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

An unexpected mystery and a group of Ghastlies: Death and Douglas

Death and Douglas, by J.W. Ocker, (Sept. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-2457-0

Good for readers 8-12

Twelve year-old Douglas Mortimer gets Death. His family runs the local funeral home in a small New England town named Cowlmouth; he learned how to tie a tie by putting them on the corpses before viewing. There’s a morgue downstairs in his home. Dressed in his suits and impeccable ties, he’s ready to take over the family business one day. For Douglas, death is just part of life: he’s more comfortable with it than most adults are, let alone kids. Until the murders begin. Someone is killing people in Douglas’s sleepy little town, and carving letters into the victims’ faces. Douglas understands death, but murder is just unnatural. It’s wrong. And it scares him. He and his best friend, Lowell – the police chief’s son – and his new friend, Amber – an ambulance driver’s daughter, decide they need to get to the bottom of this mystery. Calling themselves the Ghastlies, they start their own investigation, which could put them right in the killer’s sights.

Death and Douglas is fascinating – not many middle grade novels are going to be this frank about death and its place in the natural order of things. It’s a relief; it addresses the routines and rituals involved in passing, as part of Douglas’s parents’ work, with no overwrought emotion. In fact, when a group of  self-nominated “guardian angels” try to suggest that Douglas’s upbringing is unwholesome, his father fires back, stating that his understanding allows him the strength to help others who have lost loved ones. His family may shelter him from some of the grimmer parts of the business – he is only 12 – but Douglas’s parents are very forward about death as a part of life. The characters are well-crafted; believable, and equal parts hilarious and conflicted – kind of like real kids. I’d love to see what the Ghastlies have in store for the future. Until then, I’ll just have to settle for foisting this book on the kids in my library. Give this one to your mystery fans for sure.

Author JW Ocker’s site, Odd Things I’ve Seen, is truly worth a look.

Posted in Fantasy, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Blog Tour: Broken Circle, by JL Powers and MA Powers

Broken Circle, by JL and MA Powers, (Oct. 2017, Akashic), $14.95, ISBN: 978-1-61775-580-4
Recommended for readers 12+

 

Fifteen year-old Adam Jones just wants to be a normal teen, but the chances aren’t looking so good. He’s got a monster chasing him in his sleep, and he can tell a person’s character by seeing what kind of shadow they cast. His dad is almost never around, his grandfather is a little nuts. He’s expected to take on the family business – but his father won’t tell him what that business is. Is he a mafioso? After a couple of incidents at school, his father makes the decision to send him to a special boarding school where he’ll learn how to be part of the family business – whatever that is. Adam arrives at the school to discover that he’s part of a special group of “soul guides”: grim reapers. They’re all around us; they’re from different clans, with different territories, and there are TONS of rivalries. No wonder Adam’s dad told him not to tell anyone where he’s from. If only that were the end of Adam’s problems, right? But he’s still got the monster chasing him, he’s got some strange characters stalking him, and he’s learning about himself and his family while having to keep it all a secret from his new friends AND the ones he left behind.

I LOVED Broken Circle. It’s a first-person narration by Adam, the main character, with periodic half chapters that fill in crucial backstory, told in third person through meetings of the synod: an assembly of Soul Guide leaders. Adam’s chapters are written with a wicked sense of humor – he’s 15, and just found out he’s a grim reaper, after all – and a deepening sense of pathos and fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of the things he discovers as he moves through the book. There’s a diversity of characters in the book as we meet soul guides from different cultures and ethnicities. You won’t want to put this one down: it’s Hogwarts for soul guides, with family rivalries and developing powers aplenty. The writing flows and the characters have a rich depth to them, even with their own secrets that we may or may not find out before this volume ends. Thank goodness it’s the first in a series; I have more to look forward to and so will you. Give this to your Gaiman fans, for sure; hand it to your Potterheads that are ready to meet a new group of friends. Give it to your readers that enjoy seeing life from a different point of view.

Watch this space: I’ve got a vlog entry from the authors!

