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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Middle grade speculative fiction-summer 2022

There have been SO many amazing speculative middle grade fiction books this summer.  Here are two of my new favorites!

 If you've been reading my blog (and I KNOW you have been, thank you!), you know, I'm not a big fan of scary books.  There are so many scary things in the world, I'd really rather NOT spend my time reading about them, but this one called to me!  To let me tell you about it.

The first one is called "This Appearing House" by Ally Malinenko.  Allie wrote this terrific creepy ghost story last year called "Ghost Girl" that I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this one.  There's an author's note at the beginning of the book from Ally that tells that the inspiration for this book was her own battle with cancer (which has been largely victorious) so right away, that sets up readers for a really different kind of experience.  The book is told from the viewpoint of Jac, a middle school girl who doesn't have many friends and is looking forward to NED-5 years with No Evidence of Disease, because when Jac was little, she had cancer.  It was scary and difficult and Jac and her mom worried about it coming back EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.  Until one day, a house appears on the cul-de-sac.  A house, just appears and it seems to be beckoning Jac to come in. Jac hasn't told her one and only friend, Hazel, that she had cancer, in fact, no one in the community knows, because Jac doesn't want to talk about it.  One day, the town bully dares Hazel to go into this never before seen (but really scary, creepy house) and so he and Jac go in, along with the town bully and another kid named Sam.  The house keeps telling Jac over and over that Jac asked for this, invited the house to come and so Jac and Hazel have to go through a series of tasks, which turns out to be Jac dealing with the trauma of cancer, cancer treatment, and the uncertainty of death.  This is an amazing (scary) metaphorical story about coping with trauma of all kinds for just about any kind of person, kid or grownup.  It's not an easy book to read (especially if you don't like scary things) but it's worth it to get to the other side and think about how trauma can be just like this really scary house, where things are distorted and your interpretation of things is sometimes different from how they really are AND how important it is to talk to people about what you're feeling.  I think, even if it wasn't my favorite book to read, it's a really important book to have in our library because of the conversations that it could open.  

The second one isn't really scary, unless you consider middle school scary, which it sort of is, but not in the same way as ghosts and goblins and houses that appear out of nowhere.  It's called "You Only Live Once, David Bravo" and it's written by Mark Oshiro.  I read his book "The Insiders" last year and it was great too but this one is something special.  It's about David Bravo.  David lives with his very loving parents who adopted him as an infant.  David is starting middle school with his best friend, Antoine, who lives next door.  They've been friends a long time and are both a bit anxious about starting middle school.     It turns out they don't have any classes together and they don't even have lunch together!  It starts to feel like they might not even be friends any more.  David has such an epically bad first day that he really wishes that he could do the day over again.  When I say a bad day, consider a first day that starts with homework, questionable lunch choices, bullies, and an injury.  But suddenly there's a talking dog in his backyard who offers him the opportunity to back in time to change his life but it has to be a big change, not like a Coke or Pepsi kind of a change, but a change that would make a difference in his whole life.  At first David doesn't believe that it would work but when he finally takes Fea up on her offer, he finds out that making a small change can actually cause some big changes to happen.  It turns out that part of the reason Fea has a job offering people a chance to change their life is because she feels like there was one event in her own life that she'd like to be able to go back and change.  It also doesn't work quite the way he or Fea thought it should and so he ends up having to make more than one change and see how each change plays out.  This is an amazing story about friendship and romance, about family that you choose and regrets about actions taken and not taken.  It's funny and poignant and I think kids are going to love this one.  It also has two different couples who are debating about their friendships, if they are more romantic or just platonic, which brings up a wonderful opportunity to talk about middle school romance and what that might look like as a grown up  I also love thinking about big and small decisions and how they might change the course of your life.  And really, who doesn't love the idea of time travel?  The dialogue in this book is amazing and I think you should read it as soon as possible!

Friday, July 22, 2022

Family stories - realistic fiction 2022

It's been so hot out that I've been spending a lot of time indoors reading.  Hooray for awesome new books to read!   These two realistic fiction books could not be more different, but I thought they were both terrific. 

