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

Jamie Sumner’s Roll With It gives life with CP a face and a story

Roll With It, by Jamie Sumner, (Oct. 2019, Atheneum), $17.99, ISBN: 9781534442559

Ages 10-14

Twelve-year-old Ellie loves to bake. She writes letters to famous chefs and cookbook authors, asking questions to make her own art better. She’s frustrated by her overprotective mom, having to go to the bathroom at school with the help of an aide, and her father, who exists in theory, not so much in practice. Ellie also has cerebral palsy, or CP, which keeps her wheelchair-bound, but never out of the game. After her grandfather, who has dementia, drives his car into a local supermarket, Ellie’s mom packs up and heads to Eufala, Oklahoma, to live with and help out. Ellie’s grandmother is thrilled to have her family for a visit, but makes it clear that she’s not putting her husband into a home. Ellie starts school and a new life in Oklahoma, befriending Coralee and Bert; schoolmates who have their own eccentric flairs, and taking on a school that isn’t ready for Ellie.

Inspired by her son, Roll With It is author Jamie Sumner’s first novel, and with it, she has given us a main character who is upbeat, smart, funny, and darned independent. She’s a tween on the verge of teenhood, coping with adolescent feelings and frustrations on top of family worries, like her grandfather’s increasing dementia, concern about her grandmother, and a father that she’s disappointed in and hurt by. On top of that, she has the struggles that come with being in a school ill-equipped to work with her needs, and being the new kid in the middle of a school year. How does she cope? She lets you know what’s going on! Her voice is strong and clear, in her fantastic tweenage snark and honesty. Her friends Coralee and Bert have fully-realized backstories, giving them life beyond being Ellie’s friends in the background. Ellie’s grandparents and mother emerge as realistic, three-dimensional characters with big concerns of their own: family health, an absent spouse, bills, bills, bills.

A story about fitting in and standing out, following a dream and making your own way, Ellie is a character you want to cheer for and your kids will want to hang out with. Hand this to any of your realistic fiction readers, especially the kids that love Aven’s adventures in Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling or Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind; for your baking aficionados, give to readers who loved Jessie Janowitz’s The Doughnut Fix/The Doughnut King, and Anna Meriano’s Love Sugar Magic books. Talk this up to your teacher visitors, and suggest they take a look at it (I’m always ready to push good Summer Reading list ideas).

Roll With It has starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Check out Jamie Sumner’s author webpage, where you can sign up to receive her newsletter and download a free discussion guide.

 

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

Aven’s back in Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus!

Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus, by Dusti Bowling, (Sept. 2019, Sterling), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-4549-3329-8

Ages 9-14

Dusti Bowling gives readers more of the unsinkable Aven, her family, friends, and life at Stagecoach Pass in the follow-up to 2017’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (which also happens to be one of my favorite middle grade books ever). Aven, a middle grader born with no arms; her best friends, Connor, a boy with Tourette’s and Zion, a boy with weight problems, formed a tight-knit group of kids who could lean on each other, strengthen one another, and – because what are friends for? – drive one another nuts. Insignificant Events is a brilliant novel with characters that become part of you the first time you meet them, so to learn that Dusti Bowling was giving us another book about Aven and Company was just the news myself, and so many other readers, needed.

Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus changes the game on Aven and her friends once more. Just in time to start high school, Connor’s moved away and makes a new friend. A new female friend. Trying not to let jealousy get to her, she works on affecting indifference, but a cruel prank by some of of the Mean Boys (yep, they exist, and you know exactly who they are) in school devastates Aven, sending her into a PTSD-like spiral of anxiety and depression. Lando, Zion’s older brother, seems interested in Aven, but she can’t imagine – especially while continuing to be bullied by the creep that pranked her – that he’d be interested in her, which makes her more miserable. There’s a subplot where Aven wonders about her father while trying to find Henri’s – the ice cream man at Stagecoach Pass – family as his dementia gets worse, that put my emotions through the ringer.

There’s so much taking place in Momentous Events. Aven and her friends are struggling with adolescence and the things that come with it; namely, shifting friendships, crushes, and first relationships. Aging, death, and family – especially when you know there are family members “out there” somewhere – take up huge parts of Aven’s thinking and feelings here. A new friend on the scene introduces Aven to fictional punk rock band Screaming Ferret, which gives her a new outlet for her feelings and makes me very happy; each chapter begins with a Screaming Ferret lyric, giving readers a heads-up as to what Aven’s mood may be for that chapter.

There are no downsides to Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus. Dusti Bowling gives readers – yet again – incredible characters with messy lives; lives that we recognize, challenges we can understand, sympathize with, and appreciate; and she does it with humor, care, and feeling.

Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus has a starred review from Kirkus and is the follow-up to the award-winning book, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. Author Dusti Bowling’s website includes free downloads of cactus bookmarks, teaching resources, and activity guides. Educator Tara Bardeen has created an educator’s guide for Momentous Events, available as a free pdf.

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

Reckless Club “remixes The Breakfast Club for the Instagram generation”

The Reckless Club, by Beth Vrabel, (Oct. 2018, Running Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780762490400

Ages 9-13

I had to use Kirkus’ line in that opening, because how more perfect can one describe a book? Beth Vrabel, one of my favorite middle grade authors, reaches back into one of the movies that defined my generation and brought it back, with a few nips and tucks, to inspire a new generation. We take one group: a Nobody (Jason), a Drama Queen (Lilith), a Flirt (Wes), an Athlete (Ally, also known as “Sports Barbie”), and a rebel (Rex) all come together at a retirement home one day in the late summer. Each has done something so wrong in their last year of middle school that they’ve got to spend the last Saturday before high school here, helping elderly patients and their principal’s sister, who oversees the home. Each teen is paired with an elder, and their personalities quickly emerge, as does a mystery: is one of the nurse’s stealing from the patients?

The book has wonderful callouts to The Breakfast Club, meaning I’ll get to booktalk this to some of my parents, too. We Gen Xers never get tired of ’80s nostalgia! But the story is so much more than that. Beth Vrabel has the dual gifts of dialogue and character development, giving readers a voraciously readable story that delves into LGBTQ+, self-esteem and acceptance, and race matters.

I love Beth Vrabel’s books. I feel good at the end of a Beth Vrabel story, and I feel like people can and still want to make a difference when I read a Beth Vrabel story. She tells realistic stories about kids we could see in our classrooms, our libraries, and at our dinner tables every day, and provides insights that we may not even realize we’re overlooking. That handsome class president with the dimples may not have it as easy as you think. The drama queen that throws a hissy fit may have hit her last straw with an awful teacher. That star athlete may have something really unhealthy pushing her to excel. It reminds us, as adults, as well as middle graders and tweens, that everyone has something going on under the surface. A final note, a la the Breakfast Club, sums up the group’s experiences of the day, and we can only hope that The Reckless Club has another adventure in store for us soon.

Visit Beth Vrabel’s website for study guides, news about her other books, and info about school visits.

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

Middle graders, make way for Merci Suarez!

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina (Sept. 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763690496

Ages 8-12

Sixth grade Cuban-American Mercedes “Merci” Suárez lives in South Florida with her family in Las Casitas: three houses, side by side, where Merci lives with her brother, Roli, and their parents; her Abuela and Lolo; and her Tía Inéz and her crazy twin 5-year olds, Axel and Tomás. She and Roli also attend an exclusive private school, Seaward Pines. In order to help pay their tuition, Merci has to take part in Sunshine Buddies, a community service program that matches her with a new student from Minnesota, Michael Clark. Merci has a pretty full plate with Sunshine Buddies, practicing for the soccer tryouts at school, and tolerating the school’s resident mean girl, Edna Santos, but things get even more complicated when her grandfather, Lolo, starts acting differently. He forgets his glasses in the refrigerator; he falls off his bike, and he tries to pick up the wrong twins at school one day. Merci finds herself with mounting family responsibilities and pushes back against the frustration of school and home life, but she and her family will work together, like they always do, to get through life’s challenges.

Meg Medina creates the most memorable, likable characters, from Piddy Sanchez (Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass) to Mía and Abuela (Mango, Abuela and Me). She creates an atmosphere that immediately feels comfortable and tactile; reading her books feels like home for me. The peppered Spanglish throughout the narrative; the mouth-watering descriptions of food, the chaotic, crazy family life all fit like a comfortable sofa that I sink into to read my books. She creates strong Latinx girls and women who run businesses and raise families, who have straight talk with their families and friends, even when those conversations are painful, and they know the strength that family provides. Every character in Merci’s story feels real because these characters are real: they’re the kids next to you in school, or who live down the block. Meg Medina uses humor and authentic voices to create a story about a tween girl who has insecurities, worries, and frustrations; she’s also funny, smart, and creative, with a whip-smart wit. Merci Suárez Changes Gears is a story about growing up and about how much it hurts to see your grandparents aging. Put this in every kid’s hand, because it’s that good. This one’s on my Newbery 2018 short list.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears has starred reviews from Kirkus, Horn Book, and Booklist. Meg Medina has an author site where you can learn more about her books and read her blog, and make sure to check out the Girls of Summer website; a project co-designed by Meg Medina and author Gigi Amateau. Girls of Summer reviews 18 titles for strong girls (picture book, middle grade and YA) every year, in early June; there are also giveaways and weekly Q & As with selected authors. The blog is active from June until Labor Day every year, but you can still check out the content (from 2011-present) no matter what time of the year!

