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

Join NatGeo’s Explorer Academy!

Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret, by Trudi Trueit, (Sept. 2018, National Geographic), $16.99, ISBN: 9781426331596

Ages 9-13

Twelve year-old Cruz Coronado has lived with his dad in Hawaii ever since his mom died in a work-related accident when he was little. Now that Cruz is 12, though, he’s got a big future: he’s been accepted into the prestigious Explorer Academy, which will take him to Washington, DC. The Explorer Academy is no joke: they accept only 24 kids from around the world every year; the students train to become the next generation of great explorers. But someone doesn’t want Cruz at the Academy: there’s an attempt on his life before he even leaves for the school! When he arrives at the Academy, he learns that his mother’s history is tied into his – and this could endanger his life, and the lives of his new friends. But who’s out to get Cruz?

Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret is the first in a new NatGeo adventure series, and I loved it. It’s action-packed, fast-paced, and features a good cast of diverse, interesting characters with loads of cool tech and devices, like Mell, Cruz’s honeybee drone. There are copious tech and nature facts and information found throughout the story, with scientist and technology profiles in a “Truth Behind the Fiction” section at the end of the book. Color illustrations and maps throughout the book make this a solid hit for tweens and early teens. I’m looking forward to The Falcon’s Feather – the second book in the series – in March. Cruz is a likable hero who has a talent for code-breaking and a good relationship with his dad and his aunt, who also happens to be a professor at the Academy. Cruz’s best friend, Lani, isn’t a student at the Academy (yet), and serves as an anchor to home for Cruz. She, and Cruz’s friend and Academy roommate, Emmett, are the gadget masters here: the Q of the series, for you James Bond fans. Talk them up to your STEM/STEAM kids!

Display and booktalk with the Nick and Tesla series from Quirk; the HowToons comic series, and the Book Scavenger series by Jennifer Chambliss Berman. And talk up the Explorer Academy website! There are character profiles, book trailers, a chapter excerpt, gadget talk, and a crack the code challenge. It’s a good series to wrap a program around… just sayin’.

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

Zora and Carrie have more adventures in Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, by T.R. Simon (Sept. 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763643010

Ages 10-14

Is it any more perfect that the latest installment in a series starring a young Zora Neale Hurston is out right before Banned Book Month? Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliant classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is both a staple on high school reading lists AND a book that’s landed on Banned and Challenged lists since 1997.

Zora & Me is the story of young Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie. The year is 1903, and the two live with their families in Eatonville, Florida, in the first African-American city to be incorporated in the state. Even as a child, Zora is every bit the storyteller, the grand designer of adventures; Carrie likes to play it safer, but always follows Zora into an escapade – or a mystery. In this second novel, author T.R. Simon examines hate, white privilege, and history. It begins when Mr. Polk, their mute neighbor, is attacked and his horses set loose. When the girls go investigate and help Mr. Polk, they discover he can speak – he speaks to Old Lady Bronson, a woman rumored to be a conjure woman. When Mr. Polk breaks his silence, it sets other pieces to a long-unsolved puzzle into motion. The narrative shifts between the events in 1903 and the story of a Lucia, a young woman sold into slavery in 1855. In 1903, Zora and Carrie discover an abandoned plantation mansion on Mr. Polk’s property; at the same time, white men come to Eatonville and demand more of Mr. Polk’s land, claiming a right to it. Tensions rise, and the people of Eatonville prepare to stand up for themselves and their home. As the narratives move back and forth, the puzzle comes together and everything becomes heartbreakingly clear.

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is intense and raw, with brutal honesty about slavery and its aftermath. T.R. Smith writes about the roots of racial violence and the “enduring wounds of slavery” that persist to this day. Zora Neale Hurston is an intelligent, headstrong 12-year-old, and Carrie finds her strength and voice. They’re strong protagonists, strong African-American young women, and fully aware of the danger that whites present to them, even if slavery is now something they’re only hearing about: many parents were born into slavery, and freed as very young children. This generation knows that they weren’t “given” their freedom. They weren’t given anything: they will fight for everything that is theirs. Lucia, the third main character in The Cursed Ground, tells a sharp, painful story about family lost and found; about freedom taken; about people who would diminish a whole race’s humanity, and about discovering and defending one’s sense of self. It’s an incredible story. A biography of Zora Neale Hurston and a timeline of her life conclude this story. I hope to read more of Zora’s and Carrie’s adventures. This is definitely on my Newbery shortlist, and I hope it’s on a Coretta Scott King Award shortlist, too. It’s a must-add to historical fiction collections and would make a stellar African-American History Month reading assignment for classes.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

YA Alternate History: My Name is Victoria

My Name is Victoria, by Lucy Worsley, (May 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-8807-3

Ages 12+

Lucy Worsley, British historian Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, creates an alternate history surrounding Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne that YA fans, Anglophiles, and BritLit fans like me will LOVE.

