This middle-grade book interested me because there are two authors and I find cowriting interesting—but, wait!, one of the co-authors is a pen name for two people writing together making Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Founda collaboration of three writers! (To read more about that, check out their interview on SCBWI’s Kite Tales blog in a link below.) Yet, the story reads seamlessly—what a feat!
Twelve-year-old Kingston hasn’t been back to Echo City, Brooklyn, since his father, one of the world’s greatest magicians, disappeared while performing onstage four years ago. A lot has changed in his old neighborhood, yet Kingston reconnects with his cousin Veronica and childhood friend now known as Too Tall Eddie. Kingston’s mother steers clear magic, yet, his uncles don’t seem to have given it up. What happened to Kingston’s father and whether or not magic truly exists fuels the three kids who follow a series of clues, intent on discovering the truth.
This layered plot cleverly weaves in real nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black magicians to make the story feel believable, an aspect I really enjoyed. I’m also a fan of alternative reality books when they’re done well as in this story. Add in humor, friendship, family, and a fast-paced mystery and you’ll see why this book’s hard to put down. Sign me up for the sequel and conclusion, due out this fall.
This middle-grade novel stands alone—in an amazing house that cares for three seemingly trapped sisters, Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine. Years ago, their parents left the girls this note, “Wait for us. Sleep darkly.” Outside, the house is surrounded by silver grass seeking opportunities to slither in—and it talks!
How have the stranded sisters gotten by? We learn in the opening line, “The house dressed Mayhap Ballastian in blue on the day her sister disappeared.” What a great way to start the story! I don’t want to reveal all the crazy-wonderful things, but have to share my favorite: the droomhunds, loyal doglike creatures. Since the sisters are unable to sleep (I can’t tell you why), each hund “could press itself into the tight space of a person’s mind.” Brushing them first helps because “the softer the droomhunds’ fur was, the more restful the girls’ sleep would be.” Cool stuff, right?
When fourteen-year-old Winnow, the eldest sister, leaves the house, problems arise. Upon her return, Mayhap (twelve-year-old middle sister and main character) questions the rift between them. However, Winnow falls into a troubled sleep, her eyes turning silver, her droomhund missing. Plot twists ensue.
Chewins’s writing is too lovely to rush reading through. This imaginative literary fantasy seeped in strangeness is also very much a siblings story. The relationship between the girls feels truthful and honest, even when set in such an unusual world.
My childhood friend’s mother was from the south and used to attend family reunions when we were kids. Going Down Home With Daddyis exactly how I imagined them to be. Lyons’s story, “inspired by her husband’s heritage and her own” beautifully captures the annual family gathering incorporating every sense in the reading experience. I could see, touch, smell, taste and hear everything through Lyons’s perfect prose from the car ride when Lil Alan’s too excited to sleep to his first glimpse of Granny, “scattering corn for her chickens like tiny bits of gold.” I could smell her peppermint kisses, hear the laughter as more and more relatives arrived, feel the breeze during the tractor ride, taste the hot, homemade mac and cheese and see the cotton field “dotted with puffs of white.”
The story unfolds as the narrator, Lil Alan, realizes he’s forgotten something to share for the anniversary celebration and cannot enjoy himself until he figures out what contribution he can make. When he does, it’s the most heartfelt moment although there are many others in this thoughtful, moving picture book. Minter’s warm illustrations in earthy tones heighten every experience and seem to recall the family’s African roots and connection to the land. I found myself rereading the picture book several times to soak up more of Lyons’s rich language and Minter’s evocative art.
Set in an India of a bygone era, and brought to life with vivid art that spans every page, this unique folktale introduces readers to Jiva even before the title page. In Feast of Peas, Jiva’s life is centered upon gardening and doing all he can to assure his carefully planted peas will grow undisturbed. That however is not to be. Though Javi sings
Plump peas, sweet peas, Lined-up-in-the-shell peas. Peas to munch, peas to crunch, I want a feast of peas for lunch.
his peas keep disappearing. He realizes he must construct obstacles such as a scarecrow and a fence to keep leering birds and other thieves at bay. What Jiva doesn’t realize is that no man-made deterrent will stop the peas from getting stolen if his pal Ruvji gets his way.
