Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade

An animal whodunit! Homer on the Case

Homer on the Case, by Henry Cole, (Apr. 2022, Peachtree Publishing), $8.99, ISBN: 9781682633571

Ages 8-12

Award-winning author and illustrator Henry Cole has a new adventure for middle grade animal fiction fans. Homer on the Case is a whodunit starring a homing pigeon named Homer who’s taught himself to read! He lives with his human friend, a boy named Otto, and Otto’s grandfather, who passed his love of raising and training homing pigeons onto Otto. Over the years, Homer’s taught himself to read using the newspapers that Otto lines his cage with, and he loves reading the newspaper to find out what’s been going on. When he and his parrot friend, Lulu, witness a series of robberies committed by animals running throughout the park, they decide to investigate: after all, their humans have been affected! Once they follow the crooks to their hideout, they discover that they need some human help: Lulu can say some human words, and Homer can read… can they put their skills together to get the people to pay attention? Fun storytelling with action and humor make this an easy handsell to readers. Henry Cole has a light, fun storytelling voice and imbues his animal characters with human qualities that endear them to the humans in their stories, and the humans who read them. Black and white illustrations start off each chapter and give readers a sneak peek at what they can expect to discover in the pages ahead.

Homer on the Case was originally published in hardcover in April 2021. Peachtree Publishers has a free, downloadable discussion guide available. Henry Cole’s author website has fun games related to his books, a library of information on each of his books, and information about school visits.

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

Margo Maloo is back in The Tangled Web

Time for another graphic novel roundup! I’ve been reading and tearing through both my new and pre-existing TBR, and work’s kept me on my toes, so please forgive the spotty posting schedule as of late.

The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Tangled Web, by Drew Weing, (Dec. 2021, First Second), $15.99, ISBN: 9781250206831

Ages 8-12

The third Margo Maloo adventure is full of heart and humor, and introduces some new drama. Monsters’ hiding places are being discovered and they’re being run out by ghost-hunting teens, kids, and developers, who want to raze old buildings to make way for expensive new luxury housing (sound familiar?). There’s tension building between Margo and Charles, her assistant in monster ambassadorship, because Charles’s background as a monster journalist makes him a little sus in her eyes. A setup leads to a big misunderstanding between the two friends, but they have to put their differences aside when a family of giant spiders need to be saved from a factory about to be blown up!

Drew Weing has given us such fun, insightful characters in the Margo Maloo stories, and manages to address very real-world problems in the frame of a fantasy. He’s addressed diversity and prejudice in previous Case Files, and takes on gentrification and affordable housing this time around. Even Echo City’s human residents are feeling the stress as Charles’s superintendent dad fixes up the apartments in their building, expecting the rents to go sky high and price them out of their homes. Readers will be happy to see familiar characters, including Kevin Charles’s neighbor and friend, and Marcus, the Battlebeenz-playing monster. Drew Weing also starts an interesting new subplot that brings a shady new element into the story and causes strife between Margo and Charles. I can’t wait to see how this develops. Don’t miss this fun series.

 

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

Alone in the Woods – a survival story for tweens

Alone in the Woods, by Rebecca Behrens, (Oct. 2020, Sourcebooks for Young Readers), $7.99, ISBN: 9781728231013

Ages 8-12

The TBR readdown continues with Alone in the Woods, which I’ve been trying to get to for ages. I loved Rebecca Behrens’s 2019 novel, The Disaster Days, and Alone in the Woods is solid proof that this is the author to read if survival stories are your thing.

Joss and Alex have been best friends forever, but their relationship is at a turning point this summer. Alex befriends Laura, one of the school Mean Girls, while at summer camp, and comes home a different person. She found another friend who likes clothes, shopping, mani-pedis, and makeup; Joss, who still loves her Lupine Lovers wolf sweatshirt and isn’t as concerned with having the latest clothes, can’t understand what happened to her best friend. When their families head to their annual joint family vacation in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the tension between the girls is palpable, and comes to a head during a rafting trip on Wolf River that leaves them separated from their families and their shared inner tube torn. As the girls try to find their way back to their families, they discover that they’re lost in the woods, and woefully unprepared.

