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Young Adult Novel Review – Something Close to Magic

 

SOMETHING CLOSE TO MAGIC

Written by Emma Mills

(Atheneum BYR; $19.99, Ages 12+ )

 

Something Close to Magic cover

 

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

 

If you enjoy food and fantasy, Emma Mills’s Something Close to Magic will satisfy those cravings. In seventeen-year-old Aurelie’s world, people avoid magic because there are supposedly too many bad consequences: eating food prepared magically is said to later increase your hunger twofold. Once Aurelie seemed to have abilities and studied the supernatural at school. Now she’s alone in the world, serving unending days in an unpaid apprenticeship. Magic is far from her mind until a dashing stranger named Iliana walks into Basil’s Bakery and stirs things up. Iliana is a Finder (bounty hunter) and needs Aurelie’s abilities as a Seeker to help locate the people she’s tracking.

The teens soon set off on an adventure along with Quad (a troll who often steals the show with her clever lines delivered in a deadpan manner) and Prince Hapless (who seems to live up to his surname—assigned to royalty according to their personality traits). All four main characters are delightful in their unique ways. The story’s twists take the reader to interesting places as we peel back layers of deception. I appreciated how the budding romance with Prince Hapless plays out. Quad may be my all-time favorite troll!

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Young Adult Book Review – Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay

 

YOUR PLANTATION PROM IS NOT OKAY

Written by Kelly McWilliams

(Little, Brown BYR; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

 

Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay cover

Starred ReviewBulletin of the Center for Children’s Books  

 

High school senior Harriet Douglass has grown up on the Westwood Plantation in Louisiana.  Her parents spent years converting the former plantation into a museum that tells the stories of generations of enslaved people who lived and suffered there. Although Harriet’s mother succumbed to cancer, Harriet and her father continue to maintain the plantation and provide educational programs to help visitors gain insight into America’s painful history with slavery and race.

Nearby Belle Grove Plantation has just been purchased by soap opera actress Claudia Hartwell and her social media influencer daughter, Layla. Claudia’s plans are to turn Belle Grove into a romantic venue for weddings and other events, completely disregarding the horrific history behind the plantations. Harriet is angry and disgusted by the attempt to romanticize history at the expense of those who toiled and suffered on them.

Layla and Harriet first meet at school when Layla defends Harriet from a white teacher’s microaggressions. Harriet is surprised by Layla’s awareness of the subtle discrimination and cautiously begins a tentative friendship. When Layla comes up with a plan to publicly pressure Claudia into canceling a celebrity wedding at Belle Grove, Harriet agrees to assist. The plan, using social media, is successful in shaming Claudia, but fails to stop the wedding. And lands both girls in trouble. Later, when the school decides to hold its prom at Belle Grove, Harriet feels betrayed when Layla, desperate for her mother’s attention, refuses to help. Harriet turns to her old friend, now boyfriend, Dawn, who uses his film and social media skills to help Harriet strip away plantation romanticism and tell the real story of what happened in the lives of the enslaved.

Harriet, tough but vulnerable, struggles with grief and mental health issues stemming from her traumatic final meeting with her mother. Her PTSD includes rage and subsequent blackouts. Fearful she could hurt someone, she has turned away from many of her friends. Through counseling, Harriet learns to control her rage and begins to realize that her old friends can be valuable allies in her campaign to end romanticizing plantation life through the stories of the enslaved.

In Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay, Kelly McWilliams has written a powerful and wide-ranging book that not only explores the complex issues stemming from systemic racism but sympathetically and realistically treats grief and mental health.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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Young Adult Book Review – The Island

 

THE ISLAND

by Natasha Preston

(Delacorte Press; Paperback Original $12.99, Ages 12+)

The Island cover dark skies above rollercoaster on island

 

 

The Island is the latest YA thriller from New York Times’ best-selling author, Natasha Preston. Six teen influencers are invited to spend an exclusive weekend at a not-yet-opened amusement park island resort. The main character is seventeen-year-old Paisley who posts about crime; her knowledge of that topic may be helpful when, one by one, the eleven people on this remote island begin to disappear. Then a storm and power outage hit. The influencers are trapped there along with the island’s staff, the strange billionaire owner, and a killer. Spur-of-the-moment friendships and alliances form as the kids are chased through ghoulish amusement park rides. With links to the outside world broken, it’s all about surviving the weekend retreat when surely someone’s parents will realize these usually online kids aren’t just out of touch but in dire trouble.

