Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Middle School

Odd Gods – Mythic Middle School can be Heck!

Odd Gods: Misfit Myths from Mount Olympus Middle School, by David Slavin & Daniel Weitzman/Illustrated by Adam J.B. Lane, (May 2019, HarperCollins), $13.99, ISBN: 9780062839534

Ages 7-11

This mythological mashup is straight-up hilarious. Oddonis is the son of Zeus and Freya, the Nordic goddess of love. You’d think he was set, right? NOPE. He’s got a weird chin, messy hair, a third nipple, and he’s nothing like his twin brother… Adonis. Yup, THAT Adonis. Adonis, who had six-pack abs as a baby! How does that even happen? Narrated by Oddonis, Odd Gods is the story of the Odds – the not-quite godly gods – as they navigate the halls of Mount Olympus Middle School, and of Oddonis’ attempt to wrest respect from his brother and his father when he runs against Adonis for class president.

Odd Gods has a snarky bent to the narration – think Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid – with a strong undercurrent of frustration. These are the kids that have been discounted from the very beginning. We have Mathena, goddess of math and… poultry. She loves math; she breathes it, lives it, loves it, to her classmate’s ridicule. There’s also the duck and chicken following her around; that can’t help. There’s Germes, god of sniffling and snot, who can often be found hanging out in a dumpster. Don’t forget Puneous, the smallest god of them all, and Oddonis’s best friend… Gaseous. Gaseous, who can clear a room or send a group of gods flying. Together, this group of misfits will take on the established group of Mean Gods and prove, for once and for all, that there’s room on Olympus for everyone.

Absolute fun, with black and white drawings throughout that directly contribute to the story’s flow. Hand this to your Jedi Academy readers and see how they think the two schools would do in a match-up. Heroes in Training and Goddess Girls readers will love this one, too.

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Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Middle Grade Quick Takes: Toy Academy, Ask Emma, Confusion is Nothing New

Every now and then, I dive into my TBR, which accumulates at an astonishing rate. This week, I managed to read a few more from the TBR, and wanted to give a quick take on them, since they’ve been out for a while but still deserve some mention.

Toy Academy: Some Assembly Required (Toy Academy #1), by Brian Lynch/Illustrated by Edwardian Taylor, (Jan. 2018, Scholastic), $12.99, ISBN: 978-1-338-14845-9

Ages 7-10

This is the first in a new intermediate/middle grade series, and it’s SO much fun. Grumboldt is a stuffed animal of some sort – he has a somewhat amusing and dubious origin – and desperately wants to belong to a kid of his own. He meets a transforming car robot named Omnibus Squared, who, as it turns out, is recruiting toys for Commander Hedgehog’s Institute for Novelty Academia – The Toy Academy. Grumboldt manages to talk his way into admission, and tries desperately to be a great toy, so he’ll be assigned to a great kid, but he’s got some challenges. There’s a bully (it’s always a soldier, isn’t it?) named Rex constantly bugging him, and he can’t stay awake during Bedtime Prep. When Commander Hedgehog’s arms go missing, though, Grumboldt sees a chance to help out and make good at Toy Academy after all.

Have readers who love Toy Story? (Seriously, who doesn’t?) Give them Toy Academy. It’s sweet, hilarious, and loaded with toy references that everyone – kids and grownups alike – will recognize and get a laugh out of. Brian Lynch is a screenwriter with Minions and The Secret Life of Pets to his credit, so he knows how to write things that kids like. Edwardian Taylor’s art is a perfect match for the wacky, fun storytelling and gives us characters we’ll know and love for books to come: Grumboldt is a lovable plush with mismatched parts; Micro is a lively action figure whose collectable status limits her movement – she’s stuck in a plastic bag, because she HAS VALUE; Commandant Hedgepig is a knockoff, off-brand version of Commander Hedgehog who insists on being called his proper name rather than his emerging nickname, Bootleg. The second Toy Academy book, Ready for Action, is also available, so put these on your series purchase lists if you don’t have them already.  The kids will love them.

