Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Speculative Middle Grade Fiction-October 2020

 This is always such a fun time of year.  The CYBILS awards are in their first round and there are SOOOO many books to be read.  This year I'm a second round judge so I'll have a shorter list to read, but I'm keeping my eye on things, just so I can keep up.  Two great books caught my eye this fall and they are great!

The first one is a sequel to the CYBILS middle grade speculative fiction award winner last year-Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia.  I devoured that one last year during Thanksgiving weekend when people were giving me long looks when I would bust out laughing and then try to explain the entire story line without giving too much away.  I started reading it aloud to my fifth graders this year and they are only annoyed because I only get to see them once a week.  It's great being able to slow down a bit and talk about some of the amazing symbolism and cultural connections.  SO NOW, I just finished reading the second one, which is called Tristan Strong Destroys the World.  I'm going to TRY to tell you a LITTLE about it without spoiling any of the story lines from either book.  Tristan is back at his grandparents' farm in Alabama and his grandad is determined to turn Tristan into a boxer, so Grandad has arranged a training bout with a local boy.  It turns out the local boy outweighs Tristan and looks like a giant.  The fight turns out well for Tristan but his beloved grandmother is kidnapped in an attack afterwards and Tristan is thrust back into Alke.  There are new characters in this story along with some familiar faces (GUM BABY!!!) and the story is just as exciting, just as compelling, just as much fun as the first one.  This one will be easier to understand if you've already read the first one, but it's a really fun ride! 

Here's a video of how the illustrator created the book jacket.

Here's the first chapter read aloud.

And here's that gorgeous cover.

The second one is called Fart Quest by Aaron Reynolds and this might be the silliest book I ever read.  It's possibly the most perfect book for virtually any elementary age reader.  It's a kind of Dungeons and Dragons kind of premise-three young apprentices, a mage, a monk and a warrior, are looking for adventure and a challenge and most especially, an opportunity to prove themselves. The mage is the main character of the trio, he also has the most unfortunate name-Fart.  He's called Fart because when he was first asked to demonstrate his magical power, the spell revolved around, well, a fart.  You can kind of see where this is going right?  The apprentices are separated from their mentors in a most unfortunate incident, and the apprentices set off on a quest.  The Great and Powerful Kevin needs a golden fart from the Golden Llama, the trio sets off to prove their worth.  It's funny, adventurous, a little scary, it has lots of pictures, and it's about 80 pages long, which is long enough to be a real chapter book book but short enough to be accessible for early or reluctant readers.  The pictures are terrific-they feel enough like a graphic novel, that the kids who like graphic novels will be happy.  I thought this was great and I can't wait to put it in my library. 

Here's the book trailer. 

Here's the super fun cover. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Racial justice stories

 I've been looking for titles for my library that will help drive a conversation about racial justice in our community.  These two titles will help with that!

The first one is a young adult book.  It's called "Dear Justyce" by Nic Stone.  Nic won acclaim with her novel "Dear Martin" a couple of years back, which is about a young black man attending a prestigious high school in Atlanta while living in an impoverished neighborhood.  That one was great and this one might be even better.  It connects some of the characters from the first book to this one.  This one is told mostly from the point of view of Quan, who is writing letters to Justyce because he is in jail, awaiting trial for the murder of a police officer.  The story unfolds in flashbacks to different times and circumstances, which allows the reader to see how Quan came to be in such a position.  There are parts of the story that are hard to read-passages about abuse and neglect, about disrespect and disparagement, but it's also about hope and healing and the importance of having a family or at least a group of people that you feel committed to.  I enjoyed this one a lot and although it probably won't live in my elementary school library, I will definitely be recommending it to anyone I can. 

Here's the cover. 

Here is Nic reading the first chapter.  

Here's the book trailer.

The second one is more in my wheelhouse of elementary libraries.  It's called "For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World" by Michael W. Walters.  The picture book  opens with the main character, Jeremiah, asking his parents if he can grow is hair in locs.  His parents agree but tell him that it's going to take some time and effort on his part.  Each subsequent page has tells about an event that Jeremiah finds upsetting, like the shooting of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or the people at the Mother Emmanuel AME church in South Carolina.  Each time, Jeremiah doesn't want to talk about it.  Until finally he does want to talk about it.  He approaches his parents and they talk about some of things they can do to affect a change on racial inequalities.  The art work is modern and a little blocky, almost like a graphic novel, which support the immediacy of the topic.  I thought this one was terrific.  I loved how the author used Jeremiah's hair to compare to the struggle for justice-that it's not just a one day event, it takes time and patience and perseverance.   This will be a wonderful conversation starter for people to talk about why these things continue to happen and how we might be able to affect a change.  

