Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Can friendship can make Spiky less prickly?

Spiky, by Ilaria Guarducci/Translated by Laura Watkinson, (June 2019, Amazon Crossing Kids), $17.99, ISBN: 9781542040433

Ages 4-8

Spiky is one of the new books from Amazon’s new imprint, Amazon Crossing Kids, publishing children’s books in translation. Originally published in Italian, Spiky tells the story of a rather prickly fellow named Spiky. He’s brown and covered with spikes, and he’s a big bully. His spikes keep everyone around him at arm’s length, and he just revels in being mean; he pulls the wings off butterflies, he puts birds in glass jars, and he pokes holes in snail shells, all for the sake of being mean. But one day, his spikes start falling out. Before he knows it, Spiky is now a big, pink, spikeless marshmallow who isn’t scary at all. How the tables have turned! Bernardo, a kind bunny, befriends Spiky and shows him how nice it is to be surrounded by friends, especially when there are no spikes to stand between them. Eventually, Spiky’s spikes come back and he begins to re-embrace the Bad Side, but his heart just isn’t in it anymore. Bernardo still sees his friend under all those spikes, and that kind gesture is all Spiky needs to realize that feeling good is pretty darn awesome.

Spiky is a sweet story about a bully who changes his ways and the difference having one good friend can make. Spiky is raised to be mean – the story even notes that his father sends him to “the best school for badness in the whole country” – giving readers a heads-up, particularly us grown-ups, that children learn what they live. Raised and encouraged to be mean, Spiky’s badness runs unchecked until he finds himself in a vulnerable position. From here, Bernardo the bunny comes in and nudges the story into a sweet one of redemption and friendship, leading Spiky down a very different, upbeat path by showing him kindness.

A cute story for storytime, and offers some good moments for discussion with preschoolers to second graders. Ilaria Guarducci’s Facebook page also offers some adorable Spiky artwork that you can have your kiddos easily create: get some brown (and pink) construction paper, a box of toothpicks, some glue, and voila!

See more of Ilaria Guarducci’s artwork at her blog.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Bully on the Bus – a novel in verse

Bully on the Bus, by Kathryn Apel, (Sept. 2018, Kane Miller), $5.99, ISBN: 9781610677707

Ages 7-10

Elementary schooler Leroy loves his teacher, Mrs. Wilson. He loves being one of her “Superkids”. But he hates taking the bus to school every day, because there’s a bully on the bus: a high schooler named DJ has it out for him every single day, and no one can stop her. Not the bus driver, and not his older sister, Ruby. Every day, DJ pinches, pokes, insults, and steals from Leroy, threatening him if he tells. When he brings a special cupcake to school, one he made just for Mrs. Wilson, DJ takes it and eats it, ruining his schoolwork in the process. From there, Leroy begins to withdraw until he can hold it in no longer. With Ruby’s encouragement, he tells his parents, who meet with the Mrs. Wilson; together, they come up with a plan to deal with the bully on the bus.

Told in verse from Leroy’s point of view, Bully on the Bus is sensitive, often heartbreaking, and ultimately, hopeful. Leroy’s employs self-confidence, bolstered by his family’s and teacher’s support, and a ‘secret weapon’ that holds messages – strategies – to distract him from DJ’s bullying. There’s strong advice for kids enduring their own bullies: “Show the bully you don’t care. Tell an adult.” The story ends on an optimistic note, and while Leroy’s “secret weapon” and support system may not apply to every reader’s situation, it is a story that lets kids know they are seen; their stories heard. It’s a story that encourages kids to seek help and assures them that someone out there wants to listen and wants to help. The story is set in Australia, but can easily take place anywhere.

My library system just kicked off a Time for Kind program, starting on World Kindness Day (Nov. 13). This book is going to be a strong booktalker for me.

Author Kathryn Apel has some wonderful resources to accompany Bully on the Bus, including downloadable wolf masks and bus shape templates to create shape poetry.

 

 

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

Beth Vrabel’s newest: Bringing Me Back

Bringing Me Back, by Beth Vrabel, (Feb. 2018, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781510725270

Recommended for readers 8-12

Seventh-grader Noah is having a bad year. His mother was arrested on a DUI and is serving a six-month sentence in prison; he lashed out on the football field, getting his school’s football program shut down. To say he’s persona non grata at school is putting it likely. Jeff, his mother’s boyfriend, has taken him in while Noah’s mom serves her sentence, and is trying to reach out to Noah, but Noah just sees himself as yet another burden on everyone. He’s taunted and bullied at school; even his former best friend, Landon, has joined the crowd in leaving garbage in his locker and making snide remarks during class, in the halls, wherever they see an opportunity.

