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 Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Non-fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Women's History

February graphic novels bring magical realism and STEM nonfiction

First Second is a graphic novel powerhouse. Every season, I know I’m going to see good stuff from the authors and illustrators that First Second publishes. Here are two we’ve got coming in February.

Snapdragon, by Kat Leyh, (Feb. 2020, First Second), $12.99, ISBN: 9781250171115

Ages 10+

Magical realism infuses this story about a girl who befriends the town witch. Snapdragon’s heard the rumors about the “roadkill witch”, but when Jacks – a loner constructs skeletons from roadkill to sell to veterinary schools – rescues Snap’s dog, she finds herself cultivating a friendship with the loner, who takes her on as an apprentice. But Jacks also has rituals she goes through, to put those roadkill spirits to rest, and Snap is pretty sure that Jacks has a little bit of witchcraft after all.

Snapdragon is a story with depth. Lumberjanes writer Kat Leyh creates a magical, yet real cast of characters: Snapdragon, the daughter of a single working mother, is bullied at school and by her mother’s cruel ex-boyfriend. Her friend, Louis, who prefers to go by Lulu and wear skirts and nail polish, is tormented by his brothers. The two bond over their mutual love of a a horror movie series and Lulu finds comfort and safety in Snapdragon’s home. Jacks and Snap discover a connection between them in a subplot with Snap’s grandmother.

Snapdragon has a starred review from Kirkus.

 

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks, (Feb. 2020, First Second), $19.99, ISBN: 9781626728776

Ages 8-12

Meet the first women to travel into space in this nonfiction graphic novel that has big appeal for Science Comics fans. Astronaut Dr. Mary Cleave navigates readers through the history of women and space travel, starting with the Soviet space program that made Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space, and illustrates the long road American women had to take to get Group 9, NASA’S first mixed-gender class, to the stars.

The most frustrating thing about Astronauts is reading how seemingly determined the U.S. government was to keep women out of space. The graphic novel tells multiple stories from different points of view; the Mercury 13 and Women in Space Program both ended up going nowhere, while the Soviet Union focused on sending just one woman – Tereshkova – into space. (And she didn’t even tell her mother before she went.) It’s disheartening to read that science journalists imagined conversations between women – female scientists – and Mission Control consisting of, “this little thingamabob has jiggled off the gizmo”. Even when NASA got it together and began recruiting women for the space program for real this time, their concerns about dress codes and complete ignorance of basic physiology left me frustrated and even more determined to get my STEM/STEAM programming firmly entrenched here at my library. The second half of the book, focusing more on Mary Cleave’s space shuttle missions and NASA training, are a welcome relief. There are some great and hilarious anecdotes throughout, and Mary Cleave’s love for space exploration and science comes through, making me hopeful that this book will inspire many, many kids. There are references, a bibliography, and working sketches.

Astronauts has starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

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

Happy Book Birthday to Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi!

Weird Little Robots, by Carolyn Crimi/Illustrated by Corinna Luyken, (Oct. 2019, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763694937

Ages 8-12

Two girls discover their mutual love of tinkering and science in this quirky, fun, illustrated novel. Eleven-year-old Penny Rose is new in town, and doesn’t really have any friends yet – unless you count the little robots she makes in her shed. She makes them out of found objects, and tinkers lovingly with them, giving them names and looking after them every day. Lark, her neighbor, is a quirky girl next door who loves birds and tinkers with found objects given to her by the crows; she makes birdhouses to keep her friends safe from the elements. The two girls become friends and create an entire town for the little robots… and when a mysterious wind sweeps through their town, it brings some surprises with it! But while Penny and Lark enjoy one another’s company, a secret science club at school offers Penny membership in their society. Penny feels the tug between her new best friend and a group of like-minded science friends, but making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons could cost Penny her best friend and the robots that she loves so much.

