – School Library Journal

You definitely do not have to be Jewish to enjoy this irresistible young adult rom-com set in a snowy Nantucket during winter break. The main character, 16-year-old Shira Barbanel, is determined to make her great uncle’s assistant, Isaac Lehrer, her boyfriend. The only problem is she has no experience and is convinced everything, even kissing, requires practice. But how to get it?

Adding to the frustration of her novice status in the romance department, Shira and her ex-crush, dreamy Tyler Nelson, also on the island, are thrown together during a snowstorm. This sets the titular eight nights of flirting in motion when in exchange for giving shelter to Tyler at her grandparents’ Golden Doors estate, Shira makes a bargain with him: flirting lessons for her from Mr. Popularity in exchange for an introduction to her media mogul great uncle for him.

Not only do romantic tensions run high between Tyler and Shira as she begins to learn what it takes to win a heart, but Shira also gets more than a glimpse of the real Tyler Nelson. Turns out he’s not just the blonde hair, blue-eyed pretty boy she thought was so shallow. As their friendship develops, they find a box hidden under a loose attic floorboard that may be a clue to a Barbanel ancestor’s secret passion.

With Tyler seeming to be more of a hook-up type of guy and Shira looking for something more committed, can Isaac fit the bill? Or was he someone she pursued for all the wrong reasons? When at last Shira realizes that being true to herself attracts friends and makes a former foe fall for her, readers will feel as happy as the new couple. Engaging and visually rich, Eight Nights of Flirting—I can easily see this as a filmwill lift your spirits and warm your heart on even the coldest winter nights so grab a hot cocoa and indulge. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Additional Recommended Reads for Hanukkah

J is for Januca coverJ IS FOR JANUCÁ
Written by Melanie Romero
Illustrated by Cassie Gonzales
(Baby Lit/Lil’ Libros; $19.99, Ages 4-10)

From the Publisher:

Introduce your little ones to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, or Janucá, and how illuminated candles remind us of miracles!

Grab your dreidels and start frying your latkes – the Festival of Lights is fast approaching!

This alphabetical hardcover delves into each letter of the Spanish alphabet to bring to life the many items – from aceite and bendiciones to kugel and tierra – that shed light on the miracle of Hanukkah. Observe families lighting the menorah, spinning the dreidel, hearing the Hanukkah story, and indulging in latkes and sufganiyot for eight precious nights.

This holiday hardcover is Cassie Gonzales’s debut as a children’s book illustrator; her colorful illustrations honor the palette and importance of Hanukkah. Parents will appreciate this bilingual English-Spanish hardcover due to the celebration of Hanukkah, but also for the cultural, religious, and historical symbolism behind the Jewish holiday that occurs around the same season as Christmas and holds a special meaning in the multicultural Latin-Jewish community.

 

 Ruby Celebrates! The Hanukkah Hunt coverRUBY CELEBRATES! THE HANUKKAH HUNT
Written by Laura Gehl
Illustrated by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

From the Publisher:

Ruby and her family celebrate Hanukkah in a brand-new way.

Ruby’s cousin Avital is sad because her mom is going to be away on a work trip during Hanukkah. To help make sure Avital still has a happy holiday, Ruby plans an enormous eight-night treasure hunt. But will she be able to think up a good enough surprise for Avital to discover on the final night?

 

Tizzy the Dizzy Dreidel cover spinning dreidel on keyboardTIZZY THE DIZZY DREIDEL  
Written by Allison Marks and Wayne Marks 
Illustrated by Francesca Assirelli 
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $19.99, Ages 4-9)

From the Publisher:

Tizzy the dreidel has a problem. Spinning makes her dizzy. But with encouragement from a little girl, Tizzy bravely sets out on an eight-day spinning Hanukkah adventure all around the house!

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Halloween Books Roundup by Christine Van Zandt

 

CHILDREN’S HALLOWEEN BOOKS ROUNDUP 2022

 

Halloween Clip Art of witch full moon and pumpkins

 

 

 

Creepy Crayon coverCREEPY CRAYON! (Creepy Tales! series)
Written by Aaron Reynolds
Illustrated by Peter Brown
(Simon & Schuster BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8 )

Starred Review – Kirkus

Aaron Reynolds delights us with book three of the Creepy Tales! series featuring his beloved Jasper Rabbit. In Creepy Crayon! Jasper’s not-great day gets a boost when he finds a bright purple crayon—with a crazy grin on its face! Soon, the crayon is helping Jasper zoom his grades up to straight As. Cool, right? Maybe . . . until the crayon takes BFF to the next level.

As in the first two books, Peter Brown’s art is a perfect blend of funny and spooky: Crayon’s glowing antics contrast with the lurking shadows. Kids will love the hilarious expressions on Jasper’s face.

Flawless interplay between text and high-contrast art make this author and illustrator duo New York Times best-sellers. Fans will appreciate the can-you-spot-them references to Creepy Carrots! and Creepy Pair of Underwear! We own this outstanding three-book series and do not tire of them; they’re a fit for Halloween or any day you need some funny bunny in your life.

 

Crimson Twill Witch in the City coverCRIMSON TWILL: Witch in the City (book one, series)
Written by Kallie George
Illustrated by Birgitta Sif
(Candlewick Press; $14.99, Ages 7-9)

The chapter-book series opener, Crimson Twill: Witch in the City, by Kallie George will bewitch you with its main character, spunky little Crimson Twill. True to her name, Crimson rocks a big bow on her red witch’s hat—no standard black for this girl! Her clothes and actions also set her apart. But, the various ways she’s different from others don’t bother her at first.

With Mom just a wave of her wand away, Crimson sets off to explore the big Broomingdale’s department store where the elevator’s buttons are shaped like what’s sold on that floor. Crimson hopes to get a glimpse of those things called puppies. Instead, she immediately encounters disdain for her unique attire, creating a crack of doubt in her self-assurance.