While little ones may not immediately pick up on the clever clues planted within the illustrations, older readers and adults will. They’ll also enjoy Ruvji’s not so subtle hints to his friend as he repeatedly smacks his lips and says, “Peas are delicious,” and “I would enjoy a feast of peas.” Jiva is determined to solve the mystery of the missing peas and the tables are hilariously turned when he plots a creative ploy to catch the pea poacher. This charming story of friendship, food and forgiveness will leave readers smiling with Ruvji’s unmasking and Jiva’s generosity and pea-licious punishment that promise a happy ending.
Who knew there were so many things you could do with a feather if you just used your imagination? I love how in Lali’s Feather author Farhana Zia has created this charming picture book inspired by such a simple premise. Think about it. What would you do with a feather if you were a child and found one that was oh so right?
This story, set in an Indian village will captivate youngsters. First Lali finds the feather and, concerned it’s lost, is determined to find its owner. After Rooster, Crow and Peacock do not claim the feather, Lali keeps it to see what it can do. Displaying her creativity to Hen, Duck, Blue Jay as well as her sister and Bapu (father), Lali finds entertainment in the most unlikely of activities such as writing in the dirt, sweeping, fanning a fire, and even tickling her Bapu’s toes. That is until a gust of wind whisks it away. Lali’s animal friends, who enjoyed her feather play, join together to help her get it back when another lost object captures her interest. Coleman’s warm color palette and energetic composition will carry readers from page to page along with Zia’s sweet prose. What a colorful way to engage readers with another country, some of its language, and show how childhood and imagination are the same the world over.
Don Tate’s picture book biography, William Still and His Freedom Storiesis the perfect example of how there is always something new to learn. And when it’s done well, as this one is, I don’t want it to end. That’s why I appreciate the author’s note and helpful back matter so I can read more about The Father of the Underground Railroad.
The son of enslaved parents Levin and Sidney Steel, William was born in 1821 and raised in the free North (as Still instead of Steel) after his father had earned his own freedom and settled in New Jersey. As a young boy William knew the local backwoods like the back of his hands. His life defining moment occurred when, using his knowledge of the woods, he led a former enslaved but now free neighbor to safety some twenty miles away from the clutches of slave catchers.
Once educated, the always ambitious William moved to Philadelphia in 1844. Life wasn’t easy and William barely got by doing any job he could until he landed an office clerk position at The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. “William’s employers were abolitionists who spoke loudly against slavery.” At the same time, as “freedom-seeking people were drawn to Philadelphia,” William helped however he could. His home had become a “station” on the Underground Railroad and its passengers’ struggles could not be ignored. He chronicled their journeys to freedom in the hopes of reuniting families. But by documenting their individual stories, William’s life and those he wrote about were imperiled when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was enacted. He hid his records in a cemetery for safe-keeping.
Despite rising through the ranks at the society, William still earned so little that he quit to start up a coal business. When the Civil War broke out, William prospered. “By the 1870s, he was one of the richest Black men of his time.” William used his wealth for the betterment of Blacks whether helping fund a branch of the YMCA for them or fighting to allow Black Philadelphians’ right to ride on city streetcars. Thirty years before his death in 1902 William published his first book, The Underground Rail Road, initially overlooked since it was centered on the African American perspective. Don Tate has lyrically and lovingly brought William’s story to us to honor both the man and all the other “free Black Philadelphians who worked tirelessly on behalf of their people.” His evocative illustrations bring a sense of time and place to this powerful biography and raise awareness of William Still’s important role in history.
The Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award-winning series
This easy-to-read series provides just the right combination of fun and mystery to earn new fans while it continues to satisfy old ones. This sixth book, King & Kayla and the Case of The Unhappy Neighborincludes five fast-paced chapters with adorable illustrations on every page.
If you know newly independent readers who are drawn to stories where they’ll have to figure things out, they’ll be delighted to meet King and Kayla, the dog and human detective duo. If they have trouble solving the mystery, the humorous illustrations showing King’s observations should help.