Ask Emma, by Sheryl Berk & Carrie Berk, (May 2018, Yellow Jacket), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-4998-0647-2

Ages 8-12

Emma is a 13-year-old seventh grader who loves to give advice, whether or not it’s asked for. She decides to start an Ask Emma column, so she can make herself available to all of her classmates at Austen Middle School, but quickly discovers that she’s a bit tone deaf in the process; she tends to push her best friends into doing things her way. She even tries to get the cute new guy, Jackson Knight, to join all the groups she thinks he should and tell her all about himself, but he gives a little pushback, which adds to his mystery. Emma starts getting some negative comments on her blog, and things start going haywire in Emma’s real world, too. When a hurtful picture of Emma starts making the rounds around the school, she decides to nip a potential cyberbully in the bud and takes action.

This is the first book in a new series from The Cupcake Club authors Carrie Berk and Sheryl Berk, and it left me a little wanting. Emma never really sees how self-absorbed she is, or apologizes for the things she does to her best friends. Her friends turn their backs on her when another student that Emma tries to “help” lies to make herself look good, but she never has that aha! moment when she examines her own behavior. A few negative blog comments and one mean picture become an overblown cyberbullying campaign, which, in this day and age, is forward thinking – catch cyberbullying in its early stages, before it becomes something out of control – but her related blog entry makes it sound like she endured a hateful campaign where she was bullied day and night. This one is a little out of touch; maybe an additional purchase where the authors are popular. The additional characters, including Jackson Knight and Emma’s best friends, Izzy and Harriet, seem interesting and I’d like to read more of their stories.

 

Confusion is Nothing New, by Paul Acampora, (May 2018, Scholastic Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-338-20999-0

Ages 9-13

Fourteen-year-old Ellie Magari just found out her mother, who left her and her father when Ellie was a baby, has died. Never having known her mother, Ellie tries to figure out who her mother was, especially when her father presents her with a box of her mother’s memorabilia, mysteriously sent to Ellie. She discovers that her mother was the singer in an ’80s tribute band, married her *other* high school sweetheart, and that the band is playing the local college soon. Ellie struggles with learning about her mother and how to grieve someone she never knew, while expressing frustration with her father’s reluctance to talk about her at all. Thankfully, Ellie’s friends, her principal, and an interesting new music teacher are there to help her put together the rest of the missing pieces.

Confusion is Nothing New is good, and yes, I say that partly because I love all things ’80s. (I would make a heck of a playlist to booktalk this book.) But aside from the music, it’s got a solid, readable story, and the characters have incredible heart and humor. Ellie is a likable, relatable character who takes no foolishness when a teacher treats her friend badly; she’s also vulnerable and working her way through big revelations dropped on her throughout the book. I loved her school band friends and the ease of their relationships; their humor, and their loyalty to one another. This one is a good read for tweens and teens – it’s on the cusp of being YA, but not – who want to read about another character figuring it out as best as she can.

 

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

March graphic novels look at the power of relationships

The Breakaways, by Cathy G. Johnson, (March 2018, First Second), $12.99, ISBN: 9781626723573

Ages 8-12

This Bad News Bears of Soccer story stars Faith, a child of color who joins her school team at the urging of Amanda, one of the school’s popular girls. Thinking it’s a great way to make new friends, Faith signs up, only to discover that there are different soccer teams, and she’s been put on the Bloodhounds, which is made of up the lousiest players in the school. They may be horrible at soccer, but the group gradually comes together to form a tight friendship unit, and that’s the heart of the story.

There’s a fantastic diversity among the group. There are queer characters, including one who’s transitioning, and characters of color. The storyline is moved forward by each character’s quest for identity and acceptance within their families and the group, making for some deeply heartfelt moments. It’s a book about friendship, self-awareness, and acceptance, set in a middle school – often a battleground for kids who want to stand out without being “different”.

This one’s a must-add to your shelves. Talk this one up to your Lumberjanes fans.

The Mary Sue has a great write-up and preview of The Breakaways, and you can visit author/illustrator Cathy G. Johnson’s website for more info.

