Thursday, April 2, 2020

More new realistic middle grade fiction

Well, THIS is different, isn't it?  We started distance learning this week and after two days, it's going pretty well.  People are naturally worried about a lot of things that are different from learning in person but we seem to be figuring it out.

What's also good is the number of amazing opportunities authors are putting out right now.  Authors,  illustrators, and publishers have been SO GENEROUS with their time and energy.  I know the kids must love seeing all the storytelling, drawing lessons, and writing lessons they've been offering.  I know I have!

I was lucky enough to read some excellent middle grade fiction this week.  I'm a big fan of Rebecca Stead's work and her latest one is as least as good as her other work, maybe even better.  This one is called "The List of Things That Will Not Change".  It's about Bea, who has two parents who love her dearly, but live in separate houses now.  It's apparent from Bea's voice, almost right away, that she thinks about things a bit differently than than most people.  One kind of person might say it seems like she's on the autism spectrum or she has ASD, but what's clear is that social interaction is hard for her and that she's had to learn to interpret emotional responses as well as understand why her responses might make other people unhappy.  Change is also difficult for Bea, so when Bea's parents got divorced, the first thing they did was make a list of the things that will not change.  So Bea lives part of the time with her mom and part with her dad and his new significant other, Jessie.  Bea loves Jessie so when her dad and Jessie decide to get married, Bea is really excited that she'll be getting a sister (from Jessie's previous marriage).  Bea's new sister is living with her mom in California so she has a lot of new things to process.  Bea is also struggling with some guilt over something that happened with her cousin when they were younger and comes out in small pieces over the course of the story.  This is a lovely story of coping with things you can't change (like practically everything that's happening here right now!) but also how even though somethings DO change, sometimes it's even better than you thought it would be.  And even when things do change, there are somethings that never change and that's really great too.  I think the kids are going to like the voice of Bea and her completely awesome family.  This is going to be a great one for building empathy.  It's perfect for middle grade readers!  

And here's a video review from Colby Sharp about it!

The second book feels like a journey far, far away, because it is!  It's called Music for Tigers by Michelle Kadarusman.  The main character, Louisa, is a middle schooler, and she REALLY wants to spend the summer practicing her violin at home in Toronto, Canada.  But her parents have other ideas.  They are both scientists who are working on different projects in different place, so they decide to send her to stay with her uncle in Australia.  He lives far out in the bush at a kind of an unofficial wildlife reserve where there family has lived for generations.  Louisa is surprised at how different Australia is and how strange her uncle seems, but luckily there is an eco lodge near by with a boy just her age and his mom was a friend her mother's AND they have (some) internet access.  But the boy, Colin, turns out to have neurological differences (which means he often misses social cues, like people making fun of him), even if he is really smart.  What's great about this ancestral home is that Louisa is learning a lot about her family history (her great, great aunt left a journal!) and her uncle and Colin are great about teaching her about the animals and plants of Australia.  It turns out Louisa is also struggling with anxiety about her violin playing and when Louisa gets a chance to use her violin to help an animal, it feels like things might really come together.  

This was a super interesting book, with tons of natural history information about Australia, including plants, animals, seasons, and stars.  The characters were really nice people and I was sorry when the book was over!  I think kids who are at all interested in the natural world or Australia will like this one a lot and the parts about kids who have neurological differences is a great addition to the story.  Highly recommend for upper elementary and middle school.

Monday, March 23, 2020

New realistic middle grade fiction

Our spring break started today and for the first time in several years, we're NOT traveling.  I'm envious of myself in years past as the pictures keep coming up in my Facebook feed.  There are so many things I feel fortunate for!  Good books are among the things at the top of my list!  Here are two new ones to look for.

