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 Animal Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Endangereds: In this A-Team, the “A” stands for “Animals”

The Endangereds, by Philippe Cousteau & Austin Aslan/Illustrated by James Madsen, (Sept. 2020, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062894168

Ages 10-13

This is a new adventure series that animal adventure fans are going to want to pay attention to. A team of endangered animals from all over the world – an orangutan, a narwhal, and a pangolin – meet at a rehabilitation and research facility called The Ark, and discover they are hyperaware. They can understand humans, and they can understand and communicate with each other. Nukilik, a polar bear, joins the Ark and is solely focused on one thing: going home. But when a mated pair of ferrets leave the Ark to be reintroduced into the wild and go missing, Nukilik joins the team as they launch into action to find their friends and discover an insidious plot to cause pure mayhem. A fun story, colorful characters with strong, standout personalities and solid backstories, and great pacing and dialogue, this is just nonstop action and great reading; there are strong themes of climate change and environmental encroachment that will appeal to younger readers, who will be motivated to think about our impact on the planet and how we can work to make things better for ourselves and the creatures we share this world with.

Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau and host of Xploration Awesome Planet, and award-winning author Austin Aslan – who also holds a master’s degree in Tropical Conservation Biology, have a great new series on their hands. I’m looking forward to seeing where the Endangereds go next!

Definite must-add for your animal fiction fans. Display and talk up with Tracey Hecht’s Nocturnals novels, The Lost Rainforest books by Eliot Schrefer, and Katherine Applegate’s The Ending series.

Posted in Uncategorized

Gothic YA: Madeleine Roux’s House of Furies

House of Furies, by Madeleine Roux, (May 2017, HarperTeen), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062498618

Recommended for readers 13+

Teenage runaway Louisa Ditton tries to avoid life on the streets in 1800s England, telling fortunes for a the cost of a meal and a night’s lodging, when she’s offered employment as a maid at Coldthistle House, a boarding house in Northern England. She gratefully accepts the offer, but very quickly realizes that Coldthistle House is a strange place; from Mr. Morningside, the owner, down to Mary, a fellow maid who reminds Louisa of someone from her past, everyone is… different. When she discovers that Coldthistle House is more than just a boarding house – it’s a house of judgement, where the staff wield their own judgement on their guests, Louisa decides she needs to act: she’s convinced that Lee, a lodger traveling with his uncle, is an innocent. Is Lee as genuine and blameless as Louisa thinks he is? Can Louisa trust anyone at Coldthistle House? And who are the mysterious Residents?

I gobbled up Madeleine Roux’s Asylum books and was excited to see a new book from her. House of Furies doesn’t disappoint. Louisa is a conflicted Gothic heroine, stuck in a situation she’s terrified of but committed to the friends she’s made there and keeping her potential love interest, Lee, safe from harm. The cast of characters is rich, from the handsome, mysterious Mr. Morningside, to Gram, the crone-turned-head of Coldthistle who rescues Louisa and brings her to the boarding house. Similar to her Asylum series, the author includes photos and excerpts from a supernatural text that figures heavily into the plot. The ending leaves the possibility of a sequel open, and while I was left satisfied – not a lot of loose ends dangling – I wanted to find out more about everyone at Coldthistle, and to see what Louisa planned on doing next.

Think Penny Dreadful for this audience: have the graphic novels out; display and booktalk with Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s series and Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty. There are an incredible number of resources on Pinterest that will help you create gothic displays and give a nice, creepy feel for any events or booktalks you plan for this one. Could be a great summer reading program!