Here's a book trailer.

And here's the cover image.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Social issues in middle grade fiction

 Social issues and building empathy have been hot button topics in middle grade fiction. The current way of thinking about this is windows and mirrors.  Some books show us people who are like us and some show us people we never really thought about before.  Reading some of both kinds of books is important for kids, so I'm happy to share some new ones with you!

The first one is called A Fish Out of Water by Joanne Levy.  It's about 12 year old Fishel who is living with his mom, his stepdad and his baby sister.  Fish is getting ready to celebrate is bar mitzvah and he needs to do a  kind of community service project.  His friends have ideas and would like Fish to do the project with them, but Fish really wants to think up his own project.  He gets a great idea from his grandmother.  He wants to knit socks and give them to people who need them.  His grandmother says that boys don't knit.  His stepdad agrees and encourages him to take water polo lessons at the community center.  His friends all make fun of him for wanting to learn to knit, but Fish is persistent.  This is a lovely story about knowing yourself and making hard choices.  It also takes a big whack at gender stereotypes in a way that isn't in anyway related to romance.  I liked Fish a lot and think the kids are going to like him too.

Here is the author reading chapter one.

And here is cover!

The second one is called My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee (hmmm,, maybe this post SHOULD have been about fish...).  Barbara Dee also wrote another book that I really loved called "Maybe He Just Likes You" that was a terrific portrayal of gender based bullying.  So I was looking forward to this one and I was NOT disappointed.  This one is about 12 year old Zinnia who is a middle daughter in a big family.  Zinny's family has been struggling for awhile because of her older brother Gabriel.  Gabriel can be loud and funny and impulsive but he can also sleep for days and barely speak to anyone.  When he goes away to college, things kind of go off the rails for him and he ends up in the hospital.  When he is allowed to leave the hospital, he goes directly to a different kind of hospital because Gabriel has a mental illness.  Zinny's parents tell her this is private and they shouldn't really discuss it and Zinny takes that to heart. Zinny throws herself into science and that helps,  but it's hard.  Her friends would like her to talk about it, her older sister is willing to talk about it with everyone and her younger brother is just trying to fit in and be cool.  Zinny is a character I would like to be friends with.  Her loyalty and love for her family seems boundless.  Her confusion over the mixed messages that she's getting from her family is so clearly drawn it's easy to understand her feelings.  This is a wonderful story to open lines of communication about all sorts of topics-respect, loyalty, shame, friendship.  I can't wait to put this one in someone's hands!

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Ghost stories!

 Summer is drawing to a close and we're getting ready to start school again.  Things seem a little scary here because of the virus and the uncertainty of what's going to happen next.  These books are scary in a completely different and wonderful way!  

The first one is called Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie.  She writes terrific spooky middle grade books and that's exactly what this one is.  Scritch Scratch is narrated by Claire, an 8th grade science fair aficionado.  She lives with her parents and her older brother Sam.  Her dad has kind of an unusual job-he's a ghost hunter.  He writes book and runs a tour company that gives ghost tours of Chicago.  Claire finds this all very embarrassing.  The book opens with Claire being being asked to help her dad on the ghost tour.  The driver has unexpectedly called in sick and her dad doesn't want to cancel the tour.  So Claire is along to make sure her dad stays on time, that the bus doesn't get towed, and that everyone gets on and off the bus when they are supposed to.  Except that at the end of the tour there's an additional passenger.  A little boy in old fashioned clothes and he's soaking wet.  Claire is a bit shaken but tries to move past it on her own, even after she starts seeing and hearing really weird things.  Claire's best friend, Casley, has been busy with a new girl, Emily, who is very interested in clothes and makeup and Claire definitely does NOT want to talk to her dad about it, so she confides in her brother.  This was a super compelling mystery with characters who feel like people you know.  I read it all in one sitting!  I really liked the connection between science and research and ghosts.  The historical research about Chicago and tragic events that occurred there was really interesting.  This would be a great book to connect to the Ambrose Deception by Emily Ecton which is also based in Chicago and has lots of Chicago history.   I think the kids are going to love this scary mystery book. 

