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

Middle Grade Quick Takes: The White Tower and Lions and Liars

Two more from the great TBR read-down! I’ve got some realistic fiction and some dark(ish) fantasy for you, right here!

The White Tower, by Cathryn Constable, (Sept. 2017, Chicken House/Scholastic), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-338-15746-8

Ages 8-12

Livy is a 12-year-old English girl who is still reeling from the recent death of her best friend is uprooted when her father accepts a prestigious job as the librarian at Temple College: a position that comes with a spot in the school for Livy and a new home for the family. Livy discovers the stone Sentinels – angels – on the roof of the school are tied into the school’s history, and that the school’s founder and her possible ancestor, Peter Burgess, was consumed with studies on gravity and flight. As Livy tries to fit in at school, she also finds herself drawn to the Sentinels and their secrets; a mystery between the school’s previous librarian, the current headmistress, and Peter Burgess moves the story forward.

Character development takes a back seat to the many subplots, leading to an at-times confusing story that has strong fantastic elements that I would have liked to explore more. Livy is a developing character who would have benefitted more from a stronger subplot on grief and loss, and the main plot – the Burgess mystery – being more defined, less stretched out between characters. If you have strong fantasy readers who liked Constable’s previous book, The Wolf Princess, this may work for them.

 

Lions & Liars, by Kate Beasley/Illustrated by Dan Santat, (June 2018, Farrar Straus Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 978-0-374-30263-4

Ages 8-12

This case of mistaken identity at a summer camp for unruly kids is at times, hilarious; at times, touching. Fifth grader Frederick Frederickson is not the big kid on campus. He’s not even really the small kid on campus. According to his friend Raj’s “food-chain theory about life”, there are lions, like Devin; the big kid on campus. There are gazelles, the kids who are bullied by the lions. There are meerkats, who watch the world go by, and then, there are fleas, who live on the butts of the meerkats. According to Raj, Frederick is a flea. This doesn’t sit well with Frederick; things only get worse when his long-awaited family vacation is canceled because of a Category 5 hurricane threat. After his friends pull a mean prank on Frederick at a birthday party, he’s had enough, and pushes back. The only problem is, pushing back ends up with him stuck on a boat that leaves him on the shores of Camp Omagoshee, a summer camp for troubled kids. It gets worse when he’s mistaken for camper Dashiell Blackwood, whose name tag is the only one left. Assuming Dash’s identity, he finds himself in the big leagues for a change: Dash is legendary for being bad, but Frederick? He tries to convince his cabin mates, Nosebleed, Specs, The Professor, and Ant Bite, that he is every bit as tough as they come, but even Frederick isn’t sure if he’s going to be able to back up Dash’s fame. When the camp is cleared out when the hurricane starts heading in their direction, Frederick and his new group learn that they have to work together to stay safe, and maybe they’ll even become friends.

At its heart, Lions & Liars is about cliques and labels. The mistaken identity plot makes for some laugh-out loud moments, especially as Frederick tries to live up to Dashiell Blackwood’s infamous camp legend, but there’s also the stress of living a lie and the risk of being discovered. What happens when real friendships are made on the foundation of lies? The characters are nicely developed, and go beyond their “bad kid” label to show readers what constitutes a “troublesome child” in others’ eyes. Dan Santat’s black and white illustrations will keep readers turning pages. Kate Beasley has a great post about the labels kids get stuck with on the book on Nerdy Book Club.

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Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, Realistic Fiction

Extravaganza at the Plaza and a word from author Lauren L. Wohl

Extravaganza at the Plaza, by Lauren L. Wohl/Illustrated by Mark Tuchman, (Aug. 2018, Persnickety Press), $14.95, ISBN: 9781943978311

Ages 7-11

Third graders Hannah, and her best friend, Nico, walk by an abandoned theater in their neighborhood and decide it’s time to take action. Their town needs a good theater, after all: there are graduations and school concerts to be held, and everyone’s tired of traveling to nearby towns to see movies. There is a lot of work to be done, but Hannah is determined to make things happen! This companion to 2017’s Blueberry Bonanza is an upbeat story of how a community comes together with a goal in mind: to rehabilitate a public space!

