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 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 Middle School, Non-Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

Threads of Peace and how two nonviolent activists changed the world

Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Changed the World, by Uma Krishnaswami, (Aug. 2021, Atheneum/Caitylyn Dlouhy Books), $19.99, ISBN: 9781481416788

Ages 9-14

Two activists who chose peace and nonviolence; two activists whose lives were cut short by violence. As we forge ahead in this time of social unrest and protest, Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Changed the World emerges as a book for tweens and young teens to turn to as they try to make sense of what they see on the news. Award-winning author Uma Krishnaswami profiles Gandhi and Dr. King, their paths to resistance and social justice, and their continuing influence on the world stage and nonviolence movements. Uma Krishnaswami writes about the threads that join Gandhi and Dr. King – and through them, all of us – together in a desire for social justice and freedom for all, even as their experiences – like ours – may travel different paths. Ms. Krishnaswami’s writing infuses her factual writing with emotion and empathy, investing readers in her subjects and in their mission. Black and white and color photos and colorful callout quotes and fact boxes throughout reach all interest levels. Back matter includes an author’s note, timeline of events in both Gandhi’s and Dr. King’s lives, and a glossary of terms. A bibliography, sources, and index make this an excellent research resource.

Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Changed the World has starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. Display and booktalk to your middle school/early high schoolers along with Todd Hasak-Lowy’s We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World and Protest! : How People Have Come Together to Change the World by Emily Haworth-Booth and Alice Haworth-Booth. Unleashing Readers has some suggested questions for discussion.

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 Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

Hideaway is an excellent follow-up to Pam Smy’s Thornhill

The Hideaway, by Pam Smy, (Oct. 2021, Pavilion), $19.95, ISBN: 9781843654797

Ages 9-13

Pam Smy follows up her wonderfully chilling novel Thornhill (2017) with The Hideaway, which looks at themes of abuse, toxic masculinity, families, and forgiveness. Billy is a 13-year-old who cannot live in his home any longer. He feels guilty about leaving his mother to her abusive boyfriend, Jeff, but he is unable to bear hearing him hurt her and unable to live with this man any longer. He sneaks out one night and takes refuge in a small hideaway at a local cemetery, where he meets an old man who’s cleaning up the cemetery for an upcoming special event. The old man promises to keep Billy’s presence a secret for a couple of days while Billy works things out, in exchange for some help in cleaning up. Meanwhile, at Billy’s home, as his mother searches for Billy, she also finds the courage to reach out and ask for help – something she’d had drummed out of her until now.

Pam Smy breathes incredible life into her characters. Grace, Billy’s mother, is a strong, smart woman who learns to take back her power, discovering that asking for help is the first step in recovering that power. Billy is conflicted, a victim of trauma who escapes for his own sake, but struggles with the guilt of leaving his mother behind. Supporting characters steer the two toward good decisions, never forcing either into actions they aren’t ready to take. Billy addresses toxic masculinity by throwing off Jeff’s verbal barbs about “manning up”, and takes action when he sees a potential assault in the cemetery one night. Grace remembers that she had the strength to go it alone with Billy once before, and is fully prepared to do it again. Pam Smy creates moody, ethereal landscapes with her black and grey illustrations. The event that Billy and the old man prepared for unfolds over several pages of pure illustration, which will grab reader’s hearts and hold on, staying with them long after they’ve closed the book for good.

The Hideaway is just a wonderful story; a visceral family story with a touch of the magical. See more of Pam Smy’s illustration work at her website. Don’t miss her Instagram, either.

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

‘Tis the season for great graphic novel reading!

I know, that was awful, but trying to find new graphic novel headlines is tough! With that, let the games begin.

 

Barb the Last Berzerker, by Dan Abso & Jason Patterson, (Sept. 2021, Simon & Schuster), $13.99, ISBN: 9781534485716

Ages 8-12

A young Berzerker warrior is on a mission to save her fellow warriors after a villain named Witch Head takes them captive. With the help of a Yeti named Pork Chop, and wielding the Shadow Blade that she took from Witch Head, Barb goes on a journey that changes her thinking: where she once fought monsters, she’ll learn that monsters – including sausage-eating yetis – aren’t all bad, and not all humans are good. She meets snot goblins, vampire goats, and a giant who’s sensitive about his foot odor while calling on the power of the Shadow Blade to help her in battle. But the Shadow Blade’s power is not something to be used lightly, and Barb may find that relying on it too much could hurt more than it could help. The first in a new series, Barb is chaotic and hilarious, with gross-out jokes and positive messages about independence and unlearning endemic bias. Readers will cheer for Barb and Pork Chop, who are a buddy movie waiting to happen. Dan & Jason are the creators behind the younger readers’ series Blue, Barry, & Pancakes; visit their website to find out more about their graphic novels.