The second one is called Whispering Pines by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartowski.  This one opens with a terrifying monster attack and doesn't really let up.  It's told from the perspective of 12 year old Rae, who is moving to a new town, Whispering Pines, after her dad disappeared and Caden, who has lived in Whispering Pines his whole life.  People think Caden is strange because his family makes their living off psychic readings and since kids are disappearing from the town at an alarming rate, business has been busy.  But one of the kids who's disappeared is Caden's older brother.  Aiden pushed the limits of appropriate behavior as well as the boundaries of the magic that their family used and Caden is pretty sure Aiden went too far and unleashed a monster that is maiming the kids of the town.  Rae is mad that they've left their old life and angry that her mother isn't doing more to find her dad.  She's trying to figure out who to be friends with and even though Caden lives close by, the nice kids that she meets warn her away from Caden.  Eventually, they find their way to each other and to the heart of the mystery surrounding their town and experiments at the power plant that have lots of people asking questions.  The characters in this one were very compelling and easy to like.  The story was very fast paced and I finished this one in a single sitting as well.  The ending of the story left so many things hanging that there BETTER be a sequel!  If you like scary books, this one is an excellent choice.


Friday, July 17, 2020

Summer reading fun!

It's so much fun to have time to read over the summer.  Here are some brand new ones you might want to look for!

The first one is called The Book of Fatal Errors.  It's targeted at middle graders and it's a really fun, exciting read.  It's about Rufus, who is just starting summer vacation after a tough year in 6th grade. He's a little worried about summer vacation because his mom is going to be gone, but he's hoping that means he'll get to spend all summer with his grandfather at his house, which is Rufus's happy place.  Except that his grandfather has an accident on the first day of vacation and his dad thinks Feylawn (which is what Grandpa's place is called) is not safe for anyone.  He wants Rufus to spend his summer learning new things, like his cousin Abigail, who has attended a number of different camps each summer, knows several languages and seems to spend all her time making sure the adults like her.  But it turns out Grandpa's accident wasn't exactly an accident.  He was sabotaged by a group of Fey Folk who are trying to get back underground.  They've been trapped there for a number of years and Rufus stumbles on to a pathway to their way back.  This is a very fun mystery/adventure with lots of exciting plot twists as well as scary and funny characters.  Dashka Slater has a real gift for dialogue and this one made me laugh out loud in spots. A most excellent summer (or winter!) read!

The second one is a graphic novel and I'm just going to tell you flat out, I'm not a big fan of graphic novels.  I like the art work of most graphic novels, but typically I like MY mental images better than the ones an artist can give me.  I LIKE the dialogue and descriptions of text based books.  But this one, the art work is so beautiful and so spirited, I was completely captivated.    It's called Kodi and it is written and illustrated by Jared Cullum.  It's about a girl named Katya who is staying with her grandmother for the summer at a cottage in rural Alaska.  Her grandmother encourages her to get outside instead of reading comic books, but Katya's not big on the outside.  She IS outside one day when she slips and falls and spills her soda and a bear licks it up.  At first she's terrified (it's a BEAR and it's big) but it turns out that the bear is also stuck.  So Katya decides to help.  They become fast friends and everything is awesome.  Until Katya has to go back to the big city with her grandmother.  Kodi the bear decides to follow her.  He can't find her immediately and makes friends with a fisherman who is down on his luck.  Together, they come up with a plan to get the fisherman back on his feet AND find Katya.  This is a wonderful story with lots of plot twists that make reading it a breathless adventure.  The art work is very textural for a graphic novel.  It's done with watercolors with gives it a really different feel from most graphic novels (that I've read) and I adore watercolors.  In some of the illustrations you can even see the texture of the paper.  SO COOL.  The characters show a lot of emotion and I wish I could have a bear for a best friend just like Kodi.  I think the kids are going to love this one and be annoyed that they have to wait for the next installment!  It's set to be released in August, so don't miss it! 

Here's the book trailer.  

Monday, July 6, 2020

Middle grade stories you need to hear

One of the great things about modern middle grade literature is its unflinching look at some of the social issues kids deal with on a daily basis.  As an adult, I often think I'd like to shield my students from some of the harsher realities, but what if this IS their reality?  What if they are waiting to tell someone a terrible secret?  Stories like these might make it easier for kids to talk about some of the things that they are going through.