Eleven-year-old Miss V. Conroy, daughter of Sir John Conroy, wielder of the royal checkbook (aka, the comptroller), is headed to London to serve as a companion to the Princess Victoria. She’s not terribly sorry to leave home – her mother seems to have forgotten about her ages ago, and her domineering father insists that Miss V and her dog, Dash, are exactly what the young Princess needs. Or does Sir John need another set of eyes and ears in Kensington? That’s what seems to be the case, as Miss V discovers once she arrives at Kensington and meets Victoria, who’s an unkempt, rude girl prone to throwing temper tantrums. Sir John expects Miss V to keep him apprised of everything the young princess says and does, desperate to keep his oppressive hold on Victoria and her mother – a structure known as “The Kensington System” – and eventually, wield the power behind the throne. As Victoria and Miss V develop a close friendship, Miss V begins questioning her father and The System.

Originally published in the UK My Name is Victoria is a book that historical fiction fans will addictively read from start to finish. Miss V goes through major character growth, from a young girl in awe of her powerful father, to a jaded young woman who has seen and learned too much about the world, and her family’s place in it. Queen Victoria is a strong supporting character; at times needy and unpredictable, other times, aware and angry, striking out at the repressive Kensington System and John Conroy’s manipulation. There are complicated relationships, British politics, a little bit of intrigue, and a blend of fact and fiction to please. My Name is Victoria has a starred review from Kirkus. British history fans should check out Lucy Worsley’s webpage, and learn more about the real-life Victoria and the Kensington System at the BBC’s page. U.S. Publisher Candlewick Press has a chapter excerpt available.

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

My Year in the Middle: Relevant then, relevant now

My Year in the Middle, by Lila Quintero Weaver, (July 2018, Candlewick), $15.99, ISBN: 9780763692315

Ages 8-11

Sixth-grader Lu Olivera and her Latin American family find themselves in the middle of a civil rights struggle in their Red Grove, Alabama neighborhood one hot summer in 1970. The tensions run high in her integrated school: black kids sit on one side of the room, white kids on the other; she sits in the middle row. She’s in the the middle child, smack dab between her older, activist sister and younger twin siblings; she’s in the middle when it comes to local politics: many of the white families want to re-elect segregationist governor George Wallace, while Lu and her family support incumbent Albert Brewer. Many of her classmates are leaving their school to go to a private, white school. When Lu befriends fellow track runner Belinda Gresham, an African-American girl, and her classmates turn on her, she decides it’s time to take a stand.

Inspired by the author’s Alabama childhood, My Year in the Middle is a story of civil rights and finding one’s voice. Lu puts up with the passive racism in her community, with remarks like, “she’s from South America, she doesn’t mind going to school with Negroes”. But seeing how her African-American friends are treated by her fellow classmates, and by the general public in her town, pushes her buttons. Lu is a character who stands out: she’s a character of color stuck in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, but because she’s not African-American, she’s tolerated: until she digs in her heels and says, “No more”. She gives and receives support from her black classmates and from Sam, her classmate and crush, a white preacher’s son who is bullied for his civil rights stance.

Lu is at once relatable and a mirror for our society today. We’re still divided, and more and more people are forced from the middle to take a stand. Readers may recognize recent political speeches and attitudes in George Wallace’s condescending stumping and the racial tension that permeates Lu’s classroom. My Year in the Middle is a solid work of historical fiction that provides excellent discussion topics for readers on civil rights, social justice, and where we’ve gone versus where we are.

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

Just Under the Clouds shows us the working poor

Just Under the Clouds, by Melissa Sarno, (June 2018, Knopf Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 9781524720087

Ages 10-14

Middle schooler Cora, her Mexican-American mom, and younger sister, Adare, are homeless. After her father died, she and her family have lived in a series of temporary homes and shelters in Brooklyn, New York, while her mother tries to make ends meet at an hourly retail job, giving up her art to keep her family going. Adare sustained brain damage at birth, so Cora must look after her when their mother isn’t around. When they get back to their room at the shelter and discover it’s been broken into, the family heads to Cora’s mom’s childhood friend, Willa, a successful lawyer with an apartment of her own, hoping to stay until a better, safer, placement comes through. Cora loves life in Willa’s stable home, but the girls’ mother is frustrated by what she sees as Willa’s meddling. Meanwhile, at school, Cora struggles with math and bullies, and meets a friend named Sabina, who lives on a houseboat and was homeschooled until this school year. Cora has both parents’ passions within her; she keeps her father’s tree diary with her and searches for a special tree that her father wrote about, paired with her mother’s artistic talent – with an arborial bent. She has the stress of caring for Adare, the stress of being homeless, and being bullied.