The first one is called Thirst and it's written by Varsha Bajaj.  It's about Minni, who lives with her loving family in one of the poorest parts of Mumbai, India.  Her dad runs a tea stall, her mom works as domestic worker for a rich family, her older brother works in a restaurant and Minni goes to school, but it's hard!  One of the things the family has to do each day is wait in line for water.  There is a tap not far from Minni's house, but it doesn't operate consistently or very efficiently, so sometimes they wait a long time and other times, not as long.  Sometimes the water is discolored or bad smelling and they are told to boil the water before drinking it.  One day, Minni's brother gets invited for a ride in a friend's new car.  The kids all go and they end up witnessing a crime-water theft-people are stealing water from the very taps that Minni's family relies on for water and selling it to make a lot of money.  Minni's brother is spotted by one of the bad guys and the family believes it would be safer for him to go and stay with relatives in the country.  Minni misses him terribly, but the family suffers even more when her mother falls ill and also goes to stay with relatives.  Minni is expected to go after school do the domestic job that Minni's mom was doing, plus keep up with the laundry and food preparation and shopping that her mom would usually do.  Minni is surprised to find that the rich people live with luxury that she has only read about-like as much water as you want that comes from a tap right inside your house!  A bathroom that is as big as Minni's whole house and it doesn't have to be shared with anyone! Minni would like to be friends with the daughter of the lady of the house, but her grandmother is very unkind about the social lines between them.  This is a very interesting story about how life is different for people who are poor.  Minni is a very likable and relatable character and the people around her are people you'll recognize too-people who are kind and giving and people who are prejudiced and people who are willing to take advantage of others misfortunes. There's also a bit of a mystery in the book which makes it fun.  Thirst is going to be the middle grade selection for the Global Read Aloud this year and I think lots of kids and their teachers are going to love reading this book.  This would be a great story to compare to The Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park and to get kids thinking about the water we have available and what that's like in other places.  I thought this was a terrific story.  It came out a few days ago, so go find it!

And here's what Colby Sharp thought!

The second one is by a perennial favorite author of mine-Patricia MacLachlan.  She's written some amazing stories like "Waiting for the Magic" and "Sarah Plain and Tall".  Sadly, she died early this year and I know I will miss her amazing voice but in the meantime, we have this new treasure, called "My Life Begins".  It's about Jacob, a 9 year old boy who's kind of lonely.  He is an only child and his solution is a litter of puppies.  What he get instead are the Trips-three little sisters who are triplets.  He decides to study them as part of a year long science project.  At first the babies seem so similar that they have to color code them, but as they grow, the babies start to seem as different from each other as they can be.  Jacob's observations of them are loving and sweet, even when the babies are annoying.  Daniel Miyares's  black and white sketches provide a gentle counterpoint to the graceful text.  The book is compact-It's only 128 pages long with illustrations so it's highly accessible to the younger middle grade readers.  This would make a lovely read aloud for a family or fine read to yourself book for kids who are thinking about changes in their families.  

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Accepting Challenges

One of the best things about middle grade literature is the way that authors include social issues as part of their story lines.  These are topics that kids are typically trying to navigate in one way or another and even if they aren't, kids around them are.  These are stories are excellent opportunities to talk about how some people solve these challenges as well as how we might do things differently or maybe it's such a genius way they did it, we should copy them!    Here are two great ones you might really like! 