 

Posted in Preschool Reads

Hispanic Heritage Month: nubeOcho picture books

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I love nubeOCHO picture books. I discovered the publisher when I was at the PLA conference last year; I was a children’s librarian in a largely monolingual Spanish-speaking community, with outdated books on the shelves in their language. I was buying books in Spanish that I knew how to search for: Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Percy  Jackson – but I needed to find new books that spoke to the kids and their cultures. I found that publisher in nubeOCHO, who simultaneously publishes Spanish and English language copies of their books that are perfect for my kiddos. I could read a storytime book in English, interjecting some Spanish words where I knew how, and the parents could borrow the Spanish copy to take home and read with their kids. I am forever grateful.

This season, nubeOCHO has a couple of adorable books out – available in English and Spanish – for beginning readers and cuddlers. Enjoy.

The Perfect Animal (El animal perfecto), by Raquel Diaz Reguera, (Sept. 2017, nubeOCHO), $15.95, ISBN: 978-8494633393
Recommended for readers 4-8

The kids at school have to dress up as an animal; Valentina wants to be “the perfect animal”. But what does that mean? Valentina considers several animals: elephants, bears, bats, birds, and more. She notes their strengths and their “curiosities” – noted throughout the book as fun facts, paper-clipped to the pages, written on note paper. So which one is the perfect animal? Why pick just one? There’s vibrant art throughout the book, plus fun facts kids will love (elephant are the only mammals that can’t jump, which makes really good sense). The Perfect Animal is part of nube’s Egalite imprint; publishing stories that emphasize equality and that illustrate the richness of diversity.

A Surprise for Mrs. Tortoise (Una sopresa para tortuga), by Paula Merlan/Illustrated by Sonja Wimmer, (Oct. 2017, nubeOCHO), $16.95, ISBN: 978-84-946333-4-8
Recommended for readers 4-8

Mrs. Tortoise sees her reflection one morning, and it really brings her down. Her shell looks old and worn out, and it’s really making her feel old and sad. Luckily for her, Birdie, her best friend, is there to cheer her up! He bops around to the sky, the flowers, the wind, and clouds to help decorate her  shell and cheer her up, but it seems like everything just makes Mrs. Tortoise feel worse; she loses her temper and snaps at Birdie, but even that doesn’t stop him. When Mrs. Tortoise goes to apologize to Birdie, she discovers that forgiveness and friendship are all that matter (and a little help from the rainbow doesn’t hurt). Washed-out watercolor art splashed across each page spread creates beautiful artwork that readers will gravitate to – especially when Mrs. Tortoise’s shell is covered in flowers! (I see art project at storytime here!) This is a sweet story about friendship and going the extra mile for a friend. A Surprise for Mrs. Tortoise is part of nube’s Somos8 imprint, exploring first sensations and challenges kids meet.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Meet two new middle grade heroines with big imaginations

Ruby Starr, by Deborah Lytton, (Aug. 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492645771

Recommended for readers 8-12

Ruby Starr loves getting lost in a good book. She even has a lunchtime book group with her BFFs at school: The Unicorns! Things change when Charlotte, the new girl in school, shows up and starts making big changes: she scoffs at reading and wants to make The Unicorns a drama club, and she’s spending more and more time with Ruby’s best friend, Siri. Ruby needs to dig deep into her imagination to help bring things back to normal again.

Part Secret Life of Walter Mitty, part Dork Diaries, Ruby Starr is a lovable new protagonist for middle grade readers. She daydreams scenarios to help her cope with the everyday frustrations – or imagine exciting outcomes for upcoming events – and zones out while she’s doing it, making for some giggleworthy moments throughout the story. The imagination sequences are illustrated, letting readers in on the joke. The stress of friendship – and losing it – will resonate with middle graders, as will the fear of being the outsider in the group; Ruby handles these challenges with humor and style, even reaching out to her frenemy and offering a helping hand. I loved seeing a nice librarian-student relationship, too; maybe the author can give us a Ruby Starr/Unicorns reading list to promote to our kids!