Just Under the Clouds is narrated in Cora’s voice; author Melissa Sarno creates a strong, moving narrative where we meet a family that often falls through the cracks in our society: the working poor. Cora’s mother, Liliana, is working at a job that doesn’t cover the cost of living for a family of three, let alone in metro New York, and her daughters are in school, clean, and fed, if not full. It’s a tale of poverty, grief, empathy, and hope. The book addresses childhood stress, which comes with long-lasting fallout, and caring for a special needs child, and how poverty affects those children receiving necessary services to help them. It’s a sensitive, painful look in our own backyards and courtyards, our own classrooms and workplaces, and deserves a space on bookshelves and in readers’ hands. Pair this with 1958’s The Family Under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carson, and ask readers how things have changed – and how they’ve stayed the same – over 60 years. Start a booktalk by asking your readers, “How would you feel if you lived in a place that wasn’t safe to go to alone?”

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

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery is keeping watch

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery, by Allison Rushby, (July 2018, Candlewick Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9780763696856

Recommended for readers 9-12

Flossie Birdwhistle is a ghost, but that’s beside the point. She’s got a very important job as Turnkey at London’s Highgate Cemetery; making sure her fellow souls are at rest and cared for. She’s a young ghost – she’s only 11- and while some may have something to say about that, she’s good at her job. Right now, her big concern is World War II, currently raging over Britain, and disturbing her dead neighbors. Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier up to no good, so she starts investigating, and learns that he’s somehow managed to bridge the gap between the worlds of the dead and the living. She has got to stop him before he – and the enemy army – can destroy Britain!

This is thoroughly enjoyable historical fiction with a nice dose of the supernatural. Flossie has a nicely sketched out backstory, and we learn just enough about her fellow ghosts and familiars to keep us satisfied and turning pages. I like how author Allison Rushby incorporated Hitler’s well-documented fascination with the supernatural into the story, making this a “what if” type of alternate history novel for younger readers, and I like Flossie’s determination and ability to think while under (often literal) fire. Mystery and ghost story fans will enjoy meeting Flossie and friends. Want to give readers a fun website? Let them visit the actual Highgate Cemetery’s webpage, where they can find war graves (including soldiers from WWII), take a virtual tour of the cemetery, and visit a few luminaries.

Posted in Fantasy, mythology, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

The story of Midas, continued: A Touch of Gold

A Touch of Gold, by Annie Sullivan, (Aug. 2018, Blink YA), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-310-76635-3

Recommended for readers 12+

I mentioned A Touch of Gold in my Argos review last week, as part of my Go Greek! summer reading post. I was still reading it at the time, but I’m all done and dying to talk this one up. Let’s dive in!

We all know the story of King Midas, right? Has the ability to turn anything he touched to gold, which sounds pretty great at first, but try to eat a candy bar, or have a swig of water: see where I’m going? Literally everything he touched turned to gold, which was stressful enough, but when his daughter went to him and transformed into a golden statue, that was it. He begged the god Dionysus to take away the Golden Touch, but gods have a sense of humor – which is where A Touch of Gold begins.

You see, Midas needed to bathe everything he turned to gold in a nearby river. Being a loving dad, he grabbed Kora, his daughter, first. Once he saw she was okay, nothing else mattered. Except to Dionysus, who tends to be a stickler for playing by his rules. Midas didn’t bathe the other objects in the river, so Kora’s skin became gold. Not a statue again; more of a gold sheen, and Midas was condemned to keep the other gold objects nearby, or he’d be weakened to the point of death. Kora, now a teen, has been sheltered within the palace walls for most of her life; her father’s brother, Phaeus, taking on most of the day-to-day crown duties, while Midas grows weaker, needing more time close to his gold, to retain any energy. When someone sneaks in, kills a guard, and steals the gold, Kora must undertake the quest of a lifetime: find the gold and restore her father’s health. Along with her would-be suitor, Aris, and her cousin, Hettie, Kora sets out aboard a ship captained by Aris’ sometime friend, Royce. Kora quickly finds herself up against a superstitious and fearful crew, a bloodthirsty pirate who collects skulls, and someone working from within to bring harm to Kora and her family.

A Touch of Gold moves along at a good pace, building on an established story and adding new adventure, romance, and intrigue. Narrated by Kora, readers meet a heroine who is strong but vulnerable, smart but unsure, who undertakes her own heroine’s quest to grow into herself. She feels like an outcast; she’s treated like an outcast, until she believes in herself: a relatable character with a nice growth path. Readers may or may not see the villains coming, but A Touch of Gold is a good summer read that your Percy Jackson fans who are ready to take on something more will enjoy.