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

Social Justice, Union Organizing, Dairy Wars, and an Orphan Band!

The Orphan Band of Springdale, by Anne Nesbet, (Apr. 2018, Candlewick Press), $18.99, ISBN: 9780763688042

Recommended for readers 8-12

It’s 1941, and things are tense in the U.S. as the world is at war in Europe. Eleven-year-old Gusta is on the run with her father, a German labor organizer, heading toward Maine to stay with her grandmother, when her father disappears. Gusta shows up on her grandmother’s doorstep with the clothes on her back and her beloved French horn. Her grandmother and aunt, who run an orphanage, take her in, and Gusta starts adjusting to life in a place very different from New York. American nationalism runs rampant in Maine, and Gusta’s last name and status as a newcomer brings some suspicion with it, as does her talk about unions and workers’ rights. Her uncle, a mill-worker whose hand was mangled at the factory, can’t work, so Gusta takes it upon herself to approach the owner of the mill to ask him to consider helping with her uncle’s bills. What Gusta doesn’t realize is that her desire to do the right thing puts her at odds with the mill owner, who has a history of his own with her family.

There is such rich and relevant storytelling here. Gusta is a wonderfully realized character with a strong background in social justice: a background that makes her an outsider in her own country. She comes to Small Town America during a time when there of alien registration drives (it really happened) and extreme patriotism; when something as innocuous as a last name aroused suspicion. Gusta is hyper-aware of injustice and determined to do what’s right, whether it’s bringing union reps to her town or point-blank asking for compensation for her uncle’s work-related injury. It’s her unflinching sense of right and wrong that puts her at odds in her community – and her father’s reputation certainly doesn’t help. Thank goodness her tough but loving grandmother is there to lean on. The Orphan Band of Springdale moves at a good pace, has believable characters in relatable situations, and readers can easily draw parallels between 1941 and today.

An author’s note reveals the very personal connection between the author and Gusta’s story. Readers can download a discussion guide and author’s notes from Candlewick’s website. The Orphan Band of Springdale has starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and the Bulletin of the Center for Chidren’s Books.

 

 

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Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Little Brothers and Little Sisters just want to play!

Little Brothers & Little Sisters, by Monica Arnaldo, (Apr. 2018, OwlKids Books), $16.95, ISBN: 9781771472951

Recommended for readers 3-7

Little brothers and sisters all want the same things: a turn at the wheel, the secret password, a place on the team… they also want a bodyguard, a partner in crime, and a best friend. Monica Arnaldo’s picture book looks at the ups and downs of being a younger sibling, through the eyes of a diverse group of children living in and around an apartment building.

The first half of the book illustrates a group of younger siblings waiting for their older siblings to make space for them as they hog the TV, monopolize play time, or keep them out of the fun; the second half looks at the upsides of having a loving sibling who will be a protector, a teacher, a friend. Four pairs of siblings from varying cultural backgrounds will appeal to kids with older (or younger) siblings, sure, but it’s also great to read to kids in a classroom setting, comparing what it’s like to be in lower grades versus upper grades. It’s a lesson in empathy for older children, and a gently encouraging story for younger kids who may feel like the older kids get to do everything. Invite kids to talk about the great parts about being older versus younger; invite them to talk about the ups and downs in their own lives. Many older siblings are responsible for watching over their younger siblings; this story gives kids a chance to talk about their experiences and may help frustrated readers see the benefits of being a positive role model.

Muted but colorful artwork and expressively illustrated characters, paired with simple text make this a nice choice for storytime and individual reading. Definitely a great big brother/big sister gift. Little Brothers & Little Sisters received a starred review from Kirkus.

 

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 Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

It’s a good day for activism… and climbing trees!

A Good Day for Climbing Trees, by Jaco Jacobs, Translated from Afrikaans by Kobus Geldenhuys/Illustrated by Jim Tierney, (Apr. 2018, One World Publications), $11.99, ISBN: 978-1-78607-317-4

Recommended for readers 9-13

Marnus is a 13-year-old boy who’s tired of falling through the cracks in his family’s life. He’s not an athlete like his brother, and he’s not a financial wizard-slash-loan shark like his little brother, to whom he owes big bucks. A girl named Leila shows up at Marnus’ door, asking for signatures for a petition to save a local tree, and before Marnus realizes what he’s doing, he’s up in the tree next to Leila. Over the next few days, the two manage to gather a viral following, attract sponsors, and build the foundations to a new friendship.

Jaco Jacobs is a prolific South African author, with over 120 books to his credit. This latest novel, released in 2015 in Afrikaans, will resonate with readers here in the U.S., where young people are discovering activism at a younger age. Jacobs hits on the two-edged sword of activism: the empowerment of seeing kids take matters into their own hands when something is important to them, and the trap of viral popularity and its fleeting nature, paired with the frustration of having one’s passion seen as a “novelty” cause. The reason behind Leila’s activism are moving, and Marnus emerges as a sensitive, upbeat EveryKid. The characters have depth and are identifiable, from the two main characters to the parents who mean well but don’t always do well; the Rent-a-Cause college students; the developers who want to tear down the tree, and more. This is a solid addition to bookshelves – it would make a strong summer reading choice for middle schoolers, particularly with the wave of activism firing up this generation. There’s a wealth of book discussion topics to explore with this book, for adults as well as for tweens, from environmentalism to sibling relationships to divorced families.

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 picture books, Preschool Reads

March picture book roundup

There are some adorable picture books publishing in March and April! Let’s take a look at some – there are some great storytime reads to be found!