The first one is called The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert.  It's about Alberta who lives in Ewing, California, a small town on the coast near San Luis Obisbo.  Alberta loves to surf, has a best friend named Laramie and two loving dads.  The bed and breakfast next door to them has just sold and luckily enough, the people who bought it have a daughter just her age.  Alberta has visions of a new best friend.  What's great about this one is that although the plot sounds familiar, it has a lot of pieces that keep it really fresh.  Like, the fact that Alberta has two dads and a surrogate mom, who she knows, but isn't a big part of her life, or how Alberta has been the one and only black girl in her grade and what that's like.  Luckily, the new girl, Edie, is also black but has lived a really different kind of life in NY, which she misses desperately.  Alberta worries about her friendship with Edie AND her friendship with Laramie in a completely middle school kind of way.  Alberta and Edie end up trying to solve a mystery that revolves around some journals that were left in the attic.  This is a compelling, wonderful story about people you'd want to be friends with (at least I did-I wanted to be friends with all of them!)   It's also a really great opportunity talk about some of the racism that some people face every day.    It's probably best suited for upper elementary and middle school students and I hope you get a chance to read it soon!

Here's what Colby Sharp had to say about this book.  

The second one is a book that's set in Australia, which took me a while to figure out, but helped me hear the voice of the main character more clearly once I did.  It's called A Song Only I Can Hear by Barry Jonsberg.  It's about Rob, a thirteen year old who is writing a book. Rob's voice is sarcastic, funny, and critical in the best possible way.  Rob's family includes a mom and a dad and a very cranky grandpa.  Rob also has a best friend named Andrew along with a boatload of insecurities.  But through a series of unlikely events (including falling madly in love with a beautiful new girl), Rob decides to start taking chances and they all turn out remarkably well (except possibly an attempt to get on the front page of the paper, which ends with bolt cutters and the police, but ok).   This is a really great story with big themes of facing up to your fears (even the grownups) and taking risks, including the biggest risk of all-being true to yourself.  I thought this one was terrific.  It would be excellent in any upper elementary or middle school library (high schoolers might like it too if they didn't think they were too grown to read a story about a 13 year old).  

Sunday, March 15, 2020

New speculative fiction for middle grade

So now that I'm home for at least two weeks, I have PLENTY of time to get caught up on some of the book reviews I've been leaving until I had some free time!  YAY for an upside to all this crazy and what a better way to spend your time but wandering around in some worlds that are completely different and a little scary!

The first one is called The Thieves of Wierdwood.  It's written by Christian McKay Heidicker.  It's about two twelve year old boys, Arthur and Willy who live in a pretty strange place.  It reminded me a bit of Victorian England, until things got, well, weird.  Arthur and Willy are thieves - they are part of a notorious Black Feather gang, but they aren't in very good standing.  Willy has a brother who is in a completely horrific sounding hospital and when Arthur gets in trouble, his dad, who is also thief, gets sent to the hospital too.  Both boys feel an urgent need to get them out, and take a huge risk to break into Weirdwood Manor, a creepy old house.  They find treasure, but also find a lot of trouble.  This is a fun but scary adventure story with really interesting characters.  I will admit that the opening chapter almost made me put it down because it features a completely terrifying doll (shudder) but I'm glad I kept going because it was a fun ride.  Some of the parts are scary enough that I probably wouldn't put it in my elementary library (even though my kids seem to crave scary stories), I think it would be an excellent addition to a middle school library.  It comes out in the early part of April.


This second one also had a really different kind of setting as well.  It's called A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat.  I thought at first it might be a folktale, but then it seemed more like dystopian fiction, but then there's some magic...  So it's about three kids, Pong, Nok, and Somkit who are all growing up in a prison.  Pong and Somkit ended up there because their parents were in prison.  They are scheduled to be released when they are 13 but at 9, that seems like forever, especially because, in addition to being in prison, they are also being bullied relentlessly by the bigger kids.  Nok is literally on the other side of the fence.  Her dad is the warden of the prison and she leads a life of privilege and education.  She is a skilled warrior and works hard to be perfect, which is in itself, it's own kind of prison.  However, it turns out that her family is not what it seems and when Pong escapes, it brings shame to her father and she is determined to get him back.  Pong however, ends up in a monastery and spends a lot of time learning with Father Cham.  When Father Cham dies, Pong ends up thrust back into the real world with Nok and the police breathing down his neck.  This is an exciting adventure story with themes of friendship, loyalty, and kindness.  It has a lovely piece about power and corruption and I think upper elementary and middle school kids will like this one a lot.  This one is scheduled to come out at the end of March.

Here's a book trailer for A Wish in the Dark.