The first one is from one of my favorite authors-Pablo Cartaya-he's from Miami, close to me and he's an amazing storyteller.  He's written books like "Marcus Vega doesn't speak Spanish" and "The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora" He has such a gift for writing characters voices.  This one is no exception.  It's science fiction with a side of dystopian future and  it's called the Last Beekeeper.  When you start reading, you'll be thinking "Bees?  Huh?"  It's about two girls, Yolanda and Camelia (Yoli and Cami) who live in a fictional, dystopian future kind of place called Silo.  Cami and Yoli make a living selling strawberries, except the strawberries are not very good-they're not ripe or sweet but they are strawberry shaped and they keep hoping that they'll be able to sell so that Yoli can finish her schooling.  Their parents have been exiled so Cami has been taking care of Yoli for the last six years and Yoli is really starting to resent Cami's secrets and overprotection.  Yoli needs one more online class to finish her studies and when the Mayor comes and offers her a scholarship, Yoli wants to jump at the chance.  Cami says they should make sure they read the contract carefully but Yoli impulsively signs up.  It turns out that the contract includes a clause that will require Yoli to go to the Reserve to pay off the debt.  The Reserve is a place where people are sent to scavenge parts in very dangerous conditions.  Many people, including Cami, come back badly injured.  Cami tries to negotiate a way around the contract and ends up in big trouble.  The girls are trying to figure out a plan and Yoli decides to take a walk in the woods and stumbles on something big-a beehive that their grandmother cultivated and hid from the authorities.  With the help of Yoli's best friend, Arelis, they make some big changes to the town.   What's great about this book is the idea that science actually ISN'T the answer to the problems-nature is.  The conversations around pollinators and food production and technology will be amazing.  The characters are terrific and the resolution of the conflicts is great.  EXCEPT for the totally cliff hanger ending.  Urrghhh.  There had better be another one of these.  This is going to be a terrific book for middle graders, especially Spanish bilingual kids, who will enjoy the Spanish words (don't worry if you're only an English speaker because it's easy enough to figure out what the words mean).  I can't wait to put this one in my library.

The second one is also about climate change.  It's called The First Rule of Climate Club and it's written by Carrie Firestone.  It's about Mary Kate who is a seventh grader in a small town in Vermont.  She lives with her parents and has two siblings who are considerably older than she is.  In fact, Mary Kate just became an aunt.  Mary Kate likes school (as much as any middle schooler does) and in 6th grade, she was part of a group that advocated for a dress code change, which many of our students would identify with.  The science teacher, Mr. Lu, starts a club to help solve climate change, which Mary Kate and her friends join.  Mary Kate is also struggling.  Her best friend has been sick and hasn't been able to come to school.  Mary Kate misses her terribly and is looking to help her find answers.  It also turns out the the English teacher is running for mayor and happens to be Mary Kate's big sister's best friend.  This is a complex story with lots of different themes including climate change, political change, racism, medical care, and mental health care.  Mary Kate is an interesting main character that I wanted to be friends with-she's kind and caring, perceptive and a real go-getter.  The characters around her are nuanced and interesting as well and I think this would be a terrific book for any middle school library.  It just came out, so make sure you look for it!

SSYRA 3-5 Graphic novels

There are three graphic novels on the Sunshine State Young Reader 3-5 list this year.  That might give you an idea of the popularity of graphic novels among 3-5th graders, but it also speaks to the fact that graphic novels cover a greater range of topics than ever before and more of them are being published.  I already reviewed "Measuring Up" by Lily Lamotte here.  So let me tell you about the other two, because they were also terrific.

"Katie the Catsitter" written by Colleen AF Venable and illustrated by Stephanie Yue is very fun fantasy fiction story.  Katie is 12 and wants to go to summer camp with her two best friends but her mom can't afford to send her.  Katie decides to earn the money doing odd jobs around her apartment buildings, except she's terrible at it!  Until one day, her neighbor notices that Katie is really great with her cat and asks Katie to cat sit and pay her a lot of money, which seems to Katie, to be the easiest job in the world.  Part of what makes this story so great are the plot twists, which would be mean of me to spoil!  So let's just say, that things are not always what they seem to be.  I loved the mystery of this and I really liked some of the adults in the story who had some very interesting character traits.  The art work is just plain wonderful and that's one of the things that is so great about graphic novels- the text takes you places, but the art work takes you too.  One of my favorite images is Katie's last day of school (so there's no text, but a full page with three images to show readers what the last day of school is like.  The first one is an empty classroom with the chairs on top of the desks.  The second is the kids walking through the hallway, saying good bye to each other, taking things out of their lockers, one of them is jumping for joy.  The last image is in the teachers lounge, where two teachers are talking with each other and a third teacher is jumping for joy.  It's  just such a brilliant way to show all the different feelings on the last day of school, which every person who has ever been school can completely identify with.  My students love graphic novels and I'm really happy this one made the list.  I'm even happier that I was smart enough to buy ALL of the books in the series because I think the kids are going to love this one.  Hmm, I think I should buy a few more copies....

