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Thursday, January 26, 2023

New speculative fiction to look for!

I've been trying to catch up on my gigantic TBR pile, so YAY for reading! I even have some grownup books to read, but today is all about speculative fiction!

The first one is a real charmer called The Grace of Wild Things by Heather Fawcett.  It's about Grace, an orphan, who is living a fairly bleak existence in an orphanage but at 12 has decided to go and get trained up as a witch.  She's pretty sure she has magical powers-her best friend is a crow that she rescued and she can understand him-he likes poetry and helps out when he can.   She also can recognize people for what they are so when she approaches the witch, who looks like a friendly grandmother, she can see past her disguise to the evil witch that she truly is, which is what Grace aspires to be.  Except that this witch cooks and eats children, so first Grace has to talk her way out of being the evening's main course.  After that, Grace gets the witch to agree to take her on as an apprentice, but Grace first has to prove that she actually has magical powers, so the agreement is that Grace will have several months to work all the spells in the witch's grimoire.  If she can do that, the witch will train her.  If Grace can't manage that, the witch will take all her powers and Grace will just be an ordinary person.  To keep up appearances, the witch buys Grace new clothes and enrolls her in school and Grace makes her first friend, Sareena.  She also meets her first magical creature, a fairy named Rum, who becomes her slave when Grace rescues him from a magical tree.  The whole story is just wonderfully fun-Grace is the opposite of the witch, kind hearted and generous, but with a steely will for justice.  Her magical education is less about instruction and more about discovery and so readers will feel opening their own minds to possibilities could lead all sorts of interesting places.  The whole story had an Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna kind of vibe to it but I really liked this book a lot and I think middle grade readers are going to love this one too.  It comes out in February 2023.

The next one is magical folkloric coming of age tale.  It's called Where the Black Flowers Bloom and it's written by Ronald L. Smith.  You might have read some of his other works like Hoodoo or The Mesmerist or The Black Panther: Young Prince.  The main character in Black Flowers is Asha, a girl about to move from childhood into adulthood, or at least young adulthood.  She lives with a group of traveling performers who took her in as a small child.  Suna is the one who looks after her and is like a mother to Asha.  Asha feels like she doesn't have any particular talents and is looking forward to the ceremony where she will receive her mark (a symbol on her body that will appear) so that she knows what kinds of things she will do as an adult.  Except that the mark that appears on her back is different from anything anyone has seen.  Suna isn't quite sure what it means, so she starts sending letters to her contacts but before she hears back, their community is attacked by men disguised as birds.  Suna is killed and Asha flees with the only member of her community that she knows survived and together they vow to avenge Suna.  Except things are not always what they seem.  They pick up a fellow traveler named Sprix who has a secret of his own and then they meet one of Suna's sisters who starts filling in the pieces of Asha's life, the mark on her back and her mission.  I don't want to ruin the unfolding of this compelling and exciting story, but let me just tell you, I couldn't put it down.  It's very fast paced and gets right to the point of the story so I think the middle kids are going to love this one.  It comes out this week!  Don't miss it! Isn't this cover stunning?  

Monday, December 26, 2022

New realistic fiction for middle grades

 Did you think I forgot how to write a blog post?  I did not.  Well, maybe I did, but COVID seemed to have scrambled my brain a little...  or maybe a lot and between trying to go to work, to go to our state librarians convention, to spend 10 days  with my parents here and suddenly it was today!  I'd like to tell you that I've done something heroic, but it would be a lie or at least a really big stretch.  Anyway, I HAVE been reading and here are two new ones that you should definitely look for.

The first one is called Sardines.  It's written by Sashi Kaufman and it is wonderful.  It's about Lucas who is in middle school and struggling.  His older brother, Charlie died after he'd left to go away to college and he left a big hole in the community as well as in Lucas' family.  In fact, Lucas' mother has left the family without any big discussion with Lucas, so he doesn't really know why she left or where she went or why.  Lucas feels like he doesn't really have any friends, so he's a bit surprised that when he starts going to an after care program that the kids that are also there could possibly be his friends.  Things really get going when a new kid named Finn shows up and turns everything a little sideways (in the best possible way).  Finn has a way of working around the rules that kids find limiting and the kids friendships blossom.  The story title comes from a game that Finn suggests called Sardines.  The game is similar to hide and seek, except that one person hides and instead of being caught and being out, when the first person finds the hider, the second person hides with them until the last person finds them.  The kids also develop a kind of a contest where they grant each other's wishes and even though the wishes are big and complicated, they all end up getting granted, even if they don't quite have the happy ending that they thought they would.  This is a wonderful story of friendship and families that you choose as well as the stories that people tell about each other.  Middle graders who like realistic stories about characters that feel like friends are going to love this one.  