And here's a synopsis of the book, right from the author! 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Middle grade books about the aftermath of war

I read two books this week that both had to do with postwar trauma.  One is historical fiction and one is present day and they were both terrific!

The first one is called "A Galaxy of Sea Stars" by Jeanne Zulik Ferruolo.  Jeanne wrote a terrific book last year called "Ruby in the Sky" that I really enjoyed, so I was delighted to see she had a new book out.  This one is just as good, and maybe even better!  In "A Galaxy of Sea Stars", Izzy, the main character is starting middle school.  She's nervous like most kids are but she's got a lot on her plate.  Her mom has gone to stay and work with her sisters in their family restaurant, and although it seemed like she would be gone just a short time, it's turning out to be longer than Izzy figured it would be.  Part of why her mom left, is that her dad is different now.  Her dad served in the army in Afghanistan and came back different.  He's had to take a different job, they've had to move into a smaller apartment that's above the marina, there have been a lot of big changes.  One thing that hasn't changed is Izzy's best friends.  Zelda, Piper, and Izzy have been best friends since they were in kindergarten but Zelda and Piper seem different.  Zelda is very excited to be part of the morning news show that they produce at the middle school.  Izzy really doesn't want to do it, but ends up getting roped in.  Then Izzy's dad tells her about a surprise and the surprise isn't Izzy's mom coming home, like she'd hope, instead it's an Afghani family moving into the upstairs apartment.  The Afghani dad was the interpreter when Izzy's dad was in Afghanistan and feels like he saved his life.  Izzy doesn't want to be friends with their daughter, but finds that she's a really interesting and kind person.  When Sitara gets bullied because of her hijab, Izzy has to decide how she's going to react.  This is a story with lots of big themes-changing friendships, dealing with the aftermath of war, PTSD, racism and a small by-line of powerful women heroes in a bit of a storyline about Maria Bashir and Marie Tharp.  I thought this story was terrific.  It moved quickly, the characters were interesting and relatable and there are a ton of things to think about and talk about with this one.  I can't wait to put it in my library.

And here's Jeanne talking about the book!

The second one is a piece of historical fiction.  It's called "Blue Skies" by Anne Bustard.  It's about Glory Bea, who lives with her mother and her grandparents in Gladiola, Texas in the early 1950s.  Her dad has been MIA since D-Day (nearly 5 years now).  Glory Bea is convinced that he will show up any minute and goes to great lengths to welcome him home.  She also is trying to be a matchmaker like her grandmother.  She wants her best friend, Ruby Jane, to connect with her next door neighbor, Ben, who's dad was also in the war, and came home suffering from PTSD.  When her dad's best friend shows up to meet the family in person, Glory Bea is less than welcoming, because she believes that her dad still might be coming home.  There's a lovely piece about a gesture from the French people called the Merci Train, where the French people were so grateful for the actions of the Americans that they sent train cars full of thank you gifts to each state.  The author's notes indicate that this piece is true, which might send some kids scurrying to do research.  The characters in this one are wonderful and compelling and unfailingly kind to each other.  I liked this one a lot too and it gives a nice story about how far the effects of war reach, beyond the boundaries of the battlefield, into virtually every home.  I think the kids are going to like this one a lot too.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Meet these new characters with big challenges!

I'm a big fan of Linda Sue Park, so when I saw she had a new book, I couldn't wait to read it!  You might have read some of her other middle grade fiction, like "Long Walk to Water" or the Newbery award winning "The Single Shard".  Her latest one is called "Prairie Lotus" and it's a terrific combination of historical fiction and modern activism.  Hanna is 14 and she and her dad are traveling to an expansion town in South Dakota in hopes of settling there.  They are leaving California, where although the family had a successful business there, it cost them Hanna's mother.  Hanna's mom was injured during a riot and massacre of Chinese people and never fully recovered.  Hanna and her dad are trying to build a new life.  Hanna is hoping to go to school to get a diploma, something her mother wanted badly for her.  Hanna is also a talented dressmaker and she would like to pursue that as a career.  The new town has an ally-a friend of her dad's from a long time ago, so when racism against the Chinese rears it's ugly head, there's someone in their corner.  Hanna is allowed attend school but most of the other students quit in protest.  There are snide comments made about anti-Chinese tropes but Hanna perseveres.  This is a really interesting story in so many ways.  The idea that people who aren't African American can be affected by racism is one that would surprise my students (and I can't wait to surprise them!).   The idea that you can stand up to people who are behaving in a racist way and point out their racism in a calm way would also surprise them.   The sexism displayed in the book is also pronounced (and in keeping with the times) but that would make an excellent conversation as well.  I also appreciated the notes at the end of the book, where Park describes how the story came about and her connection (and the book's) to Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.  I think the kids are going to like this story about a girl who wants to work hard, be taken seriously, and be a part of the community is just terrific.