Ruby Starr is a fun entry into the humorous journal fiction sub-genre. Give this to your Dork Diaries, My Dumb Diary, and Frazzled (by Booki Vivat) readers. Ask them to draw an imaginary scenario for themselves! There’s a reader’s guide on Deborah Lytton’s author webpage, along with an author Q&A and link to her blog.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen, by Catherine Lloyd Burns, (Aug. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374300418

Recommended for ages 8-12

Cricket Cohen has a big imagination. Sometimes, it gets away from her – especially when she wants to impress someone, or just make a boring autobiography school assignment a little more exciting. After all, it’s fun when she and her grandmother pretend, right? Well… wrong, at least according to her schoolmates, who are tired of her making up stories, and her teacher, who wants her to redo her autobiography assignment with the truth this time. When her parents leave her alone with her grandmother, Dodo, while they go summer house-hunting in the Hamptons, Dodo convinces Cricket that they’re going to run away and have an adventure; Cricket’s all too happy to go. But Dodo starts becoming confused, and Cricket finds herself having to bail herself AND Dodo out of hot water when she’s the only one who knows what’s fact and what’s fantasy.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen is much more than a novel about a kid who likes to embellish the truth. It’s a story about grandparents and grandchildren, and it’s a story about what happens when children find themselves with the responsibility of caring for an adult: something that today’s kids sometimes find themselves managing.

Cricket finds herself disappearing into her imagination to deal with her boring classmates who prefer talking about clothes, shoes, and crushes to geology and stuffed animal brain surgery, but you can also argue that it’s an attention-seeking response to her parents, who are consumed with their nonprofit fundraising for the city’s public schools. They live above their means, and her mother – a control freak and perfectionist – treats her own mother like an inconvenience. Artsy free spirit Dodo pushes back against her daughter’s rules and regulations, and Cricket embraces her kindred spirit; but Cricket, previously unaware of her grandmother’s health struggles, finds herself in the position of being responsible for herself and her grandmother when her grandmother’s failing memory causes a problem in a department store.

The New York setting is fun – it’s got a touch of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to it. The story handles big issues like family relationships, aging grandparents, and embellishing the truth with a shot of fun and adventure. At the same time, the Dodo is the one character that remains truly likable throughout the story. Cricket and her family may be living above their means, but they are still an upper middle class family, living on New York’s Upper West Side and renting summer homes in the Hamptons. Her parents border on neglectful, putting the welfare of New York City’s public school children ahead of their own daughter’s. Cricket’s actions are understandable in the bigger picture, and she becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.

Have The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen available, along with Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart, and There Will Be Bears, by Ryan Gebhart, for readers who may be coping with an aging grandparent. Booktalk it with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Kay Thompson’s Eloise, Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg, and Nadja Spiegelman’s Lost in NYC graphic novel for a fun New York reading theme.

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

Grandpa’s Great Escape is brilliantly funny and touching

grandpaGrandpa’s Great Escape, by David Walliams/Illustrated by Tony Ross, (Feb. 2017, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062560896

Recommended for ages 8-12

I’ve been a David Walliams fan since the decidedly un-kid-friendly UK show, Little Britain; his children’s books have just made me love him that much more. He and illustrator Tony Ross are this generation’s Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake; bringing hilariously dry British humor with a touch of true affection to American audiences. Demon Dentist introduced readers to Alfie, a kid taking care of his father while fighting a dentist from hell. In Grandpa’s Great Escape, we head back to 1983 to meet Jack and his grandpa, a World War II flying ace who shares his stories with Jack. Grandpa is Jack’s absolute favorite person in the world, so when Grandpa starts forgetting things, Jack becomes the only person who knows how to communicate with him: by addressing the Wing Commander on his own battlefield. But Grandpa starts wandering, and Jack’s parents make the worst possible choice ever: to send Grandpa to Twilight Towers, a questionable old-age home run by the very questionable Matron Swine. It’s up to Jack to save Grandpa!

Grandpa’s Great Escape is laugh-out loud hilarious while addressing the stress of watching a grandparent grow older. Where people around him see Grandpa as a nuisance, a danger to himself and others, or both, Jack sees his World War II hero; his playmate; his best friend. He’ll never give up on Grandpa, and Grandpa will never give up on Jack. Jack draws on the life lessons Grandpa taught him to save his best friend: and take him on one last mission.

A must-add to any collection, and a great book to have on hand for discussions about grandparents and aging. Take a look at David Walliams’ website for more about his books, and special features – like newsagent Raj’s shop!

