Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Houdini and Me – he’s back for one last trick!

Houdini and Me, by Dan Gutman, (March 2021, Holiday House), $16.99, ISBN: 9780823445158

Ages 8-12

Eleven-year-old Harry Mancini lives at Harry Houdini’s old address, so he’s learned quite a bit about the magician. But when someone leaves him a mysterious old flip phone, and someone calling himself Houdini starts texting himself on it, Harry thinks someone has to be playing a prank on him, but the texter knows way too much about Houdini, and Harry’s current apartment… is he really Houdini, and how did he find a way to text from beyond the grave? As the two exchange text conversations, Houdini lays out his plan: he wants to come back and experience life again, and in return, he’ll make Harry famous. But there are always strings attached, aren’t there?

Dan Gutman is already a celebrity in my home and my library for books like his My Weird School and The Genius Files series, and Homework Machine. He has a way of writing that kids relate to so well; it’s like having another kid level with them, and they love it. Houdini and Me has that same first-person narration and conversational voice that kids love, rapid-fire dialogue between characters, and a solid history lesson Harry Houdini, magic, and the early 20th century, that kids will enjoy, too. It’s an interesting take on Harry Houdini – this would make a good reading group book.

Check out Dan Gutman’s author website, loaded with resources, including his My Weird Read-Aloud, excerpts, and information about virtual school visits. Houdini and Me is on the Indie Next List.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Pepper Page Saves the Universe!

Pepper Page Saves the Universe (Adventures of the Supernova, Book 1), by Landry Q. Walker, (Feb. 2021, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250216922

Ages 8-12

What happens when a comics superfan discovers that she IS her favorite superhero? That’s what happens to orphaned Pepper Page, a high schooler who loves her Supernova comics more than anything: she can rattle off major storylines, lament retcons and canon versus headcanon and fancanon with the best of us fangirls, but imagine if you woke up one day to find a supreme being telling you that you’re really Wonder Woman, and all these comics have been chronicling your adventures? It’s a little much for Pepper to handle; thank goodness she’s got her cat companion and her two best friends to help out. When they aren’t under a supervillain’s influence, that is. Comics fans will love the nods to comics fan favorites like Peter David and the iconic Jack Kirby; there are tips of the hat to Golden and Silver Age comics throughout the story, and this is just a great new series to get in on right now. Parents and caregivers, read along with your tweens and share your comics knowledge! I know I will. Have Zita the Spacegirl fans? Get them reading this series immediately.

Pepper Page Saves the Universe has a starred review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Posted in Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Non-Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

More graphic novels to add to your shelves and your TBR

I have been reading a metric ton of graphic novels over the last year. I mean, I’ve been reading comics and graphic novels forever, but I found them comforting this past year in a whole new way. When my mind couldn’t focus on words and putting thoughts together, graphic novels were there to guide me through, with artwork and words coming together for storytelling. And there are such great books coming out now! My Kiddo and I are reading them together (most of the time… there are some that aren’t appropriate for him just yet) and sharing laughs and talking about big things, little things, lots of things. Here are a few of the books I’ve read over the last couple of weeks: these are a little less appropriate for littles, much better for teens and young adults.

Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel, by Andrea Grosso Ciponte, (Feb. 2021, Plough Publishing), $24, ISBN: 978-0-87486-344-4

Ages 12+

In 1942, a group of students joined together to oppose Hitler and the Nazi Party. They questioned the system and distributed leaflets encouraging their fellow Germans to do the same. The White Rose engaged in passive resistance in a time where speaking against the government carried a death penalty; by the time  the short-lived movement came to a halt in 1943 when the core members were arrested and sentenced to death by guillotine by the Nazis, their actions set a resistance in motion. Freiheit! chronicles the story of the key members of the White Rose: siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst. The narrative was tough to follow at moments; more of a collection of memories than a cohesive, linear narrative. That way of storytelling works for some, so keep that in mind when considering it for your library. The moody, often murky artwork gives heavy atmosphere to the pacing.

