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

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is wonderful!

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, by Stacy McAnulty, (May 2018, Random House), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-5247-6757-0

Recommended for readers 8-12

I am so excited to talk up this book, because it is SO GOOD. I was lucky enough to be on author Stacy McAnulty’s “street team”, so I have evangelized this book to my library kiddos, bending the ear of everyone I talk to (including grownups) at the library and at home, and generally shoving this book at people to tell them that they need to read it immediately.

Lucy is a gifted tween, thanks to a lightning strike at age seven that left her with savant abilities in math. She loves math. She sees and smells the numbers and equations; they reveal themselves to her and tell them all their secrets, but social relationships have eluded her. She struggles with OCD behaviors and has been homeschooled by her grandmother, who finally decides that Lucy develop socially, and enrolls her in middle school, which doesn’t really go over so well with Lucy, who’s more ready for college applications. But Lucy promises her grandmother that she’ll make one friend, join one activity, and read one book that isn’t a math textbook. Lucy’s OCD automatically makes her a target to the local mean girl, but she persists, finding ways to use her talents in a class project, and making two pretty good friends, while she’s at it.

I can’t find enough great things to say about Lightning Girl. Stacy McAnulty gives us a strong, funny, sweet, and complex group of characters that reader will recognize bits of themselves in; supportive parental figures that are doing their best, and parents that need a bit more work. It’s a glimpse at everyday life with a touch of the extraordinary, and it’s a touching look at the power of caring about something bigger than oneself. Lucy goes through tremendous upheaval, but she rides it out, and grows through the course of the book. Before the events that form the narrative, she sees life as a series of problems that can be worked out, but learns that some of the toughest problems bring rewarding solutions. Even if the final answer isn’t correct, the work to get there makes a difference.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is compulsively readable, discussable, and perfect middle grade reading. Teachers, PLEASE put this on your Summer Reading lists, so I can hand this book to every middle grader I see this summer. Lightning Girl has starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkusand Publisher’s Weekly. Author Stacy McAnulty is on a book tour for Lightning Girl right now: head to her author webpage for a schedule!

 

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Posted in Middle School, Non-Fiction, Tween Reads, Women's History, Young Adult/New Adult

House of Dreams looks at a classic author’s life

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg/Illustrated by Julie Morstad, (June 2018, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763660574

Recommended for readers 10+

This illustrated biography of Maud Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables series, is a must-have for middle school and up biography readers. Her mother died when she was a toddler; her father left her in the care of her grandparents, and Maud grew up wanting more: passionate love and affection; education; a career as an author. She dealt with anxiety and depression throughout her life, and married for security rather than love. Drawing on correspondence and her unpublished journals, Liz Rosenberg draws a picture of a woman who led an often difficult life and who struggled against her circumstances to create one of the most memorable literary characters of all time.

It’s not always an easy read. Reading about Maud’s struggle against greedy publishers and her own gold-digging son can be rage-inducing, as is her fight to continue her education against the grandfather who refused to help her. Her callous uncle left Maud and her widowed grandmother to live in horrible conditions, waiting for his own mother to die so he could inherit her home, left to him by his father. But we also read about Maud’s devotion to her Prince Edward Island home, her lifelong love of writing, and her success at being able to sustain an income by writing.

L.M. Montgomery was a complex, conflicted woman and her struggles with mental health and financial independence make her more real, more three-dimensional, to readers who will understand and be inspired.

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

Middle Grade I read in January

I spent most of January with my nose in a book. I’m still catching up with books that pubbed in January, but here’s a quick take on a few good ones.

Potion Masters: The Eternity Elixir (Potion Masters, Book 1), by Frank L. Cole,
(Jan. 2018, Shadow Mountain), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-62973-559-7
Recommended for readers 8-12

A brand new adventure/fantasy series for middle graders! Potion Masters introduces us to 12-year-old Gordy Stitser, a budding Elixirist. Elixirists are potion masters; think of them as modern-day alchemists with more than a little touch of magic, who use their gifts to contribute to society by pushing for advancements in medicine, technology, and, yeah, even weapons tech. Gordy inherits his gift from his mom, who’s on the Board of Ruling Elixirists Worldwide (B.R.E.W.), while his Muggle dad (no, they don’t call them Muggles; it’s my usage) is content to hold down things at home with Gordy and his twin younger siblings. But Gordy intercepts a package meant for his mother while she’s away on a “business trip”, and finds himself – and his family and friends – in the sights of an evil Elixirist who’s bent on destroying B.R.E.W. and destroying the world. It’s a fun fantasy read, with positive adult role models and friends who work together to save the world. This book disappeared from the shelf the day I put it on display, and hasn’t been back yet, so I’m calling this a win right now. Fantasy fans who love a good series can start with this one and claim they read it before it was cool.