The clever puns, humor, and heart make this book a standout. Illustrations by Birgitta Sif add an array of fun, diverse witches. Kids new to reading will appreciate the short, simple chapters that are engaging and fast-paced. For this age audience, navigating a large store truly is an adventure. And any place with a cat floor is alright by me! Crimson ultimately finds that Broomingdale’s does have “everything a witch could itch for” but what she end up with may surprise you!

 

The Lost Coast paperback coverTHE LOST COAST
Written by A. R. Capetta
(Candlewick Press; Paperback $10.99, Ages 14 and up)

The beautifully written YA, The Lost Coast, by A. R. Capetta grabbed hold of me with its opening lines describing Danny’s first glimpse of ancient redwoods. She and her mom move to this specific coastal northern California town because Danny has been mysteriously drawn there. Danny quickly finds herself in deep with a group of queer high school witches who call themselves the Grays. They’re awesome, but their most powerful member is missing and they expect Danny to find her.

Nonlinear narration and alternating viewpoint chapters heighten the suspense as we try to understand what’s really going on. The foggy forest gives nature a presence on the page and sets the mood for magic, secrets, and discovery. This book is an A+ for me because of its realistically complex and interwoven friendships and love, plus the group’s frank discussions about identity. Ideal for fans of The Graces novels. I highly recommend The Lost Coast to YA readers who enjoy clever, twisted tales that are atmospheric gorgeously crafted. Available in hardcover, paperback and Ebook.

 

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Young Adult Book Review by Ronda Einbinder – Once More With Chutzpah

 

ONCE MORE WITH CHUTZPAH

 Written by Haley Neil

 (Bloomsbury; $17.99; Ages 12 and up)

 

 

Once More With Chutzpah cover

 

When Tally’s twin brother Max is the passenger in a tragic car crash with a drunk driver, who is killed, Tally decides a winter break trip to Israel will be the remedy to get him back on track in Haley Neil’s debut YA novel Once More With Chutzpah.

High school senior Tally seems to have her life in order. The plan is to attend Boston College with Max, where their non-Jewish mother teaches religion, and share a dorm room with her best friend Cat. But life doesn’t always go as planned, especially since the car accident six months earlier. Her father’s side of the family is Jewish, and her uncle lives in Israel, so Tally sees the exchange program as the perfect getaway for Max to reenergize so they can follow the plan she always had for them.

The story begins at the airport, saying goodbye to mom and dad, where the reader feels Tally’s anxiety about traveling by plane for the very first time and going far from the comforts of home. She is grateful she has Max. As the story unfolds, Tally meets new people, experiences the history of her Jewish family, begins to question her sexual identity, and begins to realize her brother may not be the only one struggling.

This heartfelt come-to-age novel brought me back to swimming in the Dead Sea, eating hummus and falafel in the Shuk in Tel Aviv, and visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Tally also sadly learns what camp her father’s family was taken to during the Holocaust. Tally’s anxiety and confusion about life are relatable for many teens. A mid-novel surprise takes the reader off-guard as we travel, courtesy of Neil’s transportive prose, on an unexpected journey.

Once More with Chutzpah tackles the conflicts in Israel, the challenges that teens experience while discovering themselves, and the power of friendships both new and old. This original Israeli-focused YA novel introduces the reader to LGBTQ, mixed religions, feminism, and native Israelis, and gives teens a quick background on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These thought-provoking topics are written beautifully for teens grappling with their own identities. Available in paperback in February 2023.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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YA Novel in Verse – Lawless Spaces

 

LAWLESS SPACES

by Corey Ann Haydu

(Simon & Schuster; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

 

Lawless Spaces cover

 

 

 

*A Junior Library Guild Selection

Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly

 

 

In Corey Ann Haydu’s YA novel in verse, Lawless Spaces, Mimi receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday—a century-old family tradition for the women in her family. Mimi asks what she’s supposed to write:

“There are things you don’t want to say,” Mom says, opening the car door,

getting in. “So you write them down and put them in an attic

and then they can

exist and not exist,

they can be true and not true.”

Mimi carefully curates her popular online presence where she makes clothes “that people will notice before they notice” her body or, worse yet, comment on it. She keeps real-life friendships distant. Her close ties with her mother slipped away once Mom’s boyfriend moved in; Mom no longer turns to Mimi for advice, and excludes her from major news. To help process her burgeoning feelings, Mimi begins writing poetry in her journal.

Complicated relationships dominate this story including the power and burden of family. I appreciate the juxtaposition of today’s instant-news world versus the slower layers of older, hidden truths. The spare, poetic format serves the story beautifully. Multiple timeline chapters alternate between “Mimi, 2022,” and the lives of her maternal ancestors, revealing connections and secrets.

The author cautions that material involving sexual trauma, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and generational trauma are included. RAINN.org (the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization) is listed as a place to seek support.

Per the author: “I wrote about a lot of things personal to me — the experience of being my particular size and shape in the world, what it was to be an actress in an industry obsessed with telling you who you are and whether or not that’s okay.”

LINK: https://rainn.org/

 

 

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Young Adult Fantasy Book Review – Stalking Shadows

 

STALKING SHADOWS

Written by Cyla Panin

(Abrams; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

 

Stalking Shadows cover

 

 

 

If you’re drawn to imperfect main characters in complicated situations, seventeen-year-old Marie in Cyla Panin’s YA fantasy, Stalking Shadows, certainly has stuff to deal with. Set in a small eighteenth-century French town, Marie mixes and sells perfumes at the market to earn a little money and, hopefully, survive another winter. However, some of her concoctions are used to mark victims for her sister, Ama (who slays them when the moon changes her into a beast). Marie doesn’t want to do this, but choosing who dies dispels the suspicions a bit. Sometimes, to spare the townsfolk, she chains Ama up for the night, feeding her rabbit.

As it becomes more difficult for Marie to control the beast, she sets out to discover what happened to Ama. It happened when their drunkard father sold her into servitude at Lord Sebastian LaClaire’s mansion. Ama left as a girl and returned home a monster.