The story uses two first-person narratives, shifting from Joss’s present-day recounting to Alex’s memories that lead up to the schism between the former friends. Rebecca Behrens has a gift for putting her characters in perilous situation and finding the people at the heart of the danger. The woods, the danger, the hunger, is all a backdrop for the heart of the story, which is the broken relationship between two friends and how it got that way. Joss and Alex have to navigate their feelings and simmering issues with each other, which can be just as fraught as being lost in the woods. The girls are foils for one another, providing strengths and weaknesses that play off each other and add to both the conflict and the resolution. Give this to your survival and adventure readers, and point them to Rebecca Behrens’s author webpage, where you can resources for all of her books, including Alone in the Woods.

Posted in Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

We Can Be Heroes embraces young women’s power in the aftermath of a school shooting

We Can Be Heroes, by Kyrie McCauley, (Sept. 2021, Katherine Tegen Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062885050

Ages 12+

When Nico Bell pulled the trigger of that gun, so many lives were changed: but the problems were there long before that day. Told in third- and first-person narration, in prose and verse, We Can Be Heroes is the story of Cassie, killed in a school shooting by her ex-boyfriend; her two best friends, Beck and Vivian, and a town split down the middle. Bell is a town named for and financed by Bell Firearms; the Bell family has a sociopolitical grip on the town because they write the checks that keep it going. Nico Bell, heir to the Bell company and poster boy for toxic masculinity, kills his girlfriend, Cassie, in a murder-suicide when she tries to escape their abusive relationship. Beck and Vivian, Cassie’s best friends, never much liked one another, but bond over the chance to give Cassie the voice she didn’t have in life by painting murals featuring women from Greek myths: women whose voices were lost, taken by monsters and men. A podcaster focuses on the case as the murals achieve viral status on social media, and Cassie’s story unfolds, shedding light on ugly shadows in the town and the Bell family. Cassie appears as a ghost, bringing Beck and Vivian together and to guide them in their mission; her story is told in first person verse.

Changing narratives and playing with narrative structure – prose, transcript, and verse – keep this already arresting story moving. I loved the use of Greek myth to tell Cassie’s story; women’s stories through history. We Can Be Heroes explores grief and loss, trauma, and unchecked privilege. Small moments, like Cassie’s excitement over music released after her death are poignant, even when played for a chuckle. A subplot involving Beck and her grandfather adds further depth. A thoughtful look at real issues facing teens today that highlights the importance of listening to women’s stories.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Susan B. Anthony, Inner Lights, and owning your voice: Susie B. Won’t Back Down

Susie B. Won’t Back Down, by Margaret Finnegan, (Oct. 2021, Atheneum), $17.99, ISBN: 9781534496361

Ages 8-12

Susie Babuszkiewicz is a fifth grader with a lot to say: she’s worried about polar bears, she’ll let you know it’s not fair that she’s got to be called Susie B. now that there’s another Susie – one who spells her name all cool, like Soozee – in her school, and she really dislikes the Usual Geniuses who always get called on in class and get picked for cool things in school. Kids like Susie, who have “butterflies” in their brain? They never get called on unless it’s to criticize or ask if they’re paying attention, and she’s tired of it! She and her best friend, her spark, Joselyn, decide to run for seats on the student council to give “normal” kids a chance. Susie wants to be student council president so that she can raise awareness for polar bears and “get to be the boss of everyone… AND eternal glory”. Susie B. doesn’t seem to have the biggest grasp on 5th grade politics just yet, but that’s okay: aspirations are good!