Barb the Last Berzerker has a starred review from Kirkus. It hasn’t been nominated for a CYBILS yet, hint hint!

 

Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero, by E. Lockhart/Illustrated by Manuel Preitano, (Sept. 2021, DC Comics), $16.99, ISBN: 9781401293222

Ages 13+

Yet another great DC YA graphic novel, this time from award-winning author and National Book Award Finalist, E. Lockhart. Willow Zimmerman is a 16-year-old Jewish teen activist, living in the Down River section of Gotham. It’s a run-down neighborhood and she’s tired of it being overlooked; she takes to the streets in protest when she’s not at school or at home, caring for her mother, who’s going through treatment for cancer. She works part-time in an animal shelter and feeds her friend, a stray Great Dane she’s named Leibowitz, on the side. When E. Nigma – her mom’s estranged friend – gets in touch with Willow, she learns that he’s cleaned himself up and is a successful real estate entrepreneur who runs an underground gambling promotion on the side, and he wants to give her a job. Faced with mounting bills and the fear of eviction, Willow accepts and starts earning more money than she could have ever imagined. When she and Leibowitz are attacked by Killer Croc, who has a grudge to settle with Nigma, the two realize that they can understand one another – where other people hear assorted growls and barks, Willow hears Leibowitz talking! The two decide to become a superteam and do their part to clean up Gotham: even if it means playing double agents to Nigma, aka The Riddler, and Pamela Isley, who’s helping Nigma out as her alter ego, Poison Ivy. I love the origin stories DC’s YA authors have been putting out, and their new heroes are go good, I can’t help but hope they’ll eventually show up in the big titles. Willow is a smart, likable heroine faced with big, real-world issues: lack of healthcare, a single, ailing parent, and the aggravation of living in a neighborhood that’s ignored by all but real estate developers who will gentrify for cheap and push the incumbent citizens out. She combats this first by taking it to the streets; when that isn’t working fast enough, she learns to play both sides of the game. Leibowitz is her steadfast sidekick with a funny, sly sense of humor (once we can hear him talk), and it’s great to see some Gotham familiar faces (including a surprise cameo) and a new spin on The Riddler. All around, a solid hit from DC yet again.

Whistle has not yet been nominated for a CYBILS yet – you know what to do.

 

 

Friends Forever, by Shannon Hale/Illustrated by LeUyenPham, (Aug. 2021, First Second), $12.99, ISBN: 9781250317568

Ages 9-13

The third installment in Shannon Hale’s autobiographical “Friends” series sees Shannon in eighth grade and dealing with anxiety over her looks, her grades, and her popularity. She sees her friends dating, but worries that no one wants to date her. She wants eighth grade to be her perfect year, but she just can’t seem to be happy. She becomes increasingly anxious, with OCD behaviors starting to creep into her daily life. A solidly relatable, realistic picture of the big emotions and worries facing kids as they become teens, Shannon’s adolescence in the 1980s is still every bit as relevant to tweens and teens today; with mental health issues gaining more mainstream attention today, Friends Forever can spark important conversations about the pressures tweens and teens face and coping mechanisms that can help. Friends Forever is about change and finding the courage to accept and love yourself. Beautifully illustrated, and with back matter that includes an author’s note from Shannon Hale that addresses mental health, actual school photos, a peek at LeUyen Pham’s sketchbook, and notes from Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham to one another, just like real friends share. Download a free activity kit with discussion questions and a Readers Theater script, and find activities for all three Friends books at the Real Friends website.

Friends Forever is a first round Graphic Novels CYBILS nominee.

More to come!

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Middle School, Teen, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

A graphic novel on every shelf!

More graphic novels are hitting shelves in time for school, and that makes me happy! For me, it’s like seeing an endorsement that graphic novels are finally being seen as “real” reading! (I mean, you knew it, I knew it, lots of folx knew it, but still…) Let’s see what we’ve got for each age group, coming right up.