J.L. POWERS is the award-winning author of three young adult novels, The Confessional, This Thing Called the Future, and Amina. She is also the editor of two collections of essays and author of a picture book, Colors of the Wind. She works as an editor/publicist for Cinco Puntos Press, and is founder and editor of the online blog, The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature. She teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at Skyline College in California’s Bay Area, served as a jurist for the 2014 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, and is launching Catalyst Press in 2017 to publish African writers. Broken Circle is her first novel written with her brother, M.A. Powers.

 

M.A. POWERS is J.L.’s “little” (but much taller) brother. He has a PhD in the oncological sciences from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He is currently a stay-at-home dad and lives in Maine. Broken Circle is his first novel written with his sister, J.L. Powers.

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

A girl tries to bring her family back together in The Haunted House Project

haunted-houseThe Haunted House Project, by Tricia Clasen, (Oct. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781510707122

Recommended for ages 8-12

When Andie’s mom died in a tragic accident, she left a huge hole in her family. Andie’s dad drifts from job to job, spending more time drinking and gambling away their insurance money. Andie’s older sister, Paige, holds down a diner job in addition to being a high school student, just to make sure there’s food on the table. Andie’s having a harder time holding it together at school, and teachers are starting to notice. Seemingly left on her own most of the time, Andie  comforts herself with ghost stories; she wants desperately to believe that there’s a way she can reach out to her mother, somehow. When Isaiah, her science partner, suggests they study paranormal activity for their project, Andie gets a spark of inspiration: what if she were to haunt her family’s home, making them believe her mother was reaching out to them? Would it bring them back together? She sprays perfume, leaves objects and writes messages around the house, hoping to get a reaction from her father and sister. Whether or not it will be the reaction she wants remains to be seen.

The Haunted House Project is a touching story of grief and loss, and one girl’s attempt to bring her mother back the only way she knows how.  She grieves not only for her mother, but the normalcy of everyday life. It’s an honest look at a girl coming of age under difficult circumstances; it’s a look at how friendships can change, and it’s a story about one child trying to repair her broken family. Readers will feel sympathy for Andie; some will, empathize with her, and most readers will understand the desperation of wanting. This is a strong yet gentle work of fiction that will go well with Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May.

Posted in Fiction, Science Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Scythe is a brilliant must-read!

scytheScythe, by Neal Shusterman, (Nov. 2016, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), $18.99, ISBN: 9781442472426

Recommended for ages 12+

Scythe is my first Neal Shusterman book AND one of the best books I’ve read this year. Society lives in a utopia. We’ve defeated death, poverty, hunger, you name it. Do people turn to a Star Trek-type society and explore space and do good things? Nope, they “turn the corner” when they get tired of looking old, having surgery to bring them back to a younger face and body. They stop doing, stop trying to achieve; it’s a stagnant society that doesn’t die. That’s where the Scythes come in.

Someone has to help with population control, so Scythes are chosen to end life. There are rules: Scythes can’t glean too much from one particular race or gender; they really shouldn’t love what they do too much, and they can’t glean out of rage. Citra and Rowan are two teens chosen to be a Scythe’s apprentices, much to their consternation; things get worse when they are told that only one will become a Scythe, and the first order of business will be to glean the other.

Citra and Rowan learn that the world isn’t nearly as perfect as many want to believe, and they witness a group of Scythes who hold mass gleanings – mass murder – where they revel in what they do. They discover that this society is no stranger to corruption.

Shusterman creates a brutal world wearing the guise of a utopia in Scythe. The characters are brilliant and awful, getting inside the reader’s head and heart. He builds a society that’s stopped moving forward, where the only progress to be made is by a Scythe, dealing indiscriminate death. He gives the Scythes a comprehensive history, with journal articles by previous Scythes throughout the book, ceremonies, and rituals. It’s an intense, fantastic book that readers who want somewhere to go after reading The Giver series should read immediately.

I didn’t want to put the book down and I never wanted it to end. Thankfully, we’ll be getting another book in the series, because the ending left me breathless.

A must-read, must-add book for any bookshelf. Scythe has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Kirkus has also named Scythe one of the Best Books of 2016.