The elections serve as the backdrop to Susie’s growth trajectory; the main focus of the novel. Written as journal entries to Susan B. Anthony, the topic of Susie’s hero research project, Susie learns that our heroes are human to a fault, friendships can be fleeting, and eternal glory may not be within reach by fifth grade, but learning to love yourself and advocate for yourself is. Brilliantly written in the first person, Susie B. has a sense of humor and pathos that readers will love and see themselves in. There is a strong subplot of Susan B. Anthony, and other “heroes of history”, having human foibles – and how we can appreciate the good that they do while not shying away from – not whitewashing over – the human failings.

Positive portrayals of neurodivergent characters, great pacing, and high relatability makes Susie B. Won’t Back Down a great book for classroom discussions and pleasure reading. Don’t miss this one.
Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

New school, new country, new beginnings: The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei

The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei, by Christina Matula, (April 2022, Inkyard Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781335424884

Ages 8-12

Holly-Mei Jones is a middle schooler who jumps at the chance for a new beginning when her mom announces that an exciting promotion comes with a major move: from their home in Canada to Hong Kong! But, as her ah-ma (grandmother) says, the bitter comes first, and then the sweet. Holly discovers that her new life in Hong Kong is not without its pressures: her mother’s new position comes with expectations and rules, and the most popular girl in her class is bossy and can be nice one minute, horribly mean the next. Determined to to get to the sweet part of her new life, Holly-Mei discovers that she has a lot to learn.

Holly-Mei has a big heart and a strong sense of justice which gets her into trouble and makes her such a lovable character. Kids will read all about her new life in Hong Kong with excitement and wonder – it’s like Crazy Rich Asians for kids! – and realize that in life, you have to weather the storms, no matter where you are, as they see Holly-Mei buckle under her mother’s shift into a more appearance and behavior-driven mindset. Supporting characters are there to move Holly’s story along, but have their own definitive personalities. Gemma, popular girl and Holly-Mei’s frenemy, has an interesting backstory that gives texture to her actions.

A compulsively readable book about middle school, rich with Chinese culture and likable characters, humor, and genuine feeling. Put this on your Newbery watch lists.

Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, picture books

The Great TBR ReadDown, 2020 Edition

I’ve said it before: when it comes to books, my eyes are bigger than my reading capacity. I’m attempting to read down as much as I can before the new year, so please enjoy my TBR as I whittle it down.

21 Cousins, by Diane de Anda/Illustrated by Isabel Muñoz, (Feb .2021, StarBright Books), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-59572-915-6

Ages 4-8
Big families are big fun, and this mestizo family – a mix of Mexican people and cultures (Indian, Spanish, French) – is full of cousins! They’re all gathering for a special reason, and Alejandro and Sofia act as our narrators as they introduce us to each of their cousins. The family members are different ages, have different interests, abilities, and appearances that we learn about as we go through each colorful spread. There is some Spanish language infused into the English text, and the book is also available in Spanish. Beginning with the pages of a family photo album and closing with a family picture of all the cousins, it’s a wonderful story about how cultural diversity exists and flourishes within families: the small communities where it all begins.
Bronson Beaver Builds a Robot, by Teko Bernard/Illustrated by Howard Russell, (Apr. 2021, Tabron Publishing), $9.95, ISBN: 978-0986059360
Ages 7-11

Bronson Beaver is a 13-year-old builder, inventor, and video game fan whose family runs Beaver Valley Lodge, a hugely popular vacation resort. While Bronson just wants to spend a weekend playing video games with his best friends, his father has other plans: the big pancake festival is happening, and Bronson has a list of chores to get done for the festival! Like any brainiac inventor, Bronson decides to take the easy way out and invent a robot to do all the chores while he and his best friends can take part in the Zombie Fight video game tournament and win the cash prize that will allow them to build their dream workshop. You know the true course of video games and robots never did run smooth, though, and things go wrong in a big way: and now it’s up to Bronson and his friends to make things right. A smart chapter book about friendship, making good decisions, and with a nice STEM component, plus black and white illustrations throughout, I hope we see more of Bronson and friends in the future. Give this indie published book a shot and invite your kiddos to build robots of their own, with some after-holidays boxes and decorations you have available to repurpose.