Kiss Number 8, by Colleen AF Venable/Illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw, (March 2018, First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781596437098

Ages 12+

Mads is a Catholic school teen who whose dad is her best friend. They go to minor league baseball games together, watch TV shows together, and generally just hang out together. It rocks her world when she discovers that her dad is hiding a secret, and it couldn’t have come at a harder time: Mads is also discovering that she may be attracted to her friend, Cat.

Kiss Number 8 looks at a sexual awakening within a close Catholic family. Mads tries out different kisses with different guys, trying to feel something, because her wilder friend, Cat – the archetypal Catholic school bad girl – encourages it, and it’s because what Mads feels like she’s supposed to do. While she torments herself over what she thinks her father’s hiding, she and Cat fall out, and the rumor mill goes wild, leading Mads to admit to her feelings and attractions to herself, and to Cat. Once Mads accepts herself, she has to deal with her father’s secret, his reaction to her emerging identity, and his overall mindset; luckily, she has support from a place she never dreamed of.

I really enjoyed Kiss Number 8. The characters are real, and Mads’ struggle with her own identity and sexuality works seamlessly with the family secret, revealed in all of its emotional pain. Mads has to come to realizations about herself, her relationships, and her own father, in order to move forward, but she’s a smart heroine that navigates these challenges to come out on top. Kiss Number is an exploration of teen sexuality, families, and relationships. A necessary book for your collections.

Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw‘s websites both offer some sneak peeks at Kiss Number 8 and their additional work.

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

Middle graders, make way for Merci Suarez!

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina (Sept. 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763690496

Ages 8-12

Sixth grade Cuban-American Mercedes “Merci” Suárez lives in South Florida with her family in Las Casitas: three houses, side by side, where Merci lives with her brother, Roli, and their parents; her Abuela and Lolo; and her Tía Inéz and her crazy twin 5-year olds, Axel and Tomás. She and Roli also attend an exclusive private school, Seaward Pines. In order to help pay their tuition, Merci has to take part in Sunshine Buddies, a community service program that matches her with a new student from Minnesota, Michael Clark. Merci has a pretty full plate with Sunshine Buddies, practicing for the soccer tryouts at school, and tolerating the school’s resident mean girl, Edna Santos, but things get even more complicated when her grandfather, Lolo, starts acting differently. He forgets his glasses in the refrigerator; he falls off his bike, and he tries to pick up the wrong twins at school one day. Merci finds herself with mounting family responsibilities and pushes back against the frustration of school and home life, but she and her family will work together, like they always do, to get through life’s challenges.

Meg Medina creates the most memorable, likable characters, from Piddy Sanchez (Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass) to Mía and Abuela (Mango, Abuela and Me). She creates an atmosphere that immediately feels comfortable and tactile; reading her books feels like home for me. The peppered Spanglish throughout the narrative; the mouth-watering descriptions of food, the chaotic, crazy family life all fit like a comfortable sofa that I sink into to read my books. She creates strong Latinx girls and women who run businesses and raise families, who have straight talk with their families and friends, even when those conversations are painful, and they know the strength that family provides. Every character in Merci’s story feels real because these characters are real: they’re the kids next to you in school, or who live down the block. Meg Medina uses humor and authentic voices to create a story about a tween girl who has insecurities, worries, and frustrations; she’s also funny, smart, and creative, with a whip-smart wit. Merci Suárez Changes Gears is a story about growing up and about how much it hurts to see your grandparents aging. Put this in every kid’s hand, because it’s that good. This one’s on my Newbery 2018 short list.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears has starred reviews from Kirkus, Horn Book, and Booklist. Meg Medina has an author site where you can learn more about her books and read her blog, and make sure to check out the Girls of Summer website; a project co-designed by Meg Medina and author Gigi Amateau. Girls of Summer reviews 18 titles for strong girls (picture book, middle grade and YA) every year, in early June; there are also giveaways and weekly Q & As with selected authors. The blog is active from June until Labor Day every year, but you can still check out the content (from 2011-present) no matter what time of the year!