Beyond the fascinating story, the slashed cover art pulled me in with a girl peering out from beneath an intriguing-looking animal that seems to be a lion mix. Just as Ama is many things, this story is too: a fantastical fairy tale with hints of historical fiction. While it’s hard to avoid comparisons to Beauty and the Beast, Panin’s book has more depth. In addition to the expected possible romance, you’ll find fierce sisterhood and fractured families. Layers of secrets and intrigue make this a page-turner that will keep you guessing until the end. The paperback will be available this August and can be pre-ordered here now.

 

 

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Young Adult Book Review – Horror Hotel

 


HORROR HOTEL

Written by Victoria Fulton and Faith McClaren

(Underlined; Trade Paperback $9.99, Ages  12+)  

 

Horror Hotel paperback cover
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Get ready to be scared from the moment you peek between the pages of Horror Hotel by the award-winning cowriting duo Victoria Fulton and Faith McClaren. What would the teen foursome who calls themselves the Ghost Gang do to reach one million YouTube subscribers? Maybe push some boundaries, maybe break some laws, and hopefully not get killed in the process!
Chase knows they need more than their usual documentary-style paranormal huntings, so he seeks something spooky but seemingly harmless. The plan he proposes involves sneaking out to spend the night at an infamous Los Angeles hotel. Once there, they’ll secretly film after dark, investigating the unsolved death of Eileen Warren. The Ghost Gang hopes to have it all covered: Chrissy sees ghosts, Kiki is TikTok famous, and Emma brings her skepticism. However, they soon discover their talent and experience may not be enough to survive the evildoings that await.
The fast-paced suspense will keep you turning pages. Told in short chapters, viewpoints alternate between all four teens. Eileen Warren’s blog posts (leading up to shortly before her body was found in the elevator shaft) are interspersed, adding another element of intrigue.
While romance surfaces throughout the story, the importance of true friendship anchors the story—captured in all of its imperfections. Chrissy can also sometimes hear people’s thoughts, which adds an interesting element when those moments of unfiltered honesty surface. Yet, as cool as her abilities seem to others, Chrissy often feels they are a curse because, “spoiler alert—there’s no otherworldly psychiatrist to help your cope with all the dead people.”
I like how the Ghost Gang comes to realize that “sometimes, it’s the dead who need our help—and the living we should fear.” So dim the lights and channel your inner sleuth to see if you can solve this gruesomely fun whodunit.
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YA Novel Review – Like Other Girls

 

 

LIKE OTHER GIRLS

Written by Britta Lundin

(Disney-Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14-18)

 

Like Other Girls cover

 

I don’t like sports books. At all. But I read the first few pages of Britta Lundin’s Like Other Girls and was hooked. We meet Mara as her angry outburst gets her kicked off the basketball team. Mara’s world has a lot of imperfections, but those flaws make it real.

The cast of characters has strong voices and distinct personalities. While the story is about a girl on the high school football team, this coming-of-age story is about so much more. We see the challenges and obstacles females face. Best friends part ways and new relationships are tested out. Families fight. There are no easy answers.

Though Mara knows she’s gay, she’s waiting until college to come out. Strong female role model, Jupiter, is yet another well-developed, likable character. Throughout, there are many funny moments as well as heartbreaking ones.

I may know a bit more about football after reading this (or maybe not) but I certainly know that I’ll be looking for Lundin’s book. She tells a difficult story with compassion, bringing in problems that need our attention while also showing the everyday issues that teens today struggle with.

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Young Adult Book Review – #noescape

#noescape
(Volume 3, a #murdertrending novel)

Written by Gretchen McNeil

(Disney-Hyperion; Paperback $9.99, Ages 14-18)

 

 

Fans of Gretchen McNeil’s #murdertrending series will enjoy her new YA, #noescape. Set twenty years before the first book, this companion novel is a wild Las Vegas ride. Seventeen-year-old Persey’s incredible win at an escape room grants her a spot at the All-Stars and the promise of a ten-million-dollar prize. The money would be a much-needed boon for Persey who, after years of surviving with her verbally abusive father and alcoholic mother, will be kicked out as soon as she graduates from high school.

Persey and the seven other All-Stars contestants soon find that the escape rooms are more than just a game—and maybe the killer is one of them. Trapped in a series of rooms, the teens must solve the puzzles or die while trying. There truly is no escape from this fast-paced, whodunnit plot.

In the Acknowledgments section, McNeil says she wondered if this was the greatest book she had ever written or completely unreadable. It’s my favorite in the #murdertrending series. Persey’s life before the All-Stars (told in flashback chapters) is emotionally engaging. I liked the asides when we’re in Persey’s viewpoint: “Persey had never paid much (any) attention to business matters,” or, “Persey usually (always) disliked strangers.” While there are romantic connections in the group, Persey maybe finds a friend in the aptly named Neela Chatterjee whose stream-of-consciousness style of communicating contrasts with her sharp intellect.

There’s plenty of gruesome bloodshed but it’s exacting, focused on the All-Stars rather than deaths by the dozens. While McNeil’s stories are complex, this one is A+ amazing for its spiderweb of a story. The payoff comes at the end as fans finally realize how the books connect.

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Young Adult Book Review – Curse of the Specter Queen

CURSE OF THE SPECTER QUEEN
(Book 1 of 2: A Samantha Knox Novel)

Written by Jenny Elder Moke

(Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

  

 

Set in the 1920s, Jenny Elder Moke’s Curse of the Specter Queen is high-stakes historical fiction fantasy with a female-driven plot. Samantha (“Sam”) Knox isn’t the same after her father is killed in the Great War. She turns away from her lifelong friends (brother and sister Bennett and Joana Steeling) and resigns herself to living a small life in their nowhere US town. She escapes the fate of being a laundress like her mother and, instead, uses her tenacious puzzle-solving skills to work at book restoration in the Steeling’s store.

When an unexpected package shows up bearing a damaged diary, Sam becomes embroiled in the mysteries surrounding this book. Before she knows it, she’s in Ireland trying to stop an occult ritual from resurrecting the Specter Queen, the Celtic goddess of vengeance and death. To do this, she must find an ancient bowl carved from the tree of life. Along the way, there are plenty of red herrings and a blossoming romance.