The second one is a graphic novel and it's not really a new story.  It's based on a book that was written for grownups- The Librarian of Auschwitz.  This one is written by Antonio Iturbe and illustrated by Loreto Aroca.  It was translated by Lillit Thwaites.  It's the story of Dita, a teenager growing up in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.  She loved to read and had a large collection of her personal books.  When her family was sent to Auschwitz, they were lucky enough to be there at a time when the Germans were trying to put a positive spin on their death camps, showing the happily confined Jews, wearing their own clothes, going to work and having activities that they were allowed to participate in, including a lending library, which Dita ran.  Her father died there from disease and she and her mother were eventually sent to other camps after the Germans lost interest in pretending that they were actually helping the Jews.  Dita survived the war but her mother did not.  After the war, Dita found work and one of her fellow prisoners, Ota, whom she eventually married.  The art work in this has a dark palette, fitting for the story of desperation and sadness.  The pictures vividly show the deplorable conditions and terrible events around the camps, including people being sent to the showers as well as dead bodies being flung into pits for burial.  The terror and desperation of camps almost leaps off the pages.  The publisher has suggested that this would be suitable for ages 8-12, but I think I wouldn't give it to kids younger than fifth grade.  Although this is a well told story, the images of naked women (being sent to their deaths) are so vivid that I probably wouldn't put it in my elementary school library, particularly given the current political climate in Florida.   But even if it isn't good for my library, it's a great story and I think people are going to love this adaptation.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

My newest favorites from the CYBILS!

 I always feel so lucky to get to read for the CYBILS award.  I love being a first round panelist where we read EVERYTHING.  I'm not going to tell you that all the nominees are wonderful because that would be a straight up lie, but there are SO many terrific surprises as we read.  Here are two of my new favorites.

The first one is called Roll for Initiative by Jaime Formato.  This is her first novel and I really hope it's not the last, because this one was terrific!  The main character in this one is Riley, who lives with her mom and her older brother, except that her older brother, Devin, has left to go to college and Riley misses him terribly.  Riley's mom works A LOT and Devin really held the family together.  Riley is unhappy with having to ride the bus, fix her own meals, do the laundry and her homework all on her own but as luck would have it, a friendly girl named Lucy has moved into her apartment complex and she's looking for some new friends too.  When Riley tries to pass off a world map that she had been working on for Dungeons and Dragons game as a poster for school spirit week, Lucy demands that Riley let her into a game.  Riley agrees and as they're playing, Hannah wants to join and then Jen.  It doesn't all go smoothly but they each have different skills that help them all work together as a most excellent team.  Until Devin turns up back home.  He's been struggling with his new classes and thinks he can better serve the family by taking classes at a local community college.  Riley comes up with a daring plan to get Devin to back to California.  This was SUCH a fun book to read.  The dialogue between the characters is so real and so relatable.  The characters each of the girls create seem to be a perfect reflection of who they each are and it's terrific to watch how Riley's character evolves through the story.  Am I gushing?  Probably but I really loved this book!  Don't miss is!

The second new one that I loved is from an author you might have heard of before, Alan Gratz?  Yeah, him.  He's written these amazing books about different topics like refugees (Refugee) or September 11 (Ground Zero) and World War 2 (Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065, Grenade, Allies),  all with varying points of view and storytellers.  His new one is called Two Degrees and I'd like to hope it's actually set in a dystopian future but I'm kind of scared it's not.  This one tackles climate change and the storytellers are Akira, who lives in California with her family and loves horseback riding but is surprised when a trail ride is interrupted by a raging wildfire.  Then there's Owen and George (who are the comic relief providers, thank goodness), they live in Churchill, Manitoba and give polar bear tours but even these savvy polar bear experts are surprised when they are attacked.  Finally, there's Natalie, who lives in Miami and her family is preparing for direct hit from a category 4 or 5 hurricane.  Like his other works, this one runs at a breakneck speed-the chapters are short and switch from one character to another pretty often and usually right at a climactic moment.  There's tons of action and drama and lots to keep readers engaged.  I know I couldn't put it down.  There is some very pointed conversation about how climate change is impact different parts of North America but he could have easily picked places in other parts of the world as well.  Gratz also includes a parent who is a climate change denialist which provides an interesting counter point. I loved this one.  I'm probably biased because I love all his work but I thought having this one, set in the present instead of the past was brilliant.  I can't wait to put this one in my library.