Sharks at Your Service, by Mary Cerullo/Photos by Jeffrey Rotman, (July 2021, Tumblehome), $17.99, ISBN: 9781943431632

Ages 7-9

There are two stories at play in this story about sharks and all the jobs they do: the fictional story of a girl named Marina and her dad’s trip to the aquarium, where they see sharks and attend a talk by shark photographer (also the photographer behind the photos in this book) Jeffrey Rotman, and the nonfiction facts and photos of sharks that run parallel to the fictional narrative. Marina’s aquarium visit starts a growing fascination with sharks; on the way home, she sees sharks everywhere! This gets her thinking of all the jobs sharks have, keeping the ocean in balance and clean: sharks like tiger sharks eat just about anything they see, earning the nickname “garbage collectors of the sea”; they weed out weak and sick ocean life, keeping disease from spreading through schools of fish; their superior senses help them maintain their status as alpha predators of the sea. Manga-influenced color illustrations and incredible color photos on every page make this a book shark fans will pick up again and again.

 

Starboy : Inspired by the Life and Lyrics of David Bowie, by Jami Gigot, (May 2021, Henry Holt), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250239433

Ages 4-8

Inspired by artist, singer, actor, and icon David Bowie, Starboy is a breathtaking tribute to every kid who doesn’t feel like they fit in… until they find that they do. David is a boy who lives in a black and white world until he hears “star chatter” that brings color to his world… and then again when he hears music on the radio. Music brings color to his world, and gives him a place where he belongs: and reaches out to color other people’s worlds, too. Jami Gigot’s illustrations bring David Bowie’s magic to life through sparks of color and nods to his personas like the Starman, Major Tom the Astronaut, the chic ’80s music and fashion icon, even Labyrinth’s Goblin King. As David the Starboy comes to life through music, the spark spreads to his schoolmates and people on the street, showing readers the ability that music has to reach inside and speak to us – just like “star chatter”. An author’s note talks about the influence of David Bowie on fashion and music, an there are fun facts and further resources for readers interested in learning more. The cover is a gorgeous tribute to Bowie’s Starman persona from the 1972 Aladdin Sane album cover.

Starboy has a starred review from School Library Journal.

 

I Can Be Kind, by Rainbow Gal, (June 2021Fat Cat Publishing), $12.99, ISBN: 978-1-989767-00-9

Ages 4-7

A cute pet shop fairy tale, I Can Be Kind is the story of Oscar, a 2-year-old piranha found in the sewer after being flushed by his owner. He ends up at a pet shop in Brooklyn, where he terrorizes the fish in the tank next to him. Being a carnivorous fish, the pet shop owner fed goldfish to Oscar until one day, when Maria – a friendly goldfish who refused to be scared off by Oscar’s posturing – ends up in Oscar’s tank! Oscar can’t eat Maria – she’s his friend, and he’s got a crush on her – and the two end up sharing fish food together, living happily ever after. It’s a sweet story, illustrated in full color, with coloring sheets available with the paperback version and for free at Rainbow Gal’s website.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

Marshmallow & Jordan is a gentle friendship story

Marshmallow & Jordan, by Alina Chau, (Oct. 2021, First Second), $22.99, ISBN: 9781250300607