This is such an unconventional, enjoyable book! I love the idea of making creations out of found objects, and the touch of magical realism infused in this story makes it a joy to read. It’s a STEM story, a friendship story, and a comforting story about second chances. The little robots have their own personalities, each reflected in their names, bestowed on them by Penny. Penny is more tech-focused, while Lark prefers the world around her, showing that making and tinkering presents endless creations. The black and white illustrations throughout give life to the story and keep readers interested as they move through the book.

There’s a downloadable guide with discussion questions and activities, making this a good idea for an ELA/Science partnership or book club/Discovery Club program. I can’t wait until my library’s copy arrives, so I can start telling kids how much they need to read this book. Maybe it’s time for a secret science society at MY library… hmmmm…

 

“[A]uthor Crimi infuses this unassuming transitional novel with compassion, humor, and a refreshing storyline in which girls organically weave a love for science into their everyday lives. Illustrations by Luyken add to the guileless sensibility. A contemplation on the magic of friendship told with sweetness, simplicity, and science.”—Kirkus Reviews

 

Carolyn Crimi enjoys snacking, pugs, Halloween, and writing, although not necessarily in that order. Over the years she has published 15 funny books for children, including Don’t Need Friends, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, Where’s My Mummy?, There Might Be Lobsters, and I Am The Boss of This Chair. Weird Little Robots is her first novel.

For more information, and to download a free classroom guide for Weird Little Robots, visit her website.

Twitter: @crims10

Corinna Luyken is the author-illustrator of The Book of Mistakes. She lives with her husband and daughter in Olympia, Washington.
Posted in Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is the YA you need to read this Fall

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, by Maika Moulite & Maritza Moulite, (Sept. 2019, Harlequin TEEN), $18.99, ISBN: 9781335777096

Ages 13+

Alaine is a smart, witty, outspoken 17-year-old Haitian-American teen living in Miami with her father. Her mother, a high-profile cable news journalist, has an on-air meltdown that puts Alaine in the crosshairs of the mean girls at school; she retaliates with a school project that goes sideways. Her psychiatrist father intervenes and comes up with an appropriate “punishment” for Alaine: she must spend two months volunteering with her Tati Estelle’s startup fundraising app in Haiti. Alaine’s mother is already there, spending time pulling herself together after events leading up to the on-air breakdown. As Alaine spends more time in Haiti, the burgeoning journalism student discovers her love for Haiti and its history, and stumbles onto family secrets and a situation with her aunt’s organization that’s sending up red flags.

Told through e-mails, postcards, journal entries, and in Alaine’s voice, Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is an unputdownable look at Haiti, its history, and its people, all wreathed in magical realism tied into the heart of the country. Alaine’s voice is strong and clear; she’s dealing with a seemingly nonstop onslaught of feelings and stressors and works through them all as they come. She desperately wants to improve the relationship between herself and her high-powered, emotionally distant mother, but sometimes, she isn’t even sure where to begin. She’s as confused by her aunt as she adores her. And does she dare explore a relationship with the fellow intern in her aunt’s Patron Pal startup? (Hint: Uh, YEAH.) There’s never a lull in the storytelling here, which will endear readers to Alaine and her family, and inspire an interest in learning more about Haiti’s rich, yet troubled, history.

If this is the debut for sisters Maika Moulike and Maritza Moulike, I can’t wait to see what’s next. Dear Haiti, Love Alaine has starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist. The book is out today – check out an excerpt on Bustle.com, and then hit your library or local bookstore to pick up a copy.

Posted in Teen

Wild Beauty – beauty can hide ugly secrets

Wild Beauty, by Anna Marie McLemore, (Oct. 2017, Macmillan), $17.99, ISBN: 9781250124555
Recommended for readers 13+

Teen Estrella Nomeolvides and her cousins live on the beautiful Californian garden property, La Pradera, for generations. Known as “las hijas del aire”, they are bound to the land, forming beautiful flowers that create breathtaking gardens, but the gift is a curse: every man loved by a Nomeolvides woman disappears. Just… dissipates. The cousins are all in love with the same woman, Bay Briar, and pray to the gardens to keep her safe from vanishing; instead, a young man they call Fel appears, thrust forth by the garden. Fel has choppy memories of his past, and Estrella takes it on herself to help him recover his memories. What none of them realize is that Fel’s memories – Fel’s past – is inextricably linked to the ugly truth behind a Pradera.