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

Sleeping Beauty, reimagined: Spindle Fire

Spindle Fire (Spindle Fire #1), by Lexa Hillyer, (Apr. 2017, HarperTeen), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062440877

Recommended for ages 14+

This Sleeping Beauty reimagining gives us parallel narratives of two sisters: Aurora and Isabella, the princess and her bastard sister, and Belcoeur and Malfleur, fairies whose longstanding feud may bring down the kingdom. It starts like the familiar tale of Sleeping Beauty, with a twist: in this world, fairies may bestow gifts upon you, but it’s a tithe – ain’t nothing for free. Aurora’s parents, the king and queen, give up Aurora’s sense of touch and ability to speak in order to receive her gifts. Malfleur, like the fabulous Maleficent, storms in and puts the spinning needle curse on Aurora, but this time around, a fairy offers to mitigate the curse not out of the goodness and kindness of her heart, but for another tithe: sight. The queen offers up Isabella – called Isbe – bastard daughter of the king, as tithe. So we’ve got one sister who can’t speak or feel, another who can’t see, but they communicate with a language all their own.

There is a lot of story here: there’s turmoil in the kingdom; Isbe runs off while the Aurora falls victim to the spindle. Malfleur is getting an army ready to march and take over the kingdom as Isbe tries to wake her sister; Aurora wakes up in an enchanted world, meeting a woodsman that she eventually falls in love with. There are moments where Spindle Fire is really good storytelling, but there are moments where there’s almost too many threads; too much going on to get the proper gist of the story. I liked the interactions between Aurora and Isbe, and I really loved reading the backstory between the two faerie queens: more of that, please! The ending leaves readers with no question: there will be a sequel (and GoodReads has this listed as Book One).

If you have reimagined fairy tale readers, this is a good add; romance readers will enjoy the chemistry between each of the sisters and their paramours.

Posted in Non-Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Girl Power! Girl Code!

Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done, by Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser, (March 2017, HarperCollins), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062472502

Recommended for readers 12+

Two teens attend NYC’s Girls Who Code Program, become friends, and create a viral video game that addresses the taboo of menstruation. It really happened, and they’re telling their story, hoping to inspire more girls to get involved in the tech space. More importantly, Andrea “Andy” Gonzalez and Sophie Houser talk frankly about the stress and the pressure of being in the spotlight; the sacrifices they made as they learned more about school, tech and entrepreneurship. They discuss the struggle to find a work-life balance. Girl Code is loaded with photos and includes an appendix with a glossary and coding exercises for both PC and Mac and is essential reading for anyone – particularly young women – interested in pursuing STEM careers.

I’ve been a big proponent of STEM for my library kids and for my own kids. I’ve run coding programs at my last library and am working on plans to bring one to my newest location. I urge the kids I see every day to get hands on, whether it’s toddlers playing with water tables to see what floats and what sinks, or tweens making BB-8 and R2D2 follow coding commands to move around a screen. Having two mentors like Sophie and Andy available on bookshelves is important, because they tell all: overcoming shyness and anxiety; encouraging kids to keep plugging away at code because it doesn’t always happen the first time, but perseverance gets results; and most importantly, that there are people out there that want you to succeed, but there are also people out there that will try to take the wind out of your sails once you do. Having two young women talk about their experiences is so much more important than me telling kids to stick two Scratch blocks together to run a command, because representation matters. I want readers to read these young women’s words and think, “I can do that.”

If you don’t have kids that are into code, give them this book anyway. Sophie and Andy take on the very taboo topic of being female in public. You read that right. Their game, Tampon Run, takes on the taboo of “icky girl stuff” – having periods – and puts it front and center, making it visible and real. It’s a big statement, and the thinking and reasoning behind the creation of this game is fascinating and inspiring reading.

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

Grandpa’s Great Escape is brilliantly funny and touching

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

Recommended for ages 8-12

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

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

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

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

Pick your parents: The Parent Agency

parent agencyThe Parent Agency, by David Baddiel/Illustrated by Jim Field, (May 2016, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062405449

Recommended for ages 8-12

Are you parents sooo boring? Are they too strict? Like your brother/sister/dog better than you? Not wealthy enough to give you the lifestyle you want to become accustomed to? What would you do if you could pick your own parents: what would be on your wish list? Barry Bennett feels the same way. His parents are too boring, they’re not rich, they’re strict, they named him Barry, and after they mess up his perfect idea of a James Bond birthday, he’s fed up. He wishes he had new parents, and finds himself transported to an a parallel universe, where an organization called The Parent Agency helps kids test drive and select the perfect parents for them. The thing is, picking parents out, even when you have an incredibly detailed list of demands? Not as easy as you’d think.