 

Abigail Adams: Pirate of the Caribbean (Mixed-Up History #2), by Steve Sheinkin/Illustrated by Neil Swaab,
(Jan 2018, Roaring Brook), $6.99, ISBN: (978-1-250-15247-3)
Recommended for readers 7-9

From Steve Sheinkin, the man who brought you the Newbery Award-winning book, Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, and National Book Award finalist Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, comes… Abigail Adams: Pirate of the Caribbean. C’mon, I made you laugh. Steve Sheinkin shows his sillier side with his Mixed-Up History series; his first book in the series gave us Abraham Lincoln leaving history to become a professional wrestler. In this volume, Abigail Adams, sick and tired of hanging laundry in the White House, uses time traveling technology to take to the high seas as one of Calico Jack Rackham’s crew. It’s up to modern-day siblings Doc and Abby to fix history again and get Abigail back to her own time. It’s not necessary to have read the first book in the series to jump in with Mixed-Up History; there’s enough exposition to get readers caught up. Black and white illustrations and a quick-paced narrative make for some laugh-out-loud moments, usually at our second President’s expense. Siblings Abby and Doc represent a blended family and Doc is a child of color. It’s a fun read for intermediate readers that will get them acquainted with some big names in history, but really, this is just for kicks. A historical note from the author assures readers that no, this isn’t something you can cite in a report. A good add to humor collections.

 

Stella Diaz Has Something to Say, by Angela Dominguez,
(Jan. 2018, Roaring Brook Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-62672-858-5
Recommended for readers 8-12

Stella Diaz loves fish and underwater life, loves spending time with her mom and brother, and loves spending time with her best friend Jenny. She’s also incredibly shy and can’t find the words she wants to use, so she tends to stay quiet, afraid she’ll speak Spanish instead of English, or pronounce her words wrong. Either way, she’s made fun of by the class Mean Girl. When her teacher assigns presentations that means Stella will have to speak in front of the class – including the new boy that she wants to be friends with, but is too afraid to speak to – she knows she has to work to get past her fears, and FAST. I love this kind story about a girl who has so much to offer, but is afraid to look silly or wrong. It’s a wonderful story about friendship, making new friends, and being brave enough to face challenges one little step at a time. It’s infused with Mexican culture and Spanish language, inspired by the author’s own story of growing up Mexican-American, and features black and white illustrations throughout. I’m thrilled that Stella’s mom has an interesting job at a radio station and that Stella sees her mom as a positive force in her life, and I’m relieved to see that the middle grade “best friend meets a new friend” plotline is resolved in an upbeat manner, rather than devolving into two camps of kids being angry and upset with one another. Stella Diaz Has Something to Say is just a great book to read and share with your readers.

Posted in Middle School, picture books, Preschool Reads

Just Like Brothers teaches valuable lessons

Just Like Brothers, by Elizabeth Baguley/Illustrated by Aurélie Blanz, (March 2018, Barefoot Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9781782853459

Recommended for ages 3-7

A young boy and a young wolf cub are each warned by their mothers. The boy’s mother warns of the wolves; the wolf’s mother, of men. The children listen, then go off and play, as children do. When each gets lost in the forest and come upon the other, their first reaction is fear; eventually, though, they discover that their similarities far outweigh their differences. And their mothers discover that they have a lot to learn from their children.

Told like a modern-day fable, Just Like Brothers teaches readers about the problems formed by prejudice and baseless judgement; it also teaches the value of empathy and trust. The innocence of children, both here and in real life, has no place for prejudice; it’s passed on at an early age. It’s a call to us as caregivers to be careful not to let our own fears make us irrational in what we teach our kids. It’s the start of a conversation, with lyrical descriptions like, “rough-hand and sharp stick” to describe humans, and “wag-tail and scamper-paw” to describe the playful cub. This makes for a good read-aloud and discussion about friendship and trust.

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

Mush! A baker and a sled dog racer work together in Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners

Cookie Cutters and Sled Runners, by Natalie Rompella, (Nov. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781510717718

Recommended for readers 9-13

Ana and Lily are best friends, getting ready to start middle school together. They’re also burgeoning chefs, creating their own recipes with the goal of writing and selling their own cookbook one day. Things go awry when Ana and Lily discover that they’re not in one single class together, though; you see, Lily is the only person who understands Ana. The only person Ana wants as a friend. Lily understands Ana’s need to wash her hands and keep her cooking surfaces and food flawlessly clean; she knows that Ana can’t handle red food. She is Ana’s shield against the world. Ana ends up with the meanest teacher in sixth grade, too: Mr. Creed has a list of rules a mile long (“never use contractions in my class”) and decides that the big Exploration Project – the project Ana and Lily planned working on together – will be done in partnership with another person from class. Ana’s assigned Dasher, the new girl from Alaska, who dresses weird and wants to do a project on her favorite sport and hobby: sled dog racing!

I adore this book! I love the characters, and I love that in Ana, we get a positive portrayal of a character struggling with OCD. Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners gives us a central character that lives with a disorder, and incorporates that challenge into her daily living. Yes, we see Ana washing her hands and spraying down her surfaces; we read her internal struggle when she has to choose between cleaning and a critical moment in the story, but we also see her meeting with a therapist, being supported by her parents and friends, and working through her challenge through daily exercises and taking on new, exciting challenges. She’s not cured by the end of the story, but that’s not the point of the story: she’s growing, and she makes major gains here. Dasher is great fun to read, and I loved learning a little bit more about snow dog racing. Finally, I appreciated a middle grade novel that turns the “new friends” dilemma on its head by having the “rival friends” befriend one another and form a supportive group together.