Here's the book trailer.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Mysteries from the CYBILS list! Middle grade fiction

 So my colleagues and I are busily reading the books on our CYBILS list.  It's a little daunting at this point-there are 107 books on our list (that's the usual thing) and they all have to read by at least 2 people by the end of December.  Trying to get everyone copies of each book is a completely different issue, one luckily I don't have to deal with!  That's the job of the amazing Sheila Ruth

Anyway, I've had a little extra time on my hands this week - I managed to catch some icky bug from one of those rotten PreK kids (who sat on my lap for an hour weeping copiously).  So I've put my time to good use.  Here are two of my new favorites and these are both mysteries!

Maizy Chen's Last Chance by Lisa Yee is such a wonderful, heartfelt story.  It's about Maizy, who lives in Los Angeles with her mom, a food stylist.  They have driven across country to Last Chance, Minnesota to come and spend time with her grandparents.  Her grandfather is very sick and they are hoping that he will get better with some extra attention.  Her grandparents run a Chinese restaurant in town that has been there for over 100 years.  Her mom and her grandparents have very different ideas about a lot of things and so there hasn't been a lot of visiting back and forth during Maizy's life.  Maizy's grandfather starts teaching her poker and when he gives her a lesson on tells, she starts applying this to lots of different things in her new life.  She is surprised how racist some of the people in Last Chance are-in LA, she'd never really noticed it but her best friend in LA sets her straight on that.  Her grandfather starts telling her about how his great grandfather came over from China and how that racism is really nothing new.  One day, the restaurant's mascot, a wooden bear named Bud disappears but a ransom note is left with racist comments.  Maizy sets out to find out what happened to Bud but also, what happened to her grandpa's best friend, Werner, who has a butcher shop in town and makes really amazing bratwurst, and what happened to the young men who's pictures are on the wall of the restaurant and why her grandmother is so angry at her mother and how did it happen that her family ended up in Last Chance, Minnesota.  I really liked this story.  Maizy is a wonderful, complex character and family is amazing.  This was a fun story to read and I know my students are going to love it.  I'm apparently not the only one who loved it, it's a National Book Award finalist!

And here is the wonderful Lisa Yee reading the first chapter!

The second one is called Drew LeClair Gets a Clue and it's written by Katryn Bury.  It's about Drew who struggles with asthma as well as making friends and social interactions.  In the opening chapter, Drew's mom is leaving the family to go and live with her new boyfriend and Drew sees this as a complete betrayal.  Luckily, Drew has an awesome, supportive dad who runs a bakery and pastry shop (LeClairs Eclairs).  She also has a best friend named Shrey who is struggling with Drew and their relationship.  Shrey tried to kiss Drew and wonders if the reason that she didn't like it is because she's gay.  Drew isn't so sure about that either but the thing that is the real mystery to both of them is Ella Baker Shade, a new online thread that shows negative things about different kids at the Ella Baker Middle School-cyberbullying to the highest degree.  Drew is very much into true crime (blame her dad) and psychological profiling, so she puts her skills to work.  Shrey and Drew are joined by Trissa, another bullying victim and they start narrowing down the list of suspects.  But when Drew profiles both Shrey and Trissa, she's sure that she's ruined their friendship forever.  This is a wonderful mystery with interesting, relatable characters and adults that feel like real people (it's surprising with middle grade stories how many of the adults feel cartoonish even with the kids are fairly realistic).  I think the kids are going to love this one too.

Monday, October 24, 2022

CYBILS Middle Grade Fiction 2022

 I'm so excited that I was chosen to be a first round panelist for CYBILS again!  This year, I'm doing middle grade fiction (instead of speculative fiction like last year).  It's so awesome to get to read realistic fiction with all the cultural issues that are typically a part of middle grade fiction.  I've read a few so far, and these are two of my new favorites.  