Here's the cover. 

And here's a book trailer from the librarians at Bethel Park Library.

The second one (also a graphic novel) is called Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goetz.   This one is realistic fiction.  It's about two really different girls-Shirley and Jamila.  Shirley is very smart and really interested in science and observation but not very good at interpersonal relationships.  Jamila is also smart but really likes playing basketball and would like nothing better than to spend the entire summer playing ball.  Their parents would like each of them to attend different summer camps to work on things they are not particularly interested in but when they meet at a garage sale, Shirley has an idea that they could work together to get what each of them wants.  Their parents agree and so Shirley and Jamila spend every day at the basketball courts, Jamila is shooting hoops and Shirley is helping kids solve problems.  Jamila is not really interested in the problem solving part until one day a boy comes to ask Shirley to help him find his lizard.  In order to get all the facts, Shirley and Jamila have to leave the basketball courts to go to the scene of the missing lizard, the pool.  This violates the parental agreement that the girls made and when their parents find out, there are big consequences.  One of the things that is so great about this one is the conversation about why Shirley has trouble making and keeping friends.  This is going to be a great conversation starter for a lot of kids.  The way Shirley notices and things and draws conclusions from them is also terrific-it would be great to compare her to Florian in James Ponti's Framed books.  The pictures in this one are great as well-helping readers understand the characters more deeply.  I think the kids are going to love this one also.  

Here's the cover. 

Saturday, July 16, 2022

New cookbooks!

 I might not have mentioned it before, but I married a chef.  My first job as a teenager was working at a local French restaurant and I had big dreams of going to culinary school, which, my dad, who was paying for my post high school education, shot down.  So I went to a four year school and became an elementary school teacher and librarian.  WAAAY better hours, retirement plan and health care benefits.  I even teased my chef into joining me as a teacher (he's been teaching cooking now for 25 years!).  Anyway, cookbooks were some of my favorite books growing up (Betty Crocker Cookie Book anyone?) and I still love a good cookbook, as evidenced by my latest round of books from Netgalley.

The first one is called Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of  French Cakes by Aleksandra Crapanzano.  Unsurprisingly, it's about cake.  Don't you kind of love the simplicity of cookbooks?  Eponymous titles, straightforward directions, gorgeous pictures.  Anyway, I read about this one online and was so excited to see it on Netgalley.  And it is terrific.  There are essays about different kinds of cakes that people in France make routinely-uncomplicated, unfussy, often made in one bowl.  Cake that is available, which sounds great to me.  AND what makes this really terrific, is that most of the recipes have adaptations, some of them have several pages of adaptations.  As an example, the first cake in the book is a yogurt cake.  According to the author, every child in France learns this recipe in nursery school and it's a simple ratio of ingredients (my chef's favorite kind of recipe!).  You take yogurt, sugar, eggs, oil, baking powder and flour, mix it together and you have cake.  Version 2 is a little more complicated and adds both vanilla and lemon zest, still mixing it together in one bowl, pour it in a pan and off you go.  Then come the variations. There are NINE variations on JUST THIS cake.  There are flavor additions (like herbs or liquor) and fruit and nut additions, there are glazing options, flour options, serving and presentation options, there are a LOT of options.  There are lots more cakes with lots more ideas, but I think you kind of get the picture.  This is a comprehensive book about French cakes with specific and well thought out directions, pretty little decorative pieces (there maybe more illustrations in the final book-sometimes in the advanced readers copies, they are a little stingy with the graphics) and some charming commentary.  I can't wait to get this one in a hard copy. 

