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Middle Grade Book Review – Serafina and the Seven Stars

SERAFINA AND THE SEVEN STARS

Written by Robert Beatty

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

 

 

 

Serafina, our favorite, fierce heroine, is back in the fourth installment of this New York Times best-selling series, Serafina and the Seven Stars, and we sure have missed her. The Serafina books seamlessly blend fantasy, mystery, and thrilling spookiness. Set around 1900 at Biltmore Estate in the Great Smoky Mountains area of North Carolina, these books include real people and historical details.

Serafina once lived unnoticed in the mansion’s basement with her father. Now Master Vanderbilt gives her free roam, counting on her as Biltmore’s protective guardian. While her best friend, Braeden, is seemingly away at boarding school in New York, the estate’s momentary quiet shatters with nonsensical crimes. Serafina prowls the premises trying to keep everyone safe. When someone she trusts appears to have taken an evil turn, Serafina must hurriedly solve who or what is behind the crimes before matters become insurmountable.

The Serafina books are one of my top middle-grade series of all time because of the amazing setting and period details, close family bonds, fierce friendships (with a dash of romance), and mysterious happenings that keep you guessing until the end. In a word, the Serafina books are awesome. The “STAY BOLD” motto echoes strong girl-empowerment messages throughout this series and complementary book, Willa of the Wood.

Because young readers engage with the content, these books are being taught in over a thousand classrooms nationwide; comprehensive teaching material is available online. If you’re new to the series, explore Beatty’s website for video book trailers, interviews, and much more. You can also read my interview with the author.

 

 

Read Christine’s review of another novel by Robert Beatty here.

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Alien Superstar

ALIEN SUPERSTAR (Book #1)

Written by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Illustrated by Ethan Nicolle

(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Alien Superstar Book Cover

 

int art152 from Alien Superstar

Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

The first installment of this new middle-grade series by the super-duo Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (who also delighted us with their Hank Zipzer books) was an instant New York Times best seller. In Alien Superstar, thirteen-year-old Citizen Short Nose escapes from his planet to avoid the removal of his sensory enhancer. He lands at Universal Studios, Hollywood, and, upon emerging from his ship, is crowded by tourists wanting to take selfies. In a series of fortunate opportunities, Short Nose (now Buddy C. Burger) becomes a costar on a show where the ratings were nosediving until his silly, honest acting debut. When his nutritional wafers run out, Buddy must quickly find Earth foods he can eat. Luckily, he’s made some human friends who rush to help him out.

Winkler and Oliver continue their winning combination of sincere, likable characters and laugh-aloud moments. Ethan Nicolle’s endearing illustrations enhance the story’s humor especially the images where we see Buddy lounging in the bath trying to absorb as much water as possible, or caught mid-transformation.

 

int art244 from Alien Superstar

Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

Living in LA, I find it’s not all that outlandish that an alien would walk through our midst and Angelenos wouldn’t bat an eye—that’s the clever charm of this story. Preconceived notions of aliens taking over are soon dispelled when Buddy’s friends realize he’s only here to escape the bad things happening on his home planet and that he very much misses his Grandmother Wrinkle. Kids will enjoy this likable antihero; the suspenseful ending will leave them eagerly awaiting what happens next in Buddy’s wacky, mixed-up world.

 

 

Read another review by Christine Van Zandt here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Wrecking Ball (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 14)

WRECKING BALL
(DIARY OF A WIMPY KID BOOK 14)
Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Wrecking Ball DOAWK14 cover

 

 

The popularity of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid middle grade series is still blazing. Kids at our daughter’s elementary school were counting the days until the release of book 14, Wrecking Ball. Then it was noses in books as they devoured Greg Heffley’s latest escapades. So what’s the appeal of this best-selling series? When I asked kids this question, the answers were simple: the familiar way the book looked, the story’s relatable humor, and its well-known characters. Great reasons since everyone likes comfortably sharing a laugh with a friend.

The title Wrecking Ball refers to construction and destruction to the Heffley’s house. As parents, we can relate to the nightmare of home improvements, remodeling, and house-hunting. Seeing these things from Greg’s perspective is, of course, funny but also very true. From tried-and-true sight gags (plumber’s crack) to the much deeper consequences of starting over elsewhere—the possibilities to reinvent yourself but also the complexity of feelings of being split from your best friend. Kids will be white-knuckled wondering if Rowley’s being written out.