And then, the bear shows up. Not much older than a cub, Noah notices the bear wandering around near the school. The school begins a fundraiser to bring back the football team, dumping buckets of Gatorade on themselves and donating money to the cause, and the bear gets her head caught in a bucket. Noah has a cause: he wants to save the bear. He’ll risk even more bullying and ridicule to do it, because now it’s him against the entire school, desperate to bring back that football team. Thankfully, he’s got a friend or two on his side. Noah’s desire to save the bear gives him a reason to keep going; the bear is bringing him back from the brink.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a Beth Vrabel fangirl. She knows how to write for tweens. She tackles bullying, addiction, dysfunctional families, and social justice in Bringing Me Back, and makes it all flow seamlessly. Kids can empathize with all of the kids in this story: kids who live in areas where school sports are just as important as schoolwork; kids living with a single parent or stepparent; kids being bullied; kids who need a reason to keep going. She subtly addresses teacher bullying and the frustration of an education system that appears to be dialing it in to some students – what do you do when you’ve grown beyond your school? Bringing Me Back is a solid addition to realistic fiction shelves.

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

Choose Empathy. Choose Compassion. Read Mustaches for Maddie.

Mustaches for Maddie, by Chad Morris & Shelly Brown, (Oct. 2017, Shadow Mountain), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1629723303

Good for readers 9-12

Maddie’s a 12-year-old kid who loves to laugh and make people laugh, and there’s nothing better for that – at least according to Maddie – than a fake mustache. She carries them around with her, always ready to hand out and pop one on to make an uncomfortable situation better, to add some bravery when a situation calls for it, or just to make someone laugh. She’s also trying to secure her spot within the school queen bee’s clique; Cassie dictates who gets to hang out with her, and demands favors of her “friends” in order to stay in her favor. When she tells Maddie not to hang out with a perfectly nice classmate for no other reason than she said so, Maddie struggles with it, but ultimately – at first – sticks with Cassie. The thing is, Maddie’s noticing her body acting weird lately. Her arm isn’t acting right; it’s curling against her chest. She’s tripping over her own two feet quite often. But she tells her mom it’s just growing pains. It can’t be anything weird, right?

Wrong. When she finally goes to the doctor, she and her family learn that she has a brain tumor that will require surgery. And Maddie just landed the part of Juliet in the school production of Romeo and Juliet! Maddie learns to face her fears – including her fear of not being in Cassie’s orbit – and embraces real friendship with those around her. When Cassie turns into a bully, Maddie focuses on the bigger picture: surgery and recovery. Her friends and family rally around her, and there are plenty of mustache moments to look forward to.

This book is brilliant. Based on the true story of the authors’ daughter – who is okay now, thank goodness! – this story, told in the first person from Maddie’s POV, is engaging and heart-felt. Maddie has a great sense of humor and a big heart, and strives to see the good in everyone: even a bully. Despite wanting to be in Cassie’s orbit, she enjoys embracing her quirky sense of humor, making her a lovable heroine – even moreso, when you realize she’s an actual person. SLJ calls Mustaches for Maddie a good readalike for RJ Palacio’s Wonder and I have to agree. I’ve booktalked it exactly once, and that’s because the second I put it on the shelf and talked about the plot, it was gone and hasn’t stopped circulating yet. The book’s website offers a free, downloadable reading guide with Common Core Connections, activities for the classroom and beyond, and CIA (Compassion in Action) activities. There are also fantastic extras, including downloadable mustache posters and greeting cards. I’m considering a CIA program myself, where I provide the kids with mustache templates that they can decorate and we’ll display in the library, along with a list of CIA intentions. If I can get the kids to join in, I’ll make sure to blog it.

In the meantime, this is a great book for discussion, for gift-giving, for just about everything. It addresses the need for compassion that our society needs some help with these days, and take on a special importance during the holiday season and as we prepare for a new year.

Posted in Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Teen, Tween Reads

Thornhill is good haunted house creepiness

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, (Aug. 2017, Roaring Brook Press), $19.99, ISBN: 9781626726543

Recommended for readers 10-14

Two girls, two decades, one story: Thornhill is a story told in prose and pictures, switching back and forth to tell each character’s story. In 1982, Mary is a lonely orphan living in the Thornhill Institute for Children, relegated to her room where she makes puppets, for fear of the merciless bullying she suffers. The Institute is on the verge of closing, and the girls are being re-homed – except for Mary and her tormentor, who continues unabated by the social worker who prefers to victim blame. Mary’s story unfolds through journal entries, where we see the bullying turn her, desperately, to a plan for revenge that will echo for decades.