The second cookbook is by another author I've been following online, Ruby Tandoh.  She has been writing about food since she was a finalist on the Great British Bake Off in 2013 and I really like her style.  Her new book is called Cook as you Are.  Sometimes cookbooks are a bit intimidating.  If you don't know much about cooking and the recipe calls for something you don't have (or don't like, or are allergic to) do you just have to walk away from the recipe?  Can you just leave it out?  Can you substitute something else?  Well,  imagine having a good friend give you all her favorite recipes with notes about how to change things up if any or all of those things happen.  THAT'S what this book is like.  Delicious sounding recipes with ideas about how to change things up for seasonality, food allergies or picky eaters.  There are short essays with commentary about recipes, other food writers and general food topics that make you feel like Ruby is right there in the kitchen with you.  The recipes are mostly vegetarian but many have options of adding meat or taking the meat out if it does include meat.  The recipes sound amazing-I can't wait to try the Earthy, Smoky, Lentil and Beet Stew.  I'm NOT a beet fan, but the way Ruby describes the recipe, I'm going to trust her and try the recipe just as written.  It's the end of July here right now and I'm thinking I might save a stew recipe for when it cools off just a bit, but I'll let you know!  If you want to be inspired to make something new, interesting and possibly healthy, you're definitely going to want to look for this one!

Saturday, July 9, 2022

SSYRA 3-5 2022-realistic fiction

  I'm just NOW getting around to reading the new crop of SSYRA 3-5 books for the coming year.  It turns out, I'd already read a few of them.    Here's a link to two of the books I already reviewed.     The link has reviews for Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston as well as  The Lion of Mars by Jennifer Holm.  And I'm sure I'd already read some of the other ones but I just couldn't find...  oh well.  Anyway, here are two more that I think you're going to love.  

The first one is a graphic novel and it's called Measuring Up by Lily Lamotte.  It's about Cici who moved to Seattle from Taiwan.  She desperately misses her grandmother and REALLY wants to figure out a way to get her to come and stay.  Moving anytime is hard, but moving to a new country with a different language and culture is even more difficult.  Cici worries that the kids will think she's weird (when she brings her lunch to school on the first day, some of the kids are really mean) and she thinks a lot of American things are weird (like sleepovers!).  Cici's big plan to get her grandmother over from Taiwan comes in the form of a cooking contest.  Cici LOVES to cook and this particular cooking contest comes with a prize of $1000, which would be enough for a plane ticket for her grandmother.  Cici initially is paired with a girl named Miranda.  Miranda's family owns an Italian restaurant and Miranda has been working there since she was tiny.  Miranda is an excellent if bossy cook and Cici is intimidated by her at first, but finds a way to work in some of her own cooking techniques.  When they end up competing head to head, Cici worries that Miranda won't want to be her friend, especially if Cici wins and Miranda doesn't.  Cici's parents are not very supportive of her cooking because they think she should be focusing on her school classes, so she can get into a good college.  Cici thinks she might really want to be a chef when she grows up so maybe college isn't that important?  This is a terrific story about making friends, being open to new ideas, cooking and flavors, accepting other cultures, and listening to your family carefully-even if it isn't what you want to hear.  I think the kids are going to love this one.  

Here's a video of one of the recipes from the book!

And here's the cover!

The second one is not a graphic novel and it's a bit edgier than Measuring Up, it's called Distress Signal by Mary Lambert.  It opens with Lavender, a middle school girl, stepping in to save the day.  Her choir group is singing their big number when their teacher gets sick, so Lavender takes over as director and her best friend, Marisol, is able to sing her big solo.  Except that Marisol is NOT grateful for Lavender stepping in.  Marisol thinks Lavender is trying to get everyone to pay attention to Lavender instead of letting others shine, so when they get ready to go on their big class field trip to the desert, Marisol chooses to sit with Rachelle instead of Lavender and Lavender ends up sitting with a grumpy boy named John.  As the trip progresses, Rachelle and Marisol are progressively meaner to Lavender, so she comes up with a plan to embarrass Rachelle-she tells Rachelle that they are playing a game called Sardines and Rachelle should hide.  Lavender's plan backfires when Rachelle invites Marisol to hide with her.  Lavender is lamenting the fact that Rachelle and Marisol are still together when she hears a weather bulletin notifying everyone of a danger of flash floods.  She warns her classmates who start scurrying towards safety and realize that Marisol and Rachelle won't know they need to move to safety because they're hiding.  When the flash flood hits, the kids are separated from the group and have to figure out a way to get back, using the things they have in their backpacks.  This is a super exciting book with lots of plot twists and survival techniques.  It's also essentially a story of friendship-listening to your friends when they talk is a really important part of friendship.  Try to suspend judgement is another good tool for friendships.  I think the kids are going to love this one.  It's so realistically suspenseful - I really felt like I was out in the desert with them!  

