Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Meet two new middle grade heroines with big imaginations

Ruby Starr, by Deborah Lytton, (Aug. 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492645771

Recommended for readers 8-12

Ruby Starr loves getting lost in a good book. She even has a lunchtime book group with her BFFs at school: The Unicorns! Things change when Charlotte, the new girl in school, shows up and starts making big changes: she scoffs at reading and wants to make The Unicorns a drama club, and she’s spending more and more time with Ruby’s best friend, Siri. Ruby needs to dig deep into her imagination to help bring things back to normal again.

Part Secret Life of Walter Mitty, part Dork Diaries, Ruby Starr is a lovable new protagonist for middle grade readers. She daydreams scenarios to help her cope with the everyday frustrations – or imagine exciting outcomes for upcoming events – and zones out while she’s doing it, making for some giggleworthy moments throughout the story. The imagination sequences are illustrated, letting readers in on the joke. The stress of friendship – and losing it – will resonate with middle graders, as will the fear of being the outsider in the group; Ruby handles these challenges with humor and style, even reaching out to her frenemy and offering a helping hand. I loved seeing a nice librarian-student relationship, too; maybe the author can give us a Ruby Starr/Unicorns reading list to promote to our kids!

Ruby Starr is a fun entry into the humorous journal fiction sub-genre. Give this to your Dork Diaries, My Dumb Diary, and Frazzled (by Booki Vivat) readers. Ask them to draw an imaginary scenario for themselves! There’s a reader’s guide on Deborah Lytton’s author webpage, along with an author Q&A and link to her blog.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen, by Catherine Lloyd Burns, (Aug. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374300418

Recommended for ages 8-12

Cricket Cohen has a big imagination. Sometimes, it gets away from her – especially when she wants to impress someone, or just make a boring autobiography school assignment a little more exciting. After all, it’s fun when she and her grandmother pretend, right? Well… wrong, at least according to her schoolmates, who are tired of her making up stories, and her teacher, who wants her to redo her autobiography assignment with the truth this time. When her parents leave her alone with her grandmother, Dodo, while they go summer house-hunting in the Hamptons, Dodo convinces Cricket that they’re going to run away and have an adventure; Cricket’s all too happy to go. But Dodo starts becoming confused, and Cricket finds herself having to bail herself AND Dodo out of hot water when she’s the only one who knows what’s fact and what’s fantasy.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen is much more than a novel about a kid who likes to embellish the truth. It’s a story about grandparents and grandchildren, and it’s a story about what happens when children find themselves with the responsibility of caring for an adult: something that today’s kids sometimes find themselves managing.

Cricket finds herself disappearing into her imagination to deal with her boring classmates who prefer talking about clothes, shoes, and crushes to geology and stuffed animal brain surgery, but you can also argue that it’s an attention-seeking response to her parents, who are consumed with their nonprofit fundraising for the city’s public schools. They live above their means, and her mother – a control freak and perfectionist – treats her own mother like an inconvenience. Artsy free spirit Dodo pushes back against her daughter’s rules and regulations, and Cricket embraces her kindred spirit; but Cricket, previously unaware of her grandmother’s health struggles, finds herself in the position of being responsible for herself and her grandmother when her grandmother’s failing memory causes a problem in a department store.

The New York setting is fun – it’s got a touch of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to it. The story handles big issues like family relationships, aging grandparents, and embellishing the truth with a shot of fun and adventure. At the same time, the Dodo is the one character that remains truly likable throughout the story. Cricket and her family may be living above their means, but they are still an upper middle class family, living on New York’s Upper West Side and renting summer homes in the Hamptons. Her parents border on neglectful, putting the welfare of New York City’s public school children ahead of their own daughter’s. Cricket’s actions are understandable in the bigger picture, and she becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.