Told from King’s point of view, this book begins with Kayla’s friend Jillian explaining how her puppy Thor got into a neighbor’s yard and supposedly dug it up. Mr. Gary and Jillian’s mom were cleaning up the mess when Kayla and King stopped by. It certainly did not look like the kind of mess that little Thor could muster and that got Kayla thinking. Using her critical thinking skills and asking the right questions, Kayla notes that:
•Mr. Gary saw Thor in his yard last night. – True. Thor was chasing a cat. •Thor doesn’t like tomatoes, carrots or strawberries. – All partially eaten evidence in addition to a pile of poop left on the lawn. •Thor isn’t big enough to knock over a trash can. – What kind of animal can?
These clues, in addition to learning from King that there’s a new guy in town, help Kayla deduce just who the culprit might be. Will young readers be one step ahead and have their suspicions confirmed? Even if they learn at the same time as Kayla, they’ll be more than satisfied at the outcome and the fun time they had on their mission. Watch out for book #7 coming this spring 2021.
Prepare to fall head over hands (the main character Nina Soni talks with her hands a lot) for this endearing Indian-American nine-year-old in the first book of the terrific middle grade series from Kashmira Sheth. Nina Soni: Former Best Friendis told in first-person with heart and humor and loads of lists.
We meet record-keeping (we learn so much this way), loyal and easily side-tracked, Nina, right as she’s having what she believes is a major falling out with her best friend, Jay. Why? She accidentally knocked over his school project. On top of that she’s got to come up with an idea for her class Personal Narrative Project and time is running out. The good news is that her teacher tells her the project can be a list of observations. Well, that takes a bit of pressure off of her. Or does it?
Between her younger sister’s upcoming birthday party, trying to figure out what’s going on with her “former best friend,” and picking a project she can tackle, Nina’s finding it hard to stay focused. When a lesson about scientist Alexander Fleming’s chance discovery of penicillin inspires Nina to pay closer attention to her own experiments, her discovery yields interesting results. That those results also help save the day at her sister’s birthday party and shed new light on her former friendship with Jay is a resolution readers will love.
With a B.S. in Microbiology, Sheth brings a welcome STEAM approach to the series which now consists of three books. She also infuses Indian culture, cuisine and Hindi language into the stories meaning it’s best to read the books on a full tummy or with snacks nearby. Kocsmiersky’ spot art throughout the book adds extra appeal to the series for those moving onto middle grade novels from chapter books.
Reviews by Ronna Mandel
Click herefor a link to another #ReadYourWorld post: Five Diverse Books for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021 by Christine Van Zandt
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021 (1/29/21) is in its 8th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those book into the hands of young readers and educators.
Eight years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues. Read about our Mission & History HERE.
MCBD 2021 is honored to be Supported by these Medallion Sponsors!
Join us on Friday, Jan 29, 2021, at 9 pm EST for the 8th annual Multicultural Children’s Book Day Twitter Party! This epically fun and fast-paced hour includes multicultural book discussions, addressing timely issues, diverse book recommendations, & reading ideas. We will be giving away an 8-Book Bundle every 5 minutes plus Bonus Prizes as well! *** US and Global participants welcome. ** Follow the hashtag #ReadYourWorld to join the conversation, connect with like-minded parts, authors, publishers, educators, organizations, and librarians. See you all very soon on Twitter! Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use our official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.
Can you tell how excited we are to share the middle-grade cover reveal for Susie B. Won’t Back Down, Margaret Finnegan’s second middle-grade novel?
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE COVER:
This upbeat middle-grade book cover shouts “I mean business!” Today readers get their first look at Susie B., Finnegan’s 10-year-old protagonist who’s determined to bring about change by running for student government. The bold, bright colors in a variety of geometric shapes convey a sense of optimism, that anything is possible. I love how artist Bev Johnson incorporated the title into a campaign poster and positioned Susie B., in a confident pose looking directly at the reader. Is she as capable as she appears? We may not know just yet how she’ll approach her candidacy, but there’s every indication her experience will be as colorful as the novel’s cover.
