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

Dan Unmasked: Everyone has a story

Dan Unmasked, by Chris Negron, (June 2021, HarperCollins), $7.99, ISBN: 9780062943071

Ages 8-12

Nate and Dan are best friends. They share a love of baseball and a love of comic books, especially Captain Nexus by comics legend George Sanderson. They’re always talking, always together, until an accident at baseball practice leaves Nate in a coma. Dan feels crushing guilt that he caused the accident and desperately comes up with an idea that HAS to work: convinced that Nate is trapped, like Captain Nexus in his latest storyline, he’s going to create a comic that will show Nate the way out. He joins forces with Nate’s brother, Ollie, and Courtney, a friend from school to plot out a storyline that has to work. Right?

Dan Unmasked is as much a story of grief, loss, and recovery as it is about friendship, comics, and baseball. Chris Negron weaves all the parts of a middle schooler’s life together in his story, including parental relationships and relationships with school friends and teammates. He gives a reclusive comic book artist real life as a fully realized character with as rich a backstory as the main characters. Baseball fans will love the game narration; comics fans will love the comic book references he liberally sprinkles throughout. John David Anderson fans will easily jump into this story; it’s got that wonderful mix of the extraordinary and the everyday. Get this on your Summer Reading shelves.

The hardcover release (July 2020) of Dan Unmasked was an Independent Booksellers’ Debut Pick of the Season.  Author Chris Negron has a Dan Unmasked Curriculum Guide available for download at his author website.

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

Heels, Faces, Works and Life: Bump by Matt Wallace

Bump, by Matt Wallace, (Jan. 2021, Katherine Tegen Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780063007987

Ages 8-12

MJ is a twelve-year-old wrestling fan who is dealing with loss in her home life and racism in her school life. She feels isolated, alone, with only her wrestling show for company until she notices a covered wrestling ring in her neighbor’s yard. Turns out, her neighbor is the owner of a wrestling school, and after some intense discussion with her mother and some successful nudging on MJ’s part, Mr. Arellano – Papí, to his wrestling students – agrees to take her on as a student. At the Victory Wrestling School, MJ finally feels like she’s part of something, but an investigator from the state Athletic Commission is doing his best to shut Mr. Arellano down. MJ is determined to get to the bottom of some shady business and save the school and her wrestling family.

I loved Bump, because it’s such a good mix of family stories – the family we have and the families we create – plus the fun and work of the wrestling business. MJ knows that the bruises are real; she loves the rich history of the luchadores, and she loves being part of this history. Wrestling fans will enjoy all the nuances and peek into the ground floor of the industry, and sports fans will enjoy the heart and guts that comes with dedication. Matt Wallace addresses the casual racism that exists in our schools, and all too briefly looks at the issues with racism within MJ’s friend group. The action is fast-paced, and there’s a wild moment that belongs in a wrestling storyline that brings the story to its conclusion. A good read that I’d hand off to my library kids. Add some luchador coloring masks to your book discussion activity and invite the kids to explain why they chose the designs they did; make the masks an extension of their personalities. There’s a good explanation of lucha libre and its place in Mexican culture at SpanishPlayground.net.  Not an #OwnVoices book, but a good read that kids will like.

Posted in picture books

Processing grief with The Boy and the Gorilla

The Boy and the Gorilla, by Jackie Azúa Kramer/Illustrated by Cindy Derby, (Oct. 2020, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763698324

Ages 4-8

A boy’s mother has died. He imagines a gorilla talking to him, working with him through his loss and how to reach out to his father. The boy and the gorilla talk about what happens when we die and where we go; how to feel; how to go on. The boy finds his voice and tells his father that he misses Mom, and the two hold one another, moving on together. It’s hard to read this book with a dry eye. The storytelling is so very gentle, so careful with the reader, and the watercolors pack such beauty and emotion, creating an aching, incredible experience. Add The Boy and the Gorilla to your grief and loss collection, along with Some Days by María Wernicke. It’s an important collection to keep updated and know when to hand them to kids and caregivers.

The Boy and the Gorilla has starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Posted in picture books

Blog Tour: Some Days

Some Days, by Marís Wernicke, Translated by Lawrence Schimel, (Nov. 2020, Amazon Crossing Kids), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1-5420-2251-4

A moving meditation on loss and the need for a safe place, Some Days is a conversation between mother and child. The girl tells her mother about a place in their yard where it’s not cold, where nothing bad can ever happen. As she tells her mother about this place, she reminisces about a man, presumably her father; the two play together and he holds her on his shoulders. Her mother reassures her that the place is always there.
The acrylic illustrations are stunning here. Told in shades of gray, we feel the heaviness, the grief, the two share as they sit at the table. A scarlet sheet represents the daughter’s safe place; her mother’s dress and father’s coat are the same shade of scarlet, showing that they are her safe place. When her mother speaks of a safe place, her color is a murkier green and gold; an emerging grief. The quiet, spare text communicates a feeling of mourning and the promise of a way out, together.
Just a stunning meditation on loss; it doesn’t offer any answers, but understands. Some Days has a starred review from Kirkus.