Kinney’s hilarious illustrations accompany every page. I especially enjoyed Greg’s dream house which will be really small (to avoid attracting attention since he’s famous), but include a vast interlinking underground network. [PAGES 40-45] Who hasn’t envisioned what they’d build if they were rich? Greg’s idea of a glass bathtub that sits inside a giant aquarium is a kick. If your tween has some holiday cash to spend, this book is sure to please.

Visit the Wimpy Kid website here.

Fans can add to their collection with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid spinoff book Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid as well as The Wimpy Kid 2020 Wall Calendar.

 

 

Read another middle grade book review by Christine here.

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Children’s Christmas Books Roundup 2019

CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

 

 

Christmas Is Coming! coverChristmas Is Coming!
Celebrate the Holiday with Art, Stories, Poems, Songs, and Recipes
By The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(Abrams BYR; $24.99, Ages 8 and up)  

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Christmas Is Coming! Celebrate the Holidays with Art, Stories, Poems, Songs, and Recipes is a book that families will enjoy throughout the holiday season. The stories feature something for everyone: two biblical excerpts and ten tales including a Sherlock Holmes adventure, a selection from Little Women, “The Elves and the Shoemaker” by the Brothers Grimm, and Moore’s lyrical “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” While this book is marketed to kids eight and up, younger ones will enjoy being read these stories while snuggling on a parent or grandparent’s lap.

If singing is your thing, you’ll find the music and lyrics to ten popular Christmas songs from kid-pleasing “Jingle Bells” and “Up on the Housetop,” to favorites such as “The First Noel” and “Silent Night.” To accompany all this festivity, try your hand at one of the six recipes, several from chefs at the Met’s classic restaurant, The Dining Room. Since I’m making English Toffee for holiday gifts, I’m interested in how this recipe’s addition of honey adds something new.

The stories, songs, and recipes are accompanied by full-color images serving as an introduction to art of great renown. This lovely book will make a treasured keepsake for your family or a thoughtful gift for someone special.

The Little Fir Tree coverThe Little Fir Tree
By Hans Christian Andersen

Illustrated by Christopher Corr
(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

In this version of The Little Fir Tree, an original story by Hans Christian Andersen is given new life in vibrant colors and a modern feel. Kids will relate to how the charming young tree wishes to be “big and tall like the other trees.” When lumberjacks cut it down, the fir soon finds itself adorned and admired as a family’s Christmas tree. After the holidays, splendor removed, the fir resides in the shed remembering its journey. However, a barren tree is not the end—from a buried pinecone, a new tree grows beginning the cycle once again.

Christopher Corr’s colorful folk art-inspired images refresh this familiar story. Exciting neon colors and stylized illustrations are sure to please kids. Each page has a lot going on, allowing kids to explore the story beyond the words. This beautifully updated edition of a heartfelt classic tale pleases both kids and adults.

Little Robins Christmas coverLittle Robin’s Christmas
By Jan Fearnley

(Nosy Crow; $16.99, Ages 2-5)

Jan Fearnley’s Little Robin’s Christmas will warm your heart. One week before Christmas, Little Robin sets out seven vests but, as those days come to pass, he comes across animals shivering in the cold. Without pause, he gives away his vests. On Christmas Eve, alone, far from home, and very cold, Little Robin gets a surprise from the big man himself.

This story shows how kind acts make you feel good and are sometimes reciprocated—important elements for kids as they learn about sharing. Fearnley’s words and images mesh seamlessly. Some pictures bring me back again and again: the squirrel asleep wearing a yellow vest, the rabbit posed with a blue vest on his ears, and Little Robin hugging a mouse between sprigs of red berries in the snow. The icy feel of the book emanates from cool blue tones and white. However, colors liven up the pages, echoing how Little Robin brings joy to those he meets in his travels.

santas secret book coverSanta’s Secret
By Denise Brennan-Nelson

Illustrated by Deborah Melmon
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 5-7)

Santa’s Secret delights with its funny rhyme that takes you through a day with a girl on a quest to discover all she can about Santa—especially which one is real. I remember this question myself; kids come across Santas in many places and soon realize they seem to be different people. I like how Denise Brennan-Nelson’s story tackles this puzzling subject with humor and finesse. After all, the holidays are about believing.