This fast-paced read will keep you guessing who’s committing the gruesome murders. Being trapped on Jagged Island feels like the ultimate escape room—without any place to escape to! The Island was hard to put down because I kept trying to figure out the killer’s identity and motive, especially as fewer and fewer people were left. The conclusion surprised me.

 

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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2023 – Some Kind of Hate

 

 

STBA 2023 blog tour logo

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD HONOREE

SARAH DARER LITTMAN

 

 

 

SCHOLASTIC DESCRIPTION:

Declan Taylor is furious at the world. After winning state as a freshman starting pitcher, he accidentally messes up his throwing arm. Despite painful surgery and brutal physical therapy, he might never pitch again. And instead of spending the summer with his friends, Declan is forced to get a job to help his family out. On top of that, it seems like his best friend, Jake Lehrer, is flirting with Declan’s crush and always ditching him to hang out with the team or his friends from synagogue.

So Declan ends up playing a lot of Imperialist Empires online and making new friends. It’s there he realizes he’s been playing with Finn, a kid from his class. Finn is the first person who might be just as angry as Declan. As the two spend more time together, Finn also introduces Declan to others who understand what it’s like when the world is working against you, no matter how much you try. How white kids like them are being denied opportunities because others are manipulating the system. And the more time Declan spends with Finn, the more he sees what they’re saying as true. So when his new friends decide it’s time to fight back, Declan is right there with them. Even if it means going after Jake and his family. And each new battle for the cause makes Declan feel in control of his rage, channeling it into saving his future. But when things turn deadly, Declan is going to have to decide just how far he’ll go and what he’s willing to sacrifice.

In a stunning story set against the rise of white nationalism comes an unflinching exploration of the destruction of hate, the power of fear, and the hope of redemption.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome to the blog, Sarah. I’m thrilled to discuss your STBA 2023 honor book Some Kind of Hate. How does it feel to be recognized twice now by the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee? Has that changed your life in any way? 

Sarah Darer Littman: It’s three times! My first book, Confessions of a Closet Catholic won the Older Readers award in 2006, and my third book, Life, After, was also a Sydney Taylor Honor Book in 2011.

It means the world to me to have my books honored in this way.

I’ve noticed a difference winning the honor this year vs. earlier in my career because it was announced as part of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I think it’s raised the profile of the awards within the wider children’s literature community and that’s a good thing.

And now for a funny story – winning the Sydney Taylor Award in 2006 had a hand in my meeting my husband, Hank, to whom Some Kind of Hate is dedicated.

We are both fans of the singer/songwriter Jill Sobule and were on her fan listserv, Happytown, which was a fun community of interesting people. When Confessions won the award in 2006, I wrote an off-topic post telling my fellow Happytowners about it. Hank saw the post and thought “Littman … she sounds like a nice Jewish girl.” He googled me and found my website and my blogs and thought I was cute and funny – but he couldn’t tell if I was single or divorced. He thought about emailing me, but worried that I might think he was a creeper. Like most female writers, I’ve had weird emails and dm’s from a lot of randos over the course of my career.

I was going through a very difficult divorce at the time, and wouldn’t have been in the headspace to meet him then, so it was a good thing he held off.

Fast forward to September of that year – I finally had a trial date for my divorce and I logged onto the Jewish dating website, JDate, to “window shop.” I had no intention of starting to actively date yet, but wanted to get an idea of what kind of fish were out there when I was ready to dip my toes back into the dating sea.

