More graphic novels to talk about, this time, real-life stories. Some are realistic fiction, some are inspired by moments in the author’s life. All are great reading!
Since I’ve been talking about Summer Reading and book bundles, I thought I’d start making some fun suggestions. For anyone doing the Tails and Tales theme, Thundercluck: Chicken of Thor by Paul Tillery IV and Meg Wittwer and the Zeus the Mighty series from Crispin Boyer fit the bill and have the shared mythological theme, too!
The second Thundercluck adventure is just as much fun as the first. Thundercluck and Brunhilde, the Valkyrie, find themselves on the outs with Odin, and head to Midgard (that’s us, Earth!) to match wits against three foes. Gorman the angry skull is back with two new fiends: Medda, a shape-shifting enchantress, and War-Tog, a warthog warrior that is too easily led into poor decisions. Thundercluck is a story of friendship being tested, and family secrets learned, but at its heart, it’s a story of learning to admit one’s mistakes. Black and white illustrations and a quickly-moving story makes this an excellent Summer Reading choice; you don’t need to have read the first book to jump on board, but the kids will want to.
Summer Reading ideas: Book bundle with the first Thundercluck and printables from the Thundercluck website; book bundle with Zeus the Mighty for a Tails and Tales spin on mythology; display with other mythology chapter books, like Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s Thunder Girls series. Don’t forget to have reference resources, like National Geographic’s Everything Mythology, available!
The first book in another fun series from National Geographic Kids and their fiction imprint, Under the Stars. Zeus the Mighty is a hamster who lives in Mount Olympus Pet Center with a variety of rescued animals, and heroines. Artie – short for Artemis, naturally – is the human the runs the Center and names her favorite rescues after Greek mythological heroes. The group all listen to a podcast, Greeking Out, that tells the stories of the Greek gods, but the animals take the stories to heart. Zeus believes he rules Mount Olympus, putting him at odds with Poseidon, the puffer fish who won’t give up control of his watery Atlantis and bristles at Zeus’s attempts to boss him around. Their first adventure is a quest for the Golden Fleas: a fun retelling of the tale of Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece. The storytelling is light, there are cute black and white illustrations throughout, and a section on “The Truth Behind the Fiction” adds the perfect amount of nonfiction context to the story. Consider adding this to your shelves.
Summer Reading Ideas: Bundle with the second book in the series, The Maze of the Menacing Minotaur (the third book is out in August!) and add some printables from the Zeus the Mighty website. Display with other Greek mythology-flavored fiction, like Joan Holub and Suzanne William’s Goddess Girls and the Heroes in Training series, by Joan Holub, Suzanne Williams, and Tracey West. National Geographic has a great Weird But True book on Greek Mythology, too.
Esme Silver is a 15-year-old mourning her mother, Ariane, who disappeared when Esme was 8. Her father has just remarried, despite Esme’s objection (at the wedding!). Her father takes his new bride away on their honeymoon, leaving Esme under the eye of her stepmother’s sister; not thrilled with that situation, Esme, determined to use the time to learn more about her mother’s disappearance, finds her way to a magical underwater world, where she learns more about her mother and the secret part of her life she hadn’t shared with Esme. Esme’s Wish is geared toward teens, but is more accessible to upper middle grade-middle school students. There is a lot of fantasy world-building, including dragons and mysterious pasts, a mythical history, and new friends from other lands, but sometimes gets mired in itself rather than moving forward. Overall, though, it’s a solid fantasy book, with interesting characters who aren’t merely plot devices. The world-building will appeal to fantasy readers – there are dragons! – and Esme is a likable character that kids can relate to at her heart: a girl who’s lost a parent, and coping with her remaining parent remarrying. The girl who’s considered an outsider by her town, merely because of who her mother was. A girl trying to find out why. A good additional purchase for collections where you have big fantasy readers.
The second book in the trilogy, Esme’s Gift, was published in in 2019. Visit author Elizabeth Foster’s webpage to learn more about the books and view trailers for each.
Lori Block loves being on her school basketball team, even if she and her friends are relegated to playing “the fifth quarter” – the extra period where the not-so-good kids play and the points don’t count. Determined to get better, she practices and takes part in different basketball camps, but she’s got to learn how to finesse her social interactions: she can come off as brusque or downright mean to players she doesn’t think match her own drive to succeed. Meanwhile, her mom’s considering running for local office, taking more time away from Lori. Can Lori develop her own self-confidence, learn to navigate everyday social situations, and up her basketball game?
The Fifth Quarter is a good sports story and a good school story. Lori is a relatable character; she’s a fourth grader dealing with some big feelings: she’s got two younger siblings constantly clamoring for her parents’ attention; she gets frustrated by friends who don’t share her consuming passion for basketball, and may even be slightly threatened when a new friend shows up to play what she may feel is “her” sport. When her mom decides to run for public office, it adds another layer of frustration and stress to Lori’s life; it’s even more competition for her mother’s time, helping her mom campaign will take time away from basketball practice, AND since her mother is running against a school friend’s father, she’s worried that it will affect her friendship. That’s a lot for a fourth grader! Her parents are supportive and encouraging, and her friends stand firm and call Lori out when they see her being unreasonable, letting readers know that it’s okay to feel these things, but not okay to act negatively on those feelings. Readers will see themselves in Lori, and hopefully, her friends, too. A smart book that respects its readers, with artwork that realistic fiction graphic novel readers will recognize and enjoy, The Fifth Quarter is good reading for all graphic novel/realistic fiction readers. Suggest books like Pippa Park Raises Her Game, by Erin Yun, Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl, Cathy Johnson’s The Breakaways, and Jason Reynolds’s Track series.
