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

Riveting nonfiction from two powerhouse authors

 

Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, by Kenneth C. Davis, (Oct. 2020, Henry Holt), $19.99, ISBN: 9781250205643

Ages 13+

Historian Kenneth C. Davis, best known for his Don’t Know Much About… series, takes a deep, disturbing look at authoritarianism and the fall of democracy by examining the reigns of five of history’s most brutal dictators: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein are each profiled in Strongman: a term used for leaders who use control by force of will and character or military methods. Profiles of each dictator, timelines of their lives, and a look at the roots of democracy place readers in history. A chapter on a “New Generation of Monsters” is what I can only hope is a wake-up call to the dangers of extreme nationalism, “othering”, and attacks on our everyday freedoms under the guise of “draining swamps” and “making great again”.

Black and white photographs throughout accompany solid research and Kenneth C. Davis’s powerful writing. Profiles on each dictator’s past helps uncover clues that may have led to the murderous tyrants each figure became, both in childhood and historical context.  Relevant and readable, with back matter that provides a base for further reading and research – bibliographies, notes, and an index – Strongman is essential reading for teens and adults.

 

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, by Christina Soontornvat, (Oct. 2020, Candlewick Press), $24.99, ISBN: 9781536209457

Ages 10-14

In June 2018, a group of 12 young soccer players and their assistant coach entered a cave in northern Thailand, looking for an adventure to pass the time after practice. The heavy rains were still weeks away, and Coach Ekkapol Chantawong had been promising to take them out. But the rain has arrived early, and the cave begins to flood as the team and coach are still inside. What began as an after-practice adventure became a 17-day ordeal as the world waited and watched the rescue operation take place, hoping that the group would emerge all right despite having no food or clean water, and existing in total darkness. Award-winning author Christina Soontornvat tells the Wild Boars’ story in All Thirteen. Meticulously research and reading like a taut thriller, Ms. Soontornvat goes through a day-day-by, moment-by-moment retelling of the boys’ ordeal and rescue and includes interviews, color photos, maps, and detailed source notes. Callout sections on the country and on calming techniques like meditation and Buddhism, the faith followed by most of the boys, help readers understand how the boys drew on their inner strength to survive. Source notes, a bibliography, and full index make this a great addition to your nonfiction collections and fantastic reading for any of your readers who loved and possibly aged out of the I Survived books and wants more books about true-life survival.

All Thirteen has starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, BookPage, The Horn Book, and Publishers Weekly. Publisher Candlewick offers a free, downloadable educator’s guide and sample chapter.

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

CYBILS graphic novels check-in

The CYBILS Round One reading goes on. I’ve read 60 of 107 nominees so far, and my shortlist… well, it’s pretty long. I’ll be going through my shortlist a few times and talking books with my other Round One judges before we can provide the next round with a shortlist to go to, but it won’t be easy. There’s been some good stuff written and illustrated this year. While I can’t go into too much detail, since these are more nominees, I didn’t want them to be missed. Enjoy.

Stepping Stones, by Lucy Knisley, (Sept. 2020, RH Graphic), $20.99, ISBN: 9780593125243

Ages 8-12

I am a Lucy Knisley fan, and I’m excited that she’s writing graphic novels, in her autobiographical style, for middle graders. This is her first middle grade book, a fictionalized story of her life when she and her mom moved to a farm with her mother’s boyfriend. In the story, Jen is not happy about leaving her life in the city to live on a farm with her mom, her mom’s bossy boyfriend, Walter, and Walter’s two daughters, Andy and Reese, who spend every weekend with their dad. Jen thinks Andy is bossy and a know-it-all, like her dad, and Reese is weepy and cries for her mom. Gradually, the three girls become friends – stepsisters, even – as they start talking and discover that they’re not worlds different, after all. An author’s note gives readers the real details about Lucy Knisley’s farm years, complete with photos. Her storytelling style makes readers feel like they’re reading her journal or diary; her artwork is cartoony realistic, perfect for Raina Telgemeier and Victoria Jameson fans. You’ll love the farmer’s market scenes, where Jen finally asserts herself and owns her talent, and the nature scenes make you realize why Jen’s mother packed up and left the city for greener pastures. Pick up Stepping Stones if you’ve never read a Lucy Knisley book before, then look up her other books for yourself.