Hank wouldn’t have come up in any of my searches because he was a little younger than me and didn’t have kids. I figured anyone who was in that situation would probably want kids, and I was happy with my son and daughter.

But in his profile, Hank had posted about how someone on JDate had said to him “You live in Boston so you must be a liberal, and like Ann Coulter I hate all liberals,” marveling that anyone would write that to another person on a dating app.

After Ann Coulter’s unforgivable comments about the 9/11 widows, (she went on the following year to talk about how us Jews need to be ‘perfected’) I felt compelled to respond, so I wrote him a private message saying that he’d dodged a bullet. I didn’t sign it, and didn’t expect to hear back from him.

The following day, I received a long email, beginning with: “Dear Sarah, I bet you’re wondering how I know your name …” and proceeded to tell me about how he’d been interested in me nine months earlier!

Our first date was a Jill Sobule concert at Joe’s Pub in NYC in October 2006, and we celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 2016 by getting married.

So thank you, 2006 ST Committee, JDate, and Jill Sobule. I guess I should also thank Ann Coulter for being so hateful that I felt compelled to respond to Hank’s profile.  Love really does win!

GRWR: The release of Some Kind of Hate is significant in that, as you mention in your Author’s Note, antisemitism has been on the rise in both the U.S. and worldwide. Was it that increase that planted the seed for this novel, a particular incident, or was this story something you had already been thinking about as the intolerance, scapegoating, and violence in our society toward minorities or the “other” have grown this past decade?

SDL: Yes, it certainly was part of the inspiration, and a reason why I felt compelled to write this novel when I did.

Many of my YA novels focus on the intersection of teens and technology – an area that fascinates me because being “a woman of a certain age” I grew up without it. I often wonder if I would have survived to adulthood if I’d grown up in the social media age. It’s not that I’m a Luddite – I just view technology as a TOOL, one of many we have as humans to work with to find solutions to the real problems that we face in our society and around the world.

Unfortunately, we’ve been fed the Silicon Valley myth that technology is THE SOLUTION, rather than a tool, and these companies have been making insane amounts of money with no accountability for the damage they do, or their unethical behavior Think Facebook’s experimentation with manipulating emotions through the timeline, and how that led to Cambridge Analytica’s use of it to influence the 2016 election.

I use the analogy of a hammer. A hammer can be used to build, but it can also be used to break and destroy. It’s important that we view technology within that framework, rather than buying the Silicon Valley narrative that it is the solution to every problem.

 

GRWR: Thank you for putting the note in the beginning of Some Kind of Hate about how hard it was to research and write such a disturbing topic, and how some readers might feel discomfort reading it. I felt compelled to read on because I wanted to understand the mindset of hate that Declan, Finn, Charlie, and Ronan felt. Becoming immersed in the world of Stafford’s Corner where the protagonists live, I identified with the Jewish characters who on any given day could be crossing paths with the extremists in your story and have absolutely no idea of the potential threat they posed. Yet at the same time, I appreciated the eye-opening insights into the roots of antisemitism that the book offered. I hope the education coupled with the positive example conveyed through Jake and Arielle, and Kayleigh to speak up, since silence is complicity, will resonate with young readers. What has been the response of your teen audience?

SDL: It’s been enlightening for many non-Jewish readers who have been blissfully unaware of the fact the kind of microaggressions their Jewish friends face, or how we have to hire armed guards and spend a fortune hardening our places of worship, just to be able to pray safely.

But it’s also helped readers understand why young people are drawn to extremism, and hopefully to recognize some of the dog whistles that we hear all around us – including from some members of Congress.

One of the most important things I learned from research and from interviewing former extremists is that most young people aren’t drawn to these groups by the ideology – at least initially. It’s because they have a lack in their lives, and they’re seeking community, identity, and purpose.

That’s made me think about ways that we can help young people find those things based around seeking love and understanding of our common humanity, rather than hatred and fear of the other.