In 2016, Ella is the new girl in town, living in a home with a perfect view of the abandoned Thornhill Institute. As she looks out the window, she sees someone in the lonely attic window at Thornhill. Determined to discover who she is, Ella wanders onto the Thornhill property and unravels Mary’s – and Thornhill’s – story. Ella’s story is told through stark black and white artwork, leaving much for readers to discover. The narratives follow one another; Mary’s narrative enriches Ella’s story. The chilling ending will leave readers breathless.

Thornhill is captivating, urging readers to its conclusion. Mary and Ella are kindred spirits on their own journeys; while Ella’s story is relegated to what we see on the pages, there is a wealth of material there for sharp-eyed observers. It’s a great choice for suspense and thriller fans.

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

Gamer Squad takes on video game monsters in the real world!

Gamer Squad: Attack of the Not-So Virtual Monsters, by Kim Harrington, (Aug. 2017, Sterling), $6.95, ISBN: 9781454926122

Recommended for readers 8-12

Bex is a gamer, and her game of choice is Monsters Unleashed: an augmented reality game where you hunt and capture monsters using your smartphone and the game app. (Pokemon Go players, you got this.) She and her best friend, Charlie, love playing the game until a mishap with a strange machine at Charlie’s grandfather’s place causes a WiFi gitch and empties Bex’s monster catalog… into the real world! Now, it’s up to Bex, Charlie, and a frenemy Willa to track them all down and get them back before the monsters overrun their town.

Gamer Squad is one of those series you just know the kids are going to swarm when you get them on the shelves. It brings handheld gaming to middle grade fiction with fun and adventure, and author Kim Harrington manages to give us a strong female protagonist, a story about friendship, and addresses bullying all at once. It’s a fast-moving story with likable characters, excitement, and leaves you ready for the sequel, which in this case, released on the same day.

Gamer Squad: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind, by Kim Harrington,
(Aug. 2017, Sterling), $6.95, ISBN: 9781454926139

A no-brainer for your gamer kids and a nice fiction-y wink to add to your STEM program displays. I’ve just ordered both for my library; the third book hits shelves this Fall.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

One for Sorrow mixes ghost stories with historical fiction

One for Sorrow, by Mary Downing Hahn, (July 2017, Clarion Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780544818095

Recommended for ages 10-14

Annie is the new girl at her school. Desperate to make new friends, she’s thwarted when the school pariah, Ellie, latches onto her on the first day. Annie quickly discovers that there’s a reason the other girls don’t like Ellie: she’s a liar, a tattletale, and a thief who bullies her way into Annie’s life. When Ellie is out sick for a few days, Annie manages to befriend the other girls at school and becomes one of Ellie’s tormentors. When the 1918 flu epidemic reaches Annie’s town, it claims Ellie as one of its victims, but Ellie’s spirit won’t rest. She returns as a vengeful ghost, punishing all the girls who bullied her through Annie, thus ensuring that Annie will be as hated as Ellie was in her lifetime.

Mary Downing Hahn is one of the reigning queens of middle grade horror. I still can’t look at a doll in the same way after reading Took (2015), and she’s the first author I go to when my library kids ask me for a good, scary story. One for Sorrow, inspired by the 19th century nursery rhyme, seamlessly blends elements of an intense ghost story with historical fiction. Hahn addresses World War I and anti-German sentiment and the 1918 flu epidemic in a small American town while drawing on her own mother’s childhood for inspiration, having her characters visit various homes with funereal wreaths on the door in order to eat their fill of sweets and pastries put out for the wakes. Ellie’s vicious haunting will keep readers turning pages late into the night, feeling Annie’s helpless frustration as Ellie systematically destroys her reputation and her life.

 

Mary Downing Hahn has won many awards for her writing. You can find out more about her (like the fact that she’s a former children’s librarian!), her books, and her awards, through her publisher’s website.

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Teen

Gork the Teenage Dragon serves up scaly green goodness

Gork the Teenage Dragon, by Gabe Hudson, (July 2017, Knopf), $24.95, ISBN: 9780375413964

Recommended for readers 14+

Gork’s a dragon, but don’t even think about mentioning Smaug to him. He’s not happy at all with the way dragons are portrayed in Earth fiction, and he’s here to set the record straight. So begins the story of Gork: teenage dragon, student at WarWings Academy, orphaned on Earth during his parents’ mating mission and raised by his scientist grandfather, Dr. Terrible.

Starting off on Crown Day – the day dragon and dragonette cadets at the Academy agree to be mating partners – Gork has one goal in mind: to get the luscious Runcita Floop to wear his crown and agree to be his queen. The problem? His nickname is Weak Sauce, his Will to Power ranking is Snacklicious (if you’re a gamer, think of Will to Power as a CON/DEX/overall attractiveness level) and he’s got a bad habit of fainting when he’s scared. If Runcita says yes, she and Gork will go off in his spaceship and find a planet to conquer together. If Gork can’t sea the deal, he’s doomed to be a slave.