Dungeon Critters, by Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, (Sept. 2020, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250195470

Ages 9-13

If your Dungeons & Dragons campaign was made up of furry animal friends, you’d have Dungeon Critters. A group of animal adventurers are on the case to uncover a mysterious plant and a sinister plot, all surrounding Chirp – one of the adventurers, and a member of the royal family – and longtime rival, The Baron. Go on dungeon crawls, dance at fancy balls, and join the Dungeon Critters on their quests for adventure, as they figure out their complicated feelings for one another. It’s a fun adventure, cartoony, colorful artwork, frenetic energy, and tons of jokes. Gender and sexuality are fluid – Chirp, for instance, has she/her pronouns but is a prince; Rose and Juniper are two Dungeon Critters who have she/her pronouns and are crushing on each other. A positive, diverse, fun adventure for middle graders.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Intermediate, Middle Grade

Peter and Ernesto’s next adventure: Sloths In the Night

Peter and Ernesto: Sloths In the Night, by Graham Annable, (April 2020, First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781250211309

Ages 7-10

Peter and Ernesto are on their third adventure! This time, their friend Bernard goes missing, possibly in search of a rumored dragon that lives in a nearby temple; it’s getting dark, though, and the jungle is no place for a sloth to be at night, especially on his own. The friends head out on their own adventure to find Bernard, and possibly, the dragon, and meet a host of hilarious animals along the way.

The Peter and Ernesto books are adorable stories about friendship, embracing differences, and working together. They never disappoint, and are perfect for chapter book readers and middle graders who love a good animal or friendship story. Peter and Ernesto are like Bert and Ernie; Frog and Toad; George and Martha. They’re friends who love one another, differences and all; they push one another outside their comfort zones (with hilarious, sweet results); they embrace all of their friends, together, and they are always thrilled to make new friends. Graham Annable’s cheerful artwork is immediately recognizable: kids will know, as soon as this book shows up on shelves, that this is a new Peter and Ernesto story.

If you haven’t had the fun of experiencing a Peter and Ernesto story yet, treat yourself.

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

Dog Driven is great action, survival fiction

Dog Driven, by Terry Lynn Johnson, (Dec. 2019, HMH Books), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1328551597

Ages 9-13

Fourteen-year-old McKenna Barney is a musher: a dogsled racer, and she’s gearing up for The Great Superior Mail Run; a 3-day, 354-kilometer race that takes racers from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to White River, Ontario. The race is a tribute to the pioneer mail carriers who delivered mail along the shore of Lake Superior, and each participant is carrying a bag of mail that will receive special commemorative stamps. For McKenna’s 8-year-old sister, Emma, it’s the chance to put a spotlight on Stargardt disease, a disease that causes a loss of central vision. Emma has Stargardt’s disease, but what only Emma knows is that McKenna thinks she does, too. McKenna’s vision has started blurring, and she’s experiencing the same symptoms Emma developed at the disease’s onset. McKenna, determined to stay independent after seeing the strain Emma’s condition has put on her family, enters the race to deliver her sister’s message and because she doesn’t know if she’ll get to do this again. During the three-day race, she and her dogs are put to the test in brutal weather conditions: owl attacks; bitter cold; snow squalls, and shifting ice.

Dog Driven is SUCH good reading. McKenna emerges as a strong, smart character who you root for through the book. Her burgeoning friendship with fellow musher, Guy (pronounced “Geee”, with a hard G) provides a solid subplot to the story. Their partnership, despite being competitors, is light, fun, and vital to McKenna’s survival in the race and her determination to continue. Letters that our mushers are carrying, plus older letters from Guy’s great-great-grandfather, provide context and further investment in the race outside of the main storyline. Well-thought out characters, a strong survival in the wild story, and Terry Lynn Johnson’s incredible – and readable – knowledge of dogsled racing make this a must-read. Give this to your readers who’ve tackled I Survived and are ready for more; your Hatchet readers, and anyone who enjoys Terry Lynn Johnson other dog books and her Survival Diaries series.

Check out Terry Lynn Johnson’s author page for pictures of her sled dogs (SO CUTE), fun facts, and Survivor Diaries research.

Dog Driven has starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist.

 

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade

Spy Penguins are on the scene!

At the beginning of the school year, Macmillan sent me a box of new fiction to check out; I’ve been working my way through it, but had to take some time to post about the Spy Penguins books by Sam Hay, with illustrations by Marek Jagucki. These books are hilarious and loaded with wacky adventures! I read both books in the series so far (there’s a third one coming in September 2020), and have started reading the first book to my kiddo. He’s thoroughly enjoying them. So let’s take a look at the newest dynamic duo, The Spy Penguins.

