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.

 

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

Middle Grade SF Mystery: The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, by Sheela Chari, (Oct. 2020, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781536209563

Ages 9-13

Mars Patel is a middle schooler with a penchant for getting in trouble. He and his friend, Aurora, love pranks and practical jokes that land them in detention, but when Aurora disappears – followed by his friend, Jonas – Mars is determined to find out what happened. All signs are pointing toward Oliver Pruitt, a tech genius (think Elon Musk) and Mars’s hero. Pruitt runs an elite school for the best and brightest; a school that Mars’s own school tests for every year, and he has a podcast that seems to be dropping hints tailor-made for Mars. Mars and his group of friends – Toothpick, JP, and Caddie – start digging and investigating, which puts them on Pruitt’s radar, and that’s when the kids learn that Oliver Pruitt may not be the benevolent mentor everyone thinks he is. Based on an award-winning podcast, this is the first in a series that mixes mystery, sci-fi, and a little touch of the paranormal.

There is so much going on in this book that I didn’t want it to end! Mars and his friends are a great group of kids; well-written and fully realized on the page. There’s a lot happening that we don’t know about in this first volume: what does Mars’s mom do for a living, for starters? All roads in this book lead to Oliver Pruitt. There’s science, conspiracy theories, and, at its heart, an engrossing character-driven story told in narrative, e-mails, and text messages. The end will leave you impatiently waiting for the next volume, and I’ve just subscribed to the podcast to learn more. A definite win for bookshelves and readers.

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel has a starred review from School Library Journal. You can read a sample and get a free, downloadable discussion guide at Candlewick’s website.

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

Books from Quarantine: BenBee and the Teacher Griefer

BenBee and the Teacher Griefer (The Kids Under the Stairs #1), by KA Holt, (Sept. 2020, Chronicle Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781452182513

Ages 10-14

KA Holt is just amazing. Her approach to middle grade novels is creative and exciting, keeping readers engaged with verse, throwing scribbled notes and blackout poetry, drawings and doodles in to catch readers where they live. I loved Rhyme Schemer and ended up using blackout poetry in my library at the time to get kids looking at words differently. Now, Holt takes on “divergent” kids and uses Sandbox, a game similar to Minecraft, to reach readers. Four characters: BenBee, BenY, JordanJ, and Javier are four kids in summer school for failing a Florida state standardized test (not-so affectionately referred to as the FART). Their teacher is Ms. J, a librarian-turned-teacher who’s got her own assessment she’s sweating over; she has to turn these “divergent thinkers” into readers that can pass the FART. The book unfolds through each tween’s narration, told in their very individual styles: free verse, stream of consciousness, and art. Ms J isn’t your normal type of teacher, and these kids – “the kids under the stairs”, as that’s the area where their classroom is shoehorned – aren’t your typical students. Each is grappling with bigger issues than the FART, and Ms. J eventually understands that she’s got to meet these kids where they live: namely, Sandbox.

BenBee and the Teacher Griefer has it all: grief and loss, learning disabilities and overbearing parents, a teacher willing to do the unconventional work to reach her students, and… Spartacus. The characters are realistic and relatable, fully realized on the page; the frustration with standardized testing and the “one student size fits all” approach, and the pressure on teachers to cram students into that one-size-fits-all model. The book is voraciously readable and deserves a spot next to the most popular Minecraft adventures and the best new kidlit.

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

A girl copes with emotions in Believe

Believe, by Julie Mathison, (Aug. 2020, Starr Creek Press), $8.99, ISBN: 978-1-7350037-2-6

Ages 8-12

It’s 1980, and 11-year-old Melanie is a girl who knows she’s different. She doesn’t fit in; she occupies herself with games like Jewelry Factory, where she sorts through broken glass to find jewels. At Buckminster Experimental School, where Melanie is a fifth grader, the only thing she can’t seem to do on her own is make friends, so when she meets Sabrina – who reminds her of her favorite Charlie’s Angels character of the same name – she’s thrilled. Sabrina encourages Melanie to stand up against Karen, the school bully, and develop her self-confidence. She even lands the lead in the school play, Peter Pan! But Melanie has a painful secret that she’s keeping: from her dad, from her grandmother, even from herself.

Believe is a look at love, loss, and how we cope. Julie Mathison creates a main character coping with a terrible void – her missing mother – and can’t relate to most of the kids her age, adding to her stress. Julie Mathison skillfully places clues throughout the narrative that readers can use to put together the story within the story. With sensitive characters and a Peter Pan subplot that both ties into the bullying storyline and the overall story, Believe is a good story to give readers who like to really dig into a story.