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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Posted in Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Blog Tour: Playing for the Devil’s Fire, by Philippe Diederich

devilsfirePlaying for the Devil’s Fire, by Phillippe Diederich, (March 2016, Cinco Puntos Press), $11.95, ISBN: 978-1-941026-29-8
Recommended for ages 14+

Photojournalist Philippe Diederich wrote his debut novel as a way of communicating his sorrow and anger at the brutual narcoviolence and corruption infecting Mexico. The brutal and gripping story follows 13 year-old Libero “Boli” Flores as he sees his town, Izayoc, crippled by the town’s new inhabitants: men who wear shiny guns, expensive clothes, and drive big SUVs; men who have a lot of money to spend, and men who don’t like to be questioned or crossed. When people speak out, they show up dead.

Boli’s parents know it’s no use to go to the local police, so they head to a neighboring town to seek help, but they never arrive. Boli waits for someone to bring he and his sister, Gaby, some kind of news. Hope comes, briefly, in the form of El Chicano Estrada, a small-time luchador that Boli sees at a wrestling match. Boli, a devoted fan of lucha, particularly the legendary El Santo, begs Chicano to help him locate his parents. Chicano sees the corruption and grim reality facing Boli and the people of Izayoc; it awakens something in him, and he tries to be the hero that Boli needs. But Chicano also knows a truth that Boli hasn’t learned yet: the world is not a good place.

This is a vicious, heartbreaking story about the end of childhood. It’s a grim, powerful, and beautifully written novel, with unforgettable characters: Boli and Gaby are two siblings struggling to move on with their lives in the most horrifying circumstances; their Abuela escapes into her memories of the past to cope; Chicano is someone who just wanted to get by until he found someone that believed in him. Diederich looks at the morality, or lack of it, using Boli as the lens.

Who do you turn to in a town when everyone can either be bought or murdered? This is the question at the heart of Playing for the Devil’s Fire, and it is a very real question facing many Mexican communities. It’s an eye-opening look into a reality many young people face. Philippe Diederich puts a very human face on the cost of the neverending war on drugs.

This is not a book for middle grade or middle schoolers. There is graphic violence (the story begins with a child finding a decapitated head), language, and overall content that is disturbing and upsetting. I’d suggest this for upper high school, young adult, and adult readers, because it is a brilliantly written book that will make readers think, and hopefully, talk.

Playing for the Devil’s Fire has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Philippe Diederich grew up in Mexico City where he played marbles in the streets and became a fan of lucha libre – pastimes he revisits in Playing for the Devil’s Fire. This is his first novel for young adults, but his short stories have been published in literary journals, and his mystery, Sofrito, is a culinary mystery that travels from Havana to New York City. His author website offers a newsletter and more information.

Playing for the Devil’s Fire Blog Tour

August 31: Rich in Color review  (http://richincolor.com)

Sept 1: The Pirate Tree review & interview (http://www.thepiratetree.com)

Sept 4: Guest Post for Clear Eyes, Full Shelves (www.cleareyesfullshelves.com)

Sept 5: Review, The Brain Lair (http://www.thebrainlair.com)

Sept 6: Rich in Color author interview (http://richincolor.com)

September 7: Edi Campbell CrazyquiltEdi review (https://campbele.wordpress.com)

September 8: Anastasia Suen, #KidLitBookoftheday (asuen.com)

September 9: Reading Through Life author highlight plus links to blog tour  (http://readingtl.blogspot.com)

Sept 9: Guest Post, The Brain Lair (http://www.thebrainlair.com)

September 12: Linda Washington (https://lmarie7b.wordpress.com/ )

September 13: Excerpt, Review, Mom Read it (https://momreadit.wordpress.com)

Posted in Uncategorized

Benny and Penny Say Goodbye to a Friend

bennypenny1Benny and Penny in How to Say Goodbye, by Geoffrey Hayes (Sept. 2016, TOON Books), $12.95, ISBN: 978-1-935179-99-3  

Recommended for ages 4-8

While playing outside, Penny discovers Little Red, a salamander, has died. She’s upset, but her brother, Benny, seems more irritated by Little Red – and Penny’s grief – than anything else. Penny and her friend Melina bury Little Red and hold a little ceremony for him, which stirs up mixed feelings for Benny.

This latest book in the Benny and Penny early graphic novel series takes on the tumultuous emotions that death can stir up: grief being one, and guilt being another. These feelings are often overwhelming to adults; to children, they must feel like a tidal wave. Benny remembers times he was unkind to Little Red, which triggers his grief. Benny’s guilt motivates him to take part in Little Red’s memorial, and Mr. Hayes gives Benny, Penny, and readers a bright spot to end on.

