Until now, Stacy McAnulty has been best known for her picture books. (EXCELLENT ED is one of my favorites.) But her middle grade debut, THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL, puts her squarely in the category of must-read middle grade author, as well.
12-year-old Lucy Callahan narrates the book. Thanks to a chance meeting with a bolt of lightning, Lucy is a math genius. She’s been homeschooled for the four years since the accident and, technically, she should be going to college. Lucy’s grandma just has one requirement before sending her young charge off to university: “Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!).” The mysteries of calculus, algebra, and geometry are easy for Lucy to solve. But the mystery of how to survive middle school? It’s an impossible equation—especially for Lucy.
Lucy’s not very good at making friends. And, though she’d prefer to blend into the background, a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (another result of the lightning strike) makes her stand out. For example, she can’t just sit down. She needs to sit, stand, sit, stand, sit (otherwise she incessantly recites the numbers of pi in her head). And a germ phobia means she goes through a good number of Clorox wipes during the school day. (Lucy would want me to give you an exact here, but I can’t.) However, in spite of this, Lucy is comfortable with herself and I love that. In fact, McAnulty never gives the impression that the things that make Lucy so unique (and make middle school so difficult for her) are problems to be solved. They’re just part of Lucy—for better or worse. There are other problems too. Lucy’s mom is dead; her dad is absent; and her grandmother struggles to make ends meet. But these are all just part of Lucy’s life. McAnulty doesn’t let them become the focus of the book, which is just as it should be.
I don’t want to ruin the fun of reading this book by giving too much away. I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the world through Lucy’s eyes. You don’t need to love (or even understand) math to love THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL. It’s a book for anyone who has ever felt out of place, vulnerable, or just plain weird. And I’m pretty sure that’s all of us.
★Starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal.
Khan’s spare, rhyming text introduces readers to various shapes, but it’s much more than a book about shapes. Every spread spotlights a different aspect of Islam. For example, we learn that a minaret (with a cone-shaped roof) is the tower in a mosque from which the call to prayer is broadcast; a daff is a large circular drum; and the Ka’aba (a word which means “cube” in Arabic) is a holy temple in the city of Mecca. A glossary at the end of the book provides definitions and an author’s note explains the important connection between Islam, shapes, and geometry.
I savored every page of Amini’s exquisite mixed media illustrations. Vibrant colors and detailed patterns, including some incredible tilework, draw the eye in and keep it lingering long after Khan’s lilting, rhythmic text has been read. As an added bonus, every spread depicts a different country (though there’s no mention of it in the main text). In an interview with Deborah Kalb, Khan indicated that Turkey, Tanzania, and Malaysia are represented. I imagine that trying to guess where each scene is set could lead to some terrific conversations.
Usually, shape books are aimed at a very young audience, but Khan and Amini have added so many additional layers to the “shape” concept, that readers of all ages will surely be drawn to this beautiful book. And given that hate crimes against and harassment of Muslims have spiked in the past several years, a book that sheds light on their traditions and family life is especially important. After all, as Khan told School Library Journal in 2013, “Educating kids about different cultures is key to building tolerance and acceptance.”
While readers who practice Islam will enjoy seeing themselves on the pages of this gorgeously illustrated book, as a non-Muslim, I relished the opportunity to learn about some of the traditions, art, architecture, and culture surrounding the world’s second largest religion.
Author Hena Khan is on tour with her new chapter book, Power Forward, the first in a series. Click here to see if she’s coming to your town!
POWER FORWARD: ZAYD SALEEM CHASING THE DREAM (BOOK ONE)
Written by Hena Khan
(Salaam Reads; $16.99, paperback $6.99, Ages 7-10)
I have to admit—I don’t read a lot of books about sports. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the first book in Hena Khan’s new chapter book series one bit. I bought a copy of Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream) for my nephew at one of Khan’s book signings (the first on her tour) then, as soon as I got home, read the entire thing in one sitting.
Fourth grader Zayd Saleem eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. He’s on the D team (for now) but with practice he knows he can make the Gold team. Tryouts are two weeks away and he needs all the help he can get. That’s why he bails on his early morning violin practice and plays basketball instead—and he’s actually improving. But when Zayd’s mom discovers he’s been skipping violin and lying about it, the punishment is harsh: no basketball for two whole weeks. And that means no tryouts.
Zayd narrates his tale with a good dose of humor, but the humor never comes at the expense of emotions. We feel deeply for our narrator as he tries to make space for his own dreams while meeting his parent’s expectations. But something’s got to give—and Zayd will need to stand up for himself if he wants to keep those dreams alive.
