Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Problim Children: Seven kids, seven days of the week, and an age-old mystery

The Problim Children, by Natalie Lloyd/Illustrated by Julia Sarda, (Jan. 2018, Katherine Tegen Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062428202

Recommended for readers 8-12

The Problim Children is the first in a new middle grade series about seven… different siblings, each born on a different day of the week, and their adventures. We have Mona, Monday’s child, who may be fair of face, but she’s a bit macabre… Toot, Tuesday’s toddler, who has a catalog of farts for all occasions; Wendell and Thea, twins born on Wednesday and Thursday, who spend all of their time together; Friday’s child, Frida, speaks in rhyme; Sal, Saturday’s child, loves to work in his garden; and Sundae is the eternal optimist. Their parents are away, and the Problims manage to blow up their bungalow in the Swampy Woods, necessitating a move to their Grandpa Problim’s abandoned mansion in Lost Cove. The only problem? The Problims have a history with Lost Cove, and neighborhood busybody Desdemona O’pinion is determined to keep them out at all costs.

Are the Problims magic? Maybe. Are they a family with secrets? Definitely! There’s a history between the O’pinions and the Problims, and the kids get caught up in the shenanigans – while planning plenty of their own. The Problim Children is funny enough – Toot’s ability to communicate solely by fart will make this a home-run with some readers – and readers will love the idea of being left to their own devices as their parents travel the world for work. There are circus spiders, a pet pig, an intriguing mystery, and a villainess who’s right up there with the best of the mustache-twirlers. It’s a little over the top at times, but it’s fun and silly and readers who like a lighter Lemony Snicket will like this one. The Problim Children received a starred review from Booklist.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Beth Vrabel’s newest: Bringing Me Back

Bringing Me Back, by Beth Vrabel, (Feb. 2018, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781510725270

Recommended for readers 8-12

Seventh-grader Noah is having a bad year. His mother was arrested on a DUI and is serving a six-month sentence in prison; he lashed out on the football field, getting his school’s football program shut down. To say he’s persona non grata at school is putting it likely. Jeff, his mother’s boyfriend, has taken him in while Noah’s mom serves her sentence, and is trying to reach out to Noah, but Noah just sees himself as yet another burden on everyone. He’s taunted and bullied at school; even his former best friend, Landon, has joined the crowd in leaving garbage in his locker and making snide remarks during class, in the halls, wherever they see an opportunity.

And then, the bear shows up. Not much older than a cub, Noah notices the bear wandering around near the school. The school begins a fundraiser to bring back the football team, dumping buckets of Gatorade on themselves and donating money to the cause, and the bear gets her head caught in a bucket. Noah has a cause: he wants to save the bear. He’ll risk even more bullying and ridicule to do it, because now it’s him against the entire school, desperate to bring back that football team. Thankfully, he’s got a friend or two on his side. Noah’s desire to save the bear gives him a reason to keep going; the bear is bringing him back from the brink.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a Beth Vrabel fangirl. She knows how to write for tweens. She tackles bullying, addiction, dysfunctional families, and social justice in Bringing Me Back, and makes it all flow seamlessly. Kids can empathize with all of the kids in this story: kids who live in areas where school sports are just as important as schoolwork; kids living with a single parent or stepparent; kids being bullied; kids who need a reason to keep going. She subtly addresses teacher bullying and the frustration of an education system that appears to be dialing it in to some students – what do you do when you’ve grown beyond your school? Bringing Me Back is a solid addition to realistic fiction shelves.

Posted in Middle Grade, Non-fiction, Tween Reads

Need a shot of creativity? Go on a Jabber Walk!

Jabberwalking, by Juan Felipe Herrera, (March 2018, Candlewick), $22.99, ISBN: 9781536201406

Recommended for readers 7-12

Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Mexican-American Poet Laureate in the U.S.A., encourages readers to spark their creativity by going on a Jabber Walk. Part biography, part writing guide, Jabber Walking is an effusive, silly, excitable look inside a creative mind. Herrera wants to show kids that it’s easy to get the creative juices flowing by getting moving: go Jabber Walking, and let your imagination go wild! Herrera’s Jabber Walk takes readers with him on a walk to the Library of Congress, accompanied by his Chinese Pit Bull Shar-Pei, Lotus, who loves getting into her own blue-cheesy, crazy adventures. Black and white scrawled pictures are proof that creativity and Jabber Walking aren’t limited solely to words. He asks questions to prompt thought: Do you remember a family story? How far back in time do your familiar stories take you? and introduces us to his story, starting with his father’s great escape from Mexico in the early 20th Century. We learn that Jabber poems aren’t supposed to be “too clean”: they’re “fast poems… wild poem… an unkempt, dirty, poem. A scribble, gooey, cuckoo, sweaty, puffy, blue-cheesy, incandescent poem!”