The Parent Agency is a fun book, with a premise all kids will appreciate: kids who want new parents. Parents that will let them do anything, get anything, be anything they want, but there’s always a catch. Kids learn that just because someone looks good on paper doesn’t mean that they’ll be as wonderful in reality. Barry meets parents who fit a certain mold, but they expect their children to fit into that mold, too – and who wants to do that? That whole unconditional love business comes into play, and gives Barry the wake-up call he needs.

Kids will get a good laugh out of the book – the laid back, hippie parents gave me some laugh-out-loud moments, as did the talking posters in Barry’s room. Jim Field’s black and white illustrations throughout add to the laughs. Booktalk this one with The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling and Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice for “the other side isn’t always greener” type reading. Ask kids to come up with their own Parent Agency lists, and try to debunk them – playing devil’s advocate can be fun!

Originally published in the UK, The Parent Agency has finally reached U.S. shores. David Baddiel is a comedian, TV host, and author; The Parent Agency is his first children’s book.


Posted in Humor, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Non-fiction, Non-Fiction, Tween Reads

My Weird School: nonfiction on the run with Fast Facts!

My Weird School_GeoMy Weird School Fast Facts: Geography, by Dan Gutman/Illustrated by Jim Paillot, (June 2016, HarperCollins), $5.99, ISBN: 9780062306173

Recommended for ages 8-12

ajAJ and Andrea from the hugely popular My Weird School series are here to stuff your heads full of fun facts! The Fast Facts series is just that: loads of factoids, split into subject areas, narrated by My Weird School characters AJ, the attention-loving goof-off, and Andrea, who’s going to run the country one day.

Fast Facts: Geography covers the definition of geography, and starts out big: like, Planet Earth big, with facts about the earth’s rotation and its “imaginary lines”: its axis, the equator, and the international date line. Next, AJ and Andrea tackle the continents; bodies of water; mountains, deserts, and forests; the fifty United States; and finally, AJ’s favorite topic, natural disasters. Each fact is bulleted by a picture of AJ or Andrea, so you can tell who’s talking to you, and the dialogue is loaded with back and forth bantering between the two characters. There are black and white photos and line drawings throughout the book to add to the reader’s interest.

My Weird School_SportsMy Weird School Fast Facts: Sports, by Dan Gutman/Illustrated by Jim Paillot, (June 2016, HarperCollins), $5.99, ISBN: 9780062306173

Recommended for ages 8-12

Next up, we have Fast Facts: Sports, with chapters devoted to the biggies: baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey, golf, and auto racing. Other chapters include facts about speed records; other sports, like skating, skiing, bowling, and tennis; the Olympics, and a wrap-up of other weird sports facts. You want to know why umpires have to wear black underwear? The answer’s in here. Like Fast Facts: Geography, Fast Facts: Sports is loaded with photos, statistics and fun facts, and black and white illustrations by My Weird School illustrator Jim Paillot.

andreaThe Fast Facts books are fun. The Sports books will be popular with kids who are fans of the series or just sports fans in general; it’s a good companion book for kids who love wacky facts and ephemera. The Geography book is a good companion book that you can booktalk when kids come in with a geography project – it’s a companion book, an additional book, but the My Weird School brand will make sure it gets read, and maybe, just maybe, inspire a reader to explore an interesting topic.

Kids love My Weird School and all its offshoots. These are the second and third books in a nonfiction series (the first, My Weird Writing Tips, was published in 2013). Having some nonfiction feature popular characters hopefully spikes some interest.

Dan Gutman is a prolific children’s author, with My Weird School and The Genius Files being two of his hugely popular book series. He’s got a great author website where you can find out about all of his book, read excerpts, download study guides, watch book trailers, and read about ways that kids can change the world.

Illustrator Jim Paillot has illustrated for School Library Journal, Weekly Reader, Boys Life, and many other children’s books. He has a great website with funny comics for kids, illustrations, samples of his work, and a shop where you can buy prints of his artwork.