Ages 8-12

Set in Indonesia, Marhsmallow & Jordan is a story of friendship and finding one’s own way. Jordan is a middle schooler who loves basketball: even an accident that put her in a wheelchair can’t stop her, mostly. She can’t compete with the team like she used to, but still serves as captain. She’s feeling a bit unfulfilled, when she rescues a hurt white baby elephant that she promptly names Marshmallow. The two new friends quickly become attached. Meanwhile, Jordan’s basketball coach recommends she try out for water polo after Marshmallow digs Jordan a pool, letting her take to the water without worrying about her wheelchair weighing her down. The training isn’t easy, but Marshmallow’s loving support and her own determination keeps Jordan focused on practice and success. But Marshmallow is hiding a secret of her own. Rich with warm colors and Indonesian culture and a diverse group of characters, Marshmallow & Jordan is a great middle grade story that works as a book club pick and a realistic fiction piece. Back matter includes a glossary of Indonesian terms, an author’s note, Indonesian facts, and food recommendations.

Visit Alina Chau’s author website for more information about her books, to sign up for her newsletter, and connect to her social media. Read an interview with Alina Chau at SLJ’s Good Comics for Kids, TeachersPayTeachers has free Indonesian activities, including an animal word search from Teach With Mrs. T’s Class and a map of Indonedia from The Harstad Collection. Britannica for Kids has information about water polo.

 

Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Redlocks and the Three Bears flips fairy tales for fun

Redlocks and the Three Bears, by Claudia Rueda, (Nov. 2021, Chronicle Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9781452170312

Ages 3-5

Claudia Rueda’s newest story is a sweet, humorous take on Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, and that old trope of the Big Bad Wolf. Mama Bear is just about to get the porridge on the table when a knock sounds at the Bear Family’s door: it’s Little Red Riding Hood, and there’s a bear after her! Baby Bear convinces his parents to give Red some shelter; porridge is eaten, chairs get broken, a bed is too soft… but is the Big Bad Wolf really that bad? Redlocks takes a compassionate look at the maligned image of the Big Bad Wolf, who always finds himself in trouble throughout fairy tales, and offers readers some food for thought on how bad reputations can hurt.

The story offers a fun take on the Goldilocks story, with Little Red Riding Hood taking on some of Goldie’s actions in the story; narrated by Baby Bear, we get an empathetic storyteller who just wants to make others feel better. Colored pencil illustrations are soft and use warm colors with expressive characters and gentle movement moving the action forward. Mama’s porridge recipe is part of the back endpapers, and looks like it was written by Baby Bear himself.

A fun cameo from The Three Little Pigs and a twist ending will have readers chuckling, and the easy-to-read, unfussy storytelling is great for a readaloud. Grab your flannels for Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, and The Three Little Pigs for this one!

Visit Claudia Rueda’s author website for more of her illustration work and information about her workshops.

Posted in picture books

Julia’s House comes to the end of its journey with Julia’s House Goes Home

Julia’s House Goes Home, by Ben Hatke (Oct. 2021, First Second), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250769329

Ages 4-8

The third book in the Julia’s House series will tug at heartstrings. The last time readers saw Julia’s house, in last year’s Julia’s House Moves On,the house had sprouted wings and was flying; Julia’s plans in the literal air. Now, the house lands, but takes a terrible tumble and rolls away, leaving Julia holding only the sign from her door! As she tries to track down the house, she gathers her Lost Creature friends, who’ve all been tossed and tumbled as the house bounced away, but just when she thinks she’s found the house, she makes a distressing discovery. Can she and her friends make things right again? A touching close to the Julia’s House trilogy, Julia’s House Goes Home shows a maturing Julia; a main character who’s gone from always having a plan, to learning that it’s okay to throw your plans out the window and just live in the moment, to having your plans fall apart in front of you – and having your friends be there to catch you when you fall. Readers familiar with Ben Hatke’s books will delight in seeing familiar monster friends and a wink to his 2016 story, Nobody Likes a Goblin. Watercolor artwork gives a moving, wistful, yet comforting feel to the story, and the back endpapers offer a sweet epilogue to sharp-eyed readers. I really loved reading all three books together. It’s a very gentle story that unfolds and invites you in to spend some time with it.

You can follow Ben Hatke’s Instagram for more of his artwork.