Throw the idea that you need to be linear out the window – this is the kind of book that embraces the creative process, with all of the crazy, fun, random thoughts that go into it. I’d love to see this used to teach creative writing; I’d love to start a Jabber Writing program at my library. Hmmm… Give this to kids that love to write, and give this to kids that need a gentle nudge to unleash their inner Jabber writer. Jabber Walking is too much fun, and it’s one of those books that begs for more than one reading; there’s just too much to take in on one read. Jabber Walking received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

Posted in Non-fiction, Non-Fiction

Make #science even cooler with Adventures in Science

My Kindergartener and I like to hang out and relax on the weekends, but I like to make sure that doing something fun doesn’t always involve endless hours of watching Minecraft videos on YouTube (his current obsession). Thankfully, I remembered that I received an Adventures in Science: Human Body kit from the kind folks at Silver Dolphin, so out it came. The first cheer came from me, when I realized that it’s a 6+ kit, not an 8 or 10+ kit, like most of them are: my kiddo could do this! The second cheer came from the kiddo, who saw a skeleton, because I’ve got that kid. (And I’m that mom.) We cracked open the box and went to it.

Adventures in Science: The Human Body, by Courtney Acampora, (Dec. 20017, Silver Dolphin Books), $21.99, ISBN: 978-1684121298

The box was full of stuff that would appeal to kids from ages 5(ish, my kiddo is going to be 6 in June) to about 10 or 11. There are two sheets of stickers; one sheet of bones, the other, of internal organs, including a set of “free play” stickers. The stickers go on a two-sided sheet with an outline of the human body; one side accommodates the organ stickers, one, the bones. There’s a separate bag for a snap-together skeleton model, playing card-sized flash cards about the body, and a booklet on the human body. Kiddo went to work on the sticker sheet, ASAP. The outlines are clear enough that he didn’t need my help at all! The only fiddly part came with the organ stickers, because so many overlap one another. We moved stuff around, covered some stuff up, and were pretty happy with the results.


I tried to read some of the flash cards to him as he was stickering, but realized that I was interested, but he was just sticking his little heart out, so I read them to myself and pointed out any cool stuff I came across. That worked for him.


Okay, next up, was the big guy: the skeleton. It’s a snap-together, and he got the skull, pelvis, and legs together pretty quickly. The really fiddly part came with the rib cage, spine, and arms. The rib cage is delicate, and the little spokes were giving us a hard time getting them in. We ultimately called in the big guns (Daddy), who made it work.


Overall, it was a fun hour spent with two cool hands-on crafts. He learned a couple of things, reinforced some facts he already knew, and ended up with a fun new skeleton to put in his room. I really like the flash cards and accompanying book, which gives a nice introduction to the human body for school-age kids; ideal for maybe around 7 or 8 years old. Younger kids will like the full-color pictures and graphics, and the book is loaded with fast fact Did You Know? boxes you can read to them. At $21.99, it’s a good gift for a curious kid. If you can get some fundraising money or program budget money together, this would be a great project for a small science group at your library; two or three kids can easily work together on one model and the posters. And they’d be pretty awesome to display.


Posted in Animal Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Rainforest, magic, and mystery: The Lost Rainforest – Mez’s Magic

The Lost Rainforest: Mez’s Magic, by Eliot Schrefer/Illustrated by Emilia Dziubak, (Feb. 2018, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062491077

Recommended for readers 8-13

Mez is an orphaned young panther living with her sister, under the care of their aunt in the rainforest of Caldera. Panthers are nightwalkers – primarily nocturnal, they prowl in the evenings and sleep during the day. Except for Mez. Born during the eclipse, she can cross the Veil – the sleep that overcomes the animals during the day hours – and explore the daytime world. She meets a snake who tells her that she and he are gifted, eclipse-born, and they must discover other animals like them in order to save the world. Banished by her aunt after discovering Mez’s secret, she joins the search for other shadowwalkers in their quest to defeat the Ant Queen. But the Queen isn’t the only one they have to defend themselves against. They’ll encounter animals that mistrust the shadowwalkers, and cope with betrayal and mistrust even among one another.


Mez’s Magic is the first book in what looks like an exciting new animal adventure. There’s plenty for readers to love here: intrigue, adventure, and ancient magic are just a few of the ingredients. It’s a satisfying standalone, yet leaves readers waiting for more answers. There’s an animal friend for everyone here; Mez, the star of the show, is burdened with responsibility and largely naïve to the rainforest at large; Rumi is a lovable, nerdy tree frog and Lima is a talkative, sweet bat; Gogi is a capuchin monkey with an inferiority complex; Auriel is a wily snake who seems to have all the answers. The book weaves a story that addresses racism, intolerance and ignorance through the individual animal species and the concept of the shadowwalker. Black and white chapter illustrations give the reader an idea of what’s coming up, and an author’s note at the end discusses the beauty and importance of the rainforest.

