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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

Struggling to belong, Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol discovers her voice in Singing with Elephants, a beautifully moving middle-grade novel in verse written by Newbery honoree and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle.  

The story takes place in 1947 in Santa Barbara where Oriol lives with her family. She helps take care of injured animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic, located near a “wildlife zoo ranch” that has connections to Hollywood (6). Grieving the recent death of her grandmother and facing hardships at a school that is unwelcoming to immigrants, she struggles with loneliness–until she befriends “la poeta” Gabriela Mistral who has moved near Oriol’s home (12). While the meeting (and subsequent story) is fictional, the poet is a real person, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oriol is relieved to have found someone who speaks her native tongue, but little does she know the unexpected gift she’ll be receiving from her new friend: learning the language of poetry. 

These lessons are for all of us. “There is no better home for emotions than a poem,” la poeta advises, “which can easily be transformed into a song” (27). The book is rich with simple yet profound expressions of love, loss, heartache, and wholeness. As we learn along with Oriol, poetry is the soul’s way of singing, whether that soul is human or animal. This lesson becomes more apparent as Oriol’s connection to the animals she cares for grows stronger and stronger, in particular her relationship with a pregnant elephant named Chandra whose rhythmic sways and sounds remind her of poetry.

Through her mentor’s gentle encouragement and guidance, Oriol’s writing blossoms–from using it as a source of healing to using it as a force for change. Bit by bit, she “no longer yearn[s]” for Cuba and Abuelita “every moment of every day” (106). And when a famous movie star takes special interest in Chandra, Oriol drafts “poetry-petition[s],” eventually organizing a protest against animal abuse (188). Fighting for her beloved elephants, Oriol finds a sense of belonging. 

Singing with Elephants is the kind of book readers will want to read again and again, catching the pieces of poetry missed from the previous read. An author’s note at the end details Cuban cultural traditions as well as Gabriela Mistral’s life. A list of further readings about and by the poet is also included.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Middle Grade Graphic Novel – Saving Sorya

 

SAVING SORYA:

Chang and the Sun Bear

by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung

Illustrated by Jeet Zdung

(Dial BYR; $23.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Saving Sorya cover

 

 

★ Starred reviews – KirkusSchool Library Journal

 

Striking artwork and a timely topic support the compelling story of one girl’s dogged determination to reintroduce a rescued sun bear to its native habitat.

 

 

The author of Saving Sorya, a renowned Vietnamese conservationist, uses the wonderfully creative graphic novel format to present a fictionalized account of events that inspired her career choice.

After witnessing a horrific instance of animal abuse, young Chang decides to become a conservationist. She works hard to learn the many skills she’ll need for this profession including: how to identify and draw forest flora and fauna and wilderness survival skills. Chang faces many challenges due to her youth and societal attitudes towards gender and how conservationists are viewed by traditional medicinal practitioners, who need animals for some preparations. Her efforts and determination pay off when she lands volunteer positions with a rescue center and learns how to take care of wild animals. Eventually, Chang is assigned the responsibility of rehabilitating Sorya, a young sun bear, and returning her to the wild.

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Saving Sorya int3
Interior art from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Together, Chang and Sorya journey through the Vietnamese forests in search of a home for Sorya. In addition to training a frightened animal how to survive on her own, Chang faces challenges created by man-made problems which have impacted the environment: clearing forests for agriculture, logging, construction, and poaching exotic animals to create traditional Vietnamese medicines. Finally, Chang finds a place:

“And when the forest began to fill with the sounds of wildlife … that’s when I knew Sorya could live there.”

Sorya meets and bonds with another sun bear, and finally Chang, sure that Sorya will not only survive but thrive, is able to leave her.

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Interior spread from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Illustrator Jeet Zdung’s breathtaking illustrations, in the tradition of classical Vietnamese art, capture the forest and the creatures that inhabit it. Eye-popping colors of exotic animals, painstaking details, varying hues, and shadowing create the lushness of the forest with breathtaking beauty.

Chang’s extraordinary field notebook, in which she records her observations, is a STEM teacher’s dream. Zdung uses pages from the notebook to tell the story. Chang details her discoveries as well as some of the equipment and personal things she has brought with her.