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Kids can do it all, but it's ok to ask for help! Middle grade fiction 2022

 I've been a librarian now for 12 years and I was a classroom teacher for 20 years before that.  As the librarian, I've made an effort to read the latest books.  I've also been lucky enough to have the opportunity to read for two different book awards (which pushes you to read all the latest books) and it's really interesting to see some of the gigantic changes in children's literature over the last few years, in response to cultural changes.  One of the changes is the conversation about social issues and middle grade fiction is brilliant at opening those conversations.  Here are two (not brand new, but pretty new) books that you might want to read.

The first one is called Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh.  It's about Junie, a middle schooler, who is struggling with some big things.  The first is bullying.  The kids in her neighborhood and at her school bully her relentlessly.  They use Asian ethnic slurs and tropes to intimidate and anger her and it makes her feel terrible.  In the past her big brother offered some protection, but he's in high school this year.  Everyone around her tells her to just ignore the bullying.  On the first day of school, someone vandalizes the school gym with ethnic slurs directed at Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, everyone and the school tries to take action but Junie's friends feel like it's not enough.  Her friends decide they want to do something more, but Junie feels that they should just continue to ignore it and it causes a big rift with her friends.  Second, isolated from her friends and feeling unable to talk to anyone in her family about the bullying, Junie falls into a deep depression and a big confrontation with the bully causes Junie to contemplate some terrible actions.  Luckily, Junie's family is able to find a good therapist to help get Junie talking about the things that are really bothering her and her teacher assigns a family history project that gets Junie talking to her grandparents about their lives in Korea during the war.  Her grandfather's story, in particular, deals with friendship and forgiveness, which leads Junie and her friends back to each other.  The kids embark on a project that they want to share with the whole school to talk about what bullying and racism is really like.  I loved this book because of the different points of view.  Junie's grandparents have very different views of the war (and in the author's notes, Ellen Oh explains that one of the stories is based on her own family stories) but each of them carry a weight of injustice and helplessness and courage that move the family and the story forward.  The kids in the book also share some of their views on racism (and the themes of injustice, helplessness, and courage run through these stories too) and how different groups of people deal with different kinds of racism, but it's still racism.  Junie's battle with mental health is a wonderful part of the storyline too-one that's been absent in children's literature for the most part, until the last year or two.  This would be a terrific read aloud for opening conversations about racism and cultural assumptions people make based on the way you look.  

Here's what Colby Sharp thought.

And here's the beautiful cover.

The second one I read last night (the joy of summer vacation! ).  It's on the Sunshine State Young Reader 3-5 award list for 2022-2023.  It's called Carry Me Home by Janet Fox.  This one is about Lulu who helps take care of her little sister, Serena since her mom died of cancer.  The family was left with debilitating medical bills and her dad was devastated by the loss.  He left the girls with a curmudgeonly aunt for a month and came up with a plan that included living in a Chevy Suburban while he worked to support them.  Things go off the rails when her dad disappears and Lulu is terrified that she and Serena will be separated and placed in foster care.  People of the community are kind and supportive and there is a happy ending.  I found this story really compelling-I really liked Lulu-her deep connection to her sister, her sorrow at losing her mom, her suspicion of strangers, her concern for her dad.  It brought up a lot of questions for me, like how realistic a portrayal of homeless is this?  Are there services in my community like the ones that are described in the book?  I'd like to hope that every community would be as kind and welcoming as the one in the book describes but the number of homeless people I see around my town make it seem like that's maybe not the case.  I really loved Lulu's determination to keep things going for herself and her sister.  But the characters who step forward to help out are also wonderful.  I think this one is an interesting addition to the SSYRA 3-5 list.  The topic of homelessness that revolves around  poverty based on medical bills is different from a book like Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, which was also about homelessness based in poverty but their family poverty was unspecified.  My students like books about family crises and I found it impossible to put down, so it will be interesting if they find it as compelling as I did.  

Here's the author explaining how she got her idea for the book.

Here's the beautiful cover.