(images courtesy of My Weird School Wikia)
Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade

Go on an adventure with Stick Cat!

stick catStick Cat: A Tail of Two Kitties, by Tom Watson (May 2016, HarperCollins), $12.99, ISBN: 9780062411006

Recommended for ages 8-12

A spin-off of the popular Stick Dog series, Stick Cat introduces us to… well, Stick Cat, who lives in an apartment with his human friend, Goose, and hangs out during the day with Edith, the cat next door. The two love to play games and listen to Mr. Music tune pianos at the factory next door, but one day, Mr. Music has an accident! His arms are trapped in the piano when the top of the instrument crashes down, and Stick Cat has to figure out a way to save him.

Introduced by the same middle grade narrator that draws Stick Dog, we learn Stick Cat’s origin: he wants to impress a classmate who suggests that he draw a Stick Cat. We launch into Stick Cat’s adventure, which will grab Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, and Big Nate fans right away. It’s a similar format, with line drawings accompanying text, and filled with humor. Stick Cat and Edith banter back and forth during their daily playdate; Edith is a little dense and self-centered, and Stick Cat plays off of that while trying to spare Edith’s feelings and accomplish his rescue mission.

Readers can visit the Stick Dog/Stick Cat website for videos, downloadables, quizzes, and the author’s blog. A Tail of Two Kitties is the first Stick Cat book, with two more in the planning stages. There are currently four Stick Dog books.

Both series are a fun addition to middle grade collections and will likely appeal to reluctant and struggling readers – I know my Big Nate and Wimpy Kid books are always off the shelves, so this may help stem the tide a bit this summer!

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

Ravenous weaves together fairy tales for great middle grade fantasy

ravenousRavenous, by MarcyKate Connolly (Jan. 2016, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062272744

Recommended for ages 9-13

After being imprisoned in a neighboring city, forced to witness her friends’ deaths at the behest of a greedy king and evil wizard, Greta is doing everything she can to take care of her brother, Hans. Their parents have disappeared, leaving questions and heartache in their wake. When Greta returns home one day to discover Hans missing, she tracks him to a witch’s house. A witch who lives in a chicken leg house. A witch who eats children, and she’s sizing Hans up for her next meal unless Greta retrieves a priceless artifact for her. The artifact is in Belladoma – the city where Greta was held prisoner. A city of people Greta has vowed never to forgive. She’s joined on her quest by Dalen, a young centaur, who has his own village to save. Can the two unravel the secrets the king and wizard left behind to save everyone they love?

Ravenous is the sequel to Monstrous, a smart retake on the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. We go deeper into that tale here; deftly woven with the Baba Yaga myth, with a sprinkling of Kraken/ancient Greek storytelling. I love Greta, the main character. She’s smart, she’s strong, she’s determined, and she’s vulnerable. She’s been hurt, she feels betrayed, and her loyalty and willingness to do anything for her brother is powerful and bittersweet all at once. They have no one but one another, and their parents remain a huge question mark in their lives. That’s got to be brutal for a child, and here, it is. MarcyKate Connolly digs deep into Greta’s determination and finds her pain, which acts as her engine. Through it all, though, she’s a good person.

I also love that Baba Yaga is making her way into the major leagues of storytelling over the last few years. We’ve seen her take center stage in Gregory Maguire’s Egg and Spoon and the hit graphic novel Baba Yaga’s Assistant, and now she’s here, causing trouble in Ravenous. I’d like to see more folk and fairy tales from different cultures make their way to middle grade and YA literature; it provides a richer pool to draw from.

You don’t need to read Monstrous to enjoy Ravenous, but it’s highly recommended. A prequel for the series, Precious, is said to be in the final edition; I read an ARC, and the copy I bought for my library was gone as soon as it hit the New Releases shelf, so someone will have to let me know!

Give this book to your fantasy and fairy tale fans. Booktalk Monstrous and Ravenous as new ways of seeing existing folklore and encourage your book group to come up with their own ideas for reimagining a favorite book.