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

A Kind of Spark is an incredible must-read

A Kind of Spark, by Elle McNicoll, (Oct. 2021, Crown Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 9780593374252

Ages 8-12

An award-winning debut middle grade novel that debuted in the UK last year, A Kind of Spark is the kind of book the educators, parents and caregivers, and kids need to read and discuss together.

Addie is an autistic girl with a teacher who loves reading and learning, but she’s stuck with a teacher who sees her neurodivergence as being rebellious and lazy. She’s verbally abusive to Addie, as she was to Addie’s older sister, Keedie. Addie is targeted by both Mrs. Murphy, her teacher, and by Emily, a fellow student; her fellow students, including her former friend, all look the other way during these painful bullying sessions, but new girl Audrey arrives and befriends Addie, enjoying her for who she is. When the class learns that their small Scottish town once tried and executed a number of young women as witches, it sparks a visceral reaction in Addie. What if these women were misunderstood? What if they were like her? The lesson becomes a personal crusade for Addie, who campaigns for the town to install a memorial to these misunderstood women, with Keedie and Audrey providing the support she needs.

There is so much in this book. At times painful and enraging, it remains a book that needs reading and discussing. Told from the point of view of a neurodivergent character, written by a neurodivergent author, A Kind of Spark encourages empathy and understanding by providing a first-person perspective. It addresses the bullying and abuse that neurodivergent people are susceptible to, but it also points the finger at bystanders who don’t speak out and takes on those who should be there to support and protect students – like caregivers and educators – who are lacking. The bond between Keedie and Addie is heart-warming, and their discussions on “masking” – acting neurotypical in order to fit in – are thought-provoking and a wake-up call. An incredible book that is a must-add, must-read, to all collections.

A Kind of Spark has a starred review from School Library Journal. There are a wealth of autism and neurodivergence resources available: the NEA has a guide for educators; the Organization for Autism Research has a Kit for Kids to help create allies rather than bullies and a Teacher’s Corner for educators; the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has resources and an article on what makes an ally, and Autism Classroom News and Resources has a free resources library with materials and webinars. Author Elle McNicoll’s website has links to her blog and more information about her books.

The BBC is going to be bringing A Kind of Spark to the screen – now, we folx in the U.S., wait.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels, Humor, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

Life in the Muddle: Middle School, Muddle School

Muddle School, by Dave Whamond, (Sept. 2021, Kids Can Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781525304866

Ages 9-13

Based on author/illustrator Dave Whamond’s own middle school experiences (with photos as proof!), Muddle School is all about Dave, an artistic kid who starts Muddle School: middle school in a town called Muddle. Think that’s bad? He’s also the new kid. He’s also the kid whose mom has him wear a blue leisure suit on the first day. Poor Dave can’t catch a break: he’s beaten up by bullies on his first day; he blows an accidental snot bubble during class, and his secret crush is revealed, all in record time. As he helps his classmate, Chad, work on a science fair project – a time machine! – Dave starts thinking this is the ticket to retconning his entire middle school experience thus far; he could go back in time and fix everything before he becomes the bully target with a runny nose, right?

Cartoon drawings, narrated by a first-person character who’s lovably awkward and self-deprecating, this is another hilarious addition to middle grade and middle school kidlit. Kids are going to see themselves in Dave; they’ll cringe at his most cringey moments, and they’ll wonder about making their own time machines, and what they could undo. Muddle School sums up the muddle that is tween life for readers, complete with hopelessly out of touch parents (Hey!) and language teachers who pretend not to hear you if you’re not speaking the language they’re teaching: even if there’s a zombie right behind them. A hilarious look at self-preservation and perseverance.

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

Big Issues for middle schoolers: Violets are Blue

Violets are Blue, by Barbara Dee, (Oct. 2021, Aladdin), $17.99, ISBN: 9781534469181

Ages 9-13

Wren is a 12-year-old going through a difficult time when her parents split at the same time as she’s going through a split of her own, with her frenemy at school. She loses herself in special effects makeup videos on YouTube, which provide an escape for her, and discovers that she’s pretty good at making new looks – and new personalities – to try on. When her mom decides to up and move to a new town for a fresh start for them both, she welcomes the chance to start over. She makes a new friend and finds herself chosen to be the makeup artist for her new school’s upcoming production of Wicked. And she discovers that she actually kind of likes her new stepmom – as long as she doesn’t let on to her mom, who makes her feel guilty. The thing is, Wren’s mom isn’t doing well at all. She’s sleeping a lot; she’s put a lock on her door, and she’s not always where she says she is – especially work – and her stories aren’t matching up. Wren knows something is going on with her mom, but she doesn’t know exactly what, only that her mom gets angry at her if she even tries to talk to her. It’s only during Wicked‘s opening performances that Wren realizes something is very wrong with her mom, and that the new life she’s been trying so hard to build is set on a very thin foundation.