A positive, upbeat story that introduces readers to characters with obsessive-compulsive behaviors and provides some insight on the challenges of daily life for those characters. have Wesley King’s OCDaniel on hand for readers who want to read and learn more.

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

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is amazing!

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, by Dusti Bowling, (Sept. 2017, Sterling Children’s Books), $14.95, ISBN: 9781454923459

Recommended for readers 9-12

I was lucky enough to attend a children’s author dinner at BookExpo this past year, and got to hear several authors, including Dusti Bowling, talk about their upcoming books. As Ms. Bowling spoke about the work she put into her book, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, you could just see the passion she poured into her story of Aven, a kickass middle grade heroine of a new kind: she’s an adoptee, so, yay!; she’s headstrong, smart, focused, and she’s witty. And she happens to have been born without arms. She loves to tell people wild stories of how she lost her arms: an alligator wrestling match is my favorite, but she’s got a few doozies.

Aven starts the novel as the new kid in town. Her parents have moved to Arizona, where her dad accepted a job running a floundering western theme park called Stagecoach Pass. Now, Aven gets stared at. She’s different. She relies on her feet like most people rely on their hands. She’s eating lunch in the bathroom, because she can’t stand to have anyone stare at her eat with her feet. But she meets Connor, a boy with Tourette’s, and Zion, who’s shy about his weight, and things start looking up. The friends lean on one another, drawing and giving strength to each other.

That alone would be a great storyline, but throw in a mystery – a BIG mystery – at Stagecoach Pass that Aven is determined to unravel, and you have an incredible book in your hands. Aven, Connor, and Zion are kids that I want to know; Bowling breathes beautiful life into them and makes readers care about them. She provides positive, complex, realistic portrayals of kids living with disabilities and how they meet those hurdles every day, every hour, every minute. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus has numerous accolades and received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness.

I adored this book and can’t believe it took me this long to finally get to it. Give this to your Wonder fans, display and booktalk with books starring smart middle grade heroines, like Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, and of course, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

Check out Dusti Bowling’s author webpage for a free, downloadable discussion guide and to read up on news and updates.

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

Choose Empathy. Choose Compassion. Read Mustaches for Maddie.

Mustaches for Maddie, by Chad Morris & Shelly Brown, (Oct. 2017, Shadow Mountain), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1629723303

Good for readers 9-12

Maddie’s a 12-year-old kid who loves to laugh and make people laugh, and there’s nothing better for that – at least according to Maddie – than a fake mustache. She carries them around with her, always ready to hand out and pop one on to make an uncomfortable situation better, to add some bravery when a situation calls for it, or just to make someone laugh. She’s also trying to secure her spot within the school queen bee’s clique; Cassie dictates who gets to hang out with her, and demands favors of her “friends” in order to stay in her favor. When she tells Maddie not to hang out with a perfectly nice classmate for no other reason than she said so, Maddie struggles with it, but ultimately – at first – sticks with Cassie. The thing is, Maddie’s noticing her body acting weird lately. Her arm isn’t acting right; it’s curling against her chest. She’s tripping over her own two feet quite often. But she tells her mom it’s just growing pains. It can’t be anything weird, right?

Wrong. When she finally goes to the doctor, she and her family learn that she has a brain tumor that will require surgery. And Maddie just landed the part of Juliet in the school production of Romeo and Juliet! Maddie learns to face her fears – including her fear of not being in Cassie’s orbit – and embraces real friendship with those around her. When Cassie turns into a bully, Maddie focuses on the bigger picture: surgery and recovery. Her friends and family rally around her, and there are plenty of mustache moments to look forward to.

This book is brilliant. Based on the true story of the authors’ daughter – who is okay now, thank goodness! – this story, told in the first person from Maddie’s POV, is engaging and heart-felt. Maddie has a great sense of humor and a big heart, and strives to see the good in everyone: even a bully. Despite wanting to be in Cassie’s orbit, she enjoys embracing her quirky sense of humor, making her a lovable heroine – even moreso, when you realize she’s an actual person. SLJ calls Mustaches for Maddie a good readalike for RJ Palacio’s Wonder and I have to agree. I’ve booktalked it exactly once, and that’s because the second I put it on the shelf and talked about the plot, it was gone and hasn’t stopped circulating yet. The book’s website offers a free, downloadable reading guide with Common Core Connections, activities for the classroom and beyond, and CIA (Compassion in Action) activities. There are also fantastic extras, including downloadable mustache posters and greeting cards. I’m considering a CIA program myself, where I provide the kids with mustache templates that they can decorate and we’ll display in the library, along with a list of CIA intentions. If I can get the kids to join in, I’ll make sure to blog it.

In the meantime, this is a great book for discussion, for gift-giving, for just about everything. It addresses the need for compassion that our society needs some help with these days, and take on a special importance during the holiday season and as we prepare for a new year.