Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Join the resistance: BAN THIS BOOK

Ban this Book, by Alan Gratz, Sept. 2017, Starscape), $15.99, ISBN: 9780765385567

Recommended for readers 8-12

Fourth grader Amy Anne Ollinger isn’t one to speak up. When her parents tell her to let her sisters get their own way, she listens. All she wants to do is read her books and stay off anyone’s radar, but that all changes when her favorite book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, is pulled from the library shelves after a classmate’s mother finds it inappropriate. Amy Anne is shocked when the school board carries the motion, but it gets worse when her classmate’s mom returns to the library with a list of MORE books. And the administration refuses to call it banning! Amy Anne launches into action: she starts her own banned book library, run out of her locker. As the battle of the books escalates, Amy calls some friends in for backup. They’re going to challenge every book in the library. The dictionary? You can find bad words, like “stupid”, in there. Goodnight Moon? That cute little mouse is a health violation! Math textbooks? Imaginary numbers don’t exist!

Ban This Book is wonderful, first and foremost, because it gives kids a voice. Amy Anne finds hers as the novel progresses, and defending her beloved books gives her the power to assert herself in other areas of her life. Alan Gratz gives us a protagonist of color who goes on her own hero’s journey in the course of this novel; from mouse (as drawn by her classmate) to advocate – and assistant librarian! Mr. Gratz also shows a valuable part of librarianship that most people don’t always associate with our little profession: defenders of the right to read. Ms. Jones, Amy’s school librarian, is portrayed as a knowledgable, dedicated professional – and one who notably does not “shush” her library kids – who fights for her books and her readers, challenging the school board over their decision to take her – the professional – out of the review and reconsideration process.

Amy Anne and her friends learn how to assemble as a group and use their strengths to form their own library, to organize their own challenge to the status quo, and to make decisions for themselves. Every character is a winner here, and extra kudos to the author for not making the board and PTA mom classic mustache-twirling villains here: Amy recognizes that they are good people who want to believe they are doing what’s best for their kids.

Every single book that the PTA mom challenges in Ban This Book can be found on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned and challenged books.

An absolute must-add to reading lists and collections. Make this one the center of your Banned Book Week Display!

Posted in Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Dark middle grade fantasy: Room of Shadows

Room of Shadows, by Ronald Kidd, (Aug. 2017, Albert Whitman), $16.99, ISBN: 9780807568057

Recommended for readers 10-13

David finds himself with a lot of anger lately. I mean, it’s justified: his dad abandoned his mom, and they’ve been forced to move into this creepy old house. When a school bully messes with him on a bad day, David beats him up, earning some in-house grounding from his mom. That’s where he discovers the room: a secret room with an old desk and a carving of a Raven, signed, “EP”. The weird dreams start shortly after. When the incidents start at school, all involving people who David’s tangled with, everyone starts looking at him differently, including his mom and the police. How can David prove he isn’t The Raven – the person responsible for the incidents, who leaves a signed note each time? And how can he keep himself safe from The Raven, who’s fixated on him?

With a background in Edgar Allan Poe’s history, I dove eagerly into Room of Shadows. The author takes Poe into very dark territory here, for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. It’s an interesting concept, but one I had a hard time with. I didn’t really get to know David or his best friend, Libby; I felt like their character development took more of a backseat, allowing the Poe storyline to drive the plot. I did like the nod to some of Poe’s greatest hits in the story, including The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, and The Pit and the Pendulum; it’s always great to discover Poe in new fiction. This one wasn’t my book, but middle grade horror fans who are ready for something weightier than Goosebumps and Haunted Mansion may sit down with this one.

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

Book Tour: The Tower, by Nicole Campbell

The Tower, by Nicole Campbell, (June 2017, CreateSpace), $13.50, ISBN: 978-1545411278

Recommended for readers 13+

Three lifelong friends get ready to start their junior year of high school. They live in Elizabethtown, Illinois, and tend to stand out because they’re witches. Not the Harry Potter type, and not the White Witch of Narnia, either: they’re pagans, in touch with nature and the energy around them, and they have no idea how things are going to change for them this year. There’s Rowyn, whose sharp tongue is rivaled only by her skill in reading tarot cards and auras; Reed, forever in love with Rowyn, who channels energy and practices reiki, and Rose, who puts love and little touches of her magic into her baked goods. There’s also Jared, a jock from school who’s dating Rose and seems to be the one person from school that’s willing to take the time to understand his new group of friends. When tragedy strikes, their worlds are upended, and each has to find his or her own way back to some form of balance.