María Wernicke is an award-winning Argentinian author and illustrator of children’s books. She is a 2020 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award nominee. Her illustrations have been part of multiple international exhibits, including at the Bratislava Biennial exhibition and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, among others. Learn more about the author at www.maria wernicke.blogspot.com.

On Instagram: @wernicke_maria

Lawrence Schimel is a bilingual author and translator, with more than one hundred books to his credit. His children’s books have won a Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and have been selected for lists of outstanding titles by the International Board on Books for Young People. His translated books include Wanda Gàg’s Millions of Cats and George Takei’s graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, among many others. He lives in Madrid, Spain.

★“A gentle model for living while missing a loved one.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This brief, wistful exchange between a mother and her child delivers its emotion between the lines, and Schimel’s translation handles the understatement deftly…Wernicke shows the two twirled up in another set of sheets, looking for the passageway together, in this portrait of a parent who hears and honors her child’s words.” —Publishers Weekly

One lucky winner will receive a copy of Some Days courtesy of Amazon Crossing Kids (U.S. and Canada addresses). Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway!

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

Sing Like No One’s Listening brings the healing

Sing Like No One’s Listening, by Vanessa Jones, (Sept. 2020, Peachtree Publishing), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1-68263-194-2

Ages 12-18

Nettie Delaney is grieving the loss of her mother, a superstar in the performing arts world, when she’s accepted to Duke’s , the prestigious London performing arts school that her mother also attended. The problem? Nettie can’t get in touch with her voice since her mother’s death; she hasn’t been able to sing at all since her mother died. She makes it into the school, but the looming figure of director Miss Duke makes things more stressful. Add to that the fact that a ballet teacher has it in for her, and she’s the target of two mean girls who want to sabotage her at every turn, and Nettie seems to have the odds stacked against her. She’ll need her new friends to lean on as she works to discover her voice and get through her first year at Duke’s.

A story of loss and renewal, Sing Like No One’s Listening is also a romance. Nettie and second year student, Fletch, have a chemistry neither can deny, but it’s a slow burn all the way through the book as the two deal with miscommunication and outside interference. There’s a little mystery in here, too, as Nettie rediscovers her voice only when she’s alone, and a mysterious piano player in the next room provides a low-stress outlet for her voice.

Sing Like No One’s Listening, originally published in the UK, is perfect for fans of the performing arts and musical theater. Readers will feel like they’ve got a chance to peek in on a group of talented college students as they dance, shmooze, and romance their way through a year at school. Give this to your romance readers, and consider some of these titles, courtesy of Simon Teen, that are perfect for music lovers, too.

Find an excerpt, author Q&A, and discussion guide at Peachtree Publisher’s website.

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

A girl copes with emotions in Believe

Believe, by Julie Mathison, (Aug. 2020, Starr Creek Press), $8.99, ISBN: 978-1-7350037-2-6

Ages 8-12

It’s 1980, and 11-year-old Melanie is a girl who knows she’s different. She doesn’t fit in; she occupies herself with games like Jewelry Factory, where she sorts through broken glass to find jewels. At Buckminster Experimental School, where Melanie is a fifth grader, the only thing she can’t seem to do on her own is make friends, so when she meets Sabrina – who reminds her of her favorite Charlie’s Angels character of the same name – she’s thrilled. Sabrina encourages Melanie to stand up against Karen, the school bully, and develop her self-confidence. She even lands the lead in the school play, Peter Pan! But Melanie has a painful secret that she’s keeping: from her dad, from her grandmother, even from herself.