Have The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen available, along with Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart, and There Will Be Bears, by Ryan Gebhart, for readers who may be coping with an aging grandparent. Booktalk it with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Kay Thompson’s Eloise, Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg, and Nadja Spiegelman’s Lost in NYC graphic novel for a fun New York reading theme.

Posted in Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

A spooky Book Birthday to Spirit Hunters!

Spirit Hunters, by Ellen Oh, (July 2017, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062430083

Recommended for readers 9-13

Harper Raine is not happy about her parents’ decision to move them from New York to Washington, D.C. She can’t stand the creepy house they’ve moved into, especially when she hears the rumors about it being haunted. When her younger brother, Michael, starts talking about an imaginary friend and undergoes a radical personality change, Harper knows she has to act, even if no one else believes her. The thing is, some of Michael’s behaviors ring familiar bells for Harper, but she can’t put her finger on why. She’s missing chunks of memory from a previous accident – can things be connected?

Ellen Oh’s the founder of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and Spirit Hunters gives readers a wonderfully spooky story, rich in diversity. Harper and her siblings are half Korean; as the story progresses, subplots reveal themselves and provide a fascinating look at Korean culture, and the conflicts that can arise between generations. Harper’s new friend, Dayo, and a helpful spirit named Mrs. Devereux are African-American; Mrs. Devereux in particular provides a chance for discussion on race relations, and how racism doesn’t necessarily end with one’s life. Told in the third person, we also hear Harper’s voice through her “stupid DC journals”; journal entries suggested by her therapist, to help bridge her memory gaps, that show up between chapters. The characters are brilliant, with strong backstories, and two mystery subplots emerge that come together, with the main story, to give readers an unputdownable story that will dare them to turn the lights off at night.

I can’t say enough good things about Spirit Hunters, and neither can other reviewers: the book has starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

 

Posted in Preschool Reads, Toddler Reads

Picture Book Party! Potties, Pirates, Grandmas, and more!

It’s a picture book roundup of Spring and early Summer!

I’ve Got to Go, by Guido van Genechhten, (May 2017, Clavis Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1605373379
Recommended for readers 2-5

Doggy has to go. It’s urgent! But his sister is sitting on his potty, because Mouse is on her potty… and so goes this sweet, cumulative tale. As Doggy runs by each animal friend taking up potty real estate, Doggy’s situation is becoming dire – until he reaches the big toilet! Endpapers introduce kids to synonyms for “being used”: “full”, “taken”, “busy”, “occupied”, “in use”, and engaged”, all of which show up throughout the book as Doggy makes his run to the big boy toilet. There’s an array of animal potties on the final endpapers, so kids can point out whose potty belonged to whom. The art is fun and tongue in cheek; kids will squeal with delight at Zebra “doing his business” and Giraffe sitting on the potty while reading a book. It’s a fun book that shows the transition from potty to big kid toilet that toddlers and preschoolers will love.

Sarah at the Wedding, by Pauline Oud, (May 2017, Clavis Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1605373317
Recommended for ages 3-6

The latest in Pauline Oud’s Sarah and Ian series has the two friends playing a big part in Sarah’s Aunt Olivia’s wedding! The flower girl and ring bearer get dressed in their party clothes, watch Aunt Olivia marry William, and enjoy the celebration; blowing bubbles, posing for photos, and making their own veil and top hat at an arts and crafts table. This would make a great gift for any bride or groom to give to their flower girls or ring bearers, and is a nice addition to collections on friendship and special events. William, the groom, is a person of color, as is the celebrant and a handful of wedding guests. The bridal veil looks like photographed lace incorporated into Oud’s artwork for a nice, textured feel. Front endpapers feature illustrations of different clothes and activities for a wedding, along with some comprehension questions about the story for older audiences. Back endpapers include fun make your own veil and top hat crafts. Sarah at the Wedding was originally published in Dutch in 2015 and is a sweet addition to Pauline Oud’s collection; I love her art and her short sentences are great for younger readers gaining more confidence in reading independently.

