Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels, Intermediate

Surviving the Wild: Remy Lai’s new graphic novel series!

I’ve been enjoying Remy Lai’s storytelling ever since I picked up an ARC for Pie in the Sky a few years ago. She creates a great mix of visual and prose storytelling, creates instantly memorable and lovable characters, and successfully weave humor and pathos into her stories to get at the heart of deep issues. She’s got a new graphic novel series, Surviving the Wild, that tells fictional animal stories based on true events, and calls attention to the effects of climate change and habitat encroachment on the animals we share this planet with. Let’s look at the first three stories!

Surviving the Wild: Star the Elephant, by Remy Lai, (Apr. 2022, Henry Holt & Co), $13.99, ISBN: 9781250784995

Ages 6-9

Star is a young elephant living in a herd with his mom and aunt, but the herd needs to find a new home because resources are becoming scarce. During the journey, Star is separated from his family and left to find his own way to safety and, hopefully, his family. Inspired by a 1990 story about bull elephants losing their home, Star’s story has some differences, noted in the back matter, but the heart of the story is the same: deforestation and human interference are causing animals to lose their homes. Star’s fear of humans is not without cause, but there’s some tension as readers worry that Star won’t be able to tell the difference between harmful humans and the humans who wants to keep elephants safe, bringing them to a sanctuary. Star reacts in a very relatable, childlike way to being separated from family and to stranger danger. The colorful artwork and dialogue makes for a very readable animal story; back matter includes deeper insight on the 1990 story that inspired Star’s tale, elephant facts, and ways kids can help keep the Earth livable for everyone.

Surviving the Wild: Rainbow the Koala, by Remy Lai, (Apr. 2022, Henry Holt & Co), $13.99, ISBN: 9781250785442

Ages 6-9

Rainbow is a young koala who’s enjoyed life in his mom’s pouch. When Mom tells him it’s time for him to go off and live on his own, he’s scared! It’s not as friendly out there when you don’t have your mom with you, and poor Rainbow can’t find a good tree of his own or a place where he can get water. It’s hot and the forest is dry, and the creek that he remembers mom taking him for water seems to be dried up. Thirsty, tired, and dispirited, he escapes humans and finds himself in the middle of an exodus: there’s a forest fire coming, and Rainbow is right in the middle of it. Rainbow’s story is inspired by the Australian bush fires of early 2020, which impacted over 60,000 koalas and millions of other animals and insects. Rainbow’s story hits hard; there are painful moments as he surveys the devastation around him and burns his own paws as he tries to find safety and shelter. Rainbow’s fear clearly comes through in his first-person narration, whether it’s through his speaking out loud to his mother as he struggles to survive in the wild, or to calm himself as he sees the forest burning around him. The stark, decimated landscape is heartbreaking in the aftermath of the fire.  Once again, we worry that Rainbow won’t understand that some humans – in this case, the rescuers searching the forest to bring animals back to animal hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Back matter includes the story behind Rainbow’s tale, koala facts, facts about climate change and ways that kids can take action.

Surviving the Wild: Sunny the Shark, by Remy Lai, (Aug. 2022, Henry Holt & Co), $13.99, ISBN: 9781250785459

Ages 6-9

Sunny is an oceanic whitetip shark on the hunt for some food, but ends up the protector for a group of pilot fish who promise to keep her clean in exchange for food crumbs. Sunny isn’t sure she’s thrilled about having a group of chatty fish swimming around her, but she tries to be good-natured about it. One day, what she thinks is a yummy squid tentacle turns out to be a plastic ring, which wraps itself around one of her fins and impacts her movement. Since she’s a growing shark, that ring is going to get tighter and more uncomfortable as she gets bigger – and it’s already causing a problem for her when trying to eat. She’s got to find a way to break free of the ring, especially before the winter sets in. Will the oceanographers who tagged her be able to help? Inspired by a 2019 news story, back matter talks about the creative adjustments made to the original story while still bringing home the impact of pollution on our oceans and ocean life. Back matter also includes shark facts and ways kids can help keep plastic use down.