 

GRWR: Since this novel delves deep into the scary world of white-supremacist militias and radicalization from online gaming that causes the rift between Declan and his best friend Jake who is Jewish, how did you remain grounded as you researched it and met many former extremists who shared their experiences with you?

SDL: The truth is I didn’t. I struggled to maintain my mental health while working on this book, particularly when lurking in some of the NeoNazi and Christian Nationalist chatrooms on Telegram. I found I could only do that for short periods because it was like being sprayed with toxic firehose of hate.

Having a supportive husband and good friends, who reminded me to step away when it got to be too much, was critical to surviving the process.

 

GRWR: I cried several times over the course of the book, sometimes as I read Declan’s chapters. I initially thought I would not want to read Declan’s perspective as he descended into the dark world of conspiracy theories and antisemitism. But it was his voice, his despair and his skewed perceptions, that kept me gripped. I needed to see if he could escape the world of hate he’d entered. Is his voice an amalgamation of all those men and boys you interviewed for the novel? Was it a challenge to create and write a character like Declan’s?

SDL: I’m not sure I’d call him an amalgamation, but I certainly drew on what I learned in the interviews and readings I did to create him. What was important was trying to figure what it was specifically that precipitated his vulnerability to these ideas. An impulsive decision with lasting consequences, one that put the future he’d imagined for himself in jeopardy was the key to breaking open his motivations. By layering that on top of the Gilded Age levels of economic inequality we see in our country today, combined with the way social media algorithms work, Declan’s journey becomes understandable, even if the ideas he comes to believe are horrifying.

GRWR: I have always loved novels written with dual POVs. Can you explain the pros and cons of writing a novel this way and why ultimately you chose Declan Taylor and Jake Lehrer to tell this story?

SDL: A big part of why I’m a writer is because I’m fascinated by what makes people believe, act, and behave the way they do.

First person seems to be my natural voice, but it’s limiting because what the reader knows is framed by that character’s perceptions and biases.

By writing in first person but with multiple POVs, the reader experiences the world along with each character. It allows us to see how each character’s actions are interpreted and misinterpreted by the other characters in the story, and how the same incident can look completely different when viewed through another character’s emotional lens.

A big part of the difficulty I had writing this book was figuring out who should tell the story. When I sold the book on proposal in summer 2020, it was from dual POVs, with a boy and a girl character as the main characters.

I was teaching full-time as a special appointment at WCSU that year, so by the end of the year, I’d only written 20K words, which for me is about a third of the first draft. But I’d continued researching in between teaching and grading and moving house and pandemic anxiety and trying to find the time to write. The additional research made me realize that misogyny is a big vector of radicalization for many young men. So, in January 2021, I asked my editor if I could switch it to two male POVs because I felt that was the best way to tell the story. She thought we should try to keep a female POV, so I rewrote it from three POVs – Declan, Jake, and Kayleigh. But when that was finished, it was clear that Kayleigh’s POV wasn’t adding enough on its own, and we could achieve what we needed to through her conversations with the two other characters. At that point, I went back and rewrote it from Declan and Jake’s point of view, and it worked much better.

It was also important to me that we had two male points of view because there is so much conflicting and frankly disturbing information being put forward for young men about what it means to “be a man.” If you’ve never heard of Andrew Tate, for example, prepare to be horrified by how a toxic combination of misogynistic content and algorithms is influencing young boys, and the effect teachers are seeing in school.

For research, I watched a bunch of videos by self-styled “alpha males,” which had some decent advice about personal hygiene, and how to dress well, but fell apart when they started talking about women. I watched so many bearded, muscled men telling young men and boys “what women want,” which bore absolutely ZERO resemblance to anything that most women want. You know, like to be treated like fully actualized human beings, to be listened to and respected, to be paid equally for doing the same job, to have control over medical decisions involving our bodies, to be recognized for the invisible labor that seems to fall on our plates even when both partners are working. What we want shouldn’t be all that difficult to understand.

So many aspects of our society prevent young men from understanding this, including the unfortunate tendency in our society to label books as “boy books” and “girl books” and believing that it’s okay for girls to read “boy books” but that it’s not okay for boys to read “girl books.”