Barbara Dee is an incredible middle grade writer who gets to the heart of social issues tweens are dealing with. In Maybe He Just Likes You (2019), she examined the sexual harassment of young girls that begins in middle school and earlier, and how girls’ voices are brushed off as being “dramatic” or “unable to take a joke”. My Life in the Fish Tank (2020) saw a middle school girl dealing with a sibling’s mental illness, and Halfway Normal (2017) is about a middle school girl returning to school after undergoing cancer treatment. But Ms. Dee realizes that the one Big Issue isn’t the Only Issue, so she creates layered, complex stories of the overwhelming crush of events and emotions that make up the life of a middle schooler: friends (or lack thereof); crushes, relationships with family members. Here, in Violets are Blue, Wren is navigating middle school relationships while being in the middle of her parents’ divorce, her mother’s depression and opioid addiction, and the complicated feelings she has about her father and his new family. What a phenomenal read – Barbara Dee is just amazing.

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

Frankie and Amelia is a great buddy story

Frankie and Amelia, by Cammie McGovern, (Oct. 2021, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062463326

Ages 8-12

Franklin is a cat who ends up separated from his family. He finds a temporary home with a family, where he meets a dog named Chester, a service dog to a boy with autism named Gus. But Gus’s dad is allergic to Franklin, so he ends up with one of Gus’s classmates, a girl named Amelia, who loves cats, and who really needs a good friend.

Frankie and Amelia is a the companion book to Chester and Gus (2017), but you don’t need to have read it to enjoy Frankie and Amelia. It’s a gentle story about found families, inclusion, and autism, particularly how it’s often missed in girls. The story is narrated by Franklin, who grows as a character as the story progresses and he learns more about and becomes more sensitive to his adopted humans, Gus and Amelia. Chester, a seasoned seizure response dog, is Franklin’s guide into this new world and provides an incredible amount of information to readers on autism and the sensitivity that companion animals provide to their charges. Cammie McGovern, the parent of a child with autism, writes with an understanding and sensitivity to the topic, and creates characters that are kind, realistic, and lovable. By exploring the relationship between pets and people, she’s able to give readers a new understanding of autism, how people with autism are often perceived by others, and how autism presents differently in boys and girls.

A must-have for your shelves.

 

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Non-fiction, Non-Fiction

A gift for every learner!

It’s that time of year, expect the gift guides to be coming at you fast and furious. Let’s see what’s making my lists this year.

Mercury: 100 Piece Puzzle (Featuring Photography from the Archives at NASA), (Aug. 2021, Chronicle Books), $19.99, ISBN: 9781797210346

Ages 6+

Puzzle fans, astronomy fans, science fans, everyone will love the next planetary puzzle from Chronicle Books. Mercury is the newest 100-piece puzzle using photography from the Archives at NASA, a follow-up to April’s Earth puzzle (which my kid and I still haven’t solved). It’s a beautiful photo of Mercury, and it is huge: 2 1/2 feet in diameter, so clear off a table for Thanksgiving/holiday gatherings and let the family and friends have at it. Puzzle pieces are sturdy, and they’re a good size, inviting little hands to help out, too. It’s a round puzzle, so you can somewhat figure out the outside of Mercury, but don’t forget: it’s a photo, so have fun trying to figure out which crater is goes where (G, my kiddo, and I are still arguing over them).

 

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! An Animal Poem for Each Day of the Year, selected by Fiona Waters/Illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, (Oct. 2021, Nosy Crow), $40.00, ISBN: 9781536217186

Ages 3-8

This is a beautiful collection of animal poems for readers, poetry fans, and animal lovers. There are 366 poems – one for every day, including Leap Year – organized by month. Each month begins with a table of contents that lays out each poem and author by day. The spreads are beautiful and the poems are related on each spread, giving a feeling of cohesion. January 1-3 have poems about polar bears; 4-5 about whales; the action moves through the days, with spreads turning to sheepdogs on guard, wolves, and more. Britta Teckentrup’s artwork is just beautiful, with cold, quiet winter spreads moving into warm, home interiors; crocodiles lurk on one spread, gazelles leap through grass in another. Colorful, not overwhelming, the artwork brings the ideas in each poem to life. Endpapers offer lush, green leaves, inviting us in, and closing their doors behind us. Read a few a time, or savor them day by day.

