~ Review by Amanda Smith
The only thing Maggie wants for her birthday is a puppy. Her twin brothers have one another to play with and her parents are busy preparing for the new baby. Maggie knows her very own dog will be her best friend. But when she finds the perfect puppy at the shelter, she also finds out she is allergic to dogs. Extremely, land-in-the-hospital allergic. To any animal with fur or feathers.
Maggie often feels excluded and jealous of friends who can have pets. She feels guilty because her classroom hamster had to move to a different class due of her allergies. Even though she is getting allergy shots, the process is long and does not offer immediate relief. Her friend Claire, who doesn’t really understand the seriousness of Maggie’s allergies, tries to help, and her solution leads to even more problems and heartache.
Throughout Allergic (Graphix, 2021), Maggie learns the challenges and limitations of living with allergies. But she also learns to be a better big sister, and that she is very much needed, wanted, and loved as part of her family.
Allergic gives a voice to children dealing with allergies, or help them understand friends with allergies. Many allergy sufferers feel, like Maggie, helpless, and are sometimes left out because of something completely outside their control. Without being didactic, Allergic explores these emotional challenges, along with themes of friendship, family, and what it means to belong.
The graphic novel format is the perfect vehicle for this story. Intertwining visual and written storytelling, Lloyd and Nutter delivers the scientific and medical information in bite-size pieces that are interesting and relatable to young readers. Through a combination of art and text, reoccurring themes are strengthened. ALLERGIC is a great study of the dance between illustration and words, even in books for older readers, and how both these aspects enhance story-telling.
To learn more about Megan Wagner Lloyd visit meganwagnerlloyd.com/.
You can find more of Michelle's fabulous art at michellemee.com/.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020) is a delightful mix of mystery and cupcakes! When Zoe, who dreams of becoming a famous baker, receives a letter from her incarcerated father on her 12th birthday, she finds herself determined to prove the innocence of this man she's never met. Her mother, however, wants Zoe to have nothing to do with her dad, so Zoe must sneak around in her efforts to correspond with her father and uncover the truth. A novel about the power of hope, forgiveness, and believing in others.
Janae Marks takes a difficult subject (isolation from a parent) and makes it accessible to young readers in a gentle yet direct manner. Her handling of the father’s incarceration is presented thoughtfully, and the novel address faults and injustices in the legal system using an approach middle grade readers will understand. FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON is a solid mentor text for presenting social issues in an accessible, skillful way. The parallel plot of Zoe’s love of baking is seamlessly woven in with her pursuit to prove her father’s innocence, making this novel a prime example of how two strong parallel plots can work together to add dimension to the novel while simultaneously moving the main character’s story forward.
To learn more about Janae Marks’ work, visit her website at www.janaemarks.com.
JUST LIKE THAT by Gary Schmidt
Review by Amanda Smith
Gary Schmidt did it again! As in Ok For Now, Just Like That (HMH, 2021) takes place directly after The Wednesday Wars and follows a minor character from the Newbury Honor novel in their own coming of age story.
Meryl Lee Kowalski, Holling Hoodhood’s best friend, is sent to a Maine boarding school after a devastating personal loss. Surrounded by shallow, spoiled girls, strict teachers blinded by tradition and decorum, and disturbing news from the war in Vietnam, Meryl Lee battles to keep the Blank at bay.
But she also makes friends: Heidi with her hockey sticks; Mousy Marian (who learns to roar); and Bettey, a local girl employed by the school as serving staff. And Matt Coffin, the boy whose eyes tell Meryl Lee that he knows the Blank too.
And then there is Dr. Nora MacKnockater, headmistress of St. Elene Preparatory Academy for Girls, who inspires Meryl Lee with her assembly speech on the first day of school. There will be Obstacles, Dr MacKnockater said, but the girls should have Resolve. And then they will grow Accomplished. Dr. MacKnockater who can focus her searchlight eyes on Meryl Lee as if she can spot the Blank when it attempts to overcome Meryl Lee. Dr. MacKnockater who takes Matt Coffin in from the streets and helps him face his own dark past when he cannot run from it anymore.
Individually and together, under the protection and wisdom of Dr. MacKnockater, Meryl Lee and Matt resolve to overcome obstacles and challenge the status quo. The reader is swept along on their captivating journey to becoming increasingly Accomplished as they banish the Blank.
There is always so much to learn from a Gary Schmidt novel. One can get all wrapped up in his beautiful language use and unique turn of phrase. But more than anything else, Schmidt is a master at creating a rich and layered reading experience.