Each of these stories is such a strong statement on how humans are failing as stewards of the planet, yet filled with hope and awareness of how we can also be the change that puts things back in balance. Remy Lai creates characters that have much in common with readers, to foster a relationship between kids and the planet, and them empowers them with simple, powerful ways to bring about change. The Surviving the Wild series is a must for your graphic novel collections.

 

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, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Elvin Link, doodler, sketch artist… and THAT kid?

Elvin Link, Please Report to the Principal’s Office!, by Drew Dernavich (July 2021, Square Fish), $7.99, ISBN: 9781250791702

Ages 8-12

Fifth grader Elvin Link is a doodler. He doodles on everything, everywhere, including his desk, which clearly looks cooler as a rocket ship… despite what the custodian and his teacher think. While he’s scrubbing down the desk, an incident involving a teacher’s glasses, an ill-fated ice cream cone, and a schoolyard collision lands him back in the principal’s office, this time, as a sketch artist. He’s so good at it that the principal brings him back in shortly after, to solve a school mystery! Meanwhile, the school bully, who specializes in wedgies, has his sights set on Elvin. Elvin has to navigate his twin sisters, one of whom has a crush on the bully, keep his best friend out of trouble, and cover his rear end: literally. For readers who loved Timmy Failure and, yes, that other illustrated diarist, Elvin Link: Please Report to the Principal’s Office is an insta-read. Award-winning New Yorker artist Drew Dernavich creates a likable, laugh-out loud funny character with Elvin and his best friends and family members are equally fun to spend time with. The book is laid out like a journal, with Elvin’s doodles and opinions throughout. He’s got the Wimpy Kid snark with a slightly more generous personality, and the black and white illustrations and added back matter will have your library kids asking when the next book is coming out. (Hey, Mr. Dernavich, when is that happening?)

Released in hardcover last July, Elvin Link is coming to paperback this July and is a good fit for your middle grade shelves.

 

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

Amazing Middle Grade!

In the interest of holiday season posting: need gifts for the kid who has every video game, or a bookworm who has read everything, and needs something new? Allow me to be your guide through a few fantastic middle grade reads I’ve just finished.

Malcolm and Me, by Robin Farmer, (Nov. 2020, SparkPress), $16.95, ISBN: 9781684630837

Ages 10-14

Where do I even start with Malcolm and Me? This book blew my mind in the best way possible. It’s 1973, and 13-year-old Roberta has a lot of feelings. She’s reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and discussing Black history and Black Power with her father at home, and clashing with a racist nun at her Philadelphia Catholic school. When she’s sent home after a blowup with Sister Elizabeth, she deep dives into the Autobiography, examining her own feelings and frustrations through Malcolm X’s lenses. Already a writer, she begins journaling her verse and diary entries, guided by Malcolm, and it gives her the strength she needs as her home life and school life begin unraveling.

There is such power in this book and in the characters. Roberta emerges as an incredible heroine; a self-aware 13-year-old coming of age in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, during Watergate, she questions her own faith in God and in organized religion, in family, and in color. Inspired by an event in the author’s life, Malcolm and Me is essential reading that hits that often hard-to-reach middle school/high school age group. Please put this on school (and adult) reading lists, and talk about this book with your tweens and your teens. Talk this up to your Angie Thomas fans, Nic Stone fans, and – naturally! – Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter. Author Robin Farmer’s author website has more information on the author’s articles, her books, and a link to her blog.

 

The Clockwork Crow, by Catherine Fisher, (Sept. 2020, Walker Books US), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536214918

Ages 9-13

Orphan Seren Rhys thinks she’s being rescued from the orphanage when her mysterious godfather, Captain Jones, sends for her. His country mansion, Plas-y Fran, is just going to be wonderful, Seren knows it! She’ll be the apple of Captain Jones and his wife, Lady Mair’s eyes, have wonderful parties, and play with the couple’s young son, Tomos. She realizes things are very different when she’s picked up at the train station and arrives, late at night, at Plas-y Fran, which looks rundown and all but abandoned; Mrs. Villiers, the cold housekeeper, tells her that the family is in London for the foreseeable future. Seren turns to the mysterious package entrusted to her at the train station and discovers a mechanical crow. Upon assembly, the crow can talk, fly, and complain. A lot. But when Seren learns that Tomos has been taken by fairies, she decides to rescue him and restore life to Plas-y Fran: and the crow will help her do it.