Each chapter is told in the first person from one of our four main characters. This is not a paranormal novel; it’s not an urban fantasy novel. It’s a beautiful story of love and loss, addiction and depression, and a look into a group of friends that grew up on the outside, looking in. Diversity takes many forms, and the pagan belief system, stuck in the middle of Christian conservatism, serves as a powerful setting. Nicole Campbell writes characters that are fragile and strong; they’re dealing with things so many teens find themselves faced with today: divorced parents, bullying, and navigating relationships among them. The Tower is a strong piece of YA realistic fiction that will resonate with teens and young adults.

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 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, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

When Pigs Fly…

Pigs Might Fly, by Nick Abadzis/Illustrated by Jerel Dye, (July 2017, :01First Second), $9.99, ISBN: 9781250176943

Recommended for readers 9-13

Lily Leanchops is the daughter of famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, and she’s certainly inherited her father’s pioneering spirit. While the rest of the folks in Pigdom Plains scoff at the very notion of pigs flying, Lily’s been working on her own flying machine in secret. She’s seen her father’s flying machines fail, and she’s taking everything he’s doing into account as works to create her own flyer. Like her father, she embraces science, not magic (mostly), but when the dangerous Warthogs threaten to invade – flying their own machines, powered by magic, and led by someone very familiar with Lily and her dad – it’s up to Lily to save her home and her town. Even if that means pushing her experimental craft and herself to their limits.

The science versus magic dilemma takes center stage in this graphic novel, which will appeal to kids and, on a deeper level, to older readers who are aware of the science versus faith arguments that frequently occur splashed across social media. Although pigs are the main characters in the story, they are illustrated and given very humanlike qualities and dress – Lily could be another Amelia Earhart or Bessie Coleman in her pilot gear. An interesting parable for current events, with a plot that embraces diversity and working together. A good addition to middle school reading lists and libraries; invite readers to make comparisons between the story and what they see in the world around them and on the news.

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

Arthur Yorinks’ Making Scents: A New Family Structure

Making Scents, by Arthur Yorinks/Illustrated by Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline, (June 2017, :01 First Second), $15.99, ISBN: 9781596434523

Recommended for readers 8-12

Mickey is a boy who’s been raised a little differently. His parents raised bloodhounds before he was born, and raised Mickey just like his “brothers and sisters”. Mickey doesn’t see anything different with his upbringing, even if other kids treat him like he’s weird. He wants to make his parents proud of him, so he’s working on developing his sense of smell, constantly sniffing and honing his senses. A tragedy strikes, and Mickey’s sent to live with his elderly aunt and uncle, who don’t like kids or dogs – but maybe Mickey can show them that he and his sniffer are more helpful than they realize.

This one was a wacky read. Making Scents reads like realistic fiction – it deals with grief and loss, extended families, and nontraditional families – but it does work on your suspension of disbelief. The opening scene, with baby Mickey being left in the woods for the dogs to find as a test/publicity gimmick sets the tone for the story: two dog-crazy grownups find themselves with a baby that they have no idea how to raise, but they do the best with what they’ve got. They love their human son as much as they do their canine sons and daughters, but I have to wonder what kind of parent-child relationship you can have if you see your child as equal to a pet that you “master”.

Regardless, Making Scents progresses to become a touching story of intergenerational relationships and family. Mickey, his mother’s older sister, and her husband have to create their own new family structure when an accident leaves Mickey orphaned. Once again, Mickey is thrust into a family that doesn’t know what to do with him, but this time around, he doesn’t have anyone or anything to take a social cue from; his aunt and uncle, like his parents, do their best with what they have and stumble along until Mickey’s abilities help reveal a potential health crisis.

Unexpected and sensitive, Making Scents is good for graphic novel collections that provide different perspectives.