The first one is called "Fighting Words" by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  I'm a big fan of her writing.  I adored "The War that Saved My Life" and the sequel "The War I Finally Won".  Her latest book is just as good, maybe better.  "Fighting words" is about Della, who is 10 and has been living with her big sister, Suki, who has been taking care of her.  They have been living with Clifton, a truck driver, who was their mother's boyfriend, until their mother was arrested.  They've ended up in foster care because of an unnamed incident that got Clifton arrested and ended with the burning of all their things and a video tape that will be evidence at Clifton's trial.  One of the things that's terrific about this story is the way it unfolds, like a flower blooming, a little at a time you figure out what really happened.  Another thing that's terrific is Della's voice, I could perfectly hear her voice in my ear throughout the story and she is SUCH a great storyteller.  One more thing that was awesome was the adults in the story.  I often complain about the adults in middle grade literature because they're so villainous or incompetent.  This story certainly had both of those kinds of adults, but it also had adults that were caring and listened carefully.  There were adults that were tired and made assumptions too, but the caring adults saved the day.  When I finished (weeping), I was left hoping that I could be one of the caring adults and not one of the ones who were making assumptions about kids that I didn't know anything about.  This is a wonderful story.  Della is an amazing character and so is her sister Suki and their foster mom, Francine.  I can't wait to start recommending this one to kids to read, because according Brubaker's author's notes, 25% of girls need to hear this kind of a story.  

The second one is not a sequel per se, but Kelly Baptist wrote a short story about the main character of this book, which is called "Isaiah Dunn is my Hero".  It's about 10 year old Isaiah, his mom and his four year old sister, Charlie.  They are currently living in a motel because they couldn't live in their apartment anymore.  After Isaiah's dad died a few months ago, his mother started drinking and lost her job.  He measures out his days by how she's doing and it's HARD.  Isaiah is hanging on to words tightly-his dad kept a notebook of stories called "The Bean and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn" which is about a 10 year old super hero who gets his energy from bowls of rice and beans.  Isaiah is also an author, he writes poetry, although he's been struggling to try to write since his dad died.  The story revolves around Isaiah and how he's trying to make things better for his family.  He tries earning money in a variety of ways, some of which are scary.  His best friend Sneaky tries to help out too.   Isaiah learns that sometimes words can be hurtful and tries to do better.  However, it turns out that Isaiah's problem solving strategy isn't enough and adults need to intervene.  This is a wonderful story about family and community and friendship and perseverance and poetry.  The adults in this one are mostly wonderful and supportive.   Isaiah's voice rings loud and clear and his poetry is simply but powerful.  I loved this book and I can't wait to give it to my students.  

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Books that make you go "Hmmmm"

It's sometimes hard to find a book that will get kids to think deeply about anything.  We seem to be firmly entrenched in a sound bite, 140 character limit, emoji laden world, so having something to consider thoughtfully is a real treat.  Here are two books that might make you go "hmmmm".

The first one is a picture book.  It's called "Crocodile's Crossing: A Search for Home" by Yoeri Slegers.  The book opens with Crocodile already on his way somewhere new.  He's scared and hopeful because at home where he used to be happy, it's no longer safe.  He finds new places that are very different and not very welcoming to crocodiles.  He is about to give up, when he finds a community of mice who welcome him.  Things are not like they were at home, the food is different, but Crocodile tries and eventually makes a place for himself and is able to bring his family with him.  This is a marvelous story about immigration.  The art work surrounding the parts about why Crocodile left are dark and scary but empty enough to invite conversation and speculation about what was so scary that Crocodile would be willing to leave his family. The pages where Crocodile is trying to find a home are busy and intense and again would lead to conversations about why some communities might not welcome someone who was so different.  In the end, showing how Crocodile benefits the mouse community in ways they never dreamed of also invites conversation about immigrants' contributions to communities.  I thought this was a terrific story to help kids understand immigration.  I think this would be an important book to help kids develop empathy as well as develop a deeper understanding of why their own families got to where they live now.

The second one is a non-fiction book by one of my favorite authors, Sandra Markle.  This one is called The Great Bear Rescue-Saving the Gobi Bears.  Until I read this book, I had no idea there were bears that lived in deserts.  This particular group of bears live in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.  It turns out that when the farmers started drilling wells to water their sheep, goats, and camels, the animals stayed in one place longer to graze, destroying some of the bears habitats.  People started noticing and asking the government to help out.  Scientists found in particular, that bears weren't gaining enough weight in the summer so that when they hibernated they were too weak to survive or too weak to feed their new babies, which are born during hibernation.  The scientists started tracking the bears and found that by putting out feeding stations that the bears could gain the weight they needed to help them survive.  I always admire Sandra's work about interesting animals and the scientists who help the animals.  I know my students are going to love this one too. 

And here's a little video about the Gobi Bears.