There is a lot going on in Wild Beauty. There are several subplots that intertwine with the main story, all moving toward the revelations at the end. Beautifully written, with fully realized characters, Wild Beauty can be confusing – there were characters and subplots that took me a few re-reads to fully get my head straight – and the story tends to meander, which may frustrate some readers. Readers familiar with magical realism will recognize this and press on. There’s beautiful imagery, gender identity and fluid sexuality, and a respect for Latinx heroines and matriarchal family structures.

Wild Beauty has starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. Bust Magazine has a great write-up on the book and the author.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Night Garden puts a little spark of magic into WWII-era Canada

The Night Garden, by Polly Horvath, (Sept. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374304522

Recommended for readers 9-13

Franny Whitekraft lives with her adoptive parents, Sina and Old Tom, on Vancouver Island while World War II rages overseas. They live a pretty quiet life until their neighbor, Crying Alice, shows up – crying – and asks to leave her three children with them while she goes to stop her mechanic husband, Fixing Bob – stationed at a military base – from doing something dumb. Zebediah, one of the children, knows what it is, but he’s not talking, and he’s not sharing the letters he gets from their father with his brother and sister, Wilfred and Winifred. Things take a sharp turn when Fixing Bob puts his plan into action, and The Night Garden seems to be everyone’s only hope in making things right. Can a garden really grant wishes? Franny and her friends are about to find out.

The Night Garden didn’t really come together for me. There are several plotlines that kind of wander in and out of the book, like Sina’s witnessing a UFO. Narrated in the first person by Franny, there’s humor throughout the novel, but overall, the story took a little too long to get there and meandering plots may keep some readers from fully committing to the book. I enjoyed the sense of humor that kept the book moving, and the characters, on their own, were a fun bunch that I enjoyed my time with. An additional purchase for collections where you have devoted magical realism readers.

Polly Horvath is the Newbery Honor and National Book Award winning-author of Everything on a Waffle. Her author website offers more information about her books, awards, and news.

 

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

Magical Realism meets middle grade: The Unicorn in the Barn

The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn/Illustrated by Rebecca Green, (July 2017, HMH Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 9780544761124

Recommended for ages 10-12

Eric Harper lives with his dad and his brother on a farm near Chinaberry Creek. His grandmother lived in the house near theirs, too, but she’s gone into a rest home and now, a veterinarian and her brusque daughter, Allegra, live there. When Eric spots a unicorn in the woods one night, he and Allegra become partners in caring for Moonpearl – the name they give the unicorn – and the twins she’s carrying. Dr. B is no ordinary vet – she takes care of everyone’s pets, sure, but she also has a gift for magical creatures, and they seem to know how to find her. Eric adores Moonpearl and tries to spend every moment he can with her, but he is also too aware of the magical healing properties that unicorns possess; the temptation to use Moonpearl’s magic to make things better for his friends and family is strong.

The Unicorn in the Barn is magical. It’s a beautifully told story of love and loss; of friendship and new life, of beginnings and endings. The black and white illustrations throughout are soft and add an extra dimension to the story. Eric is so earnest, so passionate about making life better for everyone and so in love with Moonpearl, that he often finds himself at odds with the somewhat bossy and bullish Allegra, who would rather keep her mother and Moonpearl to herself. The story is as much about the evolution of their friendship as it is about Eric’s journey through a critical point in his life. A beautiful middle grade work of magical realism. Booktalk with Me and Marvin Gardens to add some magic into your audience’s reading.