In this novel, he adds layers through different devices: Just as in The Wednesday Wars and OK for Now, he uses classic literary works to emphasize character traits and showcase character development. For example, Meryl Lee draws parallels from The Wizard of Oz to her own life, while Matt dubs Dr. MacKnockater Bagheera after she reads The Jungle Book to him.
As another layer, Schmidt solidifies setting by weaving paraphrased song lyrics from the sixties through the novel in a delightfully sweet and original way.
Clever repetition, both in close proximity to emphasize emotion or heighten tension, as well as throughout the novel to bring deeper understanding, adds to the layers.
He also uses capitalization of abstract concepts, such as resolve, to make them concrete and real, and give them presence.
And he sprinkles in unexpected moments of laugh-out-loud humor to lighten the heaviness in both Meryl Lee and Matt’s stories.
All of these layers lead to a tight narrative and a truly satisfying read.
Learn more about Gary Schmidt and his books here.
MALAMANDER, by Thomas Taylor
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
Who wants to go swimming inside a shipwreck in the middle of winter with a sea monster that lays a glowing ruby egg that can grant wishes? I do! I do! Sign me up! This book is a delight and swept me up from page one! With zingy humor and a fanciful cast of characters, MALAMANDER (Candlewick/Walker Books 2019) is a mystery/fantasy about two young orphans: one a worker at a hotel's "lost & foundery," the other a newcomer to town searching for the truth about what happened to her parents. Together, the go on a fantastically daring adventure, discovering along the way that all people are not as they seem and that some creatures are best left alone. Quick-moving, funny, engaging read!
Thomas Taylor creates a strong, atmospheric setting with his creation of the ocean side town of Eerie-on-Sea. The reader shudders at the whip of the icy wind off the water and tastes the salty fog hanging in the air. Taylor also excels at creating a sense of whimsy and magic that isn’t forced but rather is interwoven seamlessly into the plot. The pacing of this middle grade would keep even an antsy reader engaged, as Taylor hooks the reader from the get-go with questions of how and why a young boy, Herbert Lemon, would be employed in the “lost and foundery” of a hotel, then efficiently and smoothly slides into the appearance of a mysterious character, Violet Parma, outside the boy's window. Strong setting, intriguing charaters, curious unknowns...and you're off on an imaginative adventure!
To learn more about Thomas Taylor, visit his website at http://www.thomastaylor-author.com/. And check out the second in the Eerie-On-Sea series, Gargantis, released in paperback on April 6, 2021.
~Review by Amanda Smith
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca is a touching novel in verse about Reha, a first-generation Indian American girl who comes to terms with living in two worlds. As an immigrant and mother of first-generation American children, this novel truly resonated with me. Even though our countries of origin are different, LaRocca touches on universal immigrant experiences such as missing extended family and always feeling a little different or other. But Red, White, and Whole isn’t just about the immigrant experience. It is a tender look at mother-daughter relationships, and it is a beautiful coming of age story as Reha faces the unimaginable: her mother's battle with Leukemia. LaRocca entwines Indian folklore into the narrative to add another layer to her poignant storytelling and character development. Subtle repetition of key phrases and the calculating use of “red” and “white” throughout the novel bind the individual poems together – and the result is synergy: a WHOLE that is greater than the sum of its parts.
LaRocca supports the main theme of "two worlds" with recurring images of the colors red and white, and how they relate to the parts of blood, as well as virtue and grief in Indian culture. Red, White and Whole is a study in repetition within a verse novel. LaRocca weaves threads and themes seamlessly throughout, often when the meaning of the phrases are altered by context or circumstances. The similarity of the words paired with the difference in context delivers a forceful emotional punch.
To learn more about Rajani, visit her website at www.rajanilarocca.com/
WINTERHOUSE, by Ben Guterson
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
Orphan Elizabeth Somers, an 11-year-old with a passion for anagrams and a love of reading, is angry about being sent to a hotel for her Christmas holiday while her miserly aunt and uncle go on a vacation she knows they cannot afford. But when Elizabeth arrives at Winterhouse, magic and mystery unfold. There’s the creepy couple—always dressed in black—who take an odd interest in Elizabeth’s reading habits, the curious book Elizabeth sneaks from the hotel library’s reference section, the kind hotel proprietor, Norbridge Falls, whose magic tricks and wisdom enchant Elizabeth from the moment she arrives, and the mysterious code hidden in plain sight in a Falls family portrait. As Elizabeth and her new friend Freddy (who shares her love for anagrams) try to solve the code, Elizabeth realizes that Winterhouse is in jeopardy and she may be the only person who can save it. WINTERHOUSE (Henry Hold & Co., 2018) is a charming middle grade mystery full of intriguing puzzles, new friendships, and self-discovery. Get yourself a cup of cocoa, curl up under a blanket, and enjoy this atmospheric magical realism adventure! It's a backlist treasure!