If you’re interested in further reading on the White Rose, the National WW2 Museum has an article on Sophie Scholl, the Jewish Virtual Library has an essay on the group, as does Smithsonian Magazine. There are lesson plans on the resistance available online: ELT-Resourceful has a lesson plan on Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, geared toward ESOL students; Study.com has study aids, and A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust has a detailed lesson plan for grades 6-12 complete with Sunshine State Standards.

 

Windows on the World, by Robert Mailer Anderson & Zack Anderson/Illustrated by Jon Sack, (June 2020, Fantagraphics), $24.99, ISBN: 978-1-68-396322-6

Ages 17+

Based on the screenplay from a 2019 film, Windows on the World is, on the surface, a story about a young man searching for his father in the aftermath of 9/11; upon reading, you realize that it’s also a blistering commentary on America and its treatment of undocumented people. Fernando is a young man living with his family in Mexico, watching September 11th unfold on TV; for his family, the terror hits hard: Balthazar, Fernando’s father and the family patriarch, works at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. Fernando’s mother refuses to believe he’s a casualty of the attack, a belief seemingly confirmed when she swears she sees him on a newsreel, escaping the Towers. Fernando heads to New York to learn his father’s fate, but discovers a very different America: He must pay coyotes – predatory smugglers who take immigrants across the US/Mexico border – to sneak him into the country. When he arrives in New York, he discovers that his father, undocumented, working in the States and sending money back to Mexico to support his family, has disappeared into the morass of people. Because he was undocumented, he isn’t on any of the employee lists, as he didn’t “officially” work in the Towers. Fernando has no money and no place to stay, so he takes to the streets, encountering racism and danger as he desperately tries to locate his father. A strong commentary on how America, as Solrad magazine states, went from “9/11 to Build The Wall”, Windows on the World is a hard, necessary, relevant look at racism in America.  Content warnings for younger readers.

Windows on the World has a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

The Cloven, by Garth Stein/Illustrated by Matthew Southworth, (July 2020, Fantagraphics), $24.99, ISBN: 9781683963103

Ages 13+

Garth Stein, better known as the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and co-creator of the TV series Stumptown, released his first graphic novel; number one of a planned trilogy. James Tucker is a young man who’s different: he’s a genetically modified science project, created in a lab, and he’s a cross between a human and a goat, a species called The Cloven. Tuck just wants a normal life, but he’s on the run and searching for answers. Flashbacks flesh out Tuck’s story and the story of the Cloven project, which reminded me of the Weapon X program that created Wolverine’s offspring, X-23/Laura Kinney.  Artwork makes great use of moody lighting and shadows to help tell the story. A skillfull mix of science fiction and thriller, teens will love this book and want to see where Tuck’s story takes him.

Posted in Fantasy, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Disney Noir: City of Villains

City of Villains, Book 1, by Estelle Laure, (Jan. 2021, Disney-Hyperion), $17.99, ISBN: 9781368049382

Ages 12+

Mary Elizabeth Heart is a high school senior and a police department intern for the Monarch City Police Department. Magic, once part of the populace’s lives, has seemingly left the world and taken countless lives with it, leaving denizens of magical families called The Legacies left to fend for themselves against the up-and-coming Narrows families, who seek to gentrify the neighborhood now known as the Scar.  A victim of horrific loss, Mary Elizabeth is Legacy, as are her friends, many with recognizable names: Mally, the withdrawn teen whose pet raven is the only thing who brings her comfort; Ursula, Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend, James and his best friend, Smee. When Legacy teens start disappearing from the Scar, Mary Elizabeth is put on the case, along with detective Bella, but they are in no way ready for what they find once they start digging into what’s really going on in the Scar.

Gritty, with memorable Disney characters and a taut, well-paced storyline, City of Villains is the first in a new YA series that acts as a new origin point for Disney villains. There’s a gritty feel that makes for a perfect noir setting; our favorite villains are goth without being over the top, and I loved every second of their complex backgrounds. The subplot of magical families versus gentrifiers who want magic by association is brilliant fantasy writing that takes storytelling in a fresh direction, and Mary Elizabeth’s traumatic family history sets the stage for bigger reveals in future books. Give this to your teen Disney fans that are ready for some new stories about their favorite villains. Talk this up to any of the teens you’ve been feeding the Twisted Tales books to – they will thank you.