Deborah Melmon’s art realistically sets the scenes with the girl’s quizzical looks and Grandma’s whispered secrets. The art is perfectly bright and hopeful. Spend some time reading the girl’s notes because they add another layer to the story. Apparently my daughter’s been right when insisting we leave out a carrot with Santa’s milk and cookies!

How to Trick a Christmas Elf cvrHow to Trick a Christmas Elf
By Sue Fliess

Illustrated by Simona Sanfilippo
(Sky Pony Press; $16.99, Ages 3-6)

Sue Fliess charms us again with How to Trick a Christmas Elf. Since kids want to know whether they’ve been noted as naughty or nice, knowing how to distract an elf to take a quick peek at the list is surely handy. This rhyming read-aloud tale shows what happens when you build an elf-sized sleigh. With elves very much a part of Christmas lore, this book offers a fresh take on modern elves who hang out in our homes. We’re left with the important message that we should give from our hearts. Afterward is a brief history of Christmas elves and instructions on how to build your own elf sleigh—such a clever idea to incorporate into the holiday festivities.

This bold edge-to-edge art by Simona Sanfilippo captures your attention. The lively greens, reds, and yellows add to the excitement of elvish shenanigans. I love the closing image of a happy antlered kitty pulling the elf sleigh as Elliott departs for another year.


Read another roundup of 2019 holiday books
here.


Additional Recommended Reads for 2019:

The Tree That’s Meant to Be 
By Yuval Zommer

Dear Santa: For Everyone Who Believes in the Magic of Christmas
By Susanna Leonard Hill
Illustrated by John Joseph

 

 

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Kids Picture Book Review – Fractured Fairy Tales Roundup

FRACTURED FAIRY TALES
A ROUNDUP

 

 

 

 

the most terrible of all coverTHE MOST TERRIBLE OF ALL
Written by Muon Thị Văn
Illustrated by Matt Myers
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

If you like fairy tales, Muon Thị Văn’s new spin on Snow White will enchant you. Snow White and the dwarfs aren’t featured, rather the focus is on the Magic Mirror used by the Evil Queen. In The Most Terrible of All, the queen has been replaced by Smugg, a lovable monster. Smugg is certain he’s the most terrible beast in the land—his mirror tells him so. Until, one day, when he’s out-terribled by someone new, someone “a million times more terrible.” Not one to sit idly by, Smugg goes in search of this interloper. His quest takes him all the way . . . next door where a houseful of fiends are all potential contenders for the title of Most Terrible.

This ghoulish fractured fairy tale delighted me. Matt Myers’s art features lovely blues, greens, purples, and pinks giving the book a calm vibe even though the action’s quite exciting. His “ginormous sea serpent” is wonderfully scary and my favorite creature in the book.

Kids will enjoy this picture book because it’s a funny version of a story they already know. The monsters are charming and the ending is just perfect.

Moldilocks book coverMOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE SCARES: A ZOMBIE TALE
Written by Lynne Marie

Illustrated by David Rodriguez Lorenzo
(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 4-8)

Goldilocks has gone ghoulish in Lynne Marie’s picture book, Moldilocks and the Three Scares: A Zombie Tale. The Scare family—a monster dad, mummy mom, and vampire daughter—are enjoying a lovely night together preparing a midnight snack of sliced finger sandwiches and Alpha-Bat soup. But, of course, the soup is too hot; it boils Dad’s bolts, causes Mama to unravel, and gives Baby a fang-ache.

David Rodriguez Lorenzo illustrations are deathly cute. Details enliven each scenes. The page that enchants me is Moldilocks zombie-stumbling across the dining table with a fly escort. The three chairs are perfectly suited for each family member. Their décor is skeletal chic. A skull vase displays withering flowers, an old-fashioned TV’s rabbit ears appear to be femurs, and the standing lamp is a headless skeleton holding up its lampshade.

Pay attention to the opening pages because those lines will come back to haunt you with the book’s modern ending. When the Scares catch Moldilocks in their ghastly abode, Mama muses that her “nightmares have been answered”; I think Moldilocks would agree.

Reading Beauty cover

READING BEAUTY
Written by by Deborah Underwood

Illustrated by Meg Hunt
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 6-8)

The winning team of Deborah Underwood and Meg Hunt from Interstellar Cinderella are together again in Reading Beauty, another rhyming fractured fairy tale picture book. In this version, instead of the princess pricking her finger on a spinning wheel, Princess Lex lives in a book-loving kingdom and is cursed to go into a deathlike sleep from a paper cut. Therefore, all books are secreted away on her fifteenth birthday.