The first one is by Amy Sarig King, you might know her work- The Year We Fell from Space and Me and Marvin Gardens.  She has a terrific voice, but wait until you read this one-It's called Attack of the Black Rectangles.  It's about Mac who is navigating his final year of elementary school with his two best friends, Marci and Denis.  He lives with his mom and his grandfather.  His dad does not live at their house, but he comes over every week for dinner and to work on an old car in the garage.  His new teacher writes a column for the newspaper that supports conservative values and causes and recently laws have been passed imposing curfews and banning junk food.  Mac hits a wall with this during their first novel study-They are reading The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen and the teacher constantly reminds them not to read ahead (this is a pet peeve of mine) but it turns out, someone has blacked out some of the words in the book.  Mac has really connected to the story and finds it odd that the horrible images that Yolen created could have words that needed to be blacked out, so he goes to a used bookstore in town and finds a copy of the book that hasn't been blacked out and finds that the words that have been blacked out are related to women's breasts.  Marci and Denis are equally (or maybe even more) appalled and they decide to go to the principal, who tries to sweep their concerns under the rug.  The kids decide to stage a protest at the local bookstore and finds that people of the community are supportive of their cause.  At the same time, Mac's dad has a bit of a breakdown and that complicates things and there's romance in the air!  Mac is a super likeable and empathetic character.  The connection he has with grandfather is just terrific and there is a wonderful thread about grace and meditation that runs through the book that adds a lovely dimension to the story.  This is a terrific, complicated, amazing story.   Am I gushing?  Probably.   I LOVED this book.  It's too big for my elementary library but I really hope it finds its way into LOTS of middle school and high school libraries because IT. IS. WONDERFUL.    

And here's a book trailer from the author!

The second one is historical fiction-a personal favorite!  It's always fun (to me, anyway) to find a piece of historical fiction where you find out some little kernel of history that feels brand new and this is exactly that kind of story.  It's called Freewater and it's written by Amina Luqman-Dawson.  It's told from several different points of view, but it opens with Homer as the storyteller.  Homer is about 12 years old and has been living as a slave on a plantation with his mother and younger sister, Ada.  Their mother has decided that they should run away to freedom but Homer feels strongly that they should include a girl named Anna that also lives as a slave on the plantation.  Homer's mother agrees to go back for Anna and Homer and Ada continue on toward the river, as their mother told them to.  Except their mom never comes back.  Homer and Ada are rescued by a man who is unlike anyone they've ever met before but he takes them to a community called Freewater, where a group of people (mostly runaway slaves) have been living for several years.  The group has a highly complicated society with lots of protections built in for their safety, which brings the second storyteller, Sanzi, into focus.  Sanzi has been living with her family in Freewater for her whole life and she REALLY wants to go somewhere that isn't the swamp.  We get to meet other members of the community and learn how they came to Freewater as well as find out what happened to Homer and Ada's mom (it's not good).  This story unfolds in such an exciting and interesting way that I really don't want to spoil it for you but let me tell you that the story moves quickly, has very well developed characters and an ending that is foreshadowed throughout the book, but I was surprised anyway.  I loved this idea that slaves escaped slavery to form communities in the swamp-the Seminoles of Florida have a similar story, but this was the first time I'd heard about this happening in the Dismal Swamp.  I also loved how each character had their own experiences and trauma about being slaves and how they each dealt with that trauma.  I thought this one was great and you should definitely look for it!

Here's the cover.

And here's the book trailer!

Saturday, October 15, 2022

A new category in middle grade fiction

 I LOVE reading for the CYBILS award.  The list of books we read is virtually the entire catalog of everything that's been printed in the year of the award so I end up digging deep into one category of books, this year, it's middle grade fiction.  A lot of social issues appear in middle grade fiction-these are books written for kids in upper elementary and middle school and those kids are trying to figure out a lot.  Often times books like these end up offering pathways for kids they didn't even know they wanted.  So imagine my surprise today (literally, I read these two books today) that two of the books are centered around kids who want to see themselves or people like themselves in the Civil War.  Yep, the American Civil War, the one that was fought over states rights or slavery?  That ended in 1865?  That one.   I KNOW.  And they're BOTH terrific.

The first one is called The Secret Battle of Evan Pao.  It's written by Wendy Wan-Long Shang.  Evan and his mom and his sister, Celeste are moving from California to Virginia to be closer to his uncle (their mom's brother) because Evan's dad has disappeared.  Evan has a bit of a 6th sense about when people are lying and he is appalled that he never picked up on the fact that their dad was lying to them about SO MANY THINGS.  Evan and Celeste make friends in their new town but they are surprised at the racism they encounter.  When Evan's teacher suggests that Evan be a scribe during an annual Civil War reenactment,  Evan wonders if there were other people who looked like him that served in the Civil War.  It turns out there were and Evan wins respect from many of his classmates and his teacher, except for one boy who seems to step up the bullying.  Evan and the other kids find their own way of dealing with the bully but it turns out the bully has his own story to tell as well.  This was a wonderful story with really interesting, well developed characters.  The idea that American history was only about white people is profound and should get lots of kids (and hopefully grownups) thinking about how we should be telling the stories of America.  BUT THIS IS NOT THE ONLY BOOK LIKE THIS ON OUR LIST.    I know!  Keep reading!