Posted in Fantasy, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Black Canary’s YA novel starts the new year off with a Canary Cry

Okay, 2021. Let’s see what you’ve got. Please be gentle with us, we’re still reeling from 2020. Thankfully, there were books. So many great books. And 2021 is shaping up to have just as many great books – seriously, look at the upcoming Latinx titles, and lists from Here We Read, Brightly, and Beyond the Bookends, for starters. And let’s dive into the first book I finished this shiny new year.

Black Canary: Breaking Silence (DC Icons #5), by Alexandra Monir, (Dec. 2020, Random House Books for Young Readers), $18.99, ISBN: 9780593178317

Ages 12+

I’ve been a Black Canary fan for a while now (thanks, Arrow!), and getting an email inviting me to read the new Black Canary YA novel sent me over the moon. The fact that it takes place in a dystopia where Gotham City has been taken over by the Court of Owls – some of the best storylines in the Batman universe –  made me salivate. The Court of Owls, in the comics, is a secret society that quietly oversees the machinations of Gotham City, always looking out for the wealthy founding families’ interests. In Breaking Silence, the Owls have taken on a fundamentalist-type role, sending women back into the home and relegating them to second-class citizens in the name of “decency” and “morality”. Penguin, the iconic Bat-villain who sided with the Owls during their takeover 20 years prior to the events in Breaking Silence, engineered a toxic gas that stole the singing voices away from women in Gotham; finding a way to silence them while still allowing them to function. The overthrow of Gotham and Silencing, the culminating event that stole women’s singing voices, was sparked by the death of Bruce Wayne – Batman – who died of old age; the revolt also saw the deaths of Commissioner James Gordon and superheroes at the hands of the Owls and their enforcers, the Talons. Dinah Laurel Lance has grown up under the boot of the Owls. Her father, Detective Larry Lance, works for the Gotham City Police Department and treads lightly between the Owls and his duties for the GCPD, while raising his daughter as a widowed father. Now a high school senior, Dinah listens to forbidden music in private and is already on the Owls’ watch list. Between a cautious romance with new student Oliver Queen and discovering the hidden truth about her mother, Dinah’s heading into strange new territory. The Owls had better be ready, a revolution is coming.

I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Breaking Silence. Smashing the patriarchy and literally finding one’s own voice? Sign me up! Dinah Laurel Lance comes right off the pages; her frustration and fear are palpable and serve as a motivator and a hindrance; it isn’t all black and white here. Alexandra Monir gives us a smart teen heroine who navigates family secrets, a secret society, and the frustration of being a woman in a male-dominated society with skill. Her father, her male friend Ty, and the super-handsome, mysterious rich boy Oliver Queen all lament the current circumstances with her, but they don’t – can’t – get it: they’re men. They have freedom and privilege that they just can’t comprehend not having. There’s a DC cameo or two that made my heart sing, too… Read this book, add it to your booktalks, and get it into the hands of other readers. Then, go read Black Canary: Ignite and get some Birds of Prey trade paperbacks! (Psst… Gail Simone’s run is unparalleled).

Posted in Fantasy, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

A Deadly Education – this ain’t Hogwarts

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance #1), by Naomi Novik, (Sept. 2020, Penguin Random House), $28.00, ISBN: 9780593128480

Ages 14+

Naomi Novik’s latest fantasy series takes place in a magical school located in the Void, called the Scholomance. There are no teachers, homework and textbooks seem to appear as students need them and cast spells to bring them. There are no Houses, but there are enclaves from major areas like New York and London – and every spellcaster in that school is jockeying for a position in them. Oh, and there are demons and monsters wandering around the school waiting to kill you. Or your fellow students will, if you’re too much of a threat. You think a Zoom graduation stinks? The Scholomance graduation is when all the monsters rush the seniors as they try to leave the building. It’s an all-out brawl for survival to graduate, because to graduate is to live. Enter El, short for “Galadriel”, a half-Indian, half-Welsh magic user with incredible destructive power. She’s also misanthropic to the point of mania, in part because of a rough childhood (see: destructive power) and the fact that her father died protecting her pregnant mother at graduation.