“Without its books, their world grew bleak, consumed by dark and gloom.” Luckily Lex’s cute puppy, Prince, has been trained to fetch her things to read. I like how this smart princess takes matters into her own hands, especially the funny scene where Lex fools the fairy.

The art pops from the page. A bright blend of classic fairy tale and futuristic wonder will delightfully transport readers into a modern world. You’ll have to pick up your own copy to discover the creative ending.

 

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Boo! New Halloween Books for Kids 2019 – A Roundup

BEST NEW HALLOWEEN BOOKS FOR KIDS

∼ A Roundup ∼

Part 1

 

Free Halloween clip art Pumpkin

 

 

Halloween Kitty Book CoverHALLOWEEN KITTY (A Wag My Tail Book)
Written and illustrated by Salina Yoon

(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 3 and up)

Award-winning creator Salina Yoon captures your little one’s attention with this adorable children’s board book, Halloween Kitty (A Wag My Tail Book). The orange and white tabby has a sturdy orange felt tail that little hands can easily move by pulling a tab or touching the tail itself. The cute kitty wants to find a friend but the animals she encounters are all too busy. Luckily, her persistence pays off. This 12-page book is suitable for preschoolers on up. Even adults will feel drawn to zen-like pleasure of wagging the tail. Makes a great party gift!

 

Give Me Back My Bones coverGIVE ME BACK MY BONES!
Written by Kim Norman
Illustrated by Bob Kolar
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Give Me Back My Bones! reminds me of a modern version of the “Dem Bones” song—you know, “the toe bone’s connected to the heel bone.” However, Kim Norman’s picture book changes the story from a spiritual to a fun romp at the ocean bottom where a stormy night has scattered a skeleton’s bones. Her smart rhyme summons the reader to “Help me find my head bone, / my pillowed-on-the-bed bone, / the pirate’s flag-of-dread bone— / I’m scouting for my skull.”

Kids will unwittingly learn a bone’s name and function as they seek the bones—some are being absconded by various creatures. The lively beat of the lines is fun to read aloud as the skeleton is pieced back together until, once again, ready to set sail.

Bob Kolar’s art expands the playfulness of the book; bones seem to glow against a muted backdrop of ocean water. Sea critters lend a friendly fin, tail, or tentacle. I like how the skeleton, true to pirate fashion, has a peg leg in place of one of its tibia bones.

Don’t forget to peek under the jacket for a full-length “bone-rattling” poster. This extra detail elevates the book from a great read to one you’ll want to buy.

 

Bunnicula 40th Anniversary Edition coverBUNNICULA: 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Written by Deborah Howe and James Howe

Illustrated by Alan Daniel
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers; $10.99, Ages 8-12)

As much as I love Halloween, the classic story of Bunnicula had somehow eluded me. But, a pet rabbit who may be a vampire sounded irresistible and I was not disappointed. The book pulls you right in from the Editor’s Note (explaining how the manuscript was delivered to her door by a “sad-eyed, droopy-eared dog”) to first-person narration by Harold, the Monroe’s family dog. We soon discover that the problem is a new edition to the family: a black and white bunny found in the movie theater showing a Dracula movie.

Harold already shares the household with Chester the cat. Adding another animal takes some adjusting but weird things start happening to vegetables. For example, a tomato turns white and seemingly has teeth marks! As Harold and Chester try to solve this mystery, we discover the true charm of this book is crafty elusion. Is Bunnicula a vampire rabbit? What do you think?

This 40th anniversary pocket-sized edition has a plush red velvet cover and an Introduction by James Howe about the story’s origins and various renditions over the past four decades. Throughout, Alan Daniels’s art enlivens the story with humor and detail. At the end, best-selling authors Max Brallier, Holly Black, and Dav Pilkey share their personal experiences about this book. Bunnicula has six popular sequels and a spin-off series Tales from the House of Bunnicula and Bunnicula and Friends.

Click here for a link to last year’s Halloween Books Roundup.