We Have a Playdate, by Frank Dormer, (Aug. 2021, Harry N. Abrams), $12.99, ISBN: 9781419752735

Ages 6-10

This intermediate graphic novel is perfect for all your Narwhal and Jelly and Blue, Barry, and Pancakes fans. Tuna the Narwhal, Margo the Bird, and Noodle the Snake have a playdate at the park, where they meet a hostile robot and a bear named Ralph, who quickly joins their playgroup. The story unfolds in four chapters that takes readers – and the group of friends – to each area of the playground: The Slide, The Swings, The Monkey Bars, and The SeeSaw, and the action is both hilarious and written with an eye to being a good playground friend. There’s playful language, like “fizzled their neenee bopper” or “zizzled my zipzoo” for playground injuries, and laugh-out-loud moments when the group tries to figure out ways to “help” one another, like scaring Ralph off the slide to get him to go down, or tying Noodle onto the swing to help them stay on. Cartoon artwork and colorful panels will make this a big favorite with you intermediate and emerging readers.

Visit Frank Dormer’s webpage and see more of his work, including the 10-foot monsters he drew to guard New Haven’s library in 2015!

 

 

 
Hooky, by Míriam Bonastre Tur, (Sept. 2021, Etch/Clarion Books), $12.99, ISBN: 9780358468295
 
Ages 8-12
 
I’m always happy when an online comic makes it to print. Many of my library kids only have computer access here at the library, so print comics and graphic novels are the way to reach them best (also, they’re here to do homework and play Minecraft and Roblox; reading comics online isn’t always on their radar). Hooky is a compiled comic from WEBTOON, and follows twin siblings Dani and Dorian, who’ve missed the bus to magic school (no Whomping Willow here) and don’t know the way there. Looks like they’re going to miss that first year of school – and wow, will their parents be upset! They decide to search for a mentor, which leads to a score of amusing situations; cleaning up the Huntsman to “steal Snow White’s heart” by making her fall in love with him is just the tip of the iceberg. But there’s trouble ahead, and the twins need to find a way to clear their names and heal their kingdom when more complicated challenges arise.
 
Illustrated in manga style, this is going to be big with my middle graders and middle schoolers. They’re manga fans, and finding graphic novels incorporating manga artwork is a great way to get them to stretch their reading interests and introduce them to new titles. Plus, it’s fantasy, with some similar tropes, like magic twins, magic school, and bringing unity to a divided society; all familiar fantasy scenarios that readers will feel comfortable setting down with. The artwork has some truly outstanding moments, like Dorian standing atop books as he works in his aunt’s library; the relationship between the siblings is relatable as it moves from affectionate to teasing to bickering and back again. This release of Hooky includes additional content you won’t find on the WebToon page, making it even more attractive to readers. Give this one a look.
 
 

 

Other Boys, by Damian Alexander, (Sept. 2021, First Second), $21.99, ISBN: 9781250222824
 
Ages 10-14
 
An autobiographical middle school graphic novel about being the new kid, crushes, and coming out, Other Boys absolutely needs space in your graphic novel memoir sections. Damian decides that he’s not going to speak when he enters seventh grade. He’s the new kid, and was bullied at his last school, so it’s just easier to not speak at all, he figures. But it doesn’t work, because Damian isn’t like other boys in his school: he lives with his grandparents; his mom is dead and his father isn’t in the picture, and his family is low-income. Plus, Damian doesn’t like a lot of things that other boys in his school like: he likes flowers in his hair; he’d rather play with Barbie than with G.I. Joe, acting out stories rather than playing fighting games. Damian doesn’t feel like he fits in as a boy or a girl, and now… he’s got a crush on another boy.
 
Other Boys is a middle school story along the lines of Mike Curato’s Flamer and Jarrett Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo. It draws you in with first person storytelling and a narrator that you want to befriend; it places you next to Damian in the narrative, walking with him and seeing his story unfold in front of you. Put this on your shelves – there are kids who need this book.
 

Posted in Graphic Novels, Middle School, Teen, Tween Reads

Music linking generations: Lucy in the Sky

Lucy in the Sky, by Kiara Brinkman and Sean Chiki, (July 2021, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781626727205

Ages 10 to 14
A girl connects to her father through music and forms a band, inspired by The Beatles. Lucy is a seventh grader who’s having a rough time: she feels like her single dad isn’t enjoying his life enough; her globe-hopping photographer mom isn’t around, and her grandmother is undergoing chemotherapy. Things change when she discovers a box of her dad’s old albums, particularly his Beatles records. They open up a new world to her, a world she can escape to when the real world is too much. Inspired to create music, she and her friends form Strawberry Jam, but – just like The Beatles – the collaborations aren’t always smooth. Relationships are hard, as beautifully communicated here. Lucy is conflicted about her relationships with her friends, and her place within her friend group. She has mixed feelings about her mother, and her anger and grief over her grandmother’s battle with cancer informs most of the story. There’s music history, great character development, and a heroine you want to root for here, making this a great graphic novel to give to tweens and early teens, who will relate to the frustrating, sometimes frightening, changes that come with the territory.