Gork has a heck of a day ahead of him: Dean Floop – his intended’s father – hates him; his sadistic grandfather is on the run from the Dean, he’s being hunted down by a group of WarWings cadets that have murder on their minds, and the Trenx, a fellow cadet who had similarly low ratings, has seemingly blossomed overnight. Before the day is out, Gork will have to survive and learn some hard truths about his family. He’d better keep his best friend – a robot dragon named Fribby – by his side.

Gork is an out-there novel. It’s a page-turner, and Gork is an endearing first-person narrator, if a bit single-minded in focus. He’s obsessed with mating, but he is a teenager, after all. He refers a lot to his “scaly green ass” a lot, which gets tedious. Gork’s story uses fantasy to tackle some very real points: bullying, friendship, self-esteem, and falling in love. It’s a much deeper novel than the title “teenage dragon”encompasses; it’s a fantasy, a YA romance, and a coming of age story.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Middle grade paranormal thrills: Future Flash

Future Flash, by Kita Helmetag Murdock, (Jan. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $9.99, ISBN: 9781510710115

Recommended for readers 10-14

Laney has the ability to “future flash”: she often gets glimpses of the future when she makes physical contact with someone for the first time. She’s spent her life knowing Walt, who claims to be her dad, found her as an infant, in a car seat and wrapped in a blanket. She knows Walt isn’t telling her the whole truth when he talks about being her dad and about her mother, who died when she was a baby. She meets Lyle, a new kid in school, and flashes on him covered in blood and engulfed in flames. She tries to stay away from him, but unfortunately for both Laney and Lyle, the school bully has them both in his sights. As Laney tries to keep Lyle safe from both Axel, the bully, and from the future she saw in her flash, she will discover much more about the circumstances of her birth than she ever expected.

It’s not often you get a middle grade character with these kinds of circumstances – this tends to be more of a YA situation, so I happily tore through Future Flash. It’s a page-turner with a solid female character dealing with some way out-there circumstances. I have to wonder why Lyle kept coming back for more after their first meeting, but I did enjoy the development of their friendship. Things wrap up neatly enough that a sequel isn’t likely. Discussion questions are available at the end of the book.  Kita Murdock’s got a writing style that will keep you turning pages and in the action. Give this to your thriller and mystery middle graders, and your reluctant and struggling YA readers.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade

My Daddy is More Powerful Than Yours: Jack Death

jack-death_1Jack Death, by M.L. Windsor, (Sept. 2016, Creston Books), $12.99, ISBN: 9781939547286

Recommended for ages 8-12

Lots of kids have Secrets in this story, but Jack’s got a really big Secret: his dad is Death. Like, THE Death. He tends to keep to himself until the day his best friend, Booger Reynolds, is eaten by a troll – that sets him off. He’s determined to find out how the troll escaped its enclosure, and ends up making a friend along the way: his neighbor, Nadine, who’s got a pretty big Secret of her own. Together, the two stumble upon a high-level conspiracy to kill off half their town’s residents in this hilarious, morbid, and compulsively readable debut by M.L. Windsor.

Jack Death takes place in a supernatural world where many of the residents are supernatural hybrids, belonging to either Golden or Black bloodlines. Golden bloodlines are descended from cutesy types like fairies and pixies, while Black bloodlines are descended from less desirable creatures, like ogres and trolls. Jack and Nadine are both great middle grade characters: very likable, adventurous, and with big secrets that they struggle with. Being Death’s son, Jack doesn’t have any manifested powers to speak of, but the Grim Reapers that only he can see seem to be concerned about him and drop hints that Death is holding onto a pretty big Secret of his own about his son. The omniscient narrator – Jack’s Guardian Reaper – is morbidly funny, reminding me of Roald Dahl with a twist of Lemony Snicket. The  conspiracy to kill off the Goldenbloods uncomfortably parallels the Holocaust, including a roundup of the town’s Goldenbloods, herding them into a darkened warehouse to meet their fate.  The story is a smart parable about genocide and racism with important side discussions about bullying, friendship, and keeping secrets. The ending leaves me hopeful that there will be a sequel; I enjoyed meeting these characters and would love to see them in action as they develop into adolescents. Most of the diversity in this book covers the two bloodlines, but there is a reference to Nadine and her dad being of Asian descent.

Jack Death is a fun middle grade novel that will open up some good discussions. I’d booktalk this and display it with the Series of Unfortunate Events series; throw in some David Walliams and Roald Dahl to talk about dry humor, too.

Creston Books has a link to a Curriculum Guide for Jack Death and the author’s webpage has links to her newsletter and information about her tour schedule. Here’s a quick excerpt.

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