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Kids Picture Book Review – Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas

PIRANHAS DON’T EAT BANANAS
Written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey
(Scholastic Press; $14.99, Ages 3-5)

 

Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas cover

 

Channel your inner Australian and read Aaron Blabey’s silly picture book Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas with an accent so the words “piranhas” and “bananas” rhyme. It’s worth the effort for the laughs you’ll receive from your child. You see, Brian the friendly looking piranha has a taste for bananas, much to the chagrin of his carnivorous buddies. Actually, Brian’s appetite encompasses quite a variety of fruits and vegetables. When he gleefully asks, “Well, I bet you’d like some juicy plums?” The others set him right: “That’s it Brian! We eat bums!” (Americans, we’re talking about butts here.) Kids will howl over this line and the accompanying illustration.

 

piranhas int3 from Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas

Interior spread from Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey, Scholastic Press ©2019.

 

 

The art throughout is humorously exaggerated and expressive with the abundance of white skillfully allowing the fish to be the focus. Happy-go-lucky Brian’s just not dissuaded from wanting to share his vegetarian tendencies, while the other piranhas make it toothily clear that they’re meat eaters.

 

piranhas int illustration8

Interior spread from Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey, Scholastic Press ©2019.

 

Details make this book stand out in my mind. The front and end papers’ factual information about piranhas and bananas come with a twist. For example, the list of what piranhas eat includes “old ladies who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time” and “little children who’ve actually been pretty good”—unless they get lucky and run into Brian instead.

Aaron Blabey is the award-winning and New York Times best-selling author of the Pig and Pug picture-book series, and The Bad Guys middle-grade series (movie adaptation in development with Dream Works Animation).

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Picture Book Review – Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang

 

AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO
Written by Kat Zhang,
Illustrated by Charlene Chua
(Aladdin; $17.99, Ages 4 and up)

 

Amy Wu and the perfect bao cvr

 

As all budding young chefs and their parents know, it’s not easy getting a recipe just right. In the new picture book, Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, these delicious dumplings are Amy’s nemesis. There are a lot of things that can go wrong; luckily, Amy’s Chinese-American family has got it down and will teach her step by step.

 

AmyWu in01 87e93

Interior artwork from Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao written by Kat Zhang and illustrated by Charlene Chua, Aladdin ©2019.

 

High-spirited Amy will appeal to kids who like expressive, relatable, and funny main characters (à la Fancy Nancy). Amy is skillful at many tasks—including eating bao all day—but it’s frustrating that her bao just don’t turn out right.

 

AmyWu.in02 15a30

Interior artwork from Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao written by Kat Zhang and illustrated by Charlene Chua, Aladdin ©2019.

 

Charlena Chua captures Amy’s personality in the lively illustrations, from silly expressions (trying to tie her shoes while brushing her teeth) to earnest ones (focused on pinching the dough just right). Throughout, a cute white cat follows Amy’s escapades.

Kat Zhang’s uplifting story shows that imperfection tastes just as good and, with a little bit of ingenuity, kids can solve their problems by trying something new. Amy’s resourcefulness left me smiling; kids are amazing.

The book concludes with a time-consuming (3+ hours) but mouth-watering, in other words worth it, recipe for bao that I tested with my daughter. We appreciated the tip about cooking a spoonful of filling before making the dumplings—great advice which allowed us to adjust the flavors. Enjoy!

 

Read another review by Christine here.

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Young Adult Historical Fiction – Lovely War by Julie Berry

LOVELY WAR
Written by Julie Berry
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Lovely War Book Cover

 

Julie Berry’s epic older-YA/new-adult book, Lovely War, cleverly employs a trial orchestrated by Hephaestus after he catches his wife, Aphrodite, with her lover—his brother, Ares. From there, the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Hades narrate the tale of four mortals during World Wars I and II. Eighteen-year-old Hazel Windicott and nineteen-year-old James Alderidge meet at a parish dance in 1917 London—with a little push from Aphrodite. Alas, James leaves to report for duty in France and fears the reserved British girl, an accomplished pianist, has stolen his heart. Much to her parents’ mortification Hazel throws caution to the wind; determined to go where there is need (and be closer to James), Hazel submits an application to be an entertainment secretary in a YMCA relief hut in France.

Aphrodite also imbibes Colette Fournier, a Belgian girl whose childhood ended at age sixteen when everything and everyone she knew were destroyed. Colette gets by as a YMCA volunteer in the south of France, until, four years later, she ends up at the same camp as twenty-one-year-old musician extraordinaire, Aubrey Edwards. There she awakens emotionally. The passion and pain of love ensues within their war-stricken world resounding with the harsh reality of prejudice that Aubrey and his troop of black servicemen must endure.