 

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

Grief and conflict collide in The Girl with More Than One Heart

The Girl with More Than One Heart, by Laura Geringer Bass, (Apr. 2018, Amulet), $16.99, ISBN: 9781419728822

Ages 10+

Briana is starting her eighth grade year when her father dies of a sudden heart problem. Her mother spirals into grief, leaving Briana with the responsibility of caring for her 5-year-old brother, Aaron, who’s on the autism spectrum. Briana thought of her father as “her” parent and her mother as “Aaron’s parent”, which introduces frustration and resentment on top of her own grief. Briana feels a “second heart” form in her stomach, which communicates to her in her father’s voice, telling her to “find” her mother, and to “let go”.

Told in the first person in Briana’s voice, this novel is a touching, sensitive look at the complicated grief process: it’s messy, frustrating, and filled with mixed emotions, especially when thrown into the volatile mix of adolescent emotions. The writing is so believable, so real, that I felt overwhelmed by both Briana’s and her mother’s grief at points. Readers receive a wealth of information through Briana’s “Before Aaron” flashbacks, back to when her mother had as much time for her as her father; back when they were a cohesive, whole family. This process also helps Briana become a more present sibling to Aaron, and to reach out to new friends when the opportunities present themselves. We get a glimpse of what grief can do to a parent, and the effect of that grief on a child, and we see how the extended family – in this case, Briana’s grandfather – have to take on roles that they may be unprepared for.

The Girl with More Than One Heart is a must-add to your realistic fiction collections, and keep this one in your booktalking pocket for books on grief and loss.

 

Readalikes:

 

Never That Far, by Carol Lynch Williams: Twelve-year-old Libby and her father work through their grief after her grandfather dies.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, by John David Anderson: Three school friends give their dying teacher the best day ever.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness: Thirteen-year-old Conor’s mother is fighting cancer and losing; at the same time, a yew tree tells Conor stories and expects him to tell his.

The Haunted House Project, by Tricia Clasen: Andie tries to hold onto her mother’s memory by having her “haunt” the family home.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan: Twelve-year-old Willow loses both parents in a car accident, leaving her to find her place in the world.

Teen Librarian Toolbox and Pragmatic Mom have additional choices, all excellent reading.

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

The Mortification of Fovea Munson is hilarious Summer Reading!

The Mortification of Fovea Munson, by Mary Winn Heider/Illustrated by Chi Birmingham, (June 2018, Disney-Hyperion), $16.99, ISBN: 9781484780541

Ages 9-13

From the opening line, “Dead bodies are the worst”, you just know you’re in for a good time with this book. Fovea Munson is the 12-year-old daughter of two doctors: cadaver surgeons. They operate on dead folks, and they teach medical students how to work their craft on dead folks. They’ve got the corniest senses of humor, a never-ending love for Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and they’ve just hired Fovea to be their receptionist for the summer. This is bad enough for a 12-year-old who’s already feeling tragically uncool, but wait: three heads in the cadaver lab start talking to her. Death isn’t necessarily final, after all, and Lake, McMullen, and Andy – the three heads in question – want to start a barbershop quartet, hit a recording studio, and have a release party, and it’s up to Fovea to make it happen. Quickly. Because that receptionist that quit left a lovesick, slightly unhinged cremator, behind, and he’s got information that will ruin Fovea’s family. The heads know something, so it’s a little quid pro quo in action.

Is this madcap? Absolutely! Is it hilarious? Without question! Fovea narrates this laugh-out-loud story of a summer vacation gone sideways with a priceless, put-upon tween voice as she navigates her relationship with her parents, her friends (both dead and living), and her scooter-riding grandmother. There’s an unexpected amount of pathos here as Fovea comes to care for a classmate and the trio of cadaver heads in her care, and a bittersweet realization that some friendships aren’t meant to last. There are black and white illustrations throughout, adding some visual humor to the story, and chapters titles remind us how much Hippocrates has influenced Fovea’s life. The end of the book leaves me hopeful that we’ll get some more fun with Fovea down the road, and an appendix (snicker) includes amusing little in-jokes that readers will get a kick out of.

The Mortification of Fovea Munson is a perfect summer read, especially for kids who think their parents are weird (which is, honestly, most of ’em). Don’t miss it. Add it to your STEM reading – cadavers science is a thing!

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?”