When fifth-grader Susie B. decides to run for Student Council President, she thinks she’ll finally earn herself some eternal glory, just like her hero Susan B. Anthony, the famed women’s rights activist. But winning won’t be easy, especially when everyone is already voting for Susie’s opponents, one of whom begins to make some pretty stinky choices just to get elected. And when she learns that the heroic Anthony made some pretty stinky choices of her own, it just makes everything harder.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Margaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.
Susie B. Won’t Back Down cover artist, Bev Johnson, is a graduate of RISD who enjoys swimming, chocolate, writing, and being inspired by music. She has designed many children’s book covers, including Best Babysitters Ever by Caroline Cala and Pippa Park Raises her Game by Erin Yun. Learn more about her work at www.bevsi.weebly.com and on Instagram @beverlylove.
See Margaret’s previous cover reveal for We Could Be Heroeshere.
In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo. e
A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.
Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.
In book one, Twinchantment, identical twins Flissa and Sara must act as one person (Princess Flissara) to escape the Kingdom of Kaloon’s Magic Eradication Act which cites twinhood as reason for removal and re-homing. Book two, UnTwistedby Elise Allen, picks up on Ascension Day as the girls officially take their individual places in line for the throne. However, the new Magical Unification Act hasn’t been a simple fix for harmonious living. A top priority in the Kaloonification was bringing together the Mages, Genpos (people without magic from the general population), and Magical Animals at a school called the Maldevon Academy. However, cooperation between the groups is easier said than done, and someone is out to destroy the unity.
Favorite characters of mine from book one continue in UnTwisted: Galric and his adorable black kitten Nitpick, evil lioness Raya, and Loriah—who I’m happy to see has a bigger role. New characters like Zinka enliven the story. Plot misdirection keeps the twins searching for who’s behind the escalating ripples of unrest while they also navigate newfound friendships and how to fit in at school.
Chapters once again alternate viewpoints between Flissa and Sara. Allen successfully extends character development across both books. In UnTwisted, the girls’ individualities take center stage and their sisterly bond fractures. I like how the books show Kaloon progressing from the Magic Eradication Act to the Magical Unification Act, and the problems of both all-or-nothing edicts.
This series will appeal to kids who like books about adventure, magic, and relationships. The delightful Twinchantment novels combine high-stakes action with relatable, dimensional tween issues. It feels there’s more to come from these dynamic twins.
Make room on your bookshelves for The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, the middle grade novel debut by Aaron Reynolds. Sixth-grader Rex Dexter always wanted a dog. A chocolate Labrador to be exact. For his birthday, Rex’s parents give him a chocolate cake shaped like a Lab with chocolate ice cream and—finally!—his gift is in a box with air holes so it must be . . . a chicken?! When Rex complains that a chicken isn’t a pet, it’s a Happy Meal, he’s told this is his practice pet. So he does what any kid would: puts a leash on his chicken and heads out with his best friend, Darvish, to buy pet supplies. Then the strangeness begins.
With a nod to the Tom Hanks movie, Big, Rex finds a vintage carnival game called the Grim Reaper. Thanks to some chicken pee, Rex loses the game and receives a cryptic curse. But, it may be worse news for the chicken who, in Rex’s care for about an hour, has a run-in with a steamroller; the steamroller wins. Rex failed to keep his practice pet safe but, no worries, Rex will have plenty of time to make amends when the squashed, “ghostly fritter” of a chicken returns to haunt him—though the chicken believes their besties and wants to just chill. The now-named Drumstick is merely the first dead animal to accompany Rex through this hilarious story.
Aaron Reynolds is a master at comedy and this middle-grade novel is no exception. He had me at the title. If you like a mysterious ghost story that’s not very spooky, then this is the book for you. Kids will enjoy trying to figure out “who done it” as endangered animals in the zoo start meeting their demise and showing up in Rex’s bedroom as ghostly nuisances. More than two dozen black-and-white images scattered throughout add to the humor.