 

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame/Illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith, (Nov. 2021, Templar Books), $19.99, ISBN: 9781536219999

Ages 7-12

The classic children’s novel gets a gift hardcover release just in time for the holidays! If you’ve never read The Wind in the Willows, you’re missing out. The adventures of Mr. Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger have been delighting readers since its publication in 1908. This hardcover gift version has illustrations from Kate Greenway Medal winner Grahame Baker-Smith that give gorgeous life to the story; some are sepia-toned, some rendered in shades of blue, green, or brown, some in rich, warm, earth colors. The cloth cover looks like a copy of the book I found on my own public library’s shelves a lifetime ago; just running my hand over the cover brought back memories of sitting down with it and wandering into Mr. Toad’s magic world. Give this to a younger reader, give it to a grownup who needs to go back in time, even if just for a moment.

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

The Enchantment Lake Mystery concludes with The Silver Box

The Silver Box: An Enchantment Lake Mystery, by Margi Preus, (Nov. 2021, University of Minnesota Press), $11.95, ISBN: 9781517909697

Ages 10-14

I just picked up the Enchantment Lake Mysteries when I received an email inviting me to read the third book, The Silver Box, and really enjoyed this one. Francie is a 17-year old living in New York, who heads to Minnesota after receiving a call from her aunts, who need her help. What does she discover? Neighbors “dropping like flies” after a a series of dubious “accidents”, creepy noises in a bog, and a road that not everyone wants built, all tied in to a mysterious treasure that’s rumored to be under the lake. She’s also got a mystery surrounding her mother, her long-lost brother, and a small silver box that may contain all the answers she wants.

In this third mystery, Francie is still looking for answers, but finding the answers could cost her life. More mysteries lurk in the shadows, and this time, she realizes that her little silver box could be putting her in great danger: people seem to be determined to get that box at any cost.

This is a great mystery series for middle schoolers: the characters are interesting, the action moves at a great, page-turning pace, and the Northwoods setting is just perfect for a mystery. Threads from the first and second books all come together here, making for a satisfying end and a hope that Margi Preus has more adventures to come. Give this to your mystery fans.

Visit Margi Preus’s author webpage for book resources, information about school visits, and her other books.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade

A Dreidel in Time lets readers live the Hanukkah story

A Dreidel in Time: A New Spin on an Old Tale, by Marcia Berneger/Illustrated by Bernice Castro, (Sept. 2019, Kar-Ben Publishing), $8.99, ISBN: 9781541552654

Ages 8-12

This is a Hanukkah short story that puts readers right into the heart of the Hanukkah story. Devorah and Benjamin are siblings who can’t wait to open their Hanukkah presents, but are a little disappointed when they open their grandparents’ gift to both of them: an old dreidel. Their parents and grandparents have a secret, though, and encourage them to give it a spin – and when they do, they discover they’ve been transported to ancient Israel, and are in the middle of the Hanukkah story as is develops! They meet siblings Simon and Shoshana, whose parents have been arrested by the king Antiochus’s soldiers, and key figures from history, including Mattisyahu (also known as Mattathias) and his sons, Judah and Jonathan. The power of the dreidel shifts the two siblings through different moments in the Hanukkah story, from the opening flight from Antiochus to the battle of the Maccabees, destruction of the Temple, and the rejoicing when they discover that the menorah is still burning after eight days. Every spin of the dreidel not only shifts the action, but the mood: when the dreidel lands on “shin”, a “bad spin”, the siblings find themselves in the past. Landing on “nun” may mean that nothing happens, but there’s a shift in time.

Fast-paced with dialogue that educates and engages, A Dreidel in Time is perfect to give your Magic Tree House and I Survived readers. Black and white illustrations by Beatriz Castro run throughout the story.

Visit author Marcia Berneger’s website for more about her books, a Q&A, and some fun activities for kids.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Ace is A-Okay!

A-Okay, by Jarad Greene, (Nov. 2021, HarperAlley), $12.99, ISBN: 9780063032842

Ages 9-13

Eighth grader Jay gets a prescription for Accutane to deal with his acne, but that medication comes with serious side effects. A-Okay, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel from Jarad Greene, covers some of the scary moments most middle schoolers feel at some point: body issues, identity, and finding your people. Jay suffers bullying because of his acne, and he’s disappointed because none of his friends are in his classes or share his lunch period, and his best friend seems to be avoiding him. Meanwhile, Mark and Amy, two of his classmates, are each showing more than friendly feelings for him, and he doesn’t feel the same. Written with sensitive humor and insight, A-Okay is about the middle school experience as a whole, and about asexuality: a diminished or lack of sexual attraction.