Believe is a look at love, loss, and how we cope. Julie Mathison creates a main character coping with a terrible void – her missing mother – and can’t relate to most of the kids her age, adding to her stress. Julie Mathison skillfully places clues throughout the narrative that readers can use to put together the story within the story. With sensitive characters and a Peter Pan subplot that both ties into the bullying storyline and the overall story, Believe is a good story to give readers who like to really dig into a story.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

#BooksfromQuarantine: Into the Tall, Tall Grass

Into the Tall, Tall Grass, by Loriel Ryon, (Apr. 2020, McElderry Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781534449671

Ages 10-14

This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and her twin sister, Sonja, are part of a magical family. Every generation is bestowed with a gift of some sort: in Sonja’s case, she can control bees. Butterflies flock to her grandmother, Wela. Their family has been the talk of the town for generations, calling the family brujas: witches. Since her grandfather’s death a year ago, Yolanda has distanced herself from her best friend, Ghita, and her sister; Ghita and Sonja have found solace together, making Yolanda feel like even more of an outsider. The girls live with their ailing Wela while their father is on his last deployment, but she has fallen into a mysterious sleep, and the girls are facing placement in foster homes. Wela awakens one night and tells Yolanda that she must take her to the last pecan tree on the family land to put things right and Yolanda, convinced this will save Wela, agrees. Yolanda begins a journey filled with revelations along with Wela, her dog, Sonja, Ghita, and Ghita’s brother, Hasik.

Wow. There’s gorgeous magical realism throughout this compulsively readable novel. There’s a family mystery wrapped up in generations of secrets and anguish and a fascinating subplot about relationships: the relationships between sisters, relationships between people and the land, and burgeoning relationships. Sonja and Ghita explore a relationship, and Yolanda navigates her own conflicted feelings for Hasik, who has a crush on her. The descriptions of the land are so rich, readers will feel the grass brushing their legs, the pecans in their hands, and the feel of butterflies in their hair. The meditation on grief and loss, and preparation for loss, is powerful. The tie between the magic thread that runs in the Rodriguez family and the world around them is incredibly described, written almost poetically. I loved everything about this book.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass has a starred review from School Library Journal.

Posted in picture books

Helping kids process grief

We are seeing days like no other these days. It’s got to be confusing, scary, and altogether awful for our kids, who may be experiencing loss and who see news about loss and grief all over the news. Kindergarten teacher and author Joanna Rowland has created a quietly soothing picture book and companion workbook that may provide some comfort to you and the little ones during this time.

The Memory Box: A Book About Grief, by Joanna Rowland/Illustrated by Thea Baker, (Sept. 2017, Beaming Books), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-5064-2672-3

Ages 3-8

Written as a letter from a child to someone in the child’s life who has passed, The Memory Book is a child’s-eye view of grief and loss. Opening with the analogy of losing a balloon – “I can always get another balloon. / But I can never have another you. / I miss you.” – the book goes through questions and wishes, and the understanding that some days are okay, and some days are hard, that come to kids when experiencing a loss. The narrator then creates a box of memories, and a journal, so that she will never forget her loved one.  A grief consultant writes an end note about helping children process grief, and provides some help in answering some tough questions kids ask us. Mixed media illustrations provide texture and warmth, and the colors are calming and soft, and the overall look and feel of the book feels like we have opened the child’s own Memory Box and Memory Book.

The Memory Box is a Midwest Book Award Finalist, a Mom’s Choice Award winner, and a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award winner.

 

The Memory Book, by Joanna Rowland/Illustrated by Thea Baker, (Jan. 2020, Beaming Books), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1-5064-5781-9

A companion to The Memory Box, The Memory Book is a journal for children and families going through their grief. Beginning with a note on how to approach journaling, the book continues with writing prompts similar to the narrator’s dialogue in The Memory Box, with space for photos, memories, and artwork. Families are encouraged to talk about their memories and feelings, with journaling space available to capture these moments. Not meant to be filled up at once, The Memory Book allows an entire family to capture their feelings, emotions, and memories in one place over the course of time, as they come up.  Color illustrations from The Memory Box and newer illustrations throughout help ease readers and writers into prompts and discussion, and the book is set up, journal-style, with plenty of writing and drawing space.

Sensitive and soothing, The Memory Box and The Memory Book are good choices to have on hand for kids and families dealing with grief.

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

Lauren Myracle’s This Boy is quiet and powerful

This Boy, by Lauren Myracle, (Apr. 2020, Candlewick Press), $18.99, ISBN: 9781536206050

Ages 14+

Paul Walden is an ordinary teen. He’s not a chest-beating jock, he’s just Paul, and This Boy takes us from freshman year to senior year. We meet Paul and his best friend, Roby; we meet Natalia Gutierrez, the girl they both fall for. They’re ordinary teens, doing teen stuff: some beer, some weed, but mainly, video games and talking about girls. Until disaster strikes and Paul finds himself gripped by addiction, depression, and grief.