Because Sam evolves enormously over the course of the book, this is also a coming-of-age story. Complexities of Sam’s relationships with her friends unfold as Sam realizes she’s shut others out and now hopes it’s not too late to mend tattered ties with her previous BFF, Jo—truly a well-written character for how she snubs (with humor and levity) the constraints placed on women during that time.

I like how fantasy and historical fiction are blended into an apocalyptic story that pulls you back in time. In the end notes, the author states there were truly excavations carried out at Montpelier Hill in South County Dublin and that she utilized the research and findings of the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project and Abarta Heritage.

While perfectly suitable for a YA audience, the book would also appeal to readers of New Adult because of the independence of the characters and the lack of parental involvement. Book two in the Samantha Knox series continues on with another 1920’s adventure, this time on the island of Crete. Rise of the Snake Goddess comes out in June 2022. Sign me up for more nonstop thrills with this likable trio!

 

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Young Adult Book Review – Words Composed of Sea and Sky

WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY

by Erica George

(Running Press Teens; $17.99, Ages 13 and up) 

 

 

WordsComposedofSeaandSky cover

 

 

Two love triangles unfold in Erica George’s YA romance, Words Composed of Sea and Sky. Michaela (Mack) Dunn’s stepfather won’t pay for her to attend a poetry workshop. However, a local contest is giving away that retreat as a prize for whoever writes the best dedication plaque for the new statue honoring the Highland Whaler, Captain Benjamin Churchill. The problem is, not much is known about Churchill even though his name is plastered all over Mack’s Cape Cod town. Looking for inspiration, she explores the historical Whaler’s Watch Inn. There, she finds an amazing link to the past and the artistically aloof Caleb Abernathy. A college kid, Caleb seems like so much more than the high-school boys like the nice Finn Pearce, star pitcher at their school. For a girl who loves words, a baseball player can’t compare to the poetry-writing Caleb who attends Mack’s dream school.

As Mack’s present-day story unfolds, alternating viewpoint chapters bring us into the summer of 1862 where Leta Townsend publishes poems as Captain Benjamin Churchill; borrowing his name seems simple enough until the handsome lost-at-sea captain returns and harpoons her heart. Yet Leta’s imagination has created a persona that may not have much to do with the real captain. Disruption ripples through Leta’s writing plans and the blossoming romance with her best friend, Elijah, the poor boy from the lighthouse.

Erica George’s atmospheric setting works just as well for modern-day romance dilemmas as it does for those in the 1800s. I appreciate how the parallel stories about getting your voice heard are deftly woven to form a complete tale across years and relationships. With its elements of mystery and historical fiction, this well-crafted book shows romance novels can be much more.

 

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13+ New Halloween Books for 2021

 

 

BEST NEW HALLOWEEN BOOKS

A ROUNDUP

 

 

 

 

 

Spookytale coverSPOOKYTALE (An Abrams Trail Tale)
Written by Christopher Franceschelli

Illustrated by Allison Black
(Abrams Appleseed; $14.99, Ages 0-3)

Christopher Franceschelli’s latest book in his Abrams Block Book series is Spookytale, an interactive board book. We travel along with a boy, girl, and dog to their far-off destination: a haunted house. This journey takes them through the woods, across the bridge, and so forth. Each scene has die-cut pieces that lift to reveal fun Halloween-themed surprises. Fun hole-punched areas add textural interest.

The simple text is offset with rich illustrations by Allison Black. Pages have a lot going on; in subsequent readings, kids will find something new. Done in autumnal tones with pops of bright colors, costumed kids and smiling monsters are equally cute. The final scene is a dramatic quadruple gatefold that reveals all the festivities inside the house.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zant

 

TrickorTreat Bugs to Eat coverTRICK OR TREAT, BUGS TO EAT
Written by Tracy C. Gold
Illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff
(So
urcebooks Explore; $10.99, Ages 4-8)

I love Halloween books and Tracy C. Gold’s Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat is one of my favorites to date. The words are set to the “Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet” rhyme: “Hear my calls / bounce off walls, / echoing as darkness falls.” From there, Gold has gotten clever by presenting a story about a bat out trick-or-treating, weaving in lots of animals facts. For example, we learn bats are nocturnal, use echolocation, and they sure eat a lot of bugs—up to a thousand insects each night!

Coupled with the exceptional text is Nancy Leschnikoff’s outstanding art. I don’t know how many times I exclaimed, “It’s so cute!” while I read this book, but the expressive bat really is that adorable. Surrounding scenic art is just as great (love the raccoon!). The nightscape is rendered in appealing shades of blues and purples.

At only eight-by-eight inches, this 32-page picture book fits well in small hands. Between the engaging story, excellent art, and informative back matter, this book’s got it all.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Poultrygeist coverPOULTRYGEIST
Written by Eric Geron
Illustrated by Pete Oswald
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Kids will cluck out loud upon reading this chicken-centric ghost tale children’s book. In a nutshell (or should I say eggshell?), the story opens with an unsuspecting chicken getting run down by a massive truck and becoming a ghost. I mean, why was he crossing the road in the first place, right?

Soon, all the other local animals that have been hit by vehicles gather around the newly dead chicken to explain the ropes. The humor in this fast-paced read is that they want the newly deceased fowl to begin haunting, only this “spring chicken” has no desire to frighten others. In fact, at one point he turns to the reader and asks, “Pssst? Are you OK?” The sweet surprise is when the fryer asserts himself, accidentally scaring off the troublesome spirits.