I was at a school visit in the Midwest years ago, and in between the first and second presentations the media specialist said that she was glad she’d had me speak to the mixed audience because originally, she’d planned to have me only speak to the girls because I write “girl books.”

After taking a deep breath, I explained that I don’t write “girl books” – I write “thinking human being” books. I asked her what message it sends to boys – and to girls – when girls are required to listen to male authors, but boys are exempt from listening to female authors. We’re giving kids a message that female voices are less important, that male voices are the ones that matter. I explained that if we’re doing that in elementary and middle school, what’s going to happen as young people grow up and move into the workplace?

Ask any woman who has been talked over in a meeting …

 

GRWR: Something said by Jake’s mom, the local synagogue president, particularly resonated with me after Jake described Declan’s new online gaming friends’ antisemitic and Islamophobic remarks. “It never stops with just hating us. Scratch an antisemite and you’ll find a whole bunch of other hatreds, too. Basically, people choose to hate the idea of us as a substitute for facing their fears of change in society and the world.” You’ve mentioned in interviews and in the book how it’s often not the ideology of these right-wing hate groups that lures recruits in, but rather the sense of “community, identity, and purpose.” Can you please speak to that issue since it seems to be at the heart of more than antisemitism? And how does anyone targeted by this misguided hate find a way to forgiveness?

SDL: I wanted to make sure that we don’t put the burden on those who were targeted to be the vehicle of redemption for the people who targeted them.

But I also know from life experience that holding on to anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Don’t get me wrong – righteous anger when there is injustice can be energizing, and an important catalyst for change. But it’s also exhausting and ultimately corrosive.

I wanted to include Jewish teachings about the stages of forgiveness because they recognize that like grief, anger is something we overcome bit by bit – and that moving between the different stages might take work on our part, even when we were the wronged party.

Change is unsettling. Change is frightening. And when we perceive that it’s impacting us in a negative way, it’s much easier to blame someone else than to take a good hard look in the mirror and figure out how to adapt.

Bad actors take advantage of this. They seek to weaponize fear of the other to consolidate power. It’s important for people to learn how to recognize how divisive rhetoric and propaganda work. When we see something on social media that raises a strong emotion, we must pause and think who benefits from that provoking that emotion and fact-check before sharing it.

 

GRWR: Declan’s parents and his twin sister Kayleigh are unable to wrest Declan from the militia’s cult-like clutches and watch him spiral downward. I thought it was important that you included the people who toward the book’s end listened to and helped Declan own up to his culpability. They provided readers with hope. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still used to foment hate and antisemitic conspiracy theories such as those claimed by Holocaust deniers. Jake’s father explained that The Protocols have been proved to be fake, more than once, by historians and in different courts of law. How do we guide individuals we know who are easily swayed by such propaganda to consider more reliable sources?

SDL: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. A good start would be to train media specialists in every school and to ensure information literacy skills are incorporated across all subject areas.  Part of the reason I included the debate scene in Mr. Morrison’s class was that when you’ve convinced yourself that the media is controlled by nefarious sources, it’s easy to discount information that contradicts the narrative.

It takes patience and persistence to overcome such beliefs. An adult non-fiction book I recommend reading is Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. It’s about how attending New College of Florida and experiencing kindness and pushback against his ideas helped bring R. Derek Black, the son of Stormfront founder Don Black, out of white nationalism. Reading it also puts Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s placement of extremists like Christopher Rufo on the Board of Trustees there in a deeper context.

I also highly recommend that people sign up for Rumorguard from the News Literacy Project. They send out up-to-the-minute alerts about misinformation that is circulating on social media. They also have a great educational project called Checkology.

 

GRWR: Part of the reason Some Kind of Hate is so engrossing is how believable secondary characters are as well as the setting (it takes an hour bike ride to see the whole place). People have jobs, go to school, play sports (baseball and soccer being the two prominent ones), and even hang out at the local café. I’ve probably spent time in a place like Stafford Corners where the supermarket cashier resents summer visitors and the local economy is closely tied to a big corporation or manufacturer. Did you spend time traveling and people-watching to absorb the atmosphere of the kinds of towns where such “other” anger and hostility are born?