Lovely War is a monumental, layered accomplishment pared down to a comprehensible size. This 480-page tome looks daunting but has short, fast-paced chapters with changing viewpoints. The outer framework of the gods felt as realistic as the stories of the four mortals that they reflect upon. I’d recommend this book to older teens, young adults, and adults who enjoy historical fiction, romance, or mythology. I’ll want to read it again someday because I appreciated the craft Berry employs while still maintaining sincere characters. Her historical end notes further explain how the Great War shifted the roles of women and affected the plight of the black servicemen.

Lovely War has received seven starred reviews and is an indie bestseller.
Learn more about award-winning author Julie Berry here.
Read another YA romance novel review by here.

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Young Adult Book Review – How We Became Wicked by Alexander Yates

HOW WE BECAME WICKED
By Alexander Yates
(Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

How We Became Wicked cover

 

In the dystopian YA novel, How We Became Wicked by Alexander Yates, an insect-borne plague called the Wickedness has swept the planet. The people who remain are either wicked (infected), true (untouched), or vexed (immune). Three sixteen-year-olds survive the devastation.

Astrid and Hank reside in Goldsport, an enclosed community of elderly inhabitants; their world exists within its walls, a sanctuary founded by Astrid’s Grandpa Gold (now dead for twenty years). When the lighthouse on Puffin Island inexplicably turns on again, Astrid’s unanswered questions push her to find out all she can from the wealthy investors who built this safe place and now spend their days sporting their finery, comfortable with their stockpiled supplies.

On Puffin Island, Natalie’s life seems as barren and rocky as the island itself. Her mischievous and malicious grandfather remains locked away for safety’s sake. When Natalie and her pregnant mother have to deal with his shenanigans, their days ahead take an alarming turn.

I liked How We Became Wicked’s dual-perspective story from the insinuating title to the thoughtful story line. The wicked are an interesting lot, seemingly normal and almost childlike until their murderous intentions arise, reminding me a bit of zombies (when zombies are depicted with comical elements yet remaining relentlessly lethal). This book kept me hooked through its fast-paced chapters. My favorite part was the clever conclusion.

 

Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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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 Book Review – Beach Battle Blowout by Chris Grabenstein

BEACH BATTLE BLOWOUT
WELCOME TO WONDERLAND #4
by Chris Grabenstein,

Illustrated by Kelly Kennedy,
(Random House BYR; $13.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

If you’re looking for an upbeat beach read or a book that keeps the summer feeling going strong as back-to-school time begins, Beach Battle Blowout is it. The fourth installment in the Welcome to Wonderland series continues with fast-paced silliness. Likeable main character P.T. Wilkie lives in “the funnest place on Earth” (a funky motel) with his mother and his grandfather who is Florida’s “other Walt.” P.T.’s best friend, Gloria Ortega, lives there too because her sportscaster dad moves around a lot for TV gigs.

Previous books focused more on P.T. wondering about the identity of his father; here, his questioning is mentioned in passing but with significance. Dad or no Dad, something exciting is brewing again. This time, the Hottest Family Attraction contest, hosted by Florida Fun in the Sun magazine, focuses on smaller attractions like the Wonderland Motel. To find winning strategies, Gloria serves as the brains and financial whiz, while P.T. follows in his grandfather’s footsteps weaving wacky stories that entertain the guests. Their competitors have larger, newer, and fancier offerings, but the Wonderland has heart.

Short chapters and 70+ comic-style illustrations engage even reluctant readers. Mix a cast of friendly characters—and maybe a few “villains”—with adventure and mystery and you get this middle-grade page-turner. Don’t miss the funny and spot-on Storytelling Tips at the end.

The first book in the Welcome to Wonderland series is a New York Times best-seller, a winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, and on the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list. Chris Grabenstein is also author of the successful and popular Mr. Lemoncello series.