I’m a big fan of Reynolds’s books and read his releases hot-off-the-press. My favorite book of his had been (picture book) A Creepy Pair of Underwear but The Dead Pets of Rex Dexter is now tied for that spot.
Click hereto order a copy of The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore. e 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!
If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giantsby Dave Matthewsand Clete Barrett Smith. You may recognize the first author’s name as that of the world-renowned musician, environmentalist, and humanitarian. He’s teamed up with children’s book author Smith to write this timely middle-grade novel. Its underlying messages are about pulling together as a community, remembering the past, and taking care of nature. Kids will root for Kirra to find her way, and love the fun elements (such as living in trees and using their collective skills to become gigantic).
Hidden inside the walls of a dormant volcano, ten-year-old Kirra’s life is idyllic. Her people, the Zedu, respect nature and collaborate with one another, having assigned tasks. Kirra’s father is the Storyteller, the only Zedu who goes Outside—until recently, when Kirra begins to travel with him and learn this vocation. Her curiosity, however, leads her to make a grave mistake instigating the demise of her village by a violent new group called the Takers who seek only to conquer and destroy.
Jump forward four years and fourteen-year-old Kirra now lives aloft with the Tree People, taken in when she was in dire circumstances and treated with kindness ever since. To get by, Kirra must suppress memories of the past—until those memories become a reality.
The images by Antonio Javier Caparoprovide glimpses into Kirra’s world. Framed by intertwining branches, the natural colors underscore the importance of working harmoniously with nature.
I appreciate how the book engages the reader with quick-moving, interesting scenes yet also tackles big issues affecting us today. This story delves into what family means and how you fit in. For Kirra, it’s also a coming-of-age tale as she finally faces her demons and finds her way. e
Angelenos will home in onThe Echo Park Castawaysfor its title—Echo Park—because we know that place! This neighborhood is where the story’s characters converge in their latest foster-care home. Quentin, a boy on the autistic spectrum, is the newest addition to Mrs. K’s house. Though almost nonverbal, he clearly communicates his desire to go home to his mom. Nevaeh, Vic, and little Mara may be veterans of the system but they understand Quentin’s need.
The reader is shown how each character struggles to get by since the story is told in three viewpoints. “Loud Boy” Vic lives in a fantasy world where he’s a superspy spinning tales about his father’s absence—anything is better than accepting the fact he was deported to El Salvador. “Quiet Girl” Mara barely speaks English but can get through to Quentin. As Vic plots how to reunite Quentin with his mom, “Tall Girl” Neveah has to put aside her already too-full workload of chores and college prep to keep the younger kids out of trouble; she’s their caretaker, like it or not.
Circumstances beyond their control bring these kids from different walks of life together. Though obstacles face them in everyday life, they forge connections and make a family for themselves. This fast-moving story illuminates how children with limited options adapt to a flawed system.
The Echo Park Castaways is a deeply personal book for the author, M.G. Hennessey, who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in the L.A. foster care system. In that position and as a youth mentor for the Lifeworks program, Hennessey has witnessed the system responsible for society’s most vulnerable children. The book presents characters based on case stories that illustrate the very real challenges foster children face every day. There are 30,000 kids in L.A.’s child welfare system—the largest in the nation.
I’M OK Written by Patti Kim (Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.
The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.
The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.
This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.
In the new middle grade novel, All the Greys on Greene Street, twelve-year-old Olympia is trying to solve a mystery with her two friends, Alex and Richard. She knows her father, an art restorer, has left the country. She knows why her mother hasn’t gotten out of bed since her father left. And she knows something is amiss with an art piece her father and his business partner and devoted friend, Apollo, have been working on restoring. What she doesn’t know is why her father decided to leave so suddenly and why there are people knocking on the doors of her parents’ Soho loft, demanding answers.