Spy Penguins, by Sam Hay/Illustrated by Marek Jagucki, (Sept. 2018, Feiwel & Friends), $13.99, ISBN: 9781250188380

Ages 7-11

The first book in the new Spy Penguins series introduces us to Agent 00Zero and Q, better known as Jackson and his best friend, Quigley. They’re two young penguins who have big dreams of joining the FBI (Frosty Bureau of Investigation). Jackson wants to be a field agent, just like his Uncle Bryn, while Quigley wants to be the gadget guy, creating all sorts of cool inventions, just like his cousin, Sunny. The problem? They’re a little young, a little dorky, and have a gift for getting into trouble. But when rare fish start disappearing from the aquarium, jeopardizing their friend’s Lily’s dad’s job and reputation, the two agents-in-training get down to business! But can the two crack the case AND avoid being the next to disappear?

Spy Penguins is just fun to read. There’s some good world-building, with penguin-related vocabulary (flipper and ice-related terms, krill-sized problems), and creative backgrounds for the side characters, like Jackson’s Type-A mom, who is a “truth magnet” that can track you down and whose temper is measured in shark levels, or Jackson’s father, a more creative type who constantly creates new rooms to add on to the family home. Jackson and Quigley make a great and lovable team, and the action and fast-paced storytelling will ensure that kids will want to spend time with these two – and their extended group of family and friends – again. Black and white illustrations add to the fun and the story, providing a visuals and a solid framework around the story.

Spy Penguins: The Spy Who Loved Ice Cream, by Sam Hay/Illustrated by Marek Jagucki, (Sept. 2019, Feiwel & Friends), $13.99, ISBN: 9781250188588

Ages 7-11

Jackson and Quigley are back, and just in time! Jackson’s Uncle Bryn, actual member of the FBI (Frosty Bureau of Investigation), has been hypnotized and is on a crime spree! The two wannabe-agents-in-training have to figure out what happened to Uncle Bryn, prove his innocence, and dodge Jackson’s mom, who still has them on punishment from the last adventure!

Picking up immediately after the events of the first Spy Penguins novel, The Spy Who Loved Ice Cream begins with Jackson and Quigley scrubbing seagull poop as part of their punishment, meted out by Jackson’s mom. But things take a turn when they stop at the ice cream parlor and meet Uncle Bryn and two other FBI agents, who are eating a weirdly glowing ice cream and don’t acknowledge the two. Sure, it’s strange, since Uncle Bryn is Jackson’s favorite uncle; when they discover that Uncle Bryn is wanted for robbery, they know something is REALLY up. Loaded with more gadgets, delicious (and mind-altering) ice cream, and new ways of trying to avoid Jackson’s mom, The Spy Who Loved Ice Cream is every bit as much fun as Spy Penguins. More characters get fleshed-out backstories, including Quigley’s tech whiz cousin, Sunny and antagonist Hoff Rockhopper. The inventions are straight-up hilarious this time around, including a hat that’s supposed to deflect seagull poop and a suit made of sardine poop that should (emphasis on “should”) render the wearer invisible. The illustrations and fast-paced, fun writing will keep readers coming back for more.

If you have readers who love Snazzy Cat Capers, introduce them to Jackson and Quigley. If these characters all existed in the same universe, I’d be thrilled. (CROSSOVER!)

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

Is Lily the Thief in over her head?

Lily the Thief, by Janne Kukkonen, (Nov. 2019, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250196972

Ages 10-14

Originally released in Finland in 2016, Lily the Thief is a middle grade fantasy adventure starring a young thief who’s desperate to break out of the apprentice role and take on bigger and better assignments in the thieves guild. The Guildmaster only gives her the little jobs, the low-profile stuff: pick-pocketing; trespassing; stealing little things here and there. Durine one little assignment, though, she stumbles onto a big job, but it puts her and her mentor into some very dangerous crosshairs. There are cults, gods, and treasure to be found, but there’s also blackmail and danger. Lily’s got to keep herself alive!