A Fire Truck for Chuck, by Annika Dunklee/Illustrated by Cathon,
(March 2018, OwlKids), $16.95, ISBN: 9781771472852
Recommended for readers 3-6

A little boy named Chuck visits a yard sale with his mom, where he sees it: a fire truck! And it’s only a buck! What luck! Mom buys Chuck the truck, who proceeds to play with it everywhere. Including the mud. Yuck! Chuck is afraid his fire truck is lost forever, but joyfully finds out otherwise. Thanks, Mom! This adorable story of a boy and his truck is perfect for kids who love their vehicle stories – and there are many! You don’t need to be a car and truck fan to love this story, too – toddlers and preschoolers will all empathize and understand the love between a kid and his or her favorite toy. While not exactly a rhyming story, A Fire Truck for Chuck uses the easily rhyming word to weave humor and fun into the story. Cartoony illustrations are bold and bright and will get kids’ attention.

 

I’m a Duck, by Eve Bunting/Illustrated by Will Hillenbrand,
(March 2018, Candlewick Press), $15.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-8032-9
Recommended for readers 3-6
This adorable rhyming tale about overcoming fears is especially great for pre-K 3 and 4-year-olds. A little duck recounts the tale of falling into the lake as an egg; saved by his mother, he’s grown up too scared to go swimming, “…and that is bad. A landlocked duck is very sad”. With some encouragement from family and friends, and a little bit of practice in safe, shallow puddle, little Duck is ready to face his fears – and succeeds! I’m a Duck illustrates the importance of encouragement and positive reinforcement in addition to the power of facing one’s fears (and the emphasis on safety is a relief for caregivers). Mixed media illustrations give a snuggly, cuddly feel to the animals in the story. I love Eve Bunting’s books, and am thrilled to add this one to my shelves.

George is a happy old hound dog who just wants a nap. Farmer Fritz, his human, heads off to a retirement cabana and leaves George in charge: and that means helping the new family navigate life on the farm! Poor George; these folks are hapless, which means George is herding cows, finding lost siblings, and generally saving the day. Not only can he not get his nap in, he can’t get these folks to figure out his name, which goes through several name changes throughout the story. Full-panel artwork alternates with graphic novel-like panels to provide a fun romp. Short, concise sentences and farm animal shenanigans make this a fun read-aloud choice. Ask the kids what they’d like to call George – or how he could finally get his new family to figure out his name! A fun story for animal fans.
Not ‘Til Tomorrow, Phoebe, by Julie Zwillich,
(March 2018, OwlKids), $16.95, ISBN: 9781771471725
Recommended for readers 4-7
The second book in the Phoebe series (the first, Phoebe Sounds It Out, was published in March 2017) introduces kids to the concepts of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and just as importantly, patience. Phoebe’s day is full of “tomorrows”: Mama will make her pancakes tomorrow; she’ll get ice cream after her haircut tomorrow; musicians will visit her class – you guessed it – tomorrow. Frustrated, Phoebe turns to her grandmother, who bakes cookies and teaches Phoebe the best way to turn today into tomorrow: get a good night’s sleep. Kids will understand Phoebe’s frustration, for sure; you can even introduce the story by asking kids, “Who’s tired of hearing about all the good things that will happen TOMORROW?” As with Phoebe Sounds It Out, the illustrations are bold and expressive, with soothing colors to put kids in the mind to listen and learn. There’s a lovely relationship between grandparent and grandchild here. Phoebe is a child of color.
Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, picture books, Realistic Fiction

Black History Month: As Fast as Words Could Fly

As Fast As Words Could Fly, by Pamela M. Tuck/Illustrated by Eric Velasquez, (Apr. 2013, Lee and Low), $18.95, ISBN: 9781600603488

Recommended for readers 6-10

I had to start my Black History Month reviews off with this gorgeous book by Pamela M. Tuck. As Fast As Words Could Fly is inspired by Ms. Tuck’s father, who – along with his brothers – integrated a North Carolina school, and by her grandfather, who was active in the Civil Rights movement. Mason Steele is a 14 year-old who helps his father’s civil rights group by writing letters for them, shining light on injustices. Mason’s father brings home a manual typewriter, transforming Mason’s life and letting his words fly across the pages. At the same time as Mason receives his typewriter, his father tells him and his brothers that they will integrate the local high school rather than continue busing to one twelve miles away. Integration is tough on Mason and his brothers: buses drive right by them and teachers and students alike make it known that the boys aren’t welcome there, but Mason endures and uses his typewriter to increase his skill and earn some money. He also uses his typewriter to make a change: he defies racism to keep his job at the local library and to represent his school in a typing contest. For Mason, the words on the paper speak loud and clear.

This was Pam Tuck’s first published story, which won the Lee & Low New Voices Winner. I was lucky enough to see her speak about her experience, and her family’s experience, at KidLitCon back in November, and I got my own copy of As Fast As Words Could Fly signed for my kiddo. Pam’s voice comes through so clearly in her story; I can hear her, even now, telling me about her grandfather and father’s story. I mentioned that I was a fan of her illustrator, Eric Velasquez, and she sat with me; as we went through the book together, she pointed out her favorite pieces of artwork. I mentioned that I loved Mr. Velasquez’s books, Grandma’s Records and Grandma’s Gift, and his talent for creating warm, loving family artwork, and she told me that the spread where Mason’s father tells his boys that they are going to a new school was perfectly recreated: she pointed out areas of her grandparents’ kitchen that she remembered, and said that Pa’s posture and hands were spot-on; the artist had given life to her grandfather.

As Fast As Words Could Fly is a strong story about a family during the Civil Rights movement, and it’s the story of a young man who was determined to make a change on his own terms. I love this story, and would love to see it on more bookshelves. Find a teacher’s guide and interviews on the Lee & Low website, and learn more about Pamela Tuck here. See more of award-winning illustrator Eric Velasquez’s artwork at his website.