Extravaganza is a good choice for middle graders. Hannah and Nico, along with their local mayor, have a lot to teach kids about taking action. The first place Hannah goes when she starts on her mission: the library! Her local librarian helps her look up the building’s owner and construction details, plus local history regarding the building. Hannah uses this information to learn what can be done, who to speak to, and how to get more help on board for her idea. Hannah is also a sympathetic character; she wants to make this her own pet project and struggles with so many people being part of it – kids will appreciate the feeling of wanting to work on a passion project, and the potential frustration of having someone else take the credit for their work. There’s discussions of fundraising, donor fatigue (when Hannah suggests sending postcards or calling people about donating, her mother steps in to gently nix that), and the necessities of renovating a building – find the owner; get it inspected; hire the right professionals – and, most importantly, the planning process for each task! Black and white illustrations throughout add a human face to the story, and the big ending will have kids wondering what they could do to make positive change in their own neighborhoods.

Lauren L. Wohl writes good stories about kids making the difference in their neighborhoods. Her Raccoon River Kids have started their own businesses (Blueberry Bonanza); motivated an entire town to come together to renovate a public space (Extravaganza at the Plaza), and, later this year, they’ll be starting a pet showcase to find homes for homeless pets (Zooapalooza). The Raccoon River books are a great precursor to books like The Donut Fix by Jessie Janowitz.

 

And now, a note from author Lauren L. Wohl!

MY FAVORITE LIBRARY MOMENTS

I grew up in Brooklynand believe me when I tell you, it was not the cool place it is today.  It was just home to many working familiesmade up of neighborhoods which were small and close and often built on shared values and experiences.

There was a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library eight blocks from home. For as long as I can remember, my dad and I walked to the library every Saturday morning. At each visit, he would borrow one of the color fairy tale collections by Andrew Lang. I dont recall how many there were, but I can still picture The Blue Fairy Book,The Purple Fairy Book, and The Rainbow Fairy Book. During the week that followed, he or my mom would read one whole story every night. We had favorites in each color, and we knew that evenif tonights story wasnt one of those, tomorrows or the next days would be.  

My dad also borrowed a book for himself for subwayreading back and forth to his job in Manhattan. Itoo, would pick a book to read on my own. 

The next week, we would return our books to the librarian who was always interested in what I liked and what I didnt. We engaged in conversations about the books(I thought she had read EVERYTHING in the library.). She took my opinions seriously. That interest and that respect mattered the world to me.

By the time I was in fourth grade, the librarian started to put aside three books she picked out just for me. She knew what my preferences were from the many book discussions we had hadShe picked winners just about every timeI felt so specially treated.

When I went through a period of reading books that she didnt thinkworthy, she would make sure the second selection of that Saturday met her standard. Slowly I developed skills to find books that challenged me and pleased me; humor that made me giggle; dramas that wrapped me inside them; nonfiction that answered my questions; and family and friend stories that warmed my heart.

When the city decided it was time to develop the area where our library stood, they moved the branch closer to our house. It was easier, sure, but I missed the long walks with my dad. I was in junior high by then, old enough to walk to this new location on my own.  But I missed that old library; I still do. Its impact was long-lasting, and many years later I know those Saturday mornings were a part of my decision to go to graduate school in library science.

When I finally completed my degree, my husband, young son and I took a vacation to Washington DC to celebrate. I wanted to explore thLibrary of Congress.

My husband called ahead, so that when I showed up, the library was ready for me with a special brand-new librarian tour. I saw rooms the public didnt usually see. I touched history; it surrounded me. Every step was thrilling, every detail memorable. Right then was when I knew I had made the right decision.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Math, Loss, and Zombie Movies: A Good Night for Shooting Zombies

A Good Night for Shooting Zombies, by Jaco Jacobs/Illustrated by Jim Tierney/Translated from Afrikaans by Kobus Geldenhuys, (March 2019, Rock the Boat), $12.95, ISBN: 9781786074508

Ages 10-14

Martin is a South African teen living with loss. His father was killed in a car crash a few years ago, and his mother hasn’t left the house since. His sister is hardly ever home, usually out with her sketchy boyfriend. All Martin has is his chickens – his nickname is Clucky – and his propensity for numbers. When the neighbor kid’s dog kills his prize chicken, he goes over to say something – and ends up making a friend instead. Vusi, whose dog, Cheetah has a taste for chicken, is a horror movie fan determined to make his own zombie movie. He’s also fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but he has no interest in letting that, or his protective parents and nurse, stop him. He quickly recruits Martin as a zombie extra, and before Martin realizes it, he’s sneaking out with Vusi, shooting Vusi’s movie and even developing a crush on a schoolmate. And, bonus: the cover glows in the dark!