All the Greys on Greene Street is Laura Tucker’s debut novel, a historical fiction story set in 1981 when Soho’s large industrial lofts housed artists instead of chain stores and the subway cost 75 cents. Narrated in first-person by Olympia, (Ollie to her family and friends) Ollie is a keen observer, and tries to make sense of the complex adults in her life. She is devoted to her parents and to Apollo, whose studio she visits and who cares for her like his own child. When her father leaves, Ollie tries but can’t rally her mom to get out of bed. She hides her mother’s depression, trying to move through her world as if everything is fine. For weeks, she gets herself to school, concentrates on school projects and eats lots of canned soup. She refuses to ask for help or even share what’s happening with her mom. She manages to convince the neighbors that things are okay, but her friends discover her secret. Ollie pleads for secrecy, but Richard and Alex refuse, and betray her trust. Ollie is just beginning to work through her feelings when catastrophe rocks their neighborhood.
Like the title suggests, Ollie has the eye of an artist. Everyone in her life encourages her to look closely at her world and really try to understand what is happening. Kelly Murphy’s pencil illustrations help the reader see what Ollie sees and what she draws. And the writing is beautiful. There are no easy answers and there is no villain, just friends trying to do their best with what they have. Tucker offers some very smart history and art lessons imparted with the lightest touch. Apollo teaches Ollie about color and craft and the lessons will stay with the reader, as much as they impact Ollie.
Kids and parents were different in 1981 and these sixth graders are allowed to navigate New York City in a way that tween and teen readers with hovering helicopter parents might be surprised by. But even with absent parents and independence, Ollie and her friends are never alone. Their own friendship, their strong community and their neighbors keep them safe. Readers might be tempted to compare Ollie to Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. They both have keen observation skills, but Ollie is softer and savvier than Harriet. Ollie’s biggest lessons are about how to ask for help, and friends who become family and how some of life’s hardest questions have more than one answer.
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Cynthia Copeland Cynthia Copeland is a television and digital producer, who is always writing on the side. She is currently writing a YA contemporary novel. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @listenupbucko and she’ll share the small mystery that author, Laura Tucker revealed to her about the novel, All the Greys on Greene Street.
RIVERLAND Written by Fran Wilde (Amulet Books; $17.99, Ages 10-14)
★Starred Review – Booklist, Shelf Awareness
In Riverlanda debut (older) middle grade novel by Fran Wilde, Momma promises everything will be all right, but sisters Eleanor and Mike know better. Things aren’t OK, no matter how hard they try to be good. The girls weave stories about how “house magic” will fix whatever’s wrong this time. When Poppa breaks the family heirloom (a glass witch ball), a river appears in their secret hiding place and the girls venture to a place where dreams grow in reeds.
A heron made of metal, glass, and driftwood explains that nightmares are made of “failed dreams, smoke, and the river mist” and that “the same magic that kept dreams and reality apart also held back the nightmares.” Anassa, a snake-headed monster, upsets the balance. As the damage in one world seeps to the next, the sisters try to understand their family’s guardian’s agreement while facing new kinds of danger and the possibility of never returning home. Sisterly love fiercely connects them, yet Eleanor worries her temper dooms her to become like Poppa.
Lines between fantasy and reality blurred long before the enchanted river. The girls and their mother live fearfully in denial, unwilling to admit Poppa’s abusive nature. Though Eleanor’s new friend Pendra and Pendra’s mom (school guidance counselor) surmise something’s wrong, Eleanor keeps up the façade and her friend at arm’s length; without confirmation others are powerless to help.
Riverland depicts children trapped in a dysfunctional home and the ways in which they escape reality. This important book shows a family’s coping mechanisms for domestic violence. Older middle graders and YA readers may be best suited to recognize and process the nuances of this story.
Many children’s stories get the parents out of the way by killing them off. New middle-grade series, Henry & Eva and the Castle on the Cliff begins with the newspaper headline “Prominent Environmentalist and Oceanographer Die in Boating Accident.” However, Andrea Portes’s story surrounds this incident rather than pushing it out of the way and moving on. Siblings, Henry and Eva, suffer from this sudden shock but it’s the first of many in regard to their parents’ death.