SDL: As an author, I’m always people watching – and listening. I also drove through rural areas of the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states while I was researching and writing and revising this book, and saw places where beautiful old houses are crumbling into disrepair, where barns are collapsing, where the shopfronts on main streets are mostly empty or boarded up, and where abandoned factories stand like the ghosts of our industrial past. Places where the opioid epidemic hit hard, and where the sense of decay and despair hang heavy in the air. When you spend time in those areas, it’s not hard to understand why people are looking for answers, for something or someone to blame.

 

GRWR: Are you working on a new novel, one that allows you to take a break from the heavy subjects explored in Some Kind of Hate?

SDL: Waiting to hear on a proposal for a twisty novel that I’m co-writing with a friend. It isn’t exactly light, but not as personally painful as Some Kind of Hate. I’m exploring other genres and am hoping to get back to writing funny to balance out the dark subjects!

 

GRWR: Thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful, eye-opening answers. I hope our readers will visit Turning the Page Books: https://www.turningthepagebooks.com/book/9781338746815 to purchase Some Kind of Hate and then come back and reread this interview again.

 

  • Click here for the Sydney Taylor Book Award official page.

  • The STBA blog tour 2023 schedule can be found here.

  • Watch Sarah discuss her novel on YouTube here.

  • Buy Some Kind of Hate here.

AUTHOR BIO:

Sarah Darer Littman Photo Credit Cate Barry Photographs
Author Sarah Darer Littman Photo Credit Cate Barry Photography

Website: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahdarerlitt/

Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of 19 middle grade and young adult novels, including Some Kind of Hate (2023 Sydney Taylor Honor) Backlash (Winner of the Iowa Teen Book Award and the Grand Canyon Reader Award) and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. As well as writing novels, Sarah teaches in the MFA program at Western CT State University, and at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. She is also an award-winning columnist.
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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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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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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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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 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 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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Young Adult Novel – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

 

THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES:

A Hunger Games Novel

Written by Suzanne Collins

(Scholastic; $27.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

TheBalladofSongbirdsandSnakes cvr

 

 

Coriolanus Snow: Anyone who has read or seen The Hunger Games knows this man. Yet, who was he before becoming the evil overload of Panem? In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we meet Snow at age eighteen. His cousin, Tigris—yes, that Tigris—and his Grandma’am are all he’s got. They haven’t had enough food in ages and aren’t far from losing their once-luxurious housing. Facing an uncertain future upon graduation, Snow must achieve personal recognition at school, in hopes of being awarded funds toward University tuition.

It’s reaping day again and this year the kids from Snow’s class are assigned tributes to mentor as their final project. His District 12 girl is quite a letdown at first. Yet, once she’s in the spotlight, Lucy Gray proves to be a charmer and that may get her through for a while. Snow, at first, sees Gray’s performance in the Games merely as an assignment to score highly on but, soon, a complex relationship builds.

Suzanne Collins reveals the surprising origin of the Games. The book, as expected, is fast-paced with many plot twists. Snow and his classmates who are also assigned tributes are drilled by Dr. Gaul, the wonderfully creepy Head Gamemaker (who may just lock you in a cage in her lab for fun). She prods kids with questions such as what the Capitol’s strategy should be now that the war is over but may never truly never be won. When questioned whether there is a point to the neon colors of her snakes, she answers, “There is a point to everything or nothing at all, depending on your worldview.” These moments with Gaul reveal the book’s deeper messages about power, whether wielded with a weapon or a rose.

I’m a fan of the trilogy and very much enjoyed this glimpse into what happened decades before the girl on fire burst onto the scene and the screen. I would be happy to continue along with Snow, filling the gap, until the day he sees Katniss Everdeen become District 12’s first volunteer for the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The folk tune, “The Hanging Tree,” reaches across the years, uniting the stories.