Posted in Early Reader, Fiction, Realistic Fiction

Blog Tour: What a Beautiful Morning

whatABeautifulWhat a Beautiful Morning, by Arthur A. Levine/Illustrated by Katie Kath (Aug. 2016, Running Press), $16.95, ISBN: 978-0-7624-5906-3

“Summer days at Grandpa’s house began with a booming song…”

Noah and Grandpa wake up every morning and sing songs, go exploring, whatever was “on the docket” for the day. One year, though, Noah noticed that Grandpa began to forget things: to ask what was on the docket, how to cut his French toast, and once, even who Noah was. Grandma explains that sometimes, Grandpa gets confused, but still knows and loves Noah. After a little time to think, Noah discovers that he can still reach Grandpa through song. What a Beautiful Morning is the sensitive, touching story of how one family walks “down the road together… for as long as the song would last.”

There is no specific condition mentioned, but it’s something too many families know too well. When a relative, particularly an older relative, like a grandparent, experiences memory loss, it’s a hard thing to bear. I remember seeing it happen when my husband’s grandmother experienced it, and I remember seeing my own children struggle with their emotions when it happened. Arthur Levine, author of What a Beautiful Morning, writes with an empathy borne from understanding. Katie Kath’s uses her line and watercolor art to communicate the emotions in the story, with bright, happy color to emphasize the joy in Noah and his grandparents’ household, fading to shades of gray when Grandpa forgets. When Grandpa’s memory kicks in, she draws the color back to the page subtly and beautifully.

WABM_int.indd

What a Beautiful Morning is a beautifully written and illustrated book that reaches out to families going through a difficult time. It’s a strong addition to special topics in any collection; school, public, or, if needed, personal.

Arthur Levine was kind enough to write a special note to readers:

Dear Readers,

It’s estimated that 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. But millions more belong to families (many with young children) who have loved ones directly affected by it, and other forms of memory loss.

My dad suffered from Alzheimer’s. My family is one of those families. My son was one of those young children.

My dad was a joyful, vibrant, brilliant man.  It was unbelievably hard to watch those qualities fade before my very eyes. And I kept wondering how my son, just 7 and 8 at the time, was coping with it.

My little guy would be so kind. I quoted him in the book gently showing his grandpa where the fork was. And he would hold his grandpa’s hand, leading him to the bathroom, or to dinner.

Meanwhile friends told us to appreciate what he still had day by day and we tried to do that. But it was difficult when I could no longer even talk to him, really.  But then we discovered that singing was a way we could still connect – My father could reproduce lyrics to entire songs.  And the pleasure on his face when that happened was unmistakable. 

Singing songs like “What a Beautiful Morning” was almost like having a conversation again.

It gave us both pleasure and comfort as I hope this book will do for so many who are experiencing the same thing with a family member or neighbor or friend.

Thank you to all you parents/teachers/librarians and caring family members who are reading this blog.  If you want to know more about how to use my book to open discussions with kids about memory loss please visit http://bit.ly/2a2nIVY.

-Arthur A. Levine

Arthur A. Levine’s Scholastic imprint, Arthur A. Levine Books, publishes the Harry Potter series in the United States. Katie Kath illustrates children’s and middle grade books, including The Nora Notebooks series, and Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer.

Posted in Fiction, Middle School, Tween Reads

The Fourteenth Goldfish – family bonding through science!

fourteenth goldfishThe Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm (Random House Children’s, August 2014). $16.99, ISBN: 9780375870644

Recommended for ages 10-16

Eleven year-old Ellie isn’t a big fan of change – she only just found out that her goldfish, the one she thought lived to a ripe old age, was a series of 13 goldfish. Her mother didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise. So when this awkward teenaged boy named Melvin shows up, claiming to be her grandfather – he certainly dresses the part – she’s thrown for a loop.

Grandpa Melvin has figured out the secret to reversing aging, and he can’t wait to release his results. Ellie finds herself reading more about science, and the men and women whose discoveries changed the world – but she also learns that there are consequences for every discovery, no matter how groundbreaking. Now, if her grandfather could just get out of detention, she could share her thoughts with him.

Jennifer L. Holm is best known for her Babymouse and Squish graphic novel series, which I love. The Fourteenth Goldfish just continues her winning streak. The book is fantastic. The pacing is perfect for middle-graders, and they won’t want to put it down. She’s given readers some memorable characters, most notably, the irascible Grandpa Melvin – the misunderstood genius, the cantankerous old man in a kid’s body; Holm takes what could have been an arrogant, annoying character, and gives him depth and pathos. Ellie’s relationship with her grandfather grows roots as she learns more about his life, and even though she (and, through narration, we readers) understands his motivations, finds a strength within herself to stand apart. It’s a great coming of age story on one level, and a sweet tale about family on another.

Make sure The Fourteenth Goldfish is on your bookshelves when it hits stores on August 26th. This is the back-to-school novel to read.