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Saving Sorya int1
Interior art from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Zdung’s interest in manga art is evident in some illustrations and how the characters are portrayed, which creates an interesting juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary art styles. Black-and-white illustrations in manga style blur otherwise disturbing images of abuse and death. But Chang’s persistence determination, and passion, distract from the few disturbing images in the story … and give us hope.

Find out more about author and conservationist Trang Nguyen here and illustrator Jeet Zdung here

I highly recommended Saving Sorya which is sure to inspire many children to find out what they can do to protect the environment and save wild animals.

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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13+ New Halloween Books for 2021

 

 

BEST NEW HALLOWEEN BOOKS

A ROUNDUP

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zant

 

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Poison for Breakfast coverPOISON FOR BREAKFAST
by Lemony Snicket

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

HAPPY HOWL-O-WEEN MAD LIBS  
by Mad Libs

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN READS 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Graphic Novel – The Legend of Auntie Po

THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO

Written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor

(Kokila; $22.99, Ages 10-14)

 

 

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

 

 

Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. 

Starred reviews – Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal

 

 

A re-imagined Paul Bunyan legend gives one Chinese American girl
the courage to face adversity. 

 

Thirteen-year-old Mei lives and works in an 1885 Sierra Nevada lumber logging camp in the graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. Her father, Hao, cooks for the workers, and Mei is famed for her pies. Mei, unlike the other women in the camp, does not wear a dress and is conflicted about her budding sexuality and her feelings towards Bee Anderson, the camp foreman’s daughter.

Within the camp, racial tensions simmer and the Chinese workers face discrimination and violence. Abusive behavior towards women in the camp also adds to an increasingly hostile environment. Camp foreman Hel Anderson, Bee’s father, turns a blind eye to all that is happening.

To help her and the other women and children cope with these injustices, Mei invents a Bunyanesque character, Auntie Po, only she can see. The stories she spins about Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, give courage and hope to the others.

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The Legend of Auntie Po int1
Interior art from The Legend of Auntie Po written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor, Kokila ©2021

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Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese workers are forced to leave the mill. Mei stays with Bee’s family, but Hao and the other Chinese workers leave to find work in San Francisco. When camp conditions severely deteriorate, Anderson travels to Chinatown to persuade his former workers to return. Hao, mindful of Anderson’s acceptance of the discriminatory conditions, negotiates a better deal for the Chinese workers. Anderson agrees and Hao and the others return to the camp. Father and daughter are reunited.

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The Legend of Auntie Po int2
Interior spread from The Legend of Auntie Po written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor, Kokila ©2021

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Author/illustrator Khor’s colorful illustrations authentically capture 19th lumberjacking life, demonstrating the amount of research she did to convey the details of daily life and conditions experienced by the workers and their families. In addition, this graphic novel highlights the art of storytelling and how each story can be shaped or reimagined by the experiences of the teller and the listener.

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The Legend of Auntie Po int3
Interior spread from The Legend of Auntie Po written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor, Kokila ©2021

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As the story concludes, Mei and her father decide it’s time for her to go away to school. Mei has also resolved some of her identity issues: 

 

 “I know who I am. I am a good cook.  I have good friends, I have the best pa in the world” (p. 272).

 

The author’s endnote and her bibliography contain valuable information, as does her video on how this book came about for anyone who wants to learn more about the legends and history behind this engaging graphic novel. This is truly the middle-grade at its finest.

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Middle Grade Book Review – Kingston and The Magician’s Lost and Found

KINGSTON AND THE MAGICIAN’S LOST AND FOUND

By Rucker Moses and Theo Gangi

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

KingstonandtheMagician'sLostandFound cvr

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

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 Found a 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.

Visit the website of Rucker Moses here.

Visit the website of Theo Gangi here.

 

 

https://scbwikitetales.wordpress.com/2021/03/31/interview-with-author-rucker-moses/

 

Read a review of another recommended middle-grade novel by Christine here.

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Middle Grade Novel – The Sisters of Straygarden Place

 

THE SISTERS OF STRAYGARDEN PLACE

Written by Hayley Chewins

(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 10-14)

 

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Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

 

I love books that don’t fit into a mold, where you can’t guess what comes next. Hayley Chewins’s The Sisters of Straygarden Place fulfills those things, plus it’s beautifully written.

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.