J.L. Esplin is a brand new author (congratulations!!!).  Her new book "96 miles" is compelling dystopian fiction.  It's about John and his younger brother Stewart who are staying by themselves for a few days while their dad goes on a business trip.  Their close neighbors are keeping tabs on them to make sure they are ok but when the power goes out, they are less prepared than they had hoped.  John and Stew's dad had taken care to stock their house carefully with extra water, food and fuel for at least 6 months.  But when the power outage continued for weeks, other desperate people came looking for their supplies.  After being robbed at gun point, John and Stew decide they have to try to make it 96 miles to their friends' house through the desert.  Stew and John are bickering about this as well as how to make do with their last source of water, when two other kids show up.  They all decide to start walking.  This was such a compelling story, I read it all in one sitting.  It will remind you of some other stories of kids trying to cross deserts like "Long Walk To Water" or "Dry" by Neal Shusterman.  The characters are interesting and likable and there are some really great plot twists along the way.  I think the kids are going to be mesmerized by this one!

Middle grade fiction to look for!

I fell down into a well of grown up fiction that was just terrific but I'm finding my way back to middle grade fiction, because, well, because I can.  Here's some amazing books to look for!

The first one is called Chirp by Kate Messner.  I was lucky enough to get to meet her in November at the FAME conference in Orlando and my friend David was brave enough to try the Chirp Challenge she describes in the book.  I'd been looking forward to reading it since November and I finally got to! It was totally worth the wait.  One of the things that Kate does so well is give you characters that are interesting and likable immediately, but there's always something bigger that comes as you read.  In this case, Mia and her family have moved back to Vermont to be closer to her grandmother.  Her grandmother had a small stroke and is recuperating well, but runs her own business, which Mia's parents would like her to sell.  Mia's grandmother sells crickets for food and at the moment, she's having some very bad luck.  One of the local businessmen would like to buy the business and after a few strange things happening, Mia starts to think that maybe the strange things aren't really a coincidence.  Mia starts talking about what's happening to her new friends, kids that she's meeting at the two camps she's attending, one for innovators and one for an athletic kind of obstacle course called Warrior camp.  Mia is recuperating from an injury that she sustained during gymnastics, but it turns out that injury is lot more complicated than it first appears.  Chirp touches on so many different big ideas and so many places to have conversations with people about such a variety of topics, including non-traditional families, sexual harassment, bravery, food sustainability, women in positions of power, and agism, just to name a few.  This is a terrific book that would be perfect for kids in upper elementary, middle and possibly high school.

Here's Kate telling us about some of her awesome books.  

The second one is an epic and magical adventure called "Mulan Before the Sword" by Grace Lin.  I'm a big fan of Grace Lin's work-I loved "Where the Mountain meets the Moon" and "When the Sea Turned Silver" but I have to confess that I've never seen the Disney version of Mulan and I don't have a deep knowledge of Asian mythology so a lot of this was new to me.  "Mulan Before the Sword" is about Mulan who feels out of place in her rural village.  She's very strong and not very graceful.  Her mother shouts at her often and Mulan is often in trouble for breaking things.  Mulan's sister, Xiu, is more obedient  and more graceful and so of course, Mulan likes to tease her, particularly about spiders, of which Xiu is very afraid.  Xiu gets bitten by a spider one day and it turns out to be a magical poisonous spider.  There is a prophecy that one of the sisters will save the emperor.  No one thinks Mulan would be able to do it, least of all the dangerous and villainous, shape shifting White Fox.  The healer of the village comes to help and says there is only one thing that will save Xiu, a tea made from two plants.  Mulan decides she must go to get the plants to save her sister.  This is a really fun adventure story.  Readers will be reminded of other epic adventure stories like The Lord of the Rings or The Lightning Thief.  There are big themes of believing in yourself and how all stories are tied to together.    There are many folktales woven into the story, which are lovely, but also give the backstory of some of the characters and show how they are all connected.  I think the kids are going to like this one a lot, especially with it's connection to Mulan.  