But El realizes she’s got to make friends to survive, and a shining knight named Orion Lake, the school good guy, is determined to get through that antisocial exterior. He saves her life multiple times, to her frustration, but she also discovers that his good deeds are causing major fallout in the school – and a group of students have to come together to set things right.

While I loved the premise of the “dark magic school”, I didn’t fully connect with A Deadly Education. El got on my nerves quickly as the “lone wolf” schtick wore me out; Orion’s stubborn insistence on being the good guy grated, and there were moments when the book just didn’t move forward for me. I normally love Naomi Novik’s writing, but this one wasn’t my book.

A Deadly Education has starred reviews from BookPage and Publishers Weekly.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade

Independently Published Spotlight: Intermediate and Middle Grade

One thing I did do this year was make progress on my TBR, and concentrated on those indie and small press submissions I’ve received over the last few years. Here are two novels I’ve read and want to share. I’ll be reading and reviewing more, whittling down that TBR, into next year, so if you’ve asked me to review a book of yours and I haven’t gotten to it yet, please be patient!

Gregory and the Grimbockle, by Melanie Schubert/Illustrated by Abigail Kraft, Book Soundtrack by Jared Kraft (Nov. 2017, New Wrinkle Publishing), $14.94, ISBN: 978-0991110933

Ages 8-11

Gregory is a 10-year old with a giant mole beneath his nose. The creepy neighbor lady always tries to rip it off his face, but when she finally manages to snag a bit of it, Gregory discovers a BIG surprise: the mole is a hiding place and portal into our world for a tiny creature called a Grimbockle. The Grimbockle belongs to a group of creatures called Bockles, and they oversee Exoodles, the invisible threads that connect humans to one another. When affections and feelings are loving and strong, the threads are strong, but when those threads fray or break, they can cause heartbreak and strife. Gregory accompanies the Grimbockle on his nightly rounds and finds himself on an adventure as he attempts to reconnect exoodles and relationships. The story is a nice statement on how our feelings affect those around us and how we are connected by our relationships and emotions. The storytelling moves at a decent pace and the characters are cute; black and white illustrations throughout keep the reader’s interest. A good additional middle grader/intermediate book.

 

Whiz Bang and Amelia the Adventure Bear: The Jade Dragon, by Forrest Helvie and Michelle Lodge, (Oct. 2016, Independently Published), $1.99, Kindle ASIN: B01MDP3D3M

Ages 7-10

A quick read, this 31-page adventure is about Whiz Bang, a robot, and his friend Amelia, a bear. They’re martial arts students who have to learn that self-control, discipline, and the ability to show respect are the most important skills to learn in their quest to progress through their belts. Their sensei uses the story of a former student and the school’s mascot, a jade dragon, to communicate his message. There’s one other book in the series and another forthcoming; to get the Whiz Bang and Amelia newsletter and find out more about the books, visit the Whiz Bang and Amelia webpage.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Middle School, Non-fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

I’m back with more graphic novels!

Hi all! I gave myself a mental health break for the holidays. I didn’t get anything done around my home, as I’d hoped, but I did take a break, knit, and read for a bit, and it was nice. I hope you all had warm and happy holidays, and are safe and well. Let’s finish this year strong and look forward to a better 2021.

In the meantime, I’ve got some graphic novels to crow about.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald/Illustrated by K. Woodman-Maynard, (Jan. 2021, Candlewick Press), $24.99, ISBN: 9781536213010

Ages 12+

The Great Gatsby is getting lots of graphic novel love lately; Fred Forham’s vision was a 2020 CYBILS graphic novel nominee. K. Woodman-Maynard’s envisioning of the Fitzgerald classic is much more surreal, with dreamlike watercolors and narration blended into the background: Nick’s words wander around rugs and through lightbulbs, run over sidewalks, and curl into cigarette smoke. The story of Jazz Age love and murder feels like a series of beautiful watercolors, but a large chunk of the story is missing, making this hard to follow for readers who haven’t read the original story. In her author’s note, Woodman-Maynard even states that she was excited by the metaphors in the story, and it was not her intent to be “an exact literal interpretation of the novel”. As a surrealistic exploration and companion to the original, Woodman-Maynard’s book certainly provides a compelling look. Get a look at a chapter excerpt here, thanks to publisher Candlewick.

