Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

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

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

Ages 8-12

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

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

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

A Kind of Spark is an incredible must-read

A Kind of Spark, by Elle McNicoll, (Oct. 2021, Crown Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 9780593374252

Ages 8-12

An award-winning debut middle grade novel that debuted in the UK last year, A Kind of Spark is the kind of book the educators, parents and caregivers, and kids need to read and discuss together.

Addie is an autistic girl with a teacher who loves reading and learning, but she’s stuck with a teacher who sees her neurodivergence as being rebellious and lazy. She’s verbally abusive to Addie, as she was to Addie’s older sister, Keedie. Addie is targeted by both Mrs. Murphy, her teacher, and by Emily, a fellow student; her fellow students, including her former friend, all look the other way during these painful bullying sessions, but new girl Audrey arrives and befriends Addie, enjoying her for who she is. When the class learns that their small Scottish town once tried and executed a number of young women as witches, it sparks a visceral reaction in Addie. What if these women were misunderstood? What if they were like her? The lesson becomes a personal crusade for Addie, who campaigns for the town to install a memorial to these misunderstood women, with Keedie and Audrey providing the support she needs.

There is so much in this book. At times painful and enraging, it remains a book that needs reading and discussing. Told from the point of view of a neurodivergent character, written by a neurodivergent author, A Kind of Spark encourages empathy and understanding by providing a first-person perspective. It addresses the bullying and abuse that neurodivergent people are susceptible to, but it also points the finger at bystanders who don’t speak out and takes on those who should be there to support and protect students – like caregivers and educators – who are lacking. The bond between Keedie and Addie is heart-warming, and their discussions on “masking” – acting neurotypical in order to fit in – are thought-provoking and a wake-up call. An incredible book that is a must-add, must-read, to all collections.

A Kind of Spark has a starred review from School Library Journal. There are a wealth of autism and neurodivergence resources available: the NEA has a guide for educators; the Organization for Autism Research has a Kit for Kids to help create allies rather than bullies and a Teacher’s Corner for educators; the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has resources and an article on what makes an ally, and Autism Classroom News and Resources has a free resources library with materials and webinars. Author Elle McNicoll’s website has links to her blog and more information about her books.

The BBC is going to be bringing A Kind of Spark to the screen – now, we folx in the U.S., wait.

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

Frankie and Amelia is a great buddy story

Frankie and Amelia, by Cammie McGovern, (Oct. 2021, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062463326

Ages 8-12

Franklin is a cat who ends up separated from his family. He finds a temporary home with a family, where he meets a dog named Chester, a service dog to a boy with autism named Gus. But Gus’s dad is allergic to Franklin, so he ends up with one of Gus’s classmates, a girl named Amelia, who loves cats, and who really needs a good friend.

Frankie and Amelia is a the companion book to Chester and Gus (2017), but you don’t need to have read it to enjoy Frankie and Amelia. It’s a gentle story about found families, inclusion, and autism, particularly how it’s often missed in girls. The story is narrated by Franklin, who grows as a character as the story progresses and he learns more about and becomes more sensitive to his adopted humans, Gus and Amelia. Chester, a seasoned seizure response dog, is Franklin’s guide into this new world and provides an incredible amount of information to readers on autism and the sensitivity that companion animals provide to their charges. Cammie McGovern, the parent of a child with autism, writes with an understanding and sensitivity to the topic, and creates characters that are kind, realistic, and lovable. By exploring the relationship between pets and people, she’s able to give readers a new understanding of autism, how people with autism are often perceived by others, and how autism presents differently in boys and girls.

A must-have for your shelves.

 

Posted in picture books

“If only humans were as easy to understand!”: Leo and the Octopus

Leo and the Octopus, by Isabelle Marinov/Illustrated by Chris Nixon, (Sept. 2021, Kane Miller), $12.99, ISBN: 9781684642779

Ages 4-8

“The world was too bright for Leo. And too loud.” Leo is a boy who feels like he’s on the wrong planet. Other kids don’t understand him; he doesn’t understand them. Stressed and lonely, everything changes the day he meets Maya, an octopus who looks like an alien! And Leo feels like an alien, so this should be great! Once he reads up on octopuses, he discovers how interesting they are, and decides that maybe Maya could be his first friend. The octopus and the boy form a friendly bond, which helps him understand a day when Maya is overwhelmed by all the attention she’s getting at her aquarium tank.

Author Isabelle Marinov was inspired to write Leo and the Octopus by her own son and turns in a sensitive and accurate portrayal of a child on the autism spectrum. The storytelling is gentle, respectful to both Leo and Maya and their growing friendship. The two characters develop a very sweet relationship that helps Leo grow: he recognizes when Maya is distressed and takes action to relieve her stress, and he learns to reach out and discover another friend in the course of the story. Soothing colors make this an easy read that all kids will love. Endpapers spotlight Maya and Leo interacting across the spread. A must-read, must-have to teach empathy and understanding to others as well as to provide kids on the spectrum with a child they recognize on the page.

Leo and the Octopus has a starred review from Kirkus.

Posted in picture books

Two siblings support each other in Benji, the Bad Day, and Me

Benji, the Bad Day, and Me, by Sally J. Pla/Illustrated by Ken Min, (Oct. 2018, Lee & Low Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781620143452

Ages 5-8

Sammy is having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. He’s been in trouble at school, the cafeteria ran out of pizza for lunch, and he had to walk home in the rain. When he gets home, he discovers that Benji, his little brother who has autism, is having a bad day, too: but a bad day for Benji is totally different. Benji has a special hiding place and a block city set up, and Mom even wraps Benji up “like a burrito” in a special blanket when he’s having a bad day. When Sammy has a bad day, no one seems to notice – or so he thinks. Because Benji does notice, and in a touching moment of sibling affection, gets out his blanket and leads Sammy to it. Because Sammy his his little burrito.

Benji, the Bad Day, and Me will resonate with anyone who loves Judith Viorst’s classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; Sammy’s frustrated narrative is so close to Alexander’s, readers may wonder if Sammy’s about to pack it all in and head for Australia. Sally J. Pla is wonderful at using this narrative device to introduce readers to a story about siblings and the challenges of being a sibling to a child with autism. Sometimes, it may feel like one’s feelings get lost, or no one’s paying attention, but Sally Pla and illustrator Ken Min show readers that family will always be there for you. The story is inspired by the author’s experiences of “sibling rivalry and neurodiversity, all wrapped in a big blue blanket”. Ken Min‘s acrylic and colored pencil artwork uses digital enhancements to give us a warm household; Benji’s isolation shows in the cool blue color depicted inside his box fort; a color repeated in Sammy’s recollection of Benji’s appointments with his occupational therapist, who Sammy refers to as “Super-Happy Lady”. As Benji gazes out at Sammy, reduced to tears when he hits his final straw, the shadow falls across Benji’s face, warming up his eyes and nose as he gazes out at his brother. Sammy and his family appear tan-skinned, with dark brown hair.

Benji, the Bad Day, and Me has a starred review from Shelf Awareness and is a solid add to your collections. It is a strong book to suggest when explaining neurodiversity, autism acceptance, and exploring sibling relationships. As author Sally J Pla notes on her website, “I once heard someone describe autism as “not a spectrum, so much as a constellation.” I love that. We are all stars shining with different lights.”