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

The Derby Daredevils are rolling into action!

The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, by Kit Rosewater/Illustrated by Sophie Escabasse, (March 2020, Amulet Books), $14.99, ISBN: 978-1-4197-4079-4

Ages 9-13

I love that roller derby is back and appealing to middle graders. In recent years, we’ve had Dorothy’s Derby Chronicles from Meghan Dougherty, Jessica Abel’s Trish Trash bringing roller derby to Mars, and Victoria Jamieson’s monster hit graphic novel, Roller Girl. For the teens, DC Comics’s Harley Quinn is taking to the rink, and the girls from Slam! had a derby-centric title. As a kid who always wanted to try derby but was (still) too chicken, this is vicariously glorious.

Enter a new middle grade series, The Derby Daredevils. Kenzie and Shelly are BFFs who love roller derby: Kenzie’s mom is even a derby girl, and Kenzie can’t wait to be old enough to try out for a league. She and Shelly have it all figured out: their superstar moves, their secret handshake, their big rink entrance. Luckily for the girls, their local rink is starting up a junior league and are holding tryouts! But unless they have a team to try out together, the two besties risk being split up if they try out separately. Kenzie’s answer: recruit friends from school and make a team! The have one week to recruit and train a whole team, and Kenzie has a hard time reconciling what’s in her head with reality, which threatens to cause some friction: Shelly and shy classmate Tomoko start becoming friendly, which upsets Kenzie. Isn’t she supposed to be Shelly’s best friend? When Shelly invites Kenzie’s secret crush, Bree, to join the team, Kenzie flips out, but inviting the risk-averse Camila and the way-enthusiastic Jules isn’t helping much. Can the girls get it together in enough time to make the tryouts?

This is SO much fun. There’s so much to work with here: a fully realized cast of characters from different cultural backgrounds, each with a distinct personality. Massive “OMG!” moments involving Kenzie and her crush, Bree, that every middle grader will recognize and empathize with. The relatable feeling of wanting something so bad, that you’ll take that square peg and pound it into a round hole to make it work. And black and white illustrations throughout, to really make readers feel like they’re part of the action! Derby Daredevils is a positive LGBTQ+ series, not only giving us a main character who experiences a crush on another girl, but a transgender dad in a loving marriage. I love the way the author explains Kenzie’s understanding of her dad: “Since her dad was transgender, that meant in some of his stories he looked more like a girl, and in other stories, he looked more like a boy. Actually, he was a boy all along, her dad had explained. But before he told people, they thought he was a girl. In his ‘before’ stories, Kenzie’s dad was like an undercover agent, with a secret only he knew.” It’s a straight-forward, commonsense way to explain gender to kids that respects them and respects the adult. I love it.

There’s action, a little tween romance, and a strong bond of friendship in this book, and I can’t wait for the next book to pub later this year. In the meantime, I’ve dogeared (the horror!) and scribbled all over my ARC, in the hopes of writing a discussion guide for it at some point, so if I get that done, I’ll post it. In the meantime, this is a great choice for a book club and way too much fun for budding (and frustrated middle aged wannabee) derby girls.

The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team has starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist.

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

Last year, Sal and Gabi broke the universe. This year, they’re going to fix it.

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez, (May 2020, Rick Riordan Presents), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1368022835

Ages 8-12

I finally got to read Sal and Gabi Break the Universe for the 2019 Cybils earlier this year, and WOW. I loved it all: the Cuban-American characters and cultural references; the great storytelling and witty dialogue; the wild magic-meets-science; the overwhelming power of family, in all its forms, that comes through the story. When I had the chance to read an advanced reader copy of the sequel, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, I jumped for it!