The story comes hilariously full circle when the scene switches from the pleased poultrygeist to a squirrel crossing the same dangerous roadway. Pete Oswald’s expressive art in Poultrygeist adds another fun layer to this dark and delightful Halloween story that perhaps unintentionally and hilariously drives home the point to look both ways when crossing

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

How to Haunt a House coverHOW TO HAUNT A HOUSE
Written
by Carolyn Crimi
Illustrated by Edward Miller
(Albert Whitman; $16.99, Ages 4-8) 

Carolyn Crimi’s rhyming picture book, How to Haunt a House, features ghosts in a classroom being taught the teacher’s “special ghost technique” for haunting. Groana, Moana, and Shrieky are assigned three houses; all goes well until the last one which proves to be a challenge. The ghosts must figure out something new that will scare the ghouls who live there. It’s got to be tough when, instead of fleeing, “the small girl kissed those scrawny rats.”

Comical illustrations by Edward Miller enhance the text’s humor. His evocative characters are a kick; I especially like the skulking, glaring black cats. The book’s underlying message, “Do not give up! You’ll find a way!” is tackled lightheartedly yet still shows how, sometimes, you need to come at a problem from a new direction in order to solve it.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

If You Ever Meet a Skeleton coverIF YOU EVER MEET A SKELETON
Written by Rebecca Evans
Illustrated by Katrin Dreiling
(Page Street Kids; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

I never thought I would want to meet a skeleton until I met the adorable protagonist in If You Ever Meet A Skeleton written by Rebecca Evans, who was inspired to write this story after meeting a skeleton in a museum.

Sleeping underground with other skeletons and a few bugs, Skeleton climbs to the surface looking for a friend. He finds three kids dressed in costumes on Halloween night. Dreiling illustrates the skeleton with a piece of blond hair giving the reader a feel for what he looked like before his demise. Evans’ rhyming words take what could be a scary topic and turn it into a humorous read. “Skeletons might seem spooky—white bones without the skin, no eyes, no ears, no lips, just one big toothy grin.”

Children dressed as witches, pirates, and ninja warriors with round faces and toothy grins are not sure what to make of this unusual creature, but Evans takes the reader through a wonderful understanding of how a skeleton, thought different from themselves, can be friend material. “Skeletons have no guts, so they aren’t brave like you. They’re scared of nighttime shadows and owls that say ‘whoooo.’”

This is a great addition to the fall reading list for the school classroom. And how great it is to have a friend who will go “trick-or-treating with you then share their chocolate bar, just like best buddies do.”

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Boo Stew coverBOO STEW
Written by Donna L. Washington
Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
(Peachtree; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

A little girl named Curly Locks who loves to cook is the heroine of Boo Stew, a Goldilocks and the Three Bears fractured fairy tale. This Halloween story features food that won’t tempt your taste buds but just might be the right food to feed a scary soul or three.

It seems the Scares of Toadsuck Swamp might be hungry and while they’re invading homes to steal food, they’re causing chaos, especially at the mayor’s house. After they chase him out with an ominous “Gitchey Boo, Gitchey Bon! Gitchey Goo, Gitchey Gone!” the blacksmith, and the chicken rancher also try to vanquish the scary villains with no luck.

Curly Locks, fearless and clever, steps up and entices the Scares with her Boo Stew. With its moose ear broth, toenail clippings, and gnat juice, Boo Stew does the job. A deal is struck and the creatures head back to the swamp. The townsfolk get a Scare-free Toadsuck and Curly Locks … well she gets to prepare all sorts of concoctions for the appreciative Scares since no one else will eat her cooking anyway! Washington has taken the Goldilocks tale and spun a unique, engaging Halloween story. Ebbeler’s colorful, detailed, and dynamic illustrations set a tone that’s just right for this humorous picture book.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Ghouls' Guide to Good GrammarTHE GHOULS’ GUIDE TO GOOD GRAMMAR
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by Mary Sullivan
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

Learning proper grammar can be quite daunting for young kids, especially for those still learning over Zoom, but Leslie Kimmelman has created a fabulous storytime picture book that can be read during the Halloween season or any time of the year. The Ghouls’ Guide To Good Grammar is a hilarious take on how different a sentence can read if a comma is misplaced or other grammar isn’t correct. Sullivan’s illustration of a sweet young girl holding a bowl of cat food for Sylvester reads “Time to eat, Sylvester.” But when the giant ghoul with sharp teeth peeks around the corner with all eyes on the little grey and white cat he thinks “Time to eat Sylvester.” A very different and dastardly meaning when the comma is removed!

Turning the page, the reader learns that “contractions are two words shortened and combined with an apostrophe to make one word.” This sounds confusing until the reader visually sees Sullivan’s colorful drawing of six ghouls surrounded by bugs and spilled soda in “Ghouls’ really gross bedroom.” Kimmelman changes the location of the apostrophe to read “Ghoul’s really gross bedroom” and now we see it was one mischievous ghoul who made the mess all on his lonesome.

This treat of a story concludes with a Ghoul Grammar Quiz asking the reader which of the sentences shown has no mistakes. The Ghouls’ Guide to Good Grammar is an ideal teaching tool for a parent or a teacher to use to transform the often tough topic of punctuation into a frightfully fun learning experience.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

There's a Ghost in this House coverTHERE’S A GHOST IN THIS HOUSE
Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
(Philomel Books; $27.99, Ages 4-8)

I may not be the target age range for this creative book but I had a blast reading it. First of all, There’s a Ghost in this House is less a straightforward picture book―although Jeffers has illustrated it with a little girl, some adorable (and giggling in places) ghosts, and lots of striped clothing―and more a seek-and-find interactive story so children can be in control of how many ghosts they’d like to discover over the course of 80 pages.

Jeffers has taken found black and white photos of an imposing 18th-century mansion and then brought in bits of color with the addition of the young girl narrator/guide. Readers join her to tour the house as she looks for ghosts which are printed white on transparent vellum paper throughout the book and appear when the paper is placed against the b+w house interiors. That’s such a fantastic idea because I never knew what poses the ghosts would be in and where exactly they’d show up each time. 