Posted in Fantasy, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Surreal Brooklyn: Vassa in the Night

vassaVassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter, (Sept. 2016, Tor/Forge), $17.99, ISBN: 9780765380548

Recommended for ages 12+

A retelling of the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” introduces readers to a surrealistic, modern-day Brooklyn where magic and mayhem rule the day. Vassa is a teen living with her stepmother, half-sister, and stepsister; she really only gets along with Chelsea, who isn’t even technically related to her. She also has a wooden doll, Erg, that is alive and a bit of a kleptomaniac, but Vassa can’t tell anyone about her, so everyone thinks she’s the one with the problem. Mean-spirited Stephanie sends Vassa to the store in the middle of the night to pick up light bulbs, but the only store open is the awful BY’s, where they behead shoplifters and leave the heads on pikes outside the store. Vassa goes to the store, fully aware that Stephanie is trying to get her killed.

When she arrives at the store, she discovers that the outside of BY’s is just the beginning of the weirdness, and that she’s caught up in it more deeply than she could have guessed. She’d better hold on tight to Erg if she wants to get out alive.

If you love your fairy tales fractured, they don’t come any more flipped than Vassa in the Night. Magical realism fans will embrace this story and so will fans of surrealist writing. Vassa is a smart heroine who undertakes a hero’s journey here; Baba Yaga – called Babs here – is appropriately awful, and Erg emerges as the best sidekick since C-3P0 and R2D2 teamed up. There’s great character development, cringe-worthy moments, and some beautiful storytelling. Every time Sarah Porter describes the swans that gather around Vassa, I just want to close my eyes and listen to the beating of their feathers around me. There will be moments where you have to put the book down and wrap your head around what you’ve just read, but it’s all worth it. Read the original folktale here first if you want a better grasp on the story, or just dive in if you like to live dangerously.

Sarah Porter’s author website has more information about her books, a gallery of artwork (some inspired by her books), and updates from the author.

 

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Blog Tour: Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me, plus an interview with author Philippa Dowding

everton-miles-twitter-card

One great thing about being able to have my own little corner of the blogosphere is discovering all these great, smaller publishers I may never have discovered before. I hope that by sharing these books, authors, and publishers with you,that you enjoy discovering them, too.

Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me is the sequel to 2014’s The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden. It’s the continuing story of a teenage girl who discovers that she’s got an incredible gift – but there are always strings attached, and being able to fly comes with some pretty big strings. It’s a fun tale of magical realism, family, and friendship, and you don’t need to have read the first one to pick up the second; the book fills you in on the basics that you need to know to enjoy the story. I enjoyed visiting Gwendolyn, Everton and their friends; they’re characters you genuinely like and want to see good things happen for them. The supporting characters are all strong and empathetic; I especially love Gwendolyn’s headstrong younger sister, Christine.

If you’ve got readers who enjoy a little bit of magic in their daily lives – Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is a great read-alike here – add the Night Flyers series to your bookshelves.

9781459735279Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me, by Philippa Dowding, (Oct. 2016, Dundurn Press), $9.99, ISBN: 9781459735286

Recommended for ages 10-14

I was lucky enough to have author Philippa Dowding put together a fun Q&A for this post. Read and enjoy!

philippa_dowdingThe 5 Questions No One Has Asked Me About This Book – Yet!, by Philippa Dowding

1.    What’s your new book about?
Everton Miles is Stranger than Me (Dundurn Press), is a sequel to my 2014 title, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, which was nominated for the OLA Red Maple award in 2015. In the first book, Gwendolyn, my 14-year-old protagonist, wakes up one morning on the ceiling of her bedroom, which is odd, but doesn’t particularly shock her. Floating around is just another weird thing that seems to be happening to her during puberty. As the story develops, however, she realizes she’s part of a larger community of Night Flyers, and that her dead father was a Night Flyer, too.