You had to know, if you read the first book, that Sal and Gabi’s second adventure is even more fun than the first. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that events in Break the Universe have reverberations in Fix the Universe. Sal’s calamity physicist father and Dad: The Final Frontier, one of Gabi’s dads, have been working on a machine that can fix the wormholes Sal creates. This causes some problems, as a rogue alternate Gabi arrives on the scene to warn Sal about. Meanwhile, bully Yasmany has gone missing from school, adding another mystery for the two to solve. American Stepmom, the Gabi-Dads, and Principal Torres are all back, joined by Rogue Gabi and a self-aware bathroom. There’s more non-stop action, hilarious dialogue and more creativity from the Culeco Academy crew as they work to put on a school show in the middle of everything. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Here’s a helpful list of Gabi’s Dads, if you need help keeping up. There’s a great Educator’s Guide for Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, which can serve as a jumping-off point for new questions and discussion topics. If you have been to Rick Riordan’s website, you know there’s a wealth of Riordan resources for his books available; the Read Riordan website is working toward offering the same types of resources for the Rick Riordan Presents books. Keep both of these links in your reference resources folder; they’re good to have. Visit author Carlos Hernandez’s website for links to blog posts and social media.
Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe has a starred review from Kirkus. Don’t miss out!
Posted in Middle Grade, Middle School, Non-Fiction, Non-fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

#SummersCool Math books that your kids will love! Honest!

I do not take Math lightly. It’s one of those subjects I have endless admiration for, and way too much fear of. I encourage my kids, and my library kids, to love Math. Embrace Math, run to Math and dance in a field of flowers with it: you get my drift. It’s too late for me, go… go forth and calculate, my children.

So, when I was invited to review two Math books, I was a little terrified. Cool Math? Geometry is as Easy as Pie? I broke out in a cold sweat just thinking of them. I needn’t have stressed. These books are SO much fun (and tasty, as you’ll see). C’mon, join me for an exploration of Math.

 

Geometry is as Easy as Pie (Pieces of Cake series), by Katie Coppens, (March 2020, Tumblehome, Inc.) $17.95, ISBN: 978-1-943431-52-6

Ages 8-12

I know Katie Coppens as the author of the Acadia Files series (I’ve got a writeup about the latest one coming), but she writes about Math, too! Her first book, Geology is a Piece of Cake is a companion of sorts to her latest, Geometry is as Easy as Pie, and it’s an oh-so-yummy way to learn about angles, polygons, and symmetry. Katie Coppens uses pie to explain geometry, but she goes above and beyond the usual “look at this pie chart and imagine it’s a piece of pie” business. She BAKES PIES to illustrate the seven fundamental concepts of geometry. With direct, parent- and child-friendly explanations (she is an English and Science teacher), she discusses mathematical concepts, including calculating radius and diameter, and – naturally – she devotes time to talk about pi (π). You’ll feel a rumbly in your tumbly as you look through her lovely photographed pies; you may want to get a shopping lists together, too, because she includes recipes. Geometry includes pie-centric review questions and a photo gallery of “Just Desserts”, making this a phenomenal way to spend the summer learning math and baking with your kiddos. Yum.

 

Cool Math: 50 Fantastic Facts for Kids of All Ages, by Tracie Young & Katie Hewett, (March 2020, Pavilion Books), $14.95, ISBN: 978-1-84365-448-3

Ages 11+

Geared more toward middle and high schoolers Cool Math (originally released in the UK as Cool Maths, because they can even make Math sound cooler than we do) is so much more than a rundown of 50 Math facts for kids. Think of the NatGeo digest books on weird stuff, silly stuff, cool facts, and add Math to it. That’s Cool Math. With a cover that looks like chalk board gone wild, and with page backgrounds like chalk board, graph paper, and lined paper, this is the notebook your cool nerdy friend would have put together with all their doodles during the school day. Tips and tricks make your life easier throughout the book, like how to multiply by 9 on your fingers. IT WORKS. I tried it. Remember PEMDAS and FOIL? They almost gave me a nervous breakdown in 8th grade, but they’re here in this book, and they’re not as terrifying any more. Real-life tips, like the Super Speedy Recipe Converter and How to Tip put an end to questions like, “When will I ever need this in my life?”

A smart, witty, companion to keep handy, Cool Math takes a lot of the fear out of Math and makes it… dare I say… pretty cool.

 

Disclaimer: I’ve received copies of each of these books from the publisher/their publicists in exchange for a review.

Posted in Middle School, Non-Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

A little bit of Flower Power goes a long way

Flower Power: The Magic of Nature’s Healers, by Christine Paxmann/Illustrated by Olaf Hajek/Translated by Jane Michael, (Apr. 2020, Prestel), $19.95, ISBN: 978-3-7913-7399-7

Ages 9-14

People have turned to flowers and plants for healing and food since the dawn of time. Flower Power: The Magic of Nature’s Healers presents 17 flowers that we still use for their healing properties, whether they’re available as teas, herbal medicine, or spices. Christine Paxmann begins with an author’s note on the human history of our relationship with flowering plants, from hunter-gatherers who learned through trial and error which were poisonous and which were beneficial (and tasty), to the ancient shamans, who began boiling, crushing, and mixing flowers and seeds together, to today’s consumer, who can walk into just about any store to pick up an herbal tea, cough drop, or spice to add to their food.