There are some great books on dealing with grief and loss with children: most recently, Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird and Ida, Always, by Caron Levis. Each book speaks beautifully to children, and each handles grief differently – just like people do. How to Say Goodbye is a sensitive look at dealing with strong feelings in the wake of loss. An important addition to graphic novel collections and readers advisory lists.

There will be an educator’s guide closer to the book’s publication. Keep an eye on the Benny and Penny TOON Page for details.

Benny and Penny is an award-winning early graphic novel series. Benny and Penny in the Big No-No received the 2010 Theodore Geisel Award.

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Posted in Uncategorized

It’s a Wonderful Death… Can you really get a do-over?

wonderfuldeathIt’s a Wonderful Death, by Sarah J. Schmitt (Oct. 2015, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1-63450-173-6

Recommended for ages 12+

RJ is a classic mean girl. She runs with the “in” crowd, she’s stuck-up, and she’s spoiled rotten. But she learns pretty quickly that Death is the grand equalizer when a Grim Reaper accidentally collects her soul. Now, she’s in the Afterlife and she’s not happy. She’s raising a ruckus, but her existing track record isn’t doing her any favors. If she can get enough souls, angels, and Death Himself on her side, she may stand a second chance, but can she stop thinking about herself long enough to make the right choices?

Written in the first person from RJ’s point of view, It’s a Wonderful Death is nearly unputdownable. It’s loaded with snark and sarcasm that will leave you chuckling and snorting into your sleeve (I commute on public transportation, for heaven’s sake). I needed to know what RJ was going to say next, or what Death Himself was going to come up with. Both characters are hilarious and yet, get the message across. What you do in life will stay with you. Whatever you believe – a topic touched on in this book – there is a reckoning; what you may think is a minor moment in your life could mean someone else’s life. We also see, very clearly, that as much as bad karma snowballs, so does good karma.

This story operates on the hope that people are, for the most part, good – if you show them a chance to go on the right path, and they take it, chances are, they’ll keep finding ways to stay on that path. It’s a pretty upbeat message, for a book about a dead teenager.

It’s a Wonderful Death is a very moral story that would lend itself to some great book discussions. And why shouldn’t it? Author Sarah J. Schmitt is a youth librarian. If she can’t get a teen’s sarcasm down, who can? She gets to the heart of a lot of teen issues here, and for that reason, It’s a Wonderful Death is on my must-have list for my YA collection. .

Have a morality program without beating kids over the head with the concept by showing Death Note one week, then discuss this book the next. There are a lot of facets to be discussed.

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

Friends for Life – where friends can save lives

friends for lifeFriends for Life, by Andrew Norriss (Aug. 2015, David Fickling Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9780545851862

Recommended for ages 12+

Francis is a middle schooler that isn’t very popular. He’s teased because he has a passionate interest in – and talent for – fashion, and tends to eat lunch by himself every day. Until Jessica wanders into the schoolyard and is amazed that he can see her, speak to her.

You see, Jessica’s a ghost. She died a year ago.

Francis and Jessica become fast friends. She models his designs for him, being able to think herself into a new outfit on a whim; he’s the only person that she’s been able to talk to in an entire year. They go places together, do things together, and Francis’ outlook changes; so much, that they end up meeting two more tweens that have a hard time of it in school. Together, the four become a tight unit – to all their parents’ surprise and joy. During one of their group discussions, they learn how Jessica became a ghost – how she died – and that touches off an incredibly deep and tender look at depression and suicide.

Jessica and Francis are like a balm for the soul. Their friendship sets off a positive chain reaction that resonates through the entire book. As someone who first suffered depression in my tweens, this story really touched me. Too often, young people suffer in silence when what they really need is to start talking. Jessica only appears to certain people – you’ll discover that in the book – and thus creates a safe nucleus for these tweens, giving them a focal point to gather around.

Much of the background characters are idealized in this story – the principal who has zero tolerance for bullying, the parents who listen to other kids to find out how best to help their own – but this is a glimpse into what could be, if only people would act instead of talk about how to act.

Put this book in guidance counselors’ offices, classrooms, and libraries. Make it available. The middle school and high school years are tough – this is a book that’s here to help.