A fun fantasy with a bit of steampunk, which I always enjoy, this is a quick read with adventure and a warm family story at its heart. Seren is the hopeful orphan, and the cantankerous Crow is a great foil, making this a fine buddy comedy. Fairie lore amps up the action and the tension, and adds some dark fantasy and magic to the plot. A good choice for readers who loved the Nevermoor/Morrigan Crow series by Jessica Townsend.

 

The Sisters of Straygarden Place, by Hayley Chewins, (Oct. 2020, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536212273

Ages 10-14

Hayley Chewins is back! Her 2018 novel, The Turnaway Girls, was one of the best books I’d read that year, so I was excited to read her newest, The Sisters of Straygarden Place. The Ballastian Sisters – Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine – have lived in the house by themselves after their parents left seven years before, only a note telling them to “sleep darkly” left behind. The house takes care of their basic needs – food, clothing, shelter – but they cannot leave the house, lest the tall silver grass take them. Winnow grows tired of waiting and ventures outside, leaving 12-year-old Mayhap to take care of their youngest sister, Pavonine, and figure out how to heal 14-year-old Winnow. As Mayhap discovers more about the house and the history of the magic within it, the mystery deepens. Readers will love this gorgeous, dark fantasy written with prose that’s almost lyrical, magical. Hayley Chewins writes like Neil Gaiman, where the words just caress you, wrap themselves around you, and when you’re fully under their spell, tell you stories that will leave you wondering. In a world where dogs crawl into your mind to help you sleep and the grass tempts you to come outside so it can take you away, The Sisters of Straygarden Place is truly magical reading.

The Sisters of Straygarden Place is is one of Kirkus’s Best MG Fantasy & SF Books of 2020.

 

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Horror, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Great TBR Readdown: Hello, Neighbor and The Land of Broken Time

My Great TBR Readdown continues!

Hello Neighbor: Missing Pieces (Hello Neighbor, Book 1), by Carly Anne West/Illustrated by Tim Heitz, (Sept. 2018, Scholastic), $7.99, ISBN: 978-1-338-28009-8

Ages 10-14

Based on the horror video game, Hello Neighbor, this is the first book in a middle school-and-up series introducing Nicky Roth, a new kid in the town of Raven Brooks, and their neighbors, the Petersons. Nicky and Aaron, the Peterson’s son, become friends over their shared interest in tinkering, but when Nicky visits Aaron’s home, he’s uncomfortable. Aaron’s father makes him uneasy, and Nicky notices that Aaron, his mother, and sister are equally uncomfortable around him. The kids at school seem afraid of Aaron, and secrets and rumors about his father run wild. What’s the Peterson family’s dark secret, and why does Nicky feel like Aaron’s father is stalking him?

Knowing nothing about the Hello Neighbor game, I picked this book up and discovered a quietly creepy, light horror novel for tweens. If you have horror fans, this should be a good book to hand them. There are three in the series so far; the characters have a good background to build on, and the suspense builds nicely throughout the book. Illustrations throughout keep the pages turning.

 

In the Land of Broken Time, by Max Evan/Illustrated by Maria Evan, (Aug. 2016, self-published), $7.99, ISBN: 978-1520569291

Ages 8-10

A self-published novella by husband-wife team Max and Maria Evan, we’ve got a time-traveling fantasy starring a boy, a girl, and a talking dog, taking place in a fantasy land ruled by time – or the lack of it. Christopher sneaks out of his house to go to a nearby traveling circus, meets a girl named Sophie, and ends up hijacking a hot-air balloon, where the two meet a talking circus dog named Duke. They end up in a land where sibling scientists work at opposite ends: one seek to help them repair time, while the other wants to use time to manipulate his own power struggle.