This Boy is Lauren Myracle is her most powerful. The story shows readers exactly how “this could happen” to the kid next door. We all know Paul: he lives next door, or have a class or two with him. He’s the Everyman (Everyteen) of the story: living with his mom, not terribly close with his dad, loves playing video games and hanging out with his best friend. The dialogue is so painfully everyday teen; the small moments that make up the first part of this book are so spot on, that it makes the ensuing tragedy and Paul’s spiral even more heartbreaking to witness. He tries to dull his grief, but the usual social drinking isn’t working. He ups his game, becoming a full-blown addict. Paul’s mother isn’t invisible in this story; she’s a scared parent who doesn’t know what to do to help her boy. By trying her own methods first, she puts him in danger of a relapse, and has to come face-to-face with her own complicity in it. Paul’s story is raw and gritty, with frank descriptions of sex, masturbation, and drug use.  A strong choice for teen collections, and a good book to hand to readers who enjoy Chris Crutcher, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Eric Devine.  Hypable has an excerpt available.

Posted in Graphic Novels, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

March Graphic Novels Roundup

I haven’t done a roundup in a while, but I’m actually a little ahead of the game, so let’s do it! Here’s what’s good for March.

 

Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang, (March 2020, First Second), $24.99, ISBN: 9781626720794

Ages 12+

Gene Luen Yang is back, and Dragon Hoops is a memoir of a year following the basketball team during the 2014-15 season at the high school where he taught, Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California. Gene wants to write a new graphic novel – at the same time he’s being courted by DC Comics to write a new Superman story – and he’s wracking his brain, coming up with options. He isn’t really a sports guy, but he decides to explore the Bishop O’Dowd varsity basketball team, after hearing all the buzz in the school hallways. He approaches the men’s varsity coach, Lou Richie, and starts writing the story of the team, the story of the young men on the team, and the pursuit of the California State Championships.

I’m not a big sports fan, and you don’t need to be to read Dragon Hoops. It’s the story of the people behind the team, and it’s exciting to read about these diverse young men, their stories, and their drive. It’s great to see Gene Yang’s journey from someone who has zero interest in sports to becoming a rabid fan of the team, because of the connections formed with the players and Coach Lou. It’s also very much Gene Yang’s story as he struggles with a work-life balance, whether or not to take on the extra work – and excitement! – that Superman would bring, and his struggle to address a difficult chapter in Bishop O’Dowd’s history.

The artwork is realistic with a cartoony feel, and the dialogue and pacing is great. Gene Yang gets readers excited for each game, and builds relationships between reader and players/coaches by interspersing biographical chapters and pivotal games in the race for the championship. He has a powerful thread through each personal story, too: each character, including Yang, has a moment when they step outside their comfort zone to pursue something greater; something Yang uses a literal “step” to illustrate. Yang steps across the street from the classrooms to the gym to meet with Coach Lou; Coach Lou steps across the street to go from public school to Bishop O’Dowd as a teen; Sendra Berenson, the inventor of women’s basketball in in 1892 took a step into a gymnasium to teach the young women in her care a new sport she’d read about; player Jeevin Sandhu, a student and practicing Sikh, takes a step into a Catholic high school so he can play basketball. Gene Yang includes the evolution of basketball from its creation to the present, and the big role of Catholic schools in high school basketball; both things I knew nothing about and found really interesting. Back matter includes comprehensive notes and a bibliography. Catch a preview of Dragon Hoops, courtesy of EW magazine.

 

The Phantom Twin, by Lisa Brown, (March 2020, First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626729247

Ages 12+

This eerie tale of twins, sideshows, and hauntings is perfect for tweens and teens who love their books on the creepier side. If you have readers who loved Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Coraline, or loved Mary Downing Hahn’s books, this is the book to hand them.

At the turn of the 20th century, Isabel and Jane are conjoined twins, sold to a sideshow by their family, where they find a family among the “freaks” in the freak show. The two sisters are opposites, with Jane being the dominant personality. Where Iss would rather stay home, Jane wants to go out, and since she has more motor control over their shared body, Iss finds herself dragged along. Jane starts dating a surgeon who wants to separate them; despite Iss’s misgivings, Jane agrees: but doesn’t survive the surgery. Iss is left to face life on her own, but feels the phantom of her sister ever-present, like a phantom limb. Iss returns to the carnival, desperate for familiarity and to rebuild her life. Jane, still the dominant personality, tries to assert herself, and Iss finds herself rebelling against her sideshow family and her sister’s memory, as she tries to negotiate a life on her own and free of others’ expectations.

The Phantom Twin is fabulously creepy with an upbeat twist. It’s a feminist tale and a story of life on the fringes as much as it’s a story of grief, loss, and starting over. Back matter includes an author’s note on sideshows, carnival lingo, and more resources for further reading.