Lily is a good pick for your fantasy readers and your graphic novel fans who love Ben Hatke’s Zita and Mighty Jack books, and Faith Erin Hicks’ epic Nameless City epic series. Colors are earthy, and Janne Kukkonen creates moody settings for the thief’s tale and uses shadows and light to create an almost sinister, creeping feeling as Lily gets closer to uncovering big secrets that could cost her more than her wages. Lily is a likable character; a street urchin-turned-thief, who uses her brains and her skills to get out of tough situations.

Posted in Adventure, Animal Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate

A little mouse has a big adventure in Douglas

Douglas, by Randy Cecil, (Sept. 2019, Candlewick), $19.99, ISBN: 9780763633974

Ages 5-8

Iris Espinosa goes to the movies one day, and ends up taking a small mouse home with her when it curls up in her pocket to nap. She names the mouse Douglas, after her favorite actor, Douglas Fairbanks, and Douglas ends up having a big adventure on the way back home to the movie theatre! A companion to Randy Cecil’s Lucy (2016), Douglas is also told in four acts, and is an exciting adventure filled with cats, humans, chases, and escapes.

The black-and-white artwork gives a lovely, vintage feel to the artwork, especially when Randy Cecil places readers into a more specific time frame by recalling a screen star from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Fairbanks was active in the 1920s and 1930s). There are mini-stories throughout the main story that make this so much fun to read: Iris’ sister meeting her boyfriend’s mother, with Douglas tagging along for the ride; the vigilant six-toed cat; Everett Dunn, who desperately wants a pet of his own; Mrs. Pennington and her large hat. There’s so much to enjoy while reading Douglas, and it’s a book kids will want to come back to, because there’s something new to discover each time. As Douglas Fairbanks had his own swashbuckling adventures, so does Douglas.

Douglas has a starred review from Kirkus.

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

The team-up I’ve been waiting for: Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl!

Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke, (Sept. 2019, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250191731

Ages 8-12

The latest Ben Hatke graphic novel brings together two of his best series: Zita the Spacegirl and Mighty Jack. It’s a team-up he teased in 2017’s Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, and I have been waiting patiently for two years to find out what was going to happen.

After Zita and her friends arrive from their space-hopping adventures, Jack and his family have been housing and feeding the group. Lily, Jack’s neighbor, who helped him fight the giants and rescue Maddy, his sister, is on edge, though. Is she jealous of Zita, or is there something more to it? Meanwhile, the giants are growing stronger and getting ready to invade above-ground: the gate between worlds is growing weaker, and they’re ready to use it to their advantage. Zita, Jack, Lily, and Maddy have to get ready to battle once more.

I’ve been a fan of Ben Hatke since 2012, when I first read Zita the Spacegirl. I love Hatke’s art, I love his storytelling and world-building, and I love sharing his books with the kids at my libraries. Hatke is a great storyteller, giving each of his characters a rich backstory and exciting quest. He also weaves the fantastic with the everyday, giving us robots, dragons, giants, goblins alongside a terrified mother, the complexity of navigating tween friendships, and the frustration of being “ordinary”.

Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl is a wonderful chapter in the Zita/Jack saga. Is it the end? Well… you just have to pick it up and read it for yourself. Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl has a starred review from Kirkus.

Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Go on a Big Book Adventure with two friends!

The Big Book Adventure, by Emily Ford/Illustrated by Tim Warnes, (Sept. 2018, Silver Dolphin Books), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1-68412-378-0

Ages 3-7

A pig and a fox excitedly tell each other about their reading adventures, having spent their day at a Mad Tea Party, swimming with mermaids, running from Big Bad Wolves, and more! The rhyming story communicates the transformative power of reading by placing the characters – and readers – into the middle of beloved fairy tales and exciting new adventures, including a spaceship voyage and a dragon ride. The two friends decide to share books and exchange adventures, their favorite new and old literary friends surrounding them.

The artwork is sweet and whimsical, using soft colors for the main characters and changing palettes to fit each story: bold, vibrant colors for a science fiction story; classic Alice in Wonderland artwork for the tea party; muted blues and greens for a mermaid swim. The endpapers continue the story, with the front endpapers showing Piggy sitting on a tree branch, reading; a library-like “book club” meeting place at the base of a tree, where Foxy leaves, with a wagon holding books. Membership cards for the “Maple Leaf Book Club” show Foxy and Piggy’s credentials. The back endpaper shows different literary characters – and the Maple Leaf Book Club’s owl mascot – reading.

This one is great for a library read-aloud, and a class visit storytime. I’d pair this with Nibbles the Book Monster for more fairy tale fun.