The books is only about 50 pages, and is a quick enough read. I’d like to see something a little more fleshed out, because the world-building felt a little rushed, but was promising. Where is this land? What are the origin stories for the scientists, gnomes, and townspeople who waited for the prince? How did this power struggle between the two scientists begin? There are Narnian influences here that I enjoyed spotting, and there’s obviously more backstory to draw on; the story’s end leaves a sequel – or a prequel? – open to possibility. Maria Evan’s illustrations are beautiful, bright, and colorful, and brought the land and its characters to life. I’d like to see more. Let’s hope we get it.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

The Key to Everything: But will it cure?

The Key to Everything, by Pat Schmatz, (May 2018,  Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763695668

Ages 9-12

Eleven-year-old Tash is angry. She doesn’t want to go to camp, but her Uncle Kevin needs to travel to Australia, and she and Cap’n Jackie, their friend and neighbor, clashed over the whole business. Tash ends up having a pretty good time at camp, after all, but returns home to find Cap’n Jackie gone: she’s had a fall and is in the hospital, and Tash’s world turns upside down overnight. She’s determined to return a special key to Cap’n Jackie; one that opens up a magical world to her, and that’ll make it all better. Cap’n Jackie even said so, so it has to be true, right?

The Key to Everything can be a bit hard to follow. We have Tash, seemingly abandoned by her mother and living her with uncle while her father is in jail. Kevin, who takes care of Tash, Cap’n Jackie, a loving and cantankerous older woman, and Nathan, Cap’n Jackie’s nephew, who lives in New York, but comes back when Cap’n Jackie is hurt. We don’t get a lot of exposition in this story, but we do learn that family is who you make it. Two major characters, Jackie and Nathan, are gay; something that’s very lightly touched on, but it’s nicely done. Tash suffers from PTSD and a fear of being alone, while Jackie struggled with agoraphobia. Readers have to put in a bit of work to make all the lines connect, but it’s a solid read about family, grief, moving on, and growing up.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade

The Tale of Angelino Brown will make you happy cry.

The Tale of Angelino Brown, by David Almond/Illustrated by Alex T. Smith, (Feb. 2108, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763695637

Recommended for readers 8-12

Bert Brown is a tired school bus driver who’s burned out on his job. When he starts feeling chest pains behind the wheel one day, he’s sure he’s having a heart attack – but no! – there’s a little angel in his pocket! The sweet little angel shows a liking for gumdrops, offered by one of the kids on the school bus who notices the little visitor, and Bert brings the angel home to his wife, Betty, who’s thrilled. They name the angel Angelino and Betty sets to work finding foods that he likes, and making clothes for him. Betty decides that Angelino needs to be in school, and since she’s the school cook, he tags along with her for a school day, where he enchants (most of) the teachers and students around him, particularly the expressive art teacher, Ms. Monteverdi. Everyone is just happier, better, when Angelino is around, but two shadowy figures are keeping an eye on Angelino. When the time is right, they kidnap him, hoping to sell him off; what even they don’t realize is Basher, a lifetime bully, is coming for Angelino, too. Can Bert, Betty, and Angelino’s schoolmates save the day?

This story just made me feel happy inside, and not in a goofy, syrupy way. Angelino appears into the lives of a married couple who’ve been going through the motions for a long time, bringing joy to them after a tragedy of their own seems to have had a hand in closing them off. Everything he touches is filled with good and happiness – he’s an angel, complete with little wings, and happy little farts (my kids do love a good fart joke) that will give readers the giggles. The baddies here aren’t completely bad – there’s some interesting character study here for all involved – and the humor takes some amusing pot-shots at the Seriousness of the Education System, which is always good for getting a laugh out of me. Angelino has no memory of who he is and indeed, must learn how to speak, read, and write, but he’s up to the challenge and even advocates for himself when the chips are down. Black and white illustrations throughout add to the fun.