The Only Way I Can, by Bonnie Grubman/Illustrated by Carolien Westermann, (May 2017, Clavis Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1605373393
Recommended for readers 4-7

A Rabbit sees Bird flying; he wants to fly, too, and asks Bird for help. Despite Bird’s misgivings, he tries to help Rabbit; from making wings of feathers and string, to training exercises, to running into the wind, but nothing works. Rabbit decides to soar in his own way – the only way he can – and uses his imagination. The Only Way I Can is a story of self-acceptance and imagination, with beautiful backgrounds and warm colors. The illustrated endpaper spreads bring readers into the story setting and gently let them leave when the book ends. A good storytime book about accepting oneself and one’s limits while celebrating the bravery of taking chances.

My Good Morning!, by Kim Crockett Corson/Illustrated by Jelena Brezovec, (May 2017, Clavis Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1605373423
Recommended for readers 3-6

A little girl wakes up, ready to start her day; can her Mommy and Daddy keep up with her as she gets ready for school? This is a fun, rhyming tale about getting ready for school in the morning, with a little girl that’s raring to go, and her parents, who are… a little less energetic, at first. We follow the girl through her morning ritual: going to the bathroom, washing up and brushing teeth, getting dressed, and out the door. Mom and Dad are there to help, but our girl wants to do things by herself, making for fun moments with mismatched socks, uneven buttons, and more milk for the cat than the little girl. When she gets to school, there are no tears: there’s too much fun to be had! Dad is a person of color, and the little girl is biracial; classmates form a diverse group. The rhyming text is fun, with short sentences that allow for interactivity by asking kids about what they see in each spread. Ask kids about their morning rituals and notice how different each person’s morning routine is. Pink argyle endpapers match the wallpaper in the family’s home. This is a fun read for storytime, be it a back-to-school storytime, a family storytime, or a storytime about being brave. My Good Morning! was originally published in Dutch in 2016 and is a nice addition to collections.

Pirate John-Wolf, by Natalie Quintart/Illustrated by Philippe Goossens, (July 2017, Clavis Books), $18.95, ISBN: 978-1605373300
Recommended for readers 4-7

John-Wolf feels weak and afraid most of the time. The only time he feels brave is when he’s alone in his room, singing songs about pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Hook. But one night, pirates kidnap John-Wolf and take him to their ship! Captain Drake demands that he sing some heroic deeds about him; and when John-Wolf finds his voice, he breaks into a loud and funny song about how weak and boring the pirates are. As he sings, he finds his bravery and impresses Captain Drake, who invites him to stay on board as John-Wolf the Pirate Singer. When John-Wolf returns to school, after his adventure, he has a different outlook and his classmates notice it. He’s more self-assured, more comfortable in his own skin. Pirate John-Wolf is a fun pirate story about finding your voice and self-confidence. The book says that John-Wolf’s adventure is a dream, but it’s not communicated as clearly in the story itself – not that it’s a big deal, just worth mentioning. The story has fun, with emphasized words and fonts throughout, and the art is cute and cartoony, with pirate animals and skull and crossbones endpapers. Originally published in Dutch in 2015, Pirate John-Wolf is a cute add to collections where pirate stories are popular.

What Can Your Grandma Do?, by Anna Sawan/Illustrated by Sernur Isik, (May 2017, Clavis Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1605373324
Recommended for readers 4-7

There’s a grandparents’ talent show coming up at Jeremy’s school! All of his friends talk about their grandparents’ special talents: there are doctors and artists, bakers and dancers; Jeremy starts to worry, because his grandmother doesn’t have any special talents like that. He and Grandma decide to go shoot some hoops while they think about a special talent, and then Jeremy realizes that his Grandma has a special talent of her own after all! What Can Your Grandma Do? takes a fun look at breaking the mold – Grandma can slam dunk in her coiffed hair and pearls. Grandparents are doing fun, exciting things in this story, which fits nicely with a more active generation of Baby Boomer grandparents, who will get a kick out of this story. Cartoony artwork and fun fonts, plus little details that enrich each spread, make this a good storytime choice and a great classroom choice when grandparents are in attendance. Talk to kids about their own grandparents’ special talents, and use the book as an opportunity to talk about how we all have our own special abilities. Pair with Rock Away Granny for a Grandparents Day storytime.