 

Beetle & The Hollowbones, by Aliza Layne, (Aug. 2020, Atheneum Books for Young Readers), $21.99, ISBN: 9781534441538

Ages 9-13

First, I have to make a huge apology here: I was invited to a blog tour for Beetle back in August, which also happened to be a point where things were falling apart here, and I blew the date. I am still embarrassed and mortified, because I really work to keep to things like that. So I hope this post makes up, in some way, for the oversight. That said, Beetle & Hollowbones is adorable! A homeschooled goblin-witch named Bettle befriends Blob Ghost, a blobby ghost that inhabits space at the local mall in the town of ‘Allows. Blob Ghost – or, BG, as Beetle calls them – is relegated to the mall, so Beetle happily visits, and is sad when she has to leave. Beetle’s old friend Kat shows up for a sorcery apprenticeship with her intimidating Aunt Hollowbone, and Beetle is fascinated: Kat’s cool, she’s social media famous, chic, and great at magic, to boot. The two start spending time together, to BG’s disappointment, but when Aunt Hollowbone’s awful plan to raze the mall becomes public news, Beetle realizes she has to save BG and find a way to release the mall’s hold on them.

A story about friendship, doing the right thing, and standing up for yourself, Beetle & The Hollowbone’s illustrations are beautiful and vibrant, with adorably creepy creatures that I could easily envision in an animated series. This is the kind of story my library kids love: warmth, family, and friendship, with some magic to infuse the tale.

Beetle and the Hollowbones has starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist. It is also a CYBILS 2020 Graphic Novels nominee.

 

Galileo! Galileo!, by Holly Trechter & Jane Donovan, (Aug. 2020, Sky Candle Press), $13.99, ISBN: 978-1939360083

Ages 8-13

Narrated by the historical Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, Galileo! Galileo! is the story of NASA’s mission to Jupiter. We get a brief recap of Galileo’s life, for an understanding of why the mission bore his name; the narrative then moves into a comprehensive, illustrated lesson on the history of aeronautics and space missions. Holly Trechter’s time as a NASA Ames History Archives intern provides great insights, including a peek at Carl Sagan’s letter-writing campaign that saved the Galileo after budget cuts by the Reagan administration. Holly Trechter and Jane Donovan make Galileo Galilei a cartoony, amiable character who explains the science and politics of space travel in friendly, understandable terms, and the artwork is colorful and includes diagrams, maps, and colorful illustrations. Back matter includes discussion questions. Give this to your Science Comics and History Comics readers for sure. Galileo! Galileo! is a CYBILS 2020 Graphic Novels nominee.

 

Bear, by Ben Queen & Joe Todd-Stanton, (Aug. 2020, Archaia), $24.99, ISBN: 978-1684155316

Ages 7-12

This is another CYBILS 2020 Graphic Novels nominee that I really enjoyed. An original graphic novel from Pixar writer Ben Queen and illustrator Joe Todd-Stanton and published by BOOM! imprint, Archaia, Bear is the story of the relationship between a guide dog and his human. Bear is service dog who lives with Patrick, the blind man he takes care of. Bear and Patrick are happily living together, but when Bear suddenly loses his vision; he worries that he’s lost his purpose. He gets separated from Patrick while trying to get advice from a raccoon, on getting his vision back, and ends up on a grand adventure where he’ll meet bears, run through the streets and subways in Manhattan, and try to find his way back to Ulster Country. Bear is gentle and noble; he will do anything for Patrick, and in turn, Patrick will stop at nothing to find Bear. I loved the relationship between these two, and I thoroughly enjoyed the raccoons, largely played for comic relief, and Stone, the bear who takes it upon himself to keep Bear safe on his travels. The story is also a positive portrayal of a blind character: Patrick repairs vending machines, is a passionate reader and “a decent athlete” who applies for a guide dog in order to pick up more machines on his service route; he hears that having a guide dog will allow him to travel faster than walking with a cane.  The book also gently corrects ableist language; when Patrick mentions having a “seeing eye dog”, the trainer responds that they are called “guide dogs”.