 

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New Halloween Books for Kids 2020

NEW HALLOWEEN READS

A ROUNDUP

 

pumpkin freeclipart

 

 

This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.

 

The Little Kitten coverTHE LITTLE KITTEN
Written and illustrated by Nicola Killen

(Paula Wiseman Books; $16.99, Ages 3-6)

Starred Review – Kirkus

With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kitten embodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline

beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!

She Wanted to be Haunted cvrSHE WANTED TO BE HAUNTED
Written by Marcus Ewert
Illustrated by Susie Ghahremani

(Bloomsbury; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”

What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.

Scritch Scratch coverSCRITCH SCRATCH
Written by Lindsay Currie
(Sourcebooks; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.

I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.

Embassy of the Dead cvrEMBASSY OF THE DEAD
Written by Will Mabbitt

Illustrated by Taryn Knight
(Walker Books US; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.

Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’s new ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.

Ghostology coverGHOSTOLOGY: A True Revelation of Spirits, Ghouls, and Hauntings
Written by Dugald A. Steer; Lucinda Curtle
Illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert; Garry Walton; Doug Sirois
(Candlewick Press; $27.99, Ages 10+)

Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.

Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!

beetleandthehollowbone cvrBEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES
Written and illustrated by Aliza Layne
Coloring by Natalie Riess and Kristen Acampora
(Atheneum BYR; $21.99, Ages 8-12)

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

In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.

With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.

vampiresnevergetold cvrVAMPIRES NEVER GET OLD: Tales With Fresh Bite
Editrixes: Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker
Other authors include Tessa Gratton, Rebecca Roanhorse, Julie Murphy, Heidi Heilig, Samira Ahmed, Kayla Whaley, Laura Ruby, Mark Oshiro, Dhonielle Clayton, and Victoria “V.E.” Schwab
(Imprint/Macmillan; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.

“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.

“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.

Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.

This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!

 

  •  ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA
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    IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTERIts Halloween Little Monster cvr

    Written by Helen Ketteman
    Illustrated by Bonnie Leick
    (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7)
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    When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.

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    In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost / it’s a kid in a sheet!”
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    Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them.
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  •  OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS:
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    CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East
    (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR)
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    THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCK by Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers
    (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions)
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    THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUIN by Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown
    (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
  • Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
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    Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20

 

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Young Adult Fantasy Novel – Deeplight

DEEPLIGHT

Written by Frances Hardinge

(Amulet Books; $19.99, Ages 12+)

 

Deeplight cover

 

Starred Reviews – Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

 

The young adult novel Deeplight grabbed me when I read it described as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Frankenstein. Frances Hardinge does not disappoint. Fifteen-year-old Hark lives in the island chain of Myriad on Lady’s Crave where the Hidden Lady was once their god, before the gods inexplicably killed each other off. Hark and his friend Jelt—both unwanted children their destinies seemingly “cojoined against their wills”—get by together on the rough streets. Jelt leads Hark to increasingly perilous transgressions until Hark is caught and given a three-year sentence of servitude. The woman who buys him at auction brings him to the island of Sanctuary where he’s assigned various chores but is also asked to spy on the aging priests, seeking their secrets about the gods. Hark finally has the chance to think about who he is and what he wants out of life. However, he’s once again a pawn but this time the stakes include everything.

Frances Hardinge’s beautifully written story will sweep you away in this coming-of-age fantasy adventure to remember. It was refreshing to read a book that felt new in many ways, illuminating light into areas of what could have seemed like familiar tales. Instead, Hardinge kept me guessing with the story’s twists. While the thrills were fun, I appreciated the undercurrent, reminding us that we all carry stories and that when someone dies, a world of knowledge dies along with them. To understand and remember the past, we must recall and retell it and we must listen to the stories that lie inside of others.

  •  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 order a copy of Deeplight or visit your local indie bookstore.
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Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!

Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/5/20

 

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