Each flower enjoys its own spread here, with an interesting profile discussing history and uses on the left-hand page, and on the right, a painting by illustrator Olaf Hajek. It’s really Olaf Hajek’s illustrations that are the stars of the show here: inspired by folk art, Renaissance paintings, and fairy tale illustrative style, each flower is bright and bold, with a touch of the fantastic and surreal, and immediately draws readers to the pages. These could easily be in a gallery as in a book.

The 17 flowers include names that are readily familiar, like the artichoke, dandelion, pineapple, and ginger; lesser-known appearances introduce readers to such plants as the Mary thistle, Madonna lily, and rowan. Flower Power is a nice reference book for readers interested in learning more about flowering plants and their uses and is a thoughtful add to STEM and nonfiction collections for middle school and high school. Flower Power is translated from the work’s original German.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Middle School

KidLit in Translation: My Life as Lotta – A House Full of Rabbits

My Life as Lotta: A House Full of Rabbits, by Alice Pantermüller/Illustrated by Daniela Kohl, (Oct. 2019, Sterling Publishing), $12.95, ISBN: 9781454936244

Ages 7-10

Lotta is a fifth grader who has younger twin brothers, a mother with a shopping problem, a father who doesn’t seem to like much, and who desperately wants a dog (or a small sheep), but will settle for one of her best friend’s many, many rabbits. Originally published in Germany, My Life as Lotta is similar to Diary of a Wimpy Kid: the book is written as Lotta’s diary entries, is loaded with scribbles and notes, and stars a protagonist who finds herself in the wackiest situations.

Maybe I’ve got Wimpy Kid burnout, but My Life as Lotta didn’t do much for me. Lotta’s parents seem pretty awful – maybe they get funnier with subsequent books? Her best friend, twin brothers, and teacher are all pretty run-of-the-mill supporting characters, with Lotta taking center stage for all the wackiness. That said, I’m definitely not the intended audience for this book, and can see my intermediate-level readers enjoying it. If you have the extra dollars in your book budget and Wimpy Kid/Dork Diaries/Timmy Failure books do well for you, give My Life as Lotta a shot.

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

Go With the Flow needs to be in every school, in every library, available to everyone, everywhere

Go With the Flow, by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann/Illustrated by Lily Williams, (Jan. 2020, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250143174

Ages 12+

Hazelton High School has a problem: there are never feminine hygiene products available to their students. There never seems to be funds available to get these products in stock for students. But there always seems to be money to get new uniforms or equipment for the football team. What the heck? Sophomores Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha are 100% DONE with the leadership in their school blowing off their complaints and their needs, so they take matters into their own hands in this brilliant graphic novel by the creators of The Mean Magenta webcomic Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann.

Go With the Flow is crucial reading for everyone, because the problem of access to and affordability of feminine hygiene products is a growing crisis. Using a microcosm of high school, Go With the Flow illustrates the value placed on sports programs versus providing free and accessible pads and tampons to their students. As the girls come together to brainstorm solutions, they realize that this isn’t just a schoolwide problem, it’s a global problem. Using statistics, research, and infographics, Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann blend these facts and figures in with a storyline that will empower and rile up female-identifying readers – and hopefully male- and non-binary-identifying readers, too! There’s an LGBTQ+ positive subplot, fleshed-out, likable and relatable characters (I cringed in sympathetic recognition as the new girl bleeds through her pants on her first day at school). The two-color artwork will be familiar to Mean Magenta readers. Back matter includes comprehensive information about menstrual equality, including links to further reading.

Give this to your realistic graphic novel readers first and let them spread the word. Have menstrual equity resources available for anyone who wants them. Here are a few to start:

The ACLU’s Menstrual Equity Handbook

Period.org: The Menstrual Movement

PBS.org: How Access to Period Products Removes a Barrier to Education

Girls Scouts NY: These Girl Scouts Brought “Menstrual Equity” to 200 Brooklyn Schools

BRAWS.org: Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters

Tennessean: Lack of Feminine Hygiene Products Keep Girls Out of School