Mez’s Magic received a starred review from Kirkus.


Posted in Non-Fiction, picture books

Activists, Musicians: Biographies

If you’re looking for some biographies on musicians who worked to change the world, here’s a starter list.


Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, by Michael Mahin/Illustrated by Evan Turk, (Sept. 2017, Athenum), $17.99, ISNB:  978-1481443494  It’s a good thing Muddy Waters wasn’t good at doing what he was told. Everyone from his grandma to record producers said no one wanted to hear the blues, but Muddy just kept playing, from family picnics to smoky juke joints, until he finally got to Chicago, and recorded his music.

Mahalia Jackson: Walking With Kings and Queens, by Nina Nolan/Illustrated by John Holyfield, (2015, Amistad/HarperCollins),$17.99, ISBN: 978-0-06-087944-0  Mahalia Jackson had a voice that could make you stop whatever you were doing in listen. Walking with Kings and Queens tells her story, from her New Orleans childhood to her performance at the March on Washington.

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, by Laban Carrick Hill/Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, (Aug. 2013, Roaring Brook Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781596435407  In 1973, music changed forever when Clive Campbell – you may know him as DJ Kook Herc – created a new way of playing music to make the beats last longer, letting you dance longer. It caught on. Kids started breakdancing rather than fighting; a culture arose that influences music, style, and language to this day.


Nina: Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone, by Alice Brière-Haquet/Illustrated by Bruno Liance, (Dec. 2017, Charlesbridge), $16.99, ISBN: 9781580898270  Singer and activist Nina Simone grew up listening to music made by “important men in powdered wigs from past centuries” and faced down systemic racism to shine as a classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop vocalist and activist.

Listen – How Pete Seeger Got America Singing, by Leda Schubert/Illustrated by Raúl Colón, (June 2017, Roaring Brook Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626722507  Folk artist Pete Seeger led by example, be it through song or through activism. He said that participation would save the human race, and encouraged it through actions: he supported unions, protested war, and marched for civil rights, and he was vocal about environmentalism.

When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon & Garfunkel, by G. Neri/Illustrated by David Litchfield,
(March 2018, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763681746  The story of music duo Simon & Garfunkel, told in verse, takes the artists from their childhood in Queens, New York, through their mutual love of music and discovery of ’60s social change, and through their early musical career.


Posted in Middle Grade, Non-fiction, picture books, Tween Reads

Musicians, poets, activists: When Paul Met Artie

Simon and Garfunkel are two of the most famous names in music history. The names of their songs are less titles now, more legends: The Sound of Silence; Bridge Over Troubled Water; The Boxer… think of one, and you immediately find yourself closing your eyes and listening to the haunting melodies, the perfect union of the two singers’ voices.

When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon & Garfunkel, by G. Neri/Illustrated by David Litchfield,
(March 2018, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763681746
Recommended for readers 8-12

How else could the story of Simon & Garfunkel be told, but in verse? G. Neri, whose books Chess Rumble, Tru & Nelle, and Ghetto Cowboy combine free verse with prose storytelling, shines here, giving readers the rise, fall, and rise of the duo, beginning with their 1981 reunion concert in Central Park, then tracing their lives together from the beginning, as two boys in Queens who discover their love of music and their voices together. Each spread is a different song title, evoking a different period in their lives: “My Little Town” describes the Queens neighborhood where they grew up; “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” looks at their early success as Tom & Jerry. “Bleecker Street” looks at Paul’s life in Greenwich Village, and Art’s in Berkeley, where they both discover folk singers and activism; “Bookends” sees the two in a car, on New Year’s Day, 1966, listening to their number-one song, “The Sound of Silence”, on the radio. There’s an Afterword, discography, bibliography, and Musical Connections section, a chronological timeline of song influences.

G. Neri manages to fit a lifetime – into 48 pages. We learn that Paul Simon loves baseball and Art Garfunkel was going to be a math teacher; we discover that they were famous and potential has-beens by age 18; that they dreamed of making it big, and when fame failed them, wanted to just make music for the sake of making music. The digital artwork captures the Kew Gardens, Queens, neighborhoods as easily as it captures a small street in Paris, and the crowd at Central Park. This isn’t a picture book for beginning readers; it’s a beautifully illustrated volume of a moment in music history, in verse.

I’m a Queens girl, and you can’t be from Queens (or be a Queens College graduate) without Simon & Garfunkel being part of your DNA. My eldest went to the same high school as the duo; there’s an auditorium named for Art Garfunkel when you walk in the door. Reading When Paul Met Artie took me on a wonderful trip back to a Queens that I remember as a little girl, when I’d sit in the backseat of my uncle’s car as he listened to Simon & Garfunkel on the radio. Music fans and those of us who grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s music will love this beautiful book.