Since the ghouls are not menacing in the least, children can enjoy this book without fear. Parents and caregivers can admire the cleverness of the presentation while also deciding how many ghosts to expose.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Brains! Not Just a Zombie Snack coverBRAINS! NOT JUST A ZOMBIE SNACK
Written by Stacy McAnulty
Illustrated by Matthew Rivera
(Henry Holt BYR; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

Matthew Rivera illustrates a green zombie girl with a red scar across her forehead seeking brains to eat in Brains! Not Just A Zombie Snack. Focusing on the fascinating science of the body, STEM picture book author Stacy McAnulty teaches the reader about the importance of the brain and how, without it, reading a picture book would be impossible. This educational read breaks down the five senses of touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste and how the brain receives messages from these senses. What better time than Halloween to explore this subject?!

Zombie Girl is desperate for some brain to eat and in her search for this delectable snack, the reader discovers “Neurons! They do the work, and you have about 86 billion of them.” Zombie holds up two cans of Neurons and Glial Cells with anxious eyes ready to eat. “When you learn something new, like how to add numbers, play the piano, tie up a zombie, you aren’t making more neurons—you’re making new and stronger pathways.”

My brain took in a whole lot of information that I was not aware of such as a 75-year-old human’s brain is 10 percent smaller than max size (so 2.7 pounds-ish) instead of 3 pounds in a grown-up human. The best advice the reader learns is that “if you want to run away from a zombie later. You’ll want your cerebellum.”

The helpful back matter includes Brain Facts such as A human brain is only about 2-3 percent of an adult’s body weight, but it uses almost 20 percent of the body’s energy. I also was surprised to learn that Albert Einstein’s brain was stolen by Dr. Thomas Harvey and cut into 240 blocks to be studied upon his death. This is something I would like to learn more about!

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Poison for Breakfast coverPOISON FOR BREAKFAST
by Lemony Snicket

Chapter Spot art by Margaux Kent
(Liveright; $17.95, All Ages)

Lemony Snicket’s Poison for Breakfast will certainly be a hit with his fans because the author’s style is quite unique, a word which here means “weird in undefinable ways.” Though marketed to older MG and YA readers, this book appeals to adults as well. This true story begins when Mr. Snicket (as he prefers to be addressed) finds a bewildering and frightening note under his door that reads, “You had poison for breakfast.”

We go along with Mr. Snicket as he reviews each item consumed for breakfast to uncover the culprit. He meanders to locations where the breakfast items originated. Though we eventually discover what’s behind this mystery, the pleasure is in the circuitous journey told in a way that only Lemony Snicket can, complete with endnotes elaborating topics touched upon.

I enjoy the distinctive structure, odd tidbits, and repetition. So, make yourself a poached egg as Mr. Snicket recommends, and settle in for a fun read. A list-maker myself, I find Mr. Snicket’s lists particularly amusing. And, as a writer, knowing the three rules of writing will undoubtedly help me better my craft. They are: (1) Include the element of surprise, (2) Leave something out, and, (3) Well, no one really knows the third rule.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Ghoul Next Door coverTHE GHOUL NEXT DOOR 
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by Cat Farris
(Harper Alley; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Get your ghoul on with The Ghoul Next Door, a terrific new middle-grade graphic novel featuring just enough ghouls, ghosts, and atmospheric underworld to make you read it in one sitting and then start all over again.

Welcome to Anders Landing, est. 1692, a place sought out by accused witches to avoid the witch hunts and trials of Salem taking place the same year. Things go downhill quickly for main character Grey who, after picking up an unlucky penny, takes a shortcut to school through the local cemetery. Grey doesn’t want to lug his bulky Salem Witch-themed school project the long way like his superstitious friend, Marshall. When Grey trips on an open grave and drops his project in it, he panics. Looking down he sees his cemetery project grasped by a monster-ish hand. Then, it’s gone.

That evening something enters his bedroom and begins leaving gifts, not the birthday present sort, but finger bones, a doll of his likeness, and assorted other items that freak him out. This creature clearly likes Grey and replaces the original cemetery model with an even better one. Grey may score points in class with the new project, but Marshall thinks it’s best to tell some adults about all the creepy goings-on. While he initially didn’t believe Grey, he’s now changed his mind after a trip to the cemetery where he gets a glimpse of the ghoul. Lavinia, as she’s called, saves Grey from an army of rats and a friendship begins. In foreshadowing the story’s conflict, she warns the two humans to keep mum about what they know or they risk the ire of those underground and put her in jeopardy.

Readers learn that the ghoulish creatures that live below the surface (Grey and Marshall are considered human surface dwellers), aside from enjoying eating the newly dead, greatly dislike and mistrust humans and fear discovery. As payback, they kidnap Marshall leading Grey and Lavinia on a dangerous mission underground to rescue him before he’s killed. What ensues is a page-turning adventure with the right mix of dialogue, fantastical and haunting art, and heart, although technically I don’t think a ghoul has one. The friendship of Lavinia and Grey challenges the ‘no contact with humans’ rule laid out by Lavinia’s community and feels satisfying and fresh (although using that word here feels kind of ghoulish). She risks everything for Grey while he also puts his life on the line to help both his old and new friends and ultimately himself. Read this in the daytime if you live anywhere near a cemetery.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

THE HALLOWEEN MOONThe Halloween Moon cover
Written by Joseph Fink
(Quill Tree Books; $16.99, Ages 10-13)

What if time stood still and it could be Halloween forever? The candy part is tempting, but if everyone you loved had fallen into a deep, otherworldly sleep, it might not be so sweet. That’s exactly what 13-year-old protagonist Esther Gold is dealing with in Joseph Fink’s imaginative novel, The Halloween Moon. Blending fantasy and magic in a contemporary Southern California setting, Fink opens the book with a prologue detailing a robbery of something seemingly quite small which proves to have huge significance in the story. 

Esther lives for Halloween but her best friend, Agustín, does not. So when Esther’s parents announce she has aged out of trick-or-treating, having become an adult at her bat mitzvah, she realizes she’ll have to circumvent this new rule. When that plan involves Agustín, he seems game. Did he agree a bit too easily? Did she like that he did? Those are just a few of the questions Esther faces on this very long Halloween night set under a huge orange Halloween moon. 

