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

An unexpected mystery and a group of Ghastlies: Death and Douglas

Death and Douglas, by J.W. Ocker, (Sept. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-2457-0

Good for readers 8-12

Twelve year-old Douglas Mortimer gets Death. His family runs the local funeral home in a small New England town named Cowlmouth; he learned how to tie a tie by putting them on the corpses before viewing. There’s a morgue downstairs in his home. Dressed in his suits and impeccable ties, he’s ready to take over the family business one day. For Douglas, death is just part of life: he’s more comfortable with it than most adults are, let alone kids. Until the murders begin. Someone is killing people in Douglas’s sleepy little town, and carving letters into the victims’ faces. Douglas understands death, but murder is just unnatural. It’s wrong. And it scares him. He and his best friend, Lowell – the police chief’s son – and his new friend, Amber – an ambulance driver’s daughter, decide they need to get to the bottom of this mystery. Calling themselves the Ghastlies, they start their own investigation, which could put them right in the killer’s sights.

Death and Douglas is fascinating – not many middle grade novels are going to be this frank about death and its place in the natural order of things. It’s a relief; it addresses the routines and rituals involved in passing, as part of Douglas’s parents’ work, with no overwrought emotion. In fact, when a group of  self-nominated “guardian angels” try to suggest that Douglas’s upbringing is unwholesome, his father fires back, stating that his understanding allows him the strength to help others who have lost loved ones. His family may shelter him from some of the grimmer parts of the business – he is only 12 – but Douglas’s parents are very forward about death as a part of life. The characters are well-crafted; believable, and equal parts hilarious and conflicted – kind of like real kids. I’d love to see what the Ghastlies have in store for the future. Until then, I’ll just have to settle for foisting this book on the kids in my library. Give this one to your mystery fans for sure.

Author JW Ocker’s site, Odd Things I’ve Seen, is truly worth a look.

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Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, Realistic Fiction

In Lucy’s Lab, science is everywhere!

Sky Pony has a new series for intermediate readers that incorporates a fun science component into each tale. Lucy’s Lab is a series about a second grader named Lucy, and she loves science! Her cousin and best friend, Cora, is in class with her, and is more of the purple and pink princess type, but she’s always up for a stint in Lucy’s Lab. Now, if only she could get that annoying classmate Stewart Swinefest, to behave himself…

Lucy’s Lab: Nuts About Science, by Michelle Houts/Illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel,
(Sept. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $13.99, ISBN: 978-1510710641
Recommended for readers 7-10

In Lucy’s first science adventure, Nuts About Science, we meet the science-loving second grader at the beginning of her school year. She likes her new teacher, Miss Flippo, and she really likes that there’s a science lab in her classroom! Miss Flippo even has lab coats and goggles for the students to wear in the lab! One thing doesn’t sit so well with Lucy this school year, though: the big oak tree outside her classroom is gone, and Lucy’s worried that the squirrels that lived there will have nowhere to go! She and her friends manage to find out what happened, and lobby the principal and the PTA for a new tree. In the meantime, Lucy turns an old playhouse her father built in the backyard into her very own lab!

 

Lucy’s Lab: Nuts About Science, by Michelle Houts/Illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel,
(Sept. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $13.99, ISBN: 978-1510710672
Recommended for readers 7-10

Lucy and her classmates learn about the states of matter in Solids, Liquids, Guess Who’s Got Gas, which may be the best Intermediate book title ever. Miss Flippo believes in science being fun, and teaches them about solids, liquids, and gases by using balloons, frozen water, and a school trip to the apple orchard! Kudos to author Michelle Houts for slipping the fourth state of matter – plasma – into the story, as well as its recent inclusion into science textbooks. Lucy discovers a new science hero in this story, and Stewart Swinefest gets some payback for being obnoxious.

The Lucy’s Lab series is easy reading, with bite-sized information slipped into the narrative. Lucy has her own lab time in each book, and we return to Room 2-C for adventures in the science lab during school hours; we also get interesting tidbits throughout each story, whether it’s about the origin of some last names, tree diseases, or the scientist who studied plasma. There’s always something interesting happening in Lucy’s world, and we’re invited to come along. Black and white illustrations keep the reader’s interest and keep the pace moving for readers transitioning from beginner chapter books to intermediate novels.

This is a nice series to give to your readers who like exploring the world around them. I’d display this with the Girls Who Code chapter books and Jon Scieszka’s Frank Einstein books to give kids a nice introduction to STEM fiction.

 

Posted in Adventure, History, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

The League of American Traitors gives us a glimpse at darker American history

The League of American Traitors, by Matthew Landis, (Aug. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1510707351

Recommended for readers 13+

Seventeen year-old Jasper is an orphan, losing both parents in under a year. His father was never much of a father to him, so when a lawyer approaches Jasper at his father’s gravesite, he ignores his offer of help: there’s no money involved, and that’s what he needs, now that he’s on his own. But when he’s attacked by unknown assailants, he learns that he’s the sole surviving descendant of Benedict Arnold: possibly the most infamous traitor in American History. Like an American Revolution-era Percy Jackson, Jasper discovers that descendants of history’s traitors belong to a group called The League of American Traitors, and that the True Sons of Liberty – a militant Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution – holds a heck of a grudge. Every time a traitor’s ancestor turns 18, they’re challenged to a duel by one of the Libertines, as the League calls them. The League kids go to a special school that teaches them the survival skills they’ll need in a duel, but Jasper’s case is special. His father was researching his ancestor, and he was onto something. Something that the Libertines will do anything to keep secret. Cyrus, his father’s lawyer and member of the League, urges Jasper to continue his father’s research; it will give all of the League families a new lease on life. Jasper has new friends that stand ready to help, but the Libertines have spies everywhere.