Beautifully illustrated with gentle colors and empathetic characters, Bear will make my graphic novel  shelves when we reopen. Until then, I’ve handed this one to my Kiddo. Results to come.

 

Twins, by Varian Johnson/Illustrated by Shannon Wright, (Oct. 2020, Graphix), $12.99, ISBN: 978-1338236132

Ages 8-12

Twin sisters Maureen and Francine share a room and a life, but starting sixth grade is BIG. Francine, the more extroverted, can’t wait for the chance to start meeting new people and having new experiences, but Maureen is more introverted, more hesitant. She misses dressing like her twin, and she’s really not thrilled that she has no classes with her; when Francine starts calling herself “Fran”, Maureen doesn’t know who this alien who took off with her sister is! Maureen is also intimidated by her school’s Cadet Corp, especially her instructor, Master Sergeant Lucinda Fields. Maureen, the straight-A student, is frustrated by her difficulty in getting marching in formation down and the overwhelming experience of middle school, so discovering that Francine and their parents were behind the decision to put the girls in separate classes AND enroll Maureen in Cadet Corp makes her take action: she decides to run against her sister in the race for Class President. A story of growing up and facing adolescence with all its challenges, Twins features main characters of color in a strong family and a relatable story that anyone with siblings – and close friends – will recognize. It’s hard enough growing apart from one’s best friend, but what happens when that best friend is your sister – and a person you share a friendship group with? I loved the story, the relationship between the sisters and the relationship between family members, the realistic frustration of sharing friends when you have a falling-out, and the challenges of taking on new experiences. Give to your Varian Johnson readers and your graphic novel fans that loved the Invisible Emmie, Becoming Brianna, New Kid, Class Act, and the Nat Enough books.

Twins has starred reviews from The Horn Book, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. Twins is also a CYBILS 2020 Graphic Novels nominee. See the full list of honors at Varian Johnson’s webpage.

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

Creepy, good fun: Embassy of the Dead

Embassy of the Dead, by Will Mabbit/Illustrated by Taryn Knight, (Sept. 2020, Walker Books US), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536210477

Ages 8-12

Jake Green is a pretty ordinary kid who becomes pretty extraordinary when he accepts a box from a mysterious stranger. The box contains a severed finger, and if that’s not freaky enough on its own, the act of opening the box – hey, it didn’t come with instructions – has put Jake on a very dangerous radar: a grim reaper is after him, intent on sending him into the Eternal Void. But it’s not entirely Jake’s fault: Stiffkey, a ghostly undertaker, gave Jake the box! But he can’t be entirely at fault, right? Jake used the secret phrase: “Good morning”. But Stiffkey’s in danger of getting thrown into the Void, too, so he appears to help Jake get the Reaper off his trail – which is how Jake discovers he has a talent for ghosts, and may be of some help to the mysterious Embassy, who has enough problems of their own. Jake has a habit of collecting ghosts, and his retinue expands to include a ghostly girl trapped by her trophy and a sweet pet fox, all of whom stand ready to help save the day.

Embassy of the Dead is the first in a new series, and it’s got adventure, laugh-out-loud moments, and some thoughtful, moving moments that readers will love. There are some creepy moments, but they’re fun, with chills and giggles, rather than outright fear or terror. The characters are each extraordinary in their remarkably ordinary-ness, which is the appeal of a good adventure. Graveyard Book fans will love this one. Black and white illustrations throughout add to the gothic, quirky mood of the story. I can’t wait to see what Jake gets himself into next. This is just the type of spooky story my library kids love. I can’t wait to get it to them when we open back up… but in the meantime, I’ll crow about it here, and to the kids in the community I’m subbing at for now.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

Amazing Middle Grade!