In the new sequel, I pick up where we left off: Gwendolyn has one year to decide whether or not she will become a Night Flyer forever. As she enters grade nine, she has all the problems of a regular teenager, PLUS she’s also part of this magical community of Night Flyers, which imbues everything with a sense of wonder, and a little darkness too, frankly. Everton Miles shows up at the beginning of school, a grade older, much cooler than her, and surprise, surprise … he’s a Night Flyer, too! The two mismatched teenagers are thrown together, and as Gwendolyn discovers more about the death of her father, she and Everton have to face Abilith, a fallen Rogue Spirit Flyer, kidnap, and the unspeakable horror of the Shade, together. Gwen discovers that with the help of Everton Miles, her community, and The Night Flyer’s Handbook, she might actually survive grade nine!

2.    The series is called The Night Flyer’s Handbook. Why did you choose that as a series name?
Part of the new story is built around an 800-page book, The Night Flyer’s Handbook, that Gwendolyn’s mentor, Mrs. Forest, hands her. It’s quite hilariously the exact opposite of the flimsy 3-page brochure for the Less-than-Willing-Reader that Gwen received in book 1, (which ended up being entirely unhelpful). The much larger Handbook is intended to help her understand her new life as a Night Flyer, if she chooses to become one forever. Gwen isn’t a great reader, and finds the book daunting just to look at, but she does slowly read it, as the story progresses.

I’ve been both an academic and a copywriter in my life, and have written probably thousands of brochures, as well as a few academic papers in university. I thought it would be fun to introduce a tiny taste of academic-style writing into the story, since it couldn’t be more different from the useless 3-page brochure Gwen gets in book one. The Handbook has hilariously earnest chapter headings, like “Enemies and Entities,” or “History and Hysteria.”

Here’s a sample: “There appears to have been spirited rejection of the medieval European Night Flyer population, and as Professor Gertrude L. Lisquith (N.F., PhD, Oxford), concludes in her lengthy and definitive 1963 study, The Dialectic Presented by the Earliest Records of Night Flying/Non-Witch Identified Populations in Medieval England, France, Germany and Belgium, (Oxford University Press, pp. 816–865), although Night Flyers most likely existed before 1437, we have virtually no written record of them…”

Gwen finds it mystifying, but she doesn’t give up. The Handbook also has illustrations by a mythical 15th century illustrator, “T. Bosch,” who is a fictional, lesser-known relative to Hieronymus Bosch. As Gwen’s story progresses, and she eventually finishes the enormous Handbook, she realizes that it actually does help her, and is a valuable tome about her Night Flyer community. The message? You can still find the answers to life’s questions in books!

3.    The teenagers in the story build a beautiful bottle garden with thousands of recycled glass bottles. Where did you get the idea for a bottle garden?
I was reading an article about wind catchers. There’s a low-tech wind-maker people create, using plastic bottles with the ends cut off, poked neck-first into plywood, which catches the breeze. This led to more reading about what to do with bottles, and I was astonished to discover the beauty of glass bottle garden sculptures.

One of the characters in both books, Mr. McGillies, is an old bottle collector. He has a fairly large role in Everton Miles is Stranger than Me, so I wanted to do something useful with all the bottles he hoarded on his property, plus I wanted to show that teenagers are remarkably resourceful, and beauty can pop up in the most unusual ways. I also wanted a tip of the hat to recycling.

Search “glass bottle sculpture” on the web, you’ll be amazed!

4.    You HAVE to choose a favourite character from the book. Who is it, and why?
Abilith the Rogue, hands down. He was fascinating to write, and who doesn’t love creating a brilliant, powerful, menacing sociopathic antagonist, a fallen outcast from a race of immortals? For more about Abilith the Rogue, you can follow my blog tour this week, the schedule is on my blog: http://www.phdowding.blogspot.ca

5.    What are you publishing next?
I have a middle-grade series with Dundurn Press called Weird Stories Gone Wrong, so I am currently expanding on those three books, hopefully there will be two more in the next year. I’m also considering a third book in The Night Flyer’s Handbook series, so stay tuned on that!

 

Enjoy a book trailer for The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden right here!