 

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Six Diverse Books for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021

A ROUNDUP OF SIX DIVERSE BOOKS

FROM PEACHTREE PUBLISHING

FOR

MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY 2021

 

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Reviews:

GoingDownHomeWithDaddy mainGOING DOWN HOME WITH DADDY
Written by Kelly Starling Lyons
Illustrated by Daniel Minter
(Peachtree Publishing; $16.95, Ages 4-8)

A 2020 CALDECOTT HONOR BOOK

My childhood friend’s mother was from the south and used to attend family reunions when we were kids. Going Down Home With Daddy is 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.

 

Feast of Peas coverFEAST OF PEAS
Written by Kashmira Sheth
Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
(Peachtree Publishing; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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.

 

LalisFeather coverLALI’S FEATHER
Written by Farhana Zia
Illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman
(Peachtree Publishing; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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.

 

WilliamStillandhisFreedomStories cvrWILLIAM STILL AND HIS FREEDOM STORIES
Written and illustrated by Don Tate
(Peachtree Publishing; $18.99, Ages 6-10)

Don Tate’s picture book biography, William Still and His Freedom Stories is 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.

 

KingKaylaCaseoftheUnhappyNeighbor cvrKING & KAYLA AND THE CASE OF THE UNHAPPY NEIGHBOR
Written by Dori Hillestad Butler
Illustrated by Nancy Meyers
(Peachtree Publishing; $14.99, Ages 7-9)

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 Neighbor includes 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.

 

NinaSoniFormerBestFriend coverNINA SONI: FORMER BEST FRIEND
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Jenn Kocsmiersky
(Peachtree Publishing; $15.95, Ages 7-10)

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 Friend is 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 here for a link to another #ReadYourWorld post:
Five Diverse Books for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021 by Christine Van Zandt

 

#ReadYourWorld

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.

Multicultural Childrens Book Day graphic

MCBD 2021 is honored to be Supported by these Medallion Sponsors!

FOUNDER’S CIRCLE: Mia Wenjen (Pragmaticmom) and Valarie Budayr’s (Audreypress.com)

Platinum Sponsors: Language Lizard Bilingual Books in 50+ Languages, Author Deedee Cummings and Make A Way Media

Gold Sponsors: Barefoot Books, Candlewick Press, Capstone, Hoopoe Books, KidLitTV, Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

Silver Sponsors: Charlotte Riggle, Connecticut Association of School Librarians, Author Kimberly Gordon Biddle, Pack-N-Go Girls

Bronze Sponsors: Agatha Rodi and AMELIE is IMPRESSED!, Barnes Brothers Books, Create and Educate Solutions, LLC, Dreambuilt Books, Dyesha and Triesha McCants/McCants Squared, Redfin Real Estate, Snowflake Stories, Star Bright Books, TimTimTom Bilingual Personalized Books, Author Vivian Kirkfield, Wisdom Tales Press, My Well Read Child

MCBD 2021 is honored to be Supported by these Author Sponsors!

Poster Artist: Nat Iwata

Authors: Author Afsaneh Moradian, Author Alva Sachs & Three Wishes Publishing Company, Author Angeliki Stamatopoulou-Pedersen, Author Anna Olswanger, Author Casey Bell , Author Claudine Norden, Author Debbie Dadey, Author Diana Huang & Intrepids, Author Eugenia Chu & Brandon goes to Beijing, Green Kids Club, Author Gwen Jackson, Author Janet Balletta, Author Josh Funk, Author Julia Inserro, Karter Johnson & Popcorn and Books, Author Kathleen Burkinshaw & The Last Cherry Blossom, Author Keila Dawson, Maya/Neel Adventures with Culture Groove, Author Mia Wenjen, Michael Genhart, Nancy Tupper Ling, Author Natalie Murray, Natalie McDonald-Perkins, Author Natasha Yim, Author Phe Lang and Me On The Page Publishing, Sandra Elaine Scott, Author Shoumi Sen & From The Toddler Diaries, SISSY GOES TINY by Rebecca Flansburg and B.A. Norrgard, Susan Schaefer Bernardo & Illustrator Courtenay Fletcher, Tales of the Five Enchanted Mermaids, Author Theresa Mackiewicz, Tonya Duncan and the Sophie Washington Book Series, Author Toshia Stelivan, Valerie Williams-Sanchez & The Cocoa Kids Collection Books©, Author Vanessa Womack, MBA, Author Veronica Appleton & the Journey to Appleville book series

MCBD 2021 is Honored to be Supported by our CoHosts and Global CoHosts!