Family plays a big role in this story and Khan does a terrific job of crafting real characters that we want to spend time with. Zayd’s got an annoying older sister, a fun-loving uncle, an adoring grandmother, an understanding grandfather, and parents who really want what’s best for their son—readers may find themselves wishing for an invitation to dinner.
Sports fans might open Power Forward for the basketball, but they’ll keep reading for the humor, honesty, and cozy warm feeling of being part of the Saleem family. And luckily, they won’t have to wait too long to join the fun again. The next two books in the series hit the shelves soon. Look for On Point (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 2) on May 29, 2018 and Bounce Back (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 3) on October 2, 2018. Let’s hope there are many more to come!
The book tells the true tale of folk artist Nek Chand. In the small village where Chand is born, recycling and repurposing objects is a way of life. Dented buckets become scarecrow hats. Scraps of fabric become blankets. Sticks become toy rafts. And woven throughout the texture of daily life, there are stories. Stories of kings and goddesses, geese and monkeys, jungles and temples fill Chand’s imagination until one day, using sand and sticks and rocks, he builds the world of his imagination on the banks of a river. When partition splits India into two countries, however, Chand and his family are forced to leave their village behind for the cold concrete of India’s first planned city, Chandigarh. Nivola’s watercolor and gouache illustrations show the stark contrast between the colorful village of Chand’s childhood and his life in the city, where variations of beige reign.
Chand feels he doesn’t belong in the city, but then, he claims a patch of unused jungle on the outskirts of town. Over many years, using found objects and half-dead plants, he builds a secret kingdom of walkways, sculptures, arches, flowering plants, and trees. It’s a place where stories come to life, where castaway items are reborn, and where Chand, at last, belongs. Though his garden comes to cover many acres, Chand’s creation remains a secret for 15 years. When it’s finally discovered, government forces threaten demolition, but the people of Chandigarh step in. Chand’s secret kingdom comes to be known as “The Rock Garden of Chandigarh” and, to this day, draws visitors in the thousands from all over the world.
Rosenstock’s text paints a vivid picture of Chand’s life in India as he battles “clouds of mosquitoes and slithering cobras,” walks past “plowmen singing behind oxen” and gathers “broken glass bangles in red, blue, and green.” With the added visual of Nivola’s illustrations, this story of a man who, quietly and with determination, created the world he imagined–simply because it brought him joy–truly comes to life.
MY PET WANTS A PET
Written by Elise Broach
Illustrated by Eric Barclay
(A Christy Ottaviano Book/Henry Holt BYR; $16.99, ages 4-7)
When I go to my local bookstore, I’m always on the lookout for a surprise–something new, that I haven’t heard of, that I know the kids in my book club (mostly 3- to 5-year-olds) will love. MY PET WANTS A PET, written by Elise Broach and illustrated by Eric Barclay is one of those books.
Broach’s story starts off in familiar territory. The main character wants a pet. He begs, and begs, and begs until, finally, his mother says YES! Barclay’s uncluttered, colorful illustrations show the boy and his new puppy playing, cuddling, riding a bike, and before long we leave familiar territory behind as the puppy realizes he wants a pet, too. Mom thinks this is a “terrible idea” but, puppy and boy prevail. And so it goes, throughout the whole story with one pet after another realizing that they, too, want something to care for. In each case, the pet chooses a pet that would, under normal circumstances, be considered a rival or–worse yet–food. But this is not a Jon Klassen book and no one gets eaten. The animals and insects are good to each other and when they do chase it’s “all in good fun.” Everyone is content, except one character–Mom. She progresses from concerned to harried to annoyed as more and more pets invade her house. (Look closely at the illustrations to see why!) The boy formulates a plan to console her, but I won’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to read the book!
Simple illustrations and an engaging story make MY PET WANTS A PET perfect for story time with a large group of kids. Even from several feet away, listeners will catch details in the illustrations that add humor and warmth to the story. And Broach’s text allows readers to anticipate what’s coming, but still manages to keep us on our toes. After all, we may think we know what’s going to happen, but when a bird takes a worm for a pet there’s no telling how things will end.
Click here for the publisher’s page to find a downloadable activity guide.
See another recent review by Colleen Paeff here.
Reviewed by Colleen Paeff – Colleen lives in Los Angeles, California, where she writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She hosts the monthly Picture Book Publisher Book Club and its companion blog, Picture Book Publishers 101. Look for her on Twitter @ColleenPaeff.
HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR
Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Mike Boldt
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99; Ages 2-5)
If you’re looking for a gift for a child who is about to become an older sibling, look no further than Jill Esbaum’s hilarious and practical guide to big siblinghood, HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR with artwork by Mike Boldt. Here’s a description from Penguin Random House:
Good news: Your mom’s hatching a baby! Bad news: Babies take their sweet time. And when the baby finally hatches? He’s too little to play! He mostly screeches, eats, burps, sleeps, and poops. He doesn’t even know he’s a dinosaur! That’s where you come in. You can teach the baby just about everything–from peek-a-boo to roaring to table manners to bedtime. Growing a dinosaur is a big job, but you’re perfect for it. Why? Because one thing your baby brother wants more than anything . . . is to be just like you.
INTERVIEW: I was lucky enough to sit down for a chat (via Facebook Messenger) with Jill to talk about the book, finding time to write, and the perks of being a kidlit author.
Colleen Paeff:I love the way HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR is playful and funny, but it’s also a legitimate how-to guide for older siblings. Did the manuscript start out that way or did it evolve over time?
Jill Esbaum: Thanks, Colleen! That evolved over time. I wrote it to be a simple, entertaining book, but it sort of took on a life of its own. My editor grabbed onto the possibilities right away.
CP:Did you send it to your agent first or did it go straight to your editor?
JE: I sent it to my agent, Tricia Lawrence. I had my Dial editor, Jessica Dandino Garrison, in mind, though, and asked Tricia to send it to her first. It seemed like the kind of goofy humor she might like.
CP:So, you had worked with this editor before?
JE: Yes. We had worked together on both I HATCHED and I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!
CP:Is it easier to work on something with an editor you’ve worked with before?
JE: Definitely, because you (sorta) know what might work for her/him and what probably
CP:How long was the process from first draft to publication for HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR?
JE: I sent it to Tricia in May of 2015, and by October we had an offer. The process didn’t really start until March, when the contract was finally buttoned up. So March, 2016, to January, 2018. Not bad.
CP:Is that faster than usual? Or is that normal for you?
JE: That was about the same as my other recent books. I once waited nearly 5 years, though, so 2 years felt like lightning speed. My last 5 (or so) books have all been about 2 to 2 and a half years from sale to publication.
CP:Wow. That seems fast!
JE: Still seems fast to me, too. My earlier books were mostly 3-year books.
CP:I’m curious about the ratio of stories you write to stories you sell. Do you have many manuscripts in the proverbial “drawer” or do you sell most of what you write?
JE: That’s hard to say right now. My agent has 6-7 picture book manuscripts that started to make the rounds last year. Considering my entire career, though, I suppose I sell…50% of what I write? That’s probably just because I refuse to give up on some that deserve the drawer. I can’t help tinkering with rejected stories in hopes of making them irresistible the next time out. That persistence has often paid off for me. An offer came in last month for a picture book that had been rejected 7-8 times since I wrote it in 2014.
CP:Do you usually work on one project at a time or several?
JE: Several. Right now, I have a chapter book, 3 picture book manuscripts, and a nonfiction project all front and center on my computer desktop.
CP:Are you someone who writes every day or do you have a more flexible schedule? And how do you squeeze it in around farm work, grandchildren, school visits, and teaching a summer writing workshop?!
JE: I don’t feel like I’ve been doing a very good job of it lately, honestly. Working on that. But I can’t always make writing my priority. Family comes first, always. One thing that has also been squeezing out writing time lately is handling the business side of being published. I don’t love it, and it’s a huge time suck. Long, leisurely days of “Hmm, what should I work on first?” are VERY few and far between, these days.
CP:But it seems like you’re so prolific!
JE: I don’t feel that way. I always feel like I should be writing more. For instance, I wrote a quick draft of a new picture book and sent it to my online critique group about 10 days ago. They’ve all weighed in, and I’m chomping at the bit to start tweaking. But I haven’t yet been able to make the time. Part of that is because I have a new book out and am doing my best to promote it, including my first-ever launch party this next weekend. Partly it’s because the flu sidelined a grandson’s babysitter, so I stepped in there. Grammy duty is one of the best parts of my life!
CP:Is hanging out with your grandkids a big source of inspiration for you?
JE: It is! And I hadn’t really expected that. My fingers are tightly crossed for a project going to its final yes/no meeting next month that springs entirely from a moment I experienced while babysitting my granddaughter. Crazy.
CP:I know you write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a soft spot for one over the other?