I continue my quest to read down my TBR and feature great backlist for your readers advisory and your booklists. This time out, I’ve got another Nancy Viau book, Beauty and Bernice. Twelve-year-old Bernice Baransky is a skater girl. She’s a grunge-loving whiz on a skateboard, on the verge of middle school, and she’s got a crush on fellow skater Wyatt – not that she can do anything other than nod when he calls her “Dude”. Enter Odelia, a new transplant to the neighborhood, who appears dressed in princess gowns and decides to make Bernice her new best friend and project. She’s determined to teach Bernice her guide to the “Social Graces”, with lessons on hygiene, posture, and manners, and Bernice reluctantly goes along for the ride, teaching Odelia that she can let loose a little, herself. Both spend a summer learning about one another while volunteering with Smile Academy, a summer camp for children with Down syndrome. A kind story that brings a little everyday magic to realistic fiction, this has some surprises that will make readers smile. The subplot with the girls volunteering – and encouraging their friends to help – with the Smile Academy gives nice depth to the characters and allows for Bernice’s character growth. If you have skater fans, sell the detailed discussions on skateboarding.
Samantha Hansen is a 10-year-old fourth grader with a love for bugs, especially bees! When she discovers that the local apiary owner is considering selling his bee farm, she launches into action, assembling her classmates to drop some knowledge on the importance of bees to her community, and encourage everyone to help save the apiary. She’s also dealing with some big feelings: she is learning to keep her temper under control, which is really difficult, because her best friend, Kelli, is hanging out with another girl lately, and she’s got big feelings to contend with. This is the second Samantha Hansen book; the first, Samantha Hansen has Rocks in Her Head (2008), introduced us to Samantha, her temper, and her coping mechanisms. It’s a good book for STEM/STEAM readers, with information about bees and apiaries; it’s a good family story that continues the exploration of loss within a family, and working through feelings in a positive way. Black and white illustrations introduce the chapter heads, and colorful endpapers show bee-friendly flowers, a honeycomb, and different types of bees. A good book club choice because there’s so much covered in this story, you can also use this Bee Hotel activity from Vivify as an end of book activity.
Wenonah is a young Ojibwe girl from northern Wisconsin. She seeks out her great-grandfather to talk. She’s upset; the chimookomaan school – the white school – she’s forced to attend has cut her hair; forbid her from speaking her language; and won’t even let her use her real name, telling her that she must now refer to herself as Evelyn. Set in the early 1900s, during the period where Native American children endured abusive forced assimilation efforts that attempted to erase Native history, Remembering Green is a powerful story of remembering. Wenonah’s great-grandfather has wisdom in his words as he speaks about fear of the unknown, which motivated the U.S. government’s actions, and he leads Wenonah on a walk through nature, reminding her to “remember the green”: remember her people, remember their connection to the land, and remember who she is. A glossary and a word on the Indian residential schools make up the back matter. A strong supplemental text on a dark period in U.S. history, Remembering Green is a good addition to collections but should not be considered an #OWnVoices work. The artwork is bright, with natural greens and browns dominating the scenery. Wenonah and her grandfather have beautifully expressive faces, with their eyes communicating volumes.
Remembering Green is part of Eifrig Publishing’s Tales of Herstory series, a series of books that feature different American historical periods from girls’ perspectives. The book was a successful Kickstarter and has been reviewed by School Library Journal.
Idlewood Manor was a home with a storied history, but has been empty for decades, until recently. The current owner has opened the doors, and a group of guests is coming to stay for a weekend; among them, Charlie, a math whiz who won the trip for his family, and his sister, Anna, who is far less scholastic in her pursuits, but that’s because she’s got the entire world to explore, just like her idol, explorer Virginia Maines. Also visiting with her family is Emily, whose historian parents have their own reasons for wanting to visit Idlewood. The three kids separately discover mysterious clues to Idlewood’s history, and the history of those who lived there; they also notice that other guests seem to have a major interest in unlocking the Manor’s secrets. It’s a race to solve Idlewood’s mysteries, but can the three kids work together to solve them in time? Loaded with actual puzzles, ciphers, and riddles, The Explorer’s Code is full of mystery and scandal,with very likable, realistic characters at its core. A note about ciphers at the end invites readers to test their own coding mettle. The relationships are spot-on, with the ups and downs experienced by Anna and Charlie, who were close when they were younger, but have drifted apart in recent years, and Emily, desperate to make her parents proud of her. Anna and Emily rush into things for different reasons: Anna, because she’s caught up in the spirit of curiosity and adventure; Emily, because she feels like she’s racing against the clock. Charlie is slow and deliberate, thinking things through, which clashes with his sister’s impulsive wandering. Together, these qualities make them stronger – something they have to work on over the course of the story. Perfect for readers who enjoyed Ben Guterson’s Winterhouse, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman’s Book Scavenger series, and of course, Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.