Details make the story come alive such as Eva’s voice, “[the article in the paper] says that I am twelve and that Henry is ten but it doesn’t say that Henry will be eleven in three weeks and we were already starting to plan his birthday party.” Palpable grief engulfs the kids as they face a new life, one without their folks. Matters are complicated with caregivers, Uncle Claude “the Clod” and his girlfriend Terri “the Terrible,” seeming opposites from Henry and Eva’s parents.
Super-smart Henry has sunken inside himself; Eva tries to cajole him out with silly antics. The kids have a lot to deal with—then the mystery starts! Portes weaves in otherworldly elements in a fresh manner with dimensional and likeable characters. Even the “bad adults” have interesting traits. Levity and humor shine in clever lines of dialogue.
Portes is the best-selling author of two critically lauded adult novels: Hick, her debut, which was made into a feature film, and Bury This. She also writes popular YA novels.
Mr. Wolf’s Class: Book #1 The First Day of School by Aron Nels Steinke is not your mother’s back-to-school middle grade chapter book. It’s a smart, funny, insightful look at fourth-grade in graphic novel format and I enjoyed every page. From the realistic, contemporary dialogue to the perfectly captured facial expressions on the diverse line up of teachers and students, Steinke succeeds in helping readers connect with and care about an assorted and appealing cast of characters. And that’s a good thing since this is Book #1 in a new series that is sure to captivate even the most reluctant kid.
In this first book, we’re introduced to Mr. Wolf, a new teacher at Hazelwood Elementary. In fact, even before Chapter One (there are eleven chapters in total), anthropomorphic artwork full of color and movement shows Mr. Wolf conscientiously preparing his classroom followed by frames of each student, with illustration clues, as a quick and clever way to hint at their personality or issue. There’s new-in-town student, Margot, eager to start school but nervous about making friends; there’s Penny, poor, wiped out Penny, whose constantly crying baby sibling is keeping her from getting a good night’s sleep; there’s Aziza, a dedicated student but slightly snarky; and there’s Sampson, who’s brought something special to school to share at show-and-tell.
As an elementary school teacher and parent, Steinke totally gets this age group and the ever-changing dynamic of the classroom. One minute there’s silent reading and the next there’s chaos. All types of conflicts caused by all kinds of kids can occur throughout the day and Steinke’s chosen a few good ones to portray in Mr. Wolf’s Class. He’s included geeks and smart alecks, thoughtful and mean kids. He’s also got bossy and meek ones, tattle tales and show offs. With that kind of composition, anything can and does happen under Mr. Wolf’s supervision including a missing student, show-and-tell, and a burgeoning friendship.
I’d like to emphasize here that this book can be appreciated year round for its wit, its engaging illustrations and the delightful depiction of fourth-grade from multiple perspectives. Join Mr. Wolf and his students to see first-hand what’s happening at Hazelwood Elementary.
THE LANGUAGE OF SPELLS Written by Garret Weyr Illustrated by Katie Harnett (Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews
In the middle-grade novel, The Language of Spells, homeschooled eleven-year-old Maggie lives in a Viennese hotel with her father. She knows many things, but how to make friends isn’t one of them—until she meets Grisha (a dragon who’s spent decades observing humans and has grown up without doing any of the proper dragon things). Born in 1803, he is the last of his kind. “As the world of men built new and extraordinary things, the world of magic began to decline. No creature lives beyond its own world, and a dragon is nothing if not a creature from the world of magic.”
All dragons were summoned to Vienna and, due to the inconvenience of their existence, most mysteriously disappeared. While the Department of Extinct Exotics controls the gold-eyed dragons who were allowed to remain, Grisha struggles to remember what happened to the others. Maggie’s determination to help sets them on an investigative journey. Though they know using magic requires a sacrifice, Maggie and Grisha travel across Europe to fight injustice and face difficult decisions.
The Language of Spells is a different sort of dragon tale—one worth a deliberate read and thoughtful introspection. Each chapter opens with a charming illustration by Katie Harnett. The uplifting scenes enhance the story’s relationships. Weyr’sslow-building, sometimes funny tale has an old-fashioned lyrical feel. The book raises questions about the cost of power, the bonds of families and friendships. When few can see the magic left in the world, does it still exist?