The middle school years are fraught with a hormonal mix of emotion and reaction that would frighten anyone: our bodies seemingly go haywire, leaving us feeling confused and betrayed; friendships are fraught with drama and complexity; fears about the future threaten to crush us. Greene understands his audience and quietly gives middle schoolers a voice with his A-Okay characters, who let middle schoolers know that every one of these feelings and emotions are okay. Colorful and upbeat illustrations put readers at ease, and he writes with a gift for both dialogue and introspection. A story whose time has come, Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnson nailed it when he wrote that A-Okay will be “to kids with acne what Smile was to kids with braces”. And then some.

For Ace resources, read the BBC’s article, “The Rise of the Invisible Orientation”; Stonewall.org’s “Six Ways to Be an Ally to Asexual People”; and visit the Asexual Visibility and Education Network’s website and follow them on Twitter. A-Okay is featured in HarperAlley’s Classroom Conversations brochure, offering booktalks and discussion questions.

Posted in Middle Grade, Non-Fiction, Non-fiction, Tween Reads

Break the monster codes with Sleuth & Solve: Spooky

Sleuth & Solve: Spooky: Decode Mind-Twisting Mysteries Inspired by Classic Creepy Characters, by Ana Gallo/Illustrated by Victor Escandell, (Aug. 2021, Chronicle Books), $18.99, ISBN: 9781797205908

Ages 8-12

I do love a good code-breaking book, and this one is right in step with the season. Part of Chronicle’s Sleuth & Solve series, Sleuth & Solve: Spooky puts readers up against the creepiest characters to solve mysteries. Unlock a mummy’s hieroglyphics; discover the Frankenstein monster’s hideout; help a deceased aunt keep her promise to her niece. There are nine mysteries to solve, with a cryptograph available to help readers break the codes. Readers can use their problem-solving skills to unravel the mysteries, and it makes for a great addition to escape room challenges or spy school programs. The stories are told in entertaining comic book style, with characters wandering around the page offering prompts and thinking points. Each spooky creature gets a little factual bio at the beginning of the section, giving readers some context to the game as it unfolds. Great for cooperative gaming, the mysteries work best when teams can work together to solve the puzzles.

Display and booktalk with escape room books like the Escape Room Adventure series from Schiffer Books. Check out Sleuth & Solve and Sleuth & Solve: History for more code-breakers in the series.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

This Halloween, Zombert returns!

Return of Zombert, by Kara LaReau/Illustrated by Ryan Andrews, (July 2021, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536201079

Ages 8-12

Last summer, I read Kara LaReau and Ryan Andrews’s Rise of Zombert, and audibly squawked at the cliffhanger ending; needless to say, seeing Return of Zombert in my review box of goodies from Candlewick Press gave me a large amount of seasonal joy.

To catch you up: Lambert is a corporate town, with the YummCo corporation at the town’s heart. Everyone is employed by or affected by YummCo in some way, but it’s okay! Because YummCo is great! They have a catchy jingle, and the head of the company loves to give people the thumbs up! And they swear they don’t test on animals! Except they do. YummCo’s got their corporate fingers in a lot of pies, and some projects are shadowy and secret, and involve some awful animal testing. Zombert – known at the lab as Y-91 – is a cat that escaped from the lab with promises of revenge when he returns to liberate the other animals, but he’s found by a girl named Mellie, who cares for him, nurses him back to health, names him Bert, and doesn’t mind (too much) that he prefers to eat the heads of his live prey.

Zombert – as Mellie’s best friend Danny calls the “zombie cat” – has started easing into life with Mellie while haunted by nightmares of his mother, who never returned from a food run; his brother and sister, captured with him and brought to the lab, and the memories of Cold Hands, the cruel human at the lab who experimented on him. And YummCo hasn’t forgotten about Zombert, either: there are new plans afoot to get him back, and they have another inside man infiltrating Mellie’s and Danny’s lives to facilitate that. Mellie needs to earn some money to get Bert to the vet, and YummCo just happens to be holding a Best Pet contest. Is the contest legit? What do you think? This latest entry into the Zombert chronicles is even more compulsively readable than Rise of Zombert. It’s dark humor at its best, with poignant moments as we experience Zombert’s trauma through his memories. The ending will leave you yelling at the book yet again, and waiting not-so-patiently for the third part of the series, due in the Summer of 2022. Ryan Andrew’s black and white illustrations add the perfect touch of chiller to this story. Definitely grab this one.

Read a sample chapter of Return of Zombert here.