Odd goings-on occur as Esther and Agustín notice only a motley crew of trick-or-treaters with shadowy faces are out and about. Their clicky sounds are creepy too. Plus all the people usually into the holiday aren’t answering their doors. The pair soon discover that a sleeping spell has been cast over the community. An urgency hits when Esther realizes her little sister has gone missing. That’s also what brings Esther together with bully Sasha Min who has often lobbed anti-semitic and other hurtful insults her way. But since Sasha’s distraught over her kidnapped brother and unwakeable mother, she agrees to team up with the other two intrepid trick-or-treaters to find out what’s going on. Along the way, the teens take the rare awake adult, next-door neighbor, Mr. Gabler, onboard as they try to reverse the spell and bring the interminable Halloween nightmare safely to an end 

I enjoyed this book because, in addition to the mystery the teens hope to solve, readers get inside Esther’s head and learn that she’s been having difficulty accepting change in her life. Whether the change is about her giving up trick-or-treating, her changing feelings for Agustín, watching Grandma Debbie getting older and frailer, or about what might happen when she moves up into high school the following year, Fink ties Esther’s growth into the Halloween adventure in a satisfying way. The dynamic shared between Esther and Sasha as they try to resolve past conflicts is also one that should resonate with readers. Horror fans will note references to John Carpenter and the horror film genre in general.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

HAPPY HOWL-O-WEEN MAD LIBS  
by Mad Libs

(Mad Libs; $6.99, Ages 8-12)

Mad Libs are one of those things: we all know and enjoy them. As a parent, I wholeheartedly encourage playing Mad Libs whenever a boring moment strikes. Yes, they’re hilarious and spark the imagination, but also (secret parent trick) drill home the parts of speech: adverb versus adjective and so forth. And if you’re a little rusty, no fear. Following the instructions, there’s a “quick review” that easily explains that, for example, when an exclamation is called for, they mean something like “Wow!” “Ouch!” or “Ick!”

The Happy Howl-o-ween version takes all the best stuff about this holiday and mixes it up with the fill-in-the-blank fun of Mad Libs. There are 63 themed stories to create in three categories: Monster Mash, Trick or Treat (both by Tristan Roarke), and Day of the Dead (by Karl Jones).

Whether you’ve done these a million times or are just introducing them to a young child, pick up a copy for your car as a way to pass some time with laughs and learning.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

vampires hearts other dead things coverVAMPIRES, HEARTS, & OTHER DEAD THINGS
by Margie Fuston
(Margaret K. McElderry; $18.99, Ages 14 and up) 

Instead of celebrating her senior year, Victoria won’t give up on her terminally ill dad—even when her family is told there are no treatment options left to pursue. Her mom and sister seem better at letting go. Victoria, instead, turns to the passion of all-things-vampire that she shares with her father and decides it’s up to her to save him. Ten years ago, a vampire announced himself to the world, but, after some mishaps, the vampires went back into hiding. Victoria takes that trip to New Orleans she’d planned on doing with her dad and, while there, vows to find and get bitten by a vampire so she can save her father by turning him into one too.

The grief Victoria struggles with is realistically handled, as is the complex connection she has with Henry (her neighbor, former BFF, and maybe boyfriend). As in all good love stories, a bit of a love triangle comes into play, but the heart of the story involves Victoria’s relationships with her family and Henry. Messy emotions are laid bare in a hauntingly beautiful setting. I like how Victoria’s quest leads her through ever-increasing challenges that test her resolve to follow through with this plan.

A new, vital addition to the vampire lore. Not only does this story add its own flair, but it explores previous books and movies—a pleasing touch for vampire aficionados.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN READS 

 

BOO! BAA! LA LA LA!
Written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton
(Little Simon; $5.99, Age 0-5)

 

 

Vampenguin coverVAMPENGUIN
Written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

The Haunted Mustache coverTHE HAUNTED MUSTACHE: Book #1 Fright Nights
Written by Joe McGee
Illustrated by Teo Skaffa
(Aladdin; $6.99, Ages 7-10)

 

 

 

 

What Lives in the Woods coverWHAT LIVES IN THE WOODS
Written by Lindsay Currie
(Sourcebooks; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GHOSTLY TALES OF THE QUEEN MARY
by Shelli Timmons
(Arcadia Children’s Books; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

 

 

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Young Adult Fiction Review – Fade into the Bright

 

FADE INTO THE BRIGHT

Written by

Jessica Koosed Etting

+

Alyssa Embree Schwartz

(Delacorte Press; $17.99,  Ages 12 and up) 

 

 

 

 

“Would knowing how you were going to die change the way you choose to live?” That question drove coauthors Jessica Koosed Etting and Alyssa Embree Schwartz to write their YA, Fade into the Bright. From the opening pages, eighteen-year-old Abby’s voice pulled me in: “Obviously, it happened right before Christmas. Because don’t all extremely shitty things happen right around the holidays?” This refers to the news Abby and her older sister Brooke receive from their estranged father. In his brief letter, they discover he’s tested positive for Huntington’s disease. The girls have a 50/50 chance of also carrying the gene for this fatal degenerative brain disorder (described as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS all rolled into one). Typical onset happens between your thirties and fifties.

Both sisters decide to undergo the required six-month pre-testing genetic counseling. Older sister Brooke tests negative, but Abby’s not so lucky. Suddenly, her plans to attend college—and do pretty much anything else with her life—seem futile; Abby escapes to a remote part of Catalina Island to stay the summer with her aunt. (Though I live in Los Angeles and have visited Catalina, the book’s setting provided me with scenery I had not experienced: “rugged and rustic, completely removed.”)

The story unfolds, alternating between chapters in the present day and those flagged as “before.” I like the designation of “before” because it’s true, when something life-changing happens there is that moment before it happened, then everything else follows. Abby’s ups and downs feel real as she wonders what to do while she waits for symptoms to appear. A job at the beach keeps her busy enough to keep panic mostly at bay, but brings with it the complications of whether she should (or could) tell her new friends about all of this, and what to do when she starts falling for her charismatic and attractive coworker, Ben.