MCBD 2021 is Honored to be Supported by these Media Partners!

Check out MCBD’s Multicultural Books for Kids Pinterest Board!

Multicutural Childrens Book Day poster art

FREE RESOURCES from Multicultural Children’s Book Day

Diversity Book Lists & Activities for Teachers and Parents

Homeschool Diverse Kidlit Booklist & Activity Kit

FREE Teacher Classroom Activism and Activists Kit

FREE Teacher Classroom Empathy Kit

FREE Teacher Classroom Kindness Kit

FREE Teacher Classroom Physical and Developmental Challenges Kit

FREE Teacher Classroom Poverty Kit

Gallery of Our Free Posters

FREE Diversity Book for Classrooms Program

TWITTER PARTY! Register here!

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.

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Middle Grade Cover Reveal – Susie B. Won’t Back Down

 

      IT’S TIME FOR ANOTHER EXCITING

            MIDDLE-GRADE COVER REVEAL

 


SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

Written by Margaret Finnegan

Publication Date:  10/5/21 From Atheneum BYR

 

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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.

 

SUMMARY:

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.   

 

Author Margaret Finnegan
Margaret Finnegan ©2019 Skye Moorhead

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.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MARGARET’S WORK:

Website: http://www.margaretfinnegan.com

Follow on Twitter: @FinneganBegin

Follow in Instagram: @FinneganBegin

Add Susie B. to your TBR list on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55768357-susie-b-won-t-back-down

 

ABOUT THE COVER ARTIST

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 Heroes here.

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Middle-Grade Novel Review – The Great Pet Heist

THE GREAT PET HEIST

Written by Emily Ecton

Art by Dave Mottram

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

 

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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.
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Interior art by Dave Mottram from The Great Pet Heist written by Emily Ecton and illustrated by Dave Mottram, Atheneum Books for Young Readers ©2020.

 

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.

 

Click here for another humorous middle-grade novel about pets reviewed by Christine.

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Middle Grade Book Review – UnTwisted

UNTWISTED:
Twinchantment Series #2

Written by Elise Allen

(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

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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, UnTwisted by 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.

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Middle Grade Book Review – The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter

THE INCREDIBLY DEAD PETS OF REX DEXTER

Written by Aaron Reynolds

(Little Brown BYR, $13.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

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.

int spot art deadpets
Interior art from The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter written by Aaron Reynolds, Little Brown BYR ©2020.

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 here to read an excerpt.

    • 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 The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore.
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Recommended Reads for the Week of 9/21/20

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Middle Grade Book Review – If We Were Giants

IF WE WERE GIANTS

by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith

Illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo

(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

If We Were Giants cvr

 

IfWe WereGiants int insert5
Interior art from If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith with illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, Disney-Hyperion ©2020.

If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and 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).

IfWe WereGiants int insert
Interior art from If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith with illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, Disney-Hyperion ©2020.

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 Caparo provide 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.
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Middle Grade Book Review – The Echo Park Castaways

THE ECHO PARK CASTAWAYS
by M.G. Hennessey
(HarperCollins Children’s Books; $16.99, Ages8-12)

 

The Echo Park Castaways Cover

 

Angelenos will home in on The Echo Park Castaways for 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.

Follow M.G. Hennessey:

Twitter: @mg_hennessey
Instagram: @m.g.hennessey
Facebook: @mghennesseyautho
www.mghennessey.com

 

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Middle Grade Fiction – I’m OK by Patti Kim

I’M OK
Written by Patti Kim
(Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

I'm OK book cover

 

In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.

The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.

The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.

This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – All the Greys on Greene Street

ALL THE GREYS ON GREENE STREET
Written by Laura Tucker
Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

All the Greys on Greene Street book cover

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, BookPage, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly
Junior Library Guild Selection

 

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 St Int3All 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.

All the Greys on Greene St int1Like 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.

 

All the Greys on Greene St int2Kids 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.

Interior artwork by Kelly Murphy from All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker courtesy of  Viking Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

  • 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
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