In the interest of holiday season posting: need gifts for the kid who has every video game, or a bookworm who has read everything, and needs something new? Allow me to be your guide through a few fantastic middle grade reads I’ve just finished.

Malcolm and Me, by Robin Farmer, (Nov. 2020, SparkPress), $16.95, ISBN: 9781684630837

Ages 10-14

Where do I even start with Malcolm and Me? This book blew my mind in the best way possible. It’s 1973, and 13-year-old Roberta has a lot of feelings. She’s reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and discussing Black history and Black Power with her father at home, and clashing with a racist nun at her Philadelphia Catholic school. When she’s sent home after a blowup with Sister Elizabeth, she deep dives into the Autobiography, examining her own feelings and frustrations through Malcolm X’s lenses. Already a writer, she begins journaling her verse and diary entries, guided by Malcolm, and it gives her the strength she needs as her home life and school life begin unraveling.

There is such power in this book and in the characters. Roberta emerges as an incredible heroine; a self-aware 13-year-old coming of age in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, during Watergate, she questions her own faith in God and in organized religion, in family, and in color. Inspired by an event in the author’s life, Malcolm and Me is essential reading that hits that often hard-to-reach middle school/high school age group. Please put this on school (and adult) reading lists, and talk about this book with your tweens and your teens. Talk this up to your Angie Thomas fans, Nic Stone fans, and – naturally! – Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter. Author Robin Farmer’s author website has more information on the author’s articles, her books, and a link to her blog.

 

The Clockwork Crow, by Catherine Fisher, (Sept. 2020, Walker Books US), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536214918

Ages 9-13

Orphan Seren Rhys thinks she’s being rescued from the orphanage when her mysterious godfather, Captain Jones, sends for her. His country mansion, Plas-y Fran, is just going to be wonderful, Seren knows it! She’ll be the apple of Captain Jones and his wife, Lady Mair’s eyes, have wonderful parties, and play with the couple’s young son, Tomos. She realizes things are very different when she’s picked up at the train station and arrives, late at night, at Plas-y Fran, which looks rundown and all but abandoned; Mrs. Villiers, the cold housekeeper, tells her that the family is in London for the foreseeable future. Seren turns to the mysterious package entrusted to her at the train station and discovers a mechanical crow. Upon assembly, the crow can talk, fly, and complain. A lot. But when Seren learns that Tomos has been taken by fairies, she decides to rescue him and restore life to Plas-y Fran: and the crow will help her do it.

A fun fantasy with a bit of steampunk, which I always enjoy, this is a quick read with adventure and a warm family story at its heart. Seren is the hopeful orphan, and the cantankerous Crow is a great foil, making this a fine buddy comedy. Fairie lore amps up the action and the tension, and adds some dark fantasy and magic to the plot. A good choice for readers who loved the Nevermoor/Morrigan Crow series by Jessica Townsend.

 

The Sisters of Straygarden Place, by Hayley Chewins, (Oct. 2020, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536212273

Ages 10-14

Hayley Chewins is back! Her 2018 novel, The Turnaway Girls, was one of the best books I’d read that year, so I was excited to read her newest, The Sisters of Straygarden Place. The Ballastian Sisters – Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine – have lived in the house by themselves after their parents left seven years before, only a note telling them to “sleep darkly” left behind. The house takes care of their basic needs – food, clothing, shelter – but they cannot leave the house, lest the tall silver grass take them. Winnow grows tired of waiting and ventures outside, leaving 12-year-old Mayhap to take care of their youngest sister, Pavonine, and figure out how to heal 14-year-old Winnow. As Mayhap discovers more about the house and the history of the magic within it, the mystery deepens. Readers will love this gorgeous, dark fantasy written with prose that’s almost lyrical, magical. Hayley Chewins writes like Neil Gaiman, where the words just caress you, wrap themselves around you, and when you’re fully under their spell, tell you stories that will leave you wondering. In a world where dogs crawl into your mind to help you sleep and the grass tempts you to come outside so it can take you away, The Sisters of Straygarden Place is truly magical reading.

The Sisters of Straygarden Place is is one of Kirkus’s Best MG Fantasy & SF Books of 2020.