The heart of this story revolves around family and how this disease brings people together, pulls them apart, and how to live with everyone’s results. Sister dynamics can already be complex; add in Huntington’s and a layered, emotional story is born. As Abby says about this disease, “It tells you your ending, but leaves out the important parts, like the how and the when.” Still, the characters choose to move forward and, overall, the book feels inspirational.

Jessica Koosed Etting and Alyssa Embree Schwartz know a thing or two about relationships since they’re probably as close as sisters, having been BFFs for more than twenty years and cowriters for most of that period. Their seamless process works; Fade into the Bright is a beautifully written book about such a difficult topic. Huntington’s is near to Jessica because she has watched her family deal with similar situations to those depicted in the book. I’m thankful these writers brought awareness to this disease and the far-reaching impact of a diagnosis.

 

 

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Young Adult Book Review – The Mirror: Broken Wish

 

THE MIRROR: BROKEN WISH (The Mirror, 1)

Written by Julie C. Dao

(Disney-Hyperion; $18.99, Ages 14-18)

 

 

BROKEN WISH FINAL COVER

 

Before I even started reading, this four-book fairy-tale series intrigued me because the books will be written by four different authors, the story following one family (and the curse that plagues it) over several generations. Awesome, right? The first book in the Mirror series, Broken Wish by Julie C. Dao, delivers. Let me tell you a bit about sixteen-year-old Elva and her powers.

Set in 1865 Hanau, Germany, Elva has been taught to hide her magical abilities so her family is not cast out. That works—for a while. However, once Elva and her adorable brother, Cay, stumble upon their mother’s secrets, Elva seeks the Witch of the North Woods. She hopes to find answers, yet is scared the witch is the villain she’s proclaimed to be on the warning signs Elva’s village has nailed to trees.

I like how the book opens in a series of notes between Elva’s mother and the witch, introducing the complexities of characters; no one is all good or all bad. Elva’s mom’s prior connection with the Witch of the North Woods puts Elva and her family on a cursed path. Elva believes her community should be given a chance to understand the truth, but differences are feared and removed rather than accepted. This clever, multilayered storyline satisfied, yet left me wanting to follow the family to see what more will unfold from a simple, lonely wish shattered in the name of love.

The next three books will be written by Dhonielle Clayton, Jennifer Cervantes, and L. L. McKinney—all amazing female authors whose stories I’ve enjoyed over the years. I’m in for books two, three, and four

 

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Young Adult Fiction – Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

WATCH OVER ME

By Nina LaCour

(Dutton BYR; $17.99, Ages 12 and up) 

 

Watch Over Me cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal

Sometimes I just want to read something different. I was in that kind of mood when coming across Nina LaCour’s YA, Watch Over Me. The striking cover caught my attention: a photo of a girl with downcast eyes and floating hair. When I opened the book, the image had altered slightly, showing her eyes and evoking an unsettling feeling. I couldn’t wait to get reading!

The story begins with Mila leaving her kind (but, having-their-own-baby-now) foster home. She’s found a job on an unconventional farm in Northern California. The couple running it has, over the years, adopted dozens of kids and taken in teens, like Mila, who aged-out of the system, assigning them as teachers for the little ones. Mila’s first student, Lee, is also a troubled outcast. Mila wants to reach him, but struggles to understand her new environment which is both welcoming and excluding.

Along with this self-chosen family comes a land filled with ghosts who dance and play in the distance when Mila returns to her cabin at night. The foggy, rocky coast’s strong atmospheric presence wraps around Mila’s pain. Flashback chapters give glimpses of her life before foster care as the loneliness, trauma, and guilt of Mila’s past escalate into inevitable confrontation.

LaCour’s spare, beautifully written, first-person chapters infuse flashbacks, allowing the reader’s immersion to slowly build in this moving, cerebral story. The dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, revealed in fragments, is emotionally jarring. Yet, Mila’s resilience provides promise for redemption. Conventional lines of reality bend, perfectly suiting the blurred mindset of the plot.

 

 

Click here to read another YA review by Christine.

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Five Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month 2021

 

FIVE CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH

∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

BlackHistoryMonthgraphic clipart

This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.

 

 

TheABCsofBlackHistory cvrTHE ABCs OF BLACK HISTORY
Written by Rio Cortez
Illustrated by Lauren Semmer
(Workman Publishing; $14.95, Ages 5 and up)

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Starred Review – Kirkus

The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.

Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlemthose big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding  to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.

The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable!
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

WE WAIT FOR THE SUN
Written by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe

Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa  
(Roaring Brook Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly

Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best. 

In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.

Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.” 

Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its  “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings. 

And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.

Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library.  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Opening the Road coverOPENING THE ROAD:
Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book
Written by Keila V. Dawson
Illustrated by Alleanna Harris
(Beaming Books; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.

Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.

In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.

Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.

Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.

Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click here for an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

black cowboys cover origBLACK HEROES OF THE WILD WEST
Written and illustrated by James Otis Smith
with an introduction by Kadir Nelson
(Toon Books; HC $16.95, PB $9.99, Ages 8+)

Junior Library Guild Selection
Starred Review – Booklist

Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild West points out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.

All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.

I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.

Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.

Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Gilded Ones coverTHE GILDED ONES
by Namina Forna
(Delacorte Press; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Booklist
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.

When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.

Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.

Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

 

Click here to read another Black History Month review.
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Additional Recommendations:

Ruby Bridges This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges (Delacorte Press)
The Teachers March! by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace w/art by Charly Palmer (Calkins Creek)
Stompin’ at the Savoy by Moira Rose Donohue w/art by Laura Freeman (Sleeping Bear Press)
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome w/art by James Ransome (Holiday House)
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford w/art by Frank Morrison (Atheneum BYR)
Finding a Way Home by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek)
Changing the Equation: 50+ Black Women in STEM by Tonya Bolden (Abrams BYR)

 

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