Thursday, December 26, 2019

More new magical middle grade fiction!

We're on winter break now and winding down the CYBILS awards.  In fact, I was really surprised to come home from school on our last day and find two new books to read!  They were SO worth waiting for!

The first one is "Homerooms and Hall Passes" by Tom O'Donnell.  It's about a group of adventurers who live in a magical, medieval kind of realm called Briandalor, where they spend their days searching for treasure and battling vile monsters.  To relax, they spend Thursday evenings playing a role playing game called Homerooms and Hall passes, which has each of the players assume the role of a student in a 21st century middle school.  The students have to try to navigate middle school without getting thrown out.  The leader of the group, a good wizard in training named Albiorix, is a big fan of the game (he has 26 reference books about the game that he carries with him).  The group also includes a second leader, Vela the Valiant, a paladin (or knight), as well as Devis, the thief, Sorrowshade, the assassin, and Thromdurr, the barbarian.  They raid a tomb and find riches, but Vela talks them out of taking them because of the curse.  Except Devis can't quite resist - one teensy, weensy jewel, which he takes out as they are playing their weekly game.  The curse takes effect, and they are thrust into the middle school world of Homerooms and Hall Passes, with no way to get back except to survive middle school.  This is one the freshest ideas I've read in quite some time-the idea that people would be thrust into a video game has kind of been done, but characters from what we would consider a role playing video game coming and trying to make it in the real world, I hadn't thought of before.  The way the characters interact with each other and the 21st century is absolutely hilarious.  The commentary on middle school and middle school peer relationships is right on the money.  The final epic battle is so perfect for the story.  I really don't want to spoil even a little bit of this for you, because it's that good.  I can't wait to start handing this one to my students.  I'd better make sure I buy more copies....

The second one is called "A Sprinkle of Magic" by Alma Meriano.  It's the second in a series called "Love, Sugar, Magic".  I'm going to tell you that normally, I don't read the second book in a series.  I read the first one and then I have to move on-too many books to read!  Usually the second book in a series spends a lot of time flashing back to the first one.  If you didn't read the first one, you might end up like me, feeling a little lost and out of place and wondering why you actually picked up the book to begin with.  Hence the not reading of many number twos.  So I DIDN'T read the first one of this series and it still made perfect sense, in fact, not only did it make perfect sense, I never got that feeling of "HUH?" that I often get in reading books that are second (or later) in a series.  It's about Leo and her family who come from Mexico.  They run a bakery called Love and Sugar (or in Spanish, Amor y Azucar).  Leo is the youngest sister and often feels a little ignored or left out.  Her older sisters are given more responsibilities in the bakery and Leo is left to run the cash register.  Her best friend Caroline has been away for awhile and her sisters think that's a good thing-they think Leo spends way too much time with Caroline and that Caroline spends too much time in the bakery, which is a bit of a problem for Leo who wants everyone to be happy.  Leo's family are witches or brujas and their magic is supposed to be a secret from everyone, including Caroline.  But Caroline found out about their magic (in the first book) and thinks it's perfectly ok.  So one morning, Leo wakes up and finds her grandmother in her bedroom, which is a little weird, because her grandmother has been dead for quite some time.  Her grandmother is not just a spirit either, she's fully corporeal and doesn't really know why she's come back to Leo.  So together they try to figure it out.  It turns out, Abuela is not the only ghost that's come through and each of the ghosts has some lesson to learn or to teach.  This is a lovely story about family and traditions and food (yum).  The characters are nice people that are concerned about each other.  There's a nice message about living your life without regret and being able to say goodbye.  I also really liked the part of the story line that focused  on the differences between Hispanic cultures (in this case, between Mexico and Costa Rica).  I liked this one enough that I'm going to look for the first one!