This one is a win for summer reading kids who “don’t know what to reeeeaaaaaad”.  A gentle, sweet fantasy with just a hint of flatulence. The Tale of Angelino Brown has starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

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

I’m a CYBILS Judge!

cybils

I can finally talk about it! I’m thrilled to be a CYBILS judge again, returning to the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. There have been SO many great books published, and I’ll be diving into the finalists this time around, as a second round judge. Wanna see who’s up for the award? Take a look, and adjust your TBRs accordingly.

grace-lin

When the Sea Turned to Silver, by Grace Lin, (Oct. 2016, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), $18.99, ISBN: 978-0316125925

Inspired by Chinese folklore, this companion to the Newbery Honor Winner, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is the story of a girl on a mission to save her kidnapped grandmother.

voyage-to-magical-north

The Voyage to Magical North, by Claire Fayers, (July 2016, Henry Holt & Co.), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1627794206

An orphan keeps house for an irritable magician and his equally obnoxious apprentice, and ends up accidentally becoming a pirate.

smallbone

The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, (Sept. 2016, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0763688059

A boy runs away from his uncle’s home, discovers a bookstore run by a self-proclaimed Evil Wizard who won’t let him leave, but calls him his apprentice.

shadow-magic

Shadow Magic, by Joshua Khan, (April 2016, Disney-Hyperion), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1484732724

An outlaw’s son is sold into slavery. A girl is the last surviving member of her family, a line of dark sorcerers. Together, they’ll break the rules.

memory-thief

The Memory Thief, by Bryce Moore, (Sept. 2016, Adaptive Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9781945293030

This was published as a Barnes & Noble exclusive in 2016, but is being published in wide release this March.

Twins wander off at a county fair; Benji, the brother, wanders into a tent where he meets an old man who collects memories. He asks to train as a Memory Thief and ends up on an adventure.

goblin-puzzle

The Goblin’s Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy with No Name and Two Girls Called Alice, by Andrew Chilton, (Jan. 2016, Knopf Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 978-0553520705

A fantasy adventure filled with dragons, goblins, and puzzles.

firefly-code

The Firefly Code, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, (May 2016, Bloomsbury USA), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1619636361

When a new girl moves to Firefly Lane, a girl and her friends start questioning everything they’ve known.

 

I’ll recap after we select a winner!

 

 

 

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 Fiction, Middle Grade, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Beetle Boy makes bugs lovable!

beetleboyBeetle Boy, by M.G. Leonard (Feb. 2016, Chicken House), $16.99, ISBN: 9780545853460

Recommended for ages 8-12

Darkus Cuttle is worried about his dad, a Director of Science at the National History Museum, who disappeared over six weeks ago. He vanished from a locked room in the museum, and no one has seen or heard from him. Darkus is living with his uncle for now, but he just knows his dad is out there – he’d never leave him, and he’d certainly never kill himself, like some people are suggesting. One day, he spots the two crazy cousins next door arguing about a beetle infestation and discovers that these beetles are pretty special. Baxter, a rhino beetle that befriends him, can understand him! Soon, Darkus and his friends Virginia and Bertolt find themselves on the trail of Darkus’ dad; Darkus is about to find out some secrets about his dad, fashion icon/villainess Lucretia Cutter, and the beetles next door. Can the kids find Darkus’ dad and keep themselves safe in the meantime?

I’m an avowed bug-phobic, so the fact that I wanted to read this book so badly should be a sign of how good I thought it would be. I’m very happy to tell you I was right: Beetle Boy, the first book in a new series by debut author M.G. Leonard, is so much fun. Darkus is a bit of an outcast, but never a wimp. He falls in with two other school misfits who can match him in intelligence and bravery (even if they may need some prodding), and they plan out their rescue mission after careful observation and research. Darkus’ Uncle Max is more than just a plot device to give Darkus a place to live while the story happens around him; he’s an uncle who’s learning how to be a guardian and he’s ready to jump in and get involved when it comes to his brother’s and his nephew’s safety.

There’s adventure, excitement, genetic modification, and a battle involving flying poo that is NOT to be missed. Boys and girls with a sense of adventure are going to LOVE this story and hopefully, like me, be waiting impatiently for the next installment. We’ve got some solid science, with facts about different sorts of bugs that will please any budding entomologist.

Beetle Boy has been designated an Independent Booksellers’ Debut Pick of the Season for Spring 2016.

A great pick for middle grade collections! I love fic that mixes realistic fiction with a touch of science fiction to get kids’ attention.