And here's the book trailer!

The second one is called The Civil War of Amos Abernathy.  It was written by Michael Leali.  It's about  Amos Abernathy, a middle school student and historical re enactor in a living history museum in his small Illinois hometown.  His mother is the curator there and his best friend, Chloe is also volunteers there, demonstrating games and different activities around the museum.  Amos is also gay and since he came out when he was in fourth grade, this isn't really big news.  The story bounces around in time-not really historical time but over the course of a few months-Amos writes a series of letters to a historical figure named Albert D. J. Cashiers, that are like diary entries that help tell the story.  One part of the story is a Civil War Battle re-enactment, where Amos plays a drummer boy, who ends up picking up a gun to fight after some of the other soldiers are killed.  But in doing research about the Civil War Era, Amos wonders if there were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people that served in the Civil War.    There is also a terrific story line about Amos's best friend, Chloe, who wants to become a blacksmith, even though women (especially black women) don't typically do that.  There is another storyline about the stories that DO get told in museums and why (oh boy, that would definitely open up some lines of conversation!) because Amos and Chloe propose a new exhibit about LGBTQ people in history but the exhibit that gets funded is about shoes.  There is also a lovely romantic storyline that will ring true with lots of people.  I loved this one too!  I loved that there was the background about the Civil War but it really got me thinking about the books that I have in my school library about different time periods and how most of them still revolve around straight, white people.  At the end of the day, I think that's one of the best parts about reading books like these, they make you think about things in different ways.  I suppose that's part of what makes them so wonderful.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

New YA to look for 2022

 I don't often read YA but two showed up on my Netgalley list this week, how lucky!  They couldn't be more different, but they were both terrific!

The first one is called Mere Mortals written by Erin Jade Lange.  It's about two vampires, Charlie (Charlotte) and Reg, sister and brother, who have been expelled from being vampires because of an unfortunate incident.  They are dropped off at a halfway house of sorts, where they can learn to be human again.  Charlie and Reg are very unhappy about this, particularly since the town where they've landed is a small town in Iowa that seems completely empty of culture or shopping or any of the things that Charlie and Reg think are fun.  They are staying with a man named Sal, who is meant to help them with the transition and they have been registered to attend the local high school.  They send out appeals to different groups of vampires to try to get their punishment cancelled but either get a negative response or no response at all.  Things can't seem to get any worse for the pair but they find that being human is kind of interesting and eventually fun.  So when the baddest of the vampire clans comes back with an offer to bring Charlie and Reg back as vampires, their response is a bit surprising.  Charlie's voice is so strong and so fresh and so funny that I kept wanting to go back and hear what happened next!  The other characters also had strong, well developed voices and the plot line was so interesting.  I really liked this one.   Don't miss it!

The second one is called the Gilded Mountain written by Kate Manning.  This one is a historical fiction set in Colorado in the early 1900s.  The main character is Sylvie, a teenager, who moves across country with her mother and two younger brothers to the Colorado mountains to join her father, who has taken a job in a marble mine in Colorado.  Her father is a larger than life character who has lived in lots of different places, trained in a circus and loves performing, but loves his family more.  The mining operation is hard work without much pay and the family struggles to make ends meet.  In school, Sylvie wins an essay contest and is approached by the editor of the local newspaper to come to work for her.  Sylvie jumps at the chance to write and learn more about the community.  It turns out that the owner of the mine lives in a huge mansion and while the miners are forced to work in dangerous conditions for a minimal amount of money and tend to end up owing the owner money because the only place to purchase things in town is also controlled by the mine owner.  Sylvie is offered a summer job at the mansion and jumps at the chance.  She is to be the secretary for the mine owner's wife and the newspaper editor hopes Sylvie will continue supplying her with stories for the newspaper.  Sylvie is hoping to find romance and she does, but it's not all it's cracked up to be.  Sylvie ends up learning some bitter truths about the labor movement, about people's desire to help others as well as her own romantic inclinations.  It's an interesting story to read, particularly because of the current political situation, which has some pretty strong parallels to the this story.  I thought this one was great too!