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Kids Book Review – United Tastes of America by Gabrielle Langholtz

UNITED TASTES OF AMERICA:
AN ATLAS OF FOOD FACTS
& RECIPES FROM EVERY STATE!
Written by Gabrielle Langholtz
Drawings by Jenny Bowers
Photos by DL Acken
(Phaidon; $29.95, Ages 7-10)

United Tastes of America bk cvr

 

Take a road trip with the United Tastes of America: An Atlas of Food Facts & Recipes from Every State! by Gabrielle Langholtz, a gorgeous cookbook for ages seven and up. Regional recipes are listed in alphabetical order by state (Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Washington, DC, are included). Each location begins with two pages of fun facts surrounded by vibrant art; a full-color photo and clearly explained recipe follows. Because we had freshly picked blueberries, we tried Maine’s Blueberry Muffins recipe. It was delicious, and a good base recipe for swapping in other kinds of fruit.

 

United Tastes of America int spread pgs 144-145

United Tastes of America, An Atlas of Food Facts & Recipes from Every State! by Gabrielle Langholtz, Phaidon; Eating in New York, drawings by Jenny Bowers (pages 144-145)

 

United Tastes of America interior photo pgs 146-147

United Tastes of America, An Atlas of Food Facts & Recipes from Every State! by Gabrielle Langholtz, Phaidon; New York: Quick-Pickled Cucumbers, drawing by Jenny Bowers, photo by DL Acken (pages 146-147)

 

It’s fun to look up the dish from your state—California is Cobb Salad—or explore new places. I really liked the US Virgin Islands entries featuring information about Dumb Bread, Jerk Chicken, Rødgrød, Fungi (not a fungi!), and Goat Water (a hearty stew made of goat meat, pawpaw, bread fruit, and Scotch bonnet peppers). The diversity of our country is wonderful: Green Jell-O Salad (Utah), Oven-Fried Chicken (Kentucky), Norwegian Meatballs (South Dakota), Jambalaya (Louisiana), Chicken Bánh Mì (DC). While expanding your culinary skills, you’ll also learn something about that region’s history, geography, and people.

 

United Tastes of America interior spread pgs 192-193

United Tastes of America, An Atlas of Food Facts & Recipes from Every State! by Gabrielle Langholtz, Phaidon; Eating in Texas, drawings by Jenny Bowers (pages 192-193)

 

United Tastes of America interior photo pgs 194-195

United Tastes of America, An Atlas of Food Facts & Recipes from Every State! by Gabrielle Langholtz, Phaidon; Texas: Potato, Egg and Bacon Breakfast, drawing by Jenny Bowers, photo by DL Acken (pages 194-195)

 

The recipes are indexed by level of difficulty as well as in a standard index where you can search for ingredient (potato), cooking term (braising), or meal category (desserts, snacks). This handsome book would be an ideal gift for your foodie relatives and friends who live in other countries, or a lovely addition to your cookbook collection.

I agree with author Gabrielle Langholtz that, “Food is one of the best ways to learn about a place—its harvests, its history, and its people.” Langholtz was the award-winning editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn, the head of special projects and publicity at the NYC Greenmarket, and authored The New Greenmarket Cookbook (2014), and Phaidon’s America: The Cookbook (2017). She lives in Pennsylvania (state recipe, Soft Pretzels). Take this book on tour with you the next time you travel!

Jenny Bowers
DL Acken

 

 

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Board Books – Seek and Count by Yusuke Yonezu

SEEK AND COUNT
Written and illustrated by Yusuke Yonezu
(MineditionUSA/Michael Neugebauer Publishing; $9.99, Ages 0-3)

 

Seek and Count Book Cover

 

If you’re looking for an original counting book, I recommend Seek and Count by Yusuke Yonezu. This 20-page board book’s bright graphic art will engage young hands. Each page’s number is accompanied by an image under the flap, a pleasant surprise the reader will enjoy repeating.

 

Seek and Count int1

Interior illustration from Seek and Count written and illustrated by Yusuke Yonezu, MineditionUSA ©2019.

 

Seek and Count delights while teaching young children their numbers from one to ten. I appreciate clever details such as how the egg on the cover is pictured inside with a crack; when you peek under the flap, a chick emerges. Other images are a bit of a game: number seven could be a wild hairdo but turns out to be an anemone with seven clown fish swimming nearby.

 

Seek and Count int3

Interior illustration from Seek and Count written and illustrated by Yusuke Yonezu, MineditionUSA ©2019.

 

Author-illustrator Yusuke Yonezu was born in Tokyo. As a child he loved to draw and make toys out of paper and boxes. Later, he studied design. He is the creator of The Rainbow Chameleon, Five Little Apples, Moving Blocks, the Guess What? series of board books, and Yum Yum!

 

 

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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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