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Teen

Gork the Teenage Dragon serves up scaly green goodness

Gork the Teenage Dragon, by Gabe Hudson, (July 2017, Knopf), $24.95, ISBN: 9780375413964

Recommended for readers 14+

Gork’s a dragon, but don’t even think about mentioning Smaug to him. He’s not happy at all with the way dragons are portrayed in Earth fiction, and he’s here to set the record straight. So begins the story of Gork: teenage dragon, student at WarWings Academy, orphaned on Earth during his parents’ mating mission and raised by his scientist grandfather, Dr. Terrible.

Starting off on Crown Day – the day dragon and dragonette cadets at the Academy agree to be mating partners – Gork has one goal in mind: to get the luscious Runcita Floop to wear his crown and agree to be his queen. The problem? His nickname is Weak Sauce, his Will to Power ranking is Snacklicious (if you’re a gamer, think of Will to Power as a CON/DEX/overall attractiveness level) and he’s got a bad habit of fainting when he’s scared. If Runcita says yes, she and Gork will go off in his spaceship and find a planet to conquer together. If Gork can’t sea the deal, he’s doomed to be a slave.

Gork has a heck of a day ahead of him: Dean Floop – his intended’s father – hates him; his sadistic grandfather is on the run from the Dean, he’s being hunted down by a group of WarWings cadets that have murder on their minds, and the Trenx, a fellow cadet who had similarly low ratings, has seemingly blossomed overnight. Before the day is out, Gork will have to survive and learn some hard truths about his family. He’d better keep his best friend – a robot dragon named Fribby – by his side.

Gork is an out-there novel. It’s a page-turner, and Gork is an endearing first-person narrator, if a bit single-minded in focus. He’s obsessed with mating, but he is a teenager, after all. He refers a lot to his “scaly green ass” a lot, which gets tedious. Gork’s story uses fantasy to tackle some very real points: bullying, friendship, self-esteem, and falling in love. It’s a much deeper novel than the title “teenage dragon”encompasses; it’s a fantasy, a YA romance, and a coming of age story.

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

Magical Realism meets middle grade: The Unicorn in the Barn

The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn/Illustrated by Rebecca Green, (July 2017, HMH Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 9780544761124

Recommended for ages 10-12

Eric Harper lives with his dad and his brother on a farm near Chinaberry Creek. His grandmother lived in the house near theirs, too, but she’s gone into a rest home and now, a veterinarian and her brusque daughter, Allegra, live there. When Eric spots a unicorn in the woods one night, he and Allegra become partners in caring for Moonpearl – the name they give the unicorn – and the twins she’s carrying. Dr. B is no ordinary vet – she takes care of everyone’s pets, sure, but she also has a gift for magical creatures, and they seem to know how to find her. Eric adores Moonpearl and tries to spend every moment he can with her, but he is also too aware of the magical healing properties that unicorns possess; the temptation to use Moonpearl’s magic to make things better for his friends and family is strong.

The Unicorn in the Barn is magical. It’s a beautifully told story of love and loss; of friendship and new life, of beginnings and endings. The black and white illustrations throughout are soft and add an extra dimension to the story. Eric is so earnest, so passionate about making life better for everyone and so in love with Moonpearl, that he often finds himself at odds with the somewhat bossy and bullish Allegra, who would rather keep her mother and Moonpearl to herself. The story is as much about the evolution of their friendship as it is about Eric’s journey through a critical point in his life. A beautiful middle grade work of magical realism. Booktalk with Me and Marvin Gardens to add some magic into your audience’s reading.