The League of American Traitors is a fun thrill ride through American history. A little bit Percy Jackson, mixed with some National Treasure and a dash of Hamilton, teens will enjoy this look at America, where our heroes’ hands may be a little dirtier than we imagined. The author knows how to keep a book moving, and once introductions are made, supporting characters come with their own rich backstories. This one’s a fun add to fiction collections, especially for fans of realistic intrigue and adventure with a twist.

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, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Everything can change in One Moment

One Moment, by Kristina McBride, (Jan. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $9.99, ISBN: 9781510714557

Recommended for ages 14-18

Maggie is looking at the best summer of her life. She and her group of best friends are heading into their senior year of high school, and she’s made a big decision about her relationship with her boyfriend of almost two years, Joey. But things change in an instant when the friends head out to the gorge to kick off their summer; Joey, the charismatic daredevil of the group, dives off a cliff, and the next thing Maggie remembers is her friend Adam coming to get her and seeing Joey, unmoving, on the ground. As Maggie and her friends mourn Joey’s death, she also discovers that Joey kept so man secrets – secrets that Adam and her friend, Shannon, seem to be privy to. As Maggie struggles to regain her memory of that fateful day, she learns that Joey may not have been everything she thought he was.

Part mystery, part coming of age heartbreaker, One Moment looks at the hole left when a loved one dies, and the confusion and anger that step in when they leave behind secrets. Maggie is at times sympathetic and at times frustrating; the author leads readers to figure things out long before Maggie does, and more often than not, she falls into a classic victim role. She finds her strength by ultimately letting Joey go in her own way, but getting there can be a battle. The story does speak to the

Teen romance and realistic fiction fans will enjoy this one. Booktalk this with Julie Anne Peters’ Lies My Girlfriend Told Me; it’s a strong readalike from an LGBTQ perspective.

 

Posted in Preschool Reads

Rock Away the Night with Granny!

Rock Away Granny, by Dandi Daley Mackall/Illustrated by Mike DeSantis, (Apr. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-0835-8

Recommended for readers 3-6

A little girl gets dropped off at Granny’s, and she isn’t looking forward to the evening. She misses her toys and TV, and Granny just sits there in her rocking chair. But once Mom pulls away, Granny taps her blue suede shoes, paints her granddaughter’s nails, gives them both pony tails, and gets ready to rock the night away! Granddaughter and Granny pull out the old records (“a guy named Elvis has a giant stack”) and do the Twist, the Boogaloo, the Monster Mash, and the Bunny Hop before collapsing back into their rockers. When Mom comes back to pick her little girl up, she kisses Granny goodnight and shuffles off to Buffalo, right out the door – until next time!

What a sweet book about grandparent bonding! Kids don’t always remember that grandma and grandpa were pretty darned cool before they had kids and grandkids; Rock Away Granny has too much fun reminding us about that. This book appeals to grandkids and their parents, who will likely remember hearing Elvis, The Twist, and the Monster Mash while growing up. My own mom is a diehard Elvis fan, so the two of us got a great laugh over the Elvis reference in the book. Instructions on doing the Bunny Hop and how to rock and roll end the book on a high note.

Mike DeSantis’ watercolor illustration gives a soft, cuddly feel to his artwork, and I love his movement when Granny and granddaughter dance. The swaying skirts and swinging ponytails, the imaginative underwater sequence for the swim, and Granny’s cat, who gets in on the action, give this happy book a joyful look and feel.

Bring this book on your next visit to Grandma and/or Grandpa’s, and get them up and dancing! Grandparent’s Day is September 10th this year – add this to your read-aloud and give everyone a dance party with a playlist from the ’50s and ’60s.

 

Award-winning author Dandi Daley Mackall has written more than 450 books for kids and adults. You can check out her website for more information. See more of Mike DeSantis’ illustration work at his site.

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

Dance like your life depends on it: Spin the Sky

Spin the Sky, by Jill MacKenzie, (Nov. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1510706866

Recommended for readers 14+

Eighteen year-old Magnolia Woodson and her older sister, Rose, have to live with the sins of their drug addict mother, who abandoned them after a tragedy a year before. Living in a small clamming town in Oregon, everyone knows who they are and what happened; the only folks who seem to think differently are Magnolia’s childhood best friend, George, and his mother, who’s taken care of the girls whenever their mother fell short. To change the way the town sees Magnolia and her sister, she decides she need to win the reality dance show, Live to Dance. She and George head to Portland to audition, but they make it! Now the real work begins: will the competition be too much for Mags? Will her friendship with George survive the stress of the show, and will she be able to live in the fishbowl that is reality television, especially with a secret she doesn’t want made public?

Spin the Sky has a strong premise that isn’t afraid to tackle some hot-button topics like drug addiction, sexuality, abortion, and miscarriage. Some of your more conservative readers may shy away from this one; steer them toward books like Sophie Flack’s Bunheads, Lorri Hewett’s Dancer, or Sarah Rubin’s Someday Dancer. Magnolia is a tough character to crack: she’s consumed with what other people think of her, and obsesses over winning the competition, seemingly just so that the town will accept her and her sister. She has a complicated love-hate relationship with her mother (understandably), and she has an unrequited crush on George, who she thinks is gay – and is really upset when it seems that isn’t the case. The other contestants all have their own issues that the author briefly touches on throughout the novel.

If you have readers who love reading about dance and are interested in reality television, Spin the Sky is a good backup for your shelves.