JE: I suppose I have a soft spot for fiction, but only because that comes entirely from my own imagination, and it’s a blast to see that come to life. I love writing nonfiction, too, because all the information I need is easily available to me, and all I have to do is figure out a way to make it engaging for kiddos.
CP:Let’s get back to HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR. I love the parts in the story where the text is vague, but the illustrations show something alarming, or moving, or downright hilarious. Did your manuscript go to the illustrator with art notes or was that all him?
JE: I did include brief art notes here and there. But much of it was left for the illustrator’s imagination. I don’t think I had an art note for the page in which the baby dino is teething on the cat. And that turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations.
CP:Yes! I love that one. And I love the one where the big brother roars and scares the baby. They both look so sad.
JE: I feel very fortunate that both Jessica and the illustrator, Mike Boldt, understood what I was trying to do.
CP:Do you have a favorite unexpected detail?
JE: My favorited unexpected detail is that Mike inserted picture books here and there with titles that are plays on books of his or mine. There’s I Don’t Want To Be a Stegosaurus (from his book with Dev Petty, I Don’t Want To Be a Frog); I Hatched; and I Am T. Rex, Hear Me Roar! (from my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) Too funny. Illustrators are brilliant.
CP:Yes! I love those, too. And I love how all the illustrations in the books are dinosaurs. It’s so clever.Did you see any artwork while it was in process or did you have to wait until it was complete?
JE: I did get to see the black and white sketches. It was obvious even then that this one would be special.
CP: Do you sometimes feel a sense of trepidation when you give up your manuscript to an illustrator?
JE: No, I never feel that way. I’m always excited to see what they bring to the story. Seeing their sketches feels like unwrapping a gift.
CP:What’s next for you?
JE: I have a couple of nonfiction books coming out in March. Picture book-wise, two projects are in the pipeline that I can’t yet talk about. And my fingers are tightly crossed for a third. Meanwhile, I’ll be writing whenever I can squeeze it in. Enough of that, and projects eventually get finished.
CP:What do you wish you’d known when you first started writing for children?
JE: I don’t think there’s anything I can say I wish I’d known. Getting to this point in my career has been one long, slow learning process, of course. But I can’t wish I’d had shortcuts, because everything that’s happened has made me a stronger writer.
CP:That’s good to know!
JE: The BEST thing that’s happened in the past 20 years: If anybody had told me, early on, that in 20 years I’d have this many amazing and talented author/illustrator friends all over the globe I would have thought that person was nuts. I mean, I live in Iowa; how would I meet them? Ha. Enter the internet. And SCBWI conferences and literature festivals. Meeting so many terrific book people has been one of the highlights of my life.
CP:It’s definitely one of the perks of this business. Thanks so much for doing this, Jill!
OPEN IF YOU DARE
Written by Dana Middleton
(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)
is reviewed by Colleen Paeff.
Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton begins at the end. It’s the last day of elementary school and three best friends Birdie, Rose, and Ally are about to embark on their very last summer together. Rose is moving back to England in August and Ally and Birdie will attend different middle schools come September. Nothing will ever be the same again and the girls know it.
They are looking forward to a blissfully predictable summer of swimming, softball, selfies, and lots of time together on their secret island. But the discovery of a mysterious box and its sinister contents takes the trio on an unexpected search for the identity of a dead girl and the villain who killed her.
Middleton expertly weaves mystery with coming-of-age, as the girls experience crushes and rivalries, bad decisions and harsh consequences, parental expectations and annoying siblings – in other words, Life – in the midst of their search for answers. When the clues run dry, Rose and Ally would happily give up the hunt in favor of milking as much fun as possible out of their last summer together, but Birdie, our narrator, can’t let it go. Perhaps it’s because, for her, solving the mystery of the dead girl seems easier than solving the mystery of what life will be like without Rose and Ally by her side.
Like any good mystery, there are twists and turns and startling connections. And the setting, based on Middleton’s hometown in Georgia, comes to life with evocative details and fully realized characters of all ages. Ultimately, though, Open if You Dare is a story about friendship and where Middleton truly shines is in her depiction of the joys and complexities of building relationships with the people who understand us most in the world and the heartbreak of letting them go.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that, by the end of the book, the mystery of the dead girl is solved. But the mystery of what life will be like in middle school? Alone? Let’s just say Rose, Ally, and Birdie are ready to take it on. Let the adventure begin.
Review by Colleen Paeff – Colleen lives in Los Angeles, California, where she writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She hosts the monthly Picture Book Publisher Book Club and its companion blog, Picture Book Publishers 101. Look for her on Twitter @ColleenPaeff.