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

Call Me Sunflower explores alternative families

Call Me Sunflower, by Miriam Spitzer Franklin, (May 2017, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781510711792

Recommended for ages 9-13

Sunflower Beringer can’t stand her first name, so she has everyone call her Sunny. And she really can’t stand that her mother uprooted her and her sister, and left their dad, Scott, back in New Jersey to run his bookstore while she attends grad school in North Carolina. Now they’re living with a grandmother they barely know, and she’s the new kid in school. Ugh. Sunny has to do something, so she creates Sunny Beringer’s Totally Awesome Plan for Romance”: a can’t-miss list of ways to bring her mom and Scott back together, including making playlists of Scott’s favorite songs and getting her mother a makeover. While she works on a family album that will remind Scott and Mom of when they were in love all over again, though, she discovers a picture that changes everything. A strong subplot involving animal rights activism and Sunny’s relationship with her grandmother really gives Call Me Sunflower depth.

I’m becoming a Miriam Spitzer Franklin fangirl. I loved Extraordinary (2015); in Sunny, I found many similiaries to Pansy, Extraordinary‘s protagonist. Both stories are realistic fiction, told in the first person, about girls dealing with big life changes. They have complicated friendships and they have both There are humorous moments, and each has a unique voice, a unique point of view; Ms. Franklin captures the frustrations, the fears, and the unique experience of being a tween in a relatable voice that readers will gravitate to. I love that she created an alternative family structure with an adoptive family outside the traditional husband-wife setting and gave us a family unit that is working it all out. I admit to being a little confused with Sunny’s birth story – she is adopted, but has pictures of her mother holding her at the hospital – but that’s likely because my own adoption experience happened differently. All in all, a bittersweet, tender look at families. Pair with realistic fiction like Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart, Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm, and Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand.

 

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

A young girl finds One Good Thing About America every day

One Good Thing About America, by Ruth Freeman, (March 2017, Holiday House), $16.95, ISBN: 9780823436958

Recommended for readers 8-12

At home in the Congo, nine year-old Anaïs is the best English student in her class. She loves spending time at her grandmother’s home. She loves her family: her father, her older brother, Olivier, and younger brother, Jean-Claude, and her mother. But now, her father is in hiding, her older brother, stayed in Africa with their grandmother, and Anaïs, Jean-Claude, and their mother are living in a shelter in Crazy America. Nothing about the people or the language makes sense to her – why would anyone eat chicken fingers? Why do vowels change sounds with every word? – and she misses her home, her life before.

Written in the form of letters from Anaïs to her grandmother, One Good Thing About America, by Ruth Freeman, a teacher who works with English Language Learners. Motivated by her students’ determination and their stories, this is her tribute to them as much as it is a chance to create an understanding of the immigrant experience in America. Anaïs, her family, and her classmates and neighbors develop through the course of the story; experiencing sleepovers, mac and cheese dinners, Halloween, and even a frightening emergency room trip. We never get the full story behind Anaïs’ father’s trouble with the mining company, but readers understand the urgency of the situation: her father is in hiding, on the run, and no one that associates with him is safe. While Anaïs longs for her family to be whole again, she has the added challenge of learning a new language and making a new life in a strange country where nothing makes sense. She has good days and bad days; goes from hopeful to frustrated, and every reader will appreciate and understand where she’s coming from. Little doodles throughout the book illustrate new things Anaïs encounters, from the crunchy fall leaves that “make the sound of eating toast” to ice cream and pizza.

A list of English words Anaïs struggles with – what she hears, as opposed to what she learns – also helps readers understand the challenges our language and colloquialisms present to English language learners. Words in French, Anaïs’ native tongue, introduce readers to some new vocabulary.

One Good Thing About America is a good book for all communities. In our current socio-political climate, I daresay it should be a summer reading selection for middle graders (and their families). I suggest booktalking with Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again for excellent discussions about the differences within the refugee experience.