Jaco Jacobs knows how to pack a book. While A Good Night for Shooting Zombies is primarily about Martin’s and Vusi’s friendship, it’s also about coping with loss, as Martin and his family grieve in their own ways; it’s about potential loss, as Vusi and Martin cope with Vusi’s lymphatic cancer, and it’s got a quietly compelling subplot about a group of troublemaking teens and Vusi and Martin bumbling their way into their sights. Martin is comforted by his mathematics equations, which he uses as a coping mechanism, very similar to Willow in Counting by 7s. He and Vusi each have their comforts – Vusi’s is horror movies – and as they share these pieces of themselves, they build a deeper friendship. Jim Tierney’s black and grey illustrations add some visual interest, and Jaco Jacobs’ writing keeps pages turning; the end of the story will stick with you long after you close the book.

I became a Jaco fan after reading last year’s A Good Day for Climbing Trees. A Good Night for Shooting Zombies just sealed it. I can’t wait to read more.

A Good Night for Shooting Zombies has a starred review from Foreword Reviews. There’s a free, downloadable readers’ guide available from publisher OneWorld Publications.

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

YA in dual narratives: Between Before and After

Between Before and After, by Maureen Doyle McQuerry, (Feb. 2019, Blink), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0310767381

Ages 12+

Told in two narratives across two timespans, Between Before & After is the story of Elaine, a girl raising her younger brother, Stephen, after losing her mother and baby sister to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and her grief-stricken father to a drunken brawl, and Elaine’s teenaged daughter, Molly, as she tries to unravel her mother’s secret past. The narratives shift between fourteen-year-old Elaine’s story from 1918-1920, and Molly’s in 1955. Molly sees her journalist mother as an enigma, going so far as to create a “biography box” to hold clues to her mother’s story. Elaine’s story is a heartbreaking one, beginning with her mother and baby sister dying, and her father’s spiral into alcoholism and neglect and ending with his death. When Elaine finds work reading to a blind man in a wealthy family, she is relieved at being able to support her and her brother, but a turn of events separates Elaine and Stephen. In 1955, past and present converge when Stephen finds himself at the center of a religious controversy that shines a spotlight on the family.

Between Before and After is a solid piece of historical fiction that examines social class and mental illness. The subplot involving Elaine’s brother Stephen was interesting, but only served a small plot forwarding device for Elaine’s – and, to a degree, Molly’s – story. The characters drew me right in, and anything about New York in the early 20th Century gets my attention. I enjoyed Maureen Doyle McQuerry’s storytelling, especially Elaine’s story; she was a fully realized character.

If you have historical fiction readers, this is a good pick for you. There’s much to discuss about social class, stigma, and childhood poverty here, making this a good extension/book discussion choice for social studies/history classes.

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 Adventure, Espionage, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

New NatGeo Explorer Academy: The Falcon’s Feather

Explorer Academy: The Falcon’s Feather, by Trudi Treueit/Illustrated by Scott Plumbe (interior) and Antonio Javier Caparo (cover), (March 2019, National Geographic), $16.99, ISBN: 9781426333040

Ages 9-13

The second Explorer Academy adventure picks up shortly after the first adventure, The Nebula Secret, concludes, and the action kicks in pretty quickly. Cruz Coronado is back, and he’s on a mission to get the remaining ciphers that his mother hid around the world before her untimely death. His best friends, Emmett and Sailor, are right in the thick of it with him, and his Aunt Marisol is, too. The evil Nebula group is still trying to get Cruz out of the way, and now, there’s something new afoot; something only hinted at: they want Cruz done away with before his 13th birthday. Could it be something to do with that unusual DNA-shaped birthmark on his arm? We’ll have to keep reading to find out, because that’s all you’re going to get here.

In addition to the globe-hopping mystery, The Falcon’s Feather also talks conservation and preservation; this time, Cruz and his friends save a pod of whales entangled in nets, and, while visiting the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, have a discussion about biodiversity. NatGeo is committed to educating readers about world issues, and this is a great way to do it: put kids in the middle of an adventure and let them experience it! There are all sorts of new gadgets and gizmos in this volume, and Mell, our favorite robot bee, is back. One scientist creates a communication device that allows Cruz to communicate with the endangered whales, and it’s an outstanding moment in the book; Cruz’s world opens up when he not only hears the whales’ songs, but connects them to human understanding. This installment ends on a tense note, assuring that readers (like me!) will be waiting for the next book. The Truth Behind the Fiction section introduces us to the real-life scientists who inspire some of the book’s characters, including a deep-sea submersible pilot, an explorer studying ecosystems and biodiversity, and a geoscientist researching climate change. Color illustrations throughout the book are just gorgeous and will keep readers turning pages. Maps at the beginning of some chapters help place readers when the characters find themselves in a new location.

This series is a no-brainer. Get it on your shelves for your burgeoning explorers/conservationists/secret agents, or just readers who love a good, tight suspense read.

 

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.