In WINTERHOUSE, Ben Guterson depicts the necessity of positive human connections as Elizabeth, a very lonely child, discovers there’s a learning curve in being a good friend and a joy that comes from friendship and from others truly wanting her company. Guterson’s atmospheric, vivid creation of the hotel is a solid example of a setting so well-developed it goes beyond mere backdrop to become another character in the story. And the magic continues: there are now two more books in the WINTERHOUSE series! To learn more about Ben Guterson’s work, visit his website at www.benguterson.com.
~Reviewed by Amanda Smith
“You control the story, you control the narrative, you control the power.” – High John
Tristan Strong carries a lot of stories with him. The stories of his father and grandfather’s boxing success, compared to his first-match failure. Or the story of how his best friend, Eddie died in a bus accident, while he survived. The folk lore and African mythology his nana had told him. The journal in which Eddie collected those stories.
So, when a sticky little doll baby appears in Tristan room at his grandparents’ house in Alabama, squelches its way across the floor and nabs Eddie’s journal, Tristan fights hard to retrieve it. In the fight with Gum Baby, he punches a hole in the fabric that separates our world from the realm where folk heroes are gods of Midpass and African gods rule Alke. On his epic hero’s journey to stop the destruction caused by his punch, he meets a fascinating cast of gods, heroes, and villains. He travels to amazing cities; fights alongside fierce warriors; meets the pain of his past head-on; and discovers the strength of story and his power as Anansesem (magical storyteller) to wield it. He learns the rip between Midpass and Alke existed long before his careless fist caused the tear in the sky, and healing lies in telling all the stories of the past – even the painful ones.
TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY (Rick Riordan Presents, Disney.Hyperion 2019) is Kwame Mbalia's powerful debut novel and Coretta Scott King honors recipient. It tells not only Tristan’s story, but also, through symbolism, the history of slavery and the Middle Passage. Bringing often untold African-American history, alongside West African Mythology adds a fascinating, educational and important layer to this novel. While one could read the novel as pure entertainment, I often paused my reading to research a character or name, and discovered deeper meaning. And some of the history on which Mbalai touches directly connects with current conversations around systemic racism.
However, the novel is never dull or didactic. Mbalai delivers mythology and history with huge doses of humor, Marvell-movie-like fast-paced-action, lovable characters, authentic dialogue, goosebump-inducing place-descriptions, and the most beautiful magic scene I have ever read. Mbalia’s use of language is decadent: smuggled in bits of internal rhyme, dashes of alliteration, sensational imagery, clever humor, and masterful never-forced use of dialect. Tristan Strong might be an Anansesem, but the true story weaver here is Kwame Mbalia!
Even though the entire novel is a perfect mentor text for use of language in world building, I was truly struck by the tightness of the first chapter, and would highly recommend it as a study in beginnings. At the end of page fourteen, internal and external conflict have been established, we know Tristan’s shame and struggles, names of African gods have been introduced, we have a mysteriously knowing Nana, and a strangely glowing journal that keeps showing up in unexpected places. As Tristan Strong stated, “I mean really, what could go wrong?”
The sequel, TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD will release October 6, 2020. I can hardly wait to revisit these characters and this world!
To learn more about Kwame Mbalia visit https://kwamembalia.com/
BLUE SKIES by Anne Bustard
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
It’s been over three years since World War II ended, but fifth grader Glory Bea Bennett still holds on to the hope that her father will return from France, where he was reportedly killed in action. The Merci Train, a boxcar with gifts from the people of France, will make a stop in Glory Bea’s hometown of Gladiola, Texas, and Glory Bea is convinced her father will be the train’s surprise guest. When her father's army buddy, Randall Horton, arrives in town to meet their family, romance blooms between Mrs. Bennett and Randall, threatening to derail Glory Bea's plans for her father's reunion with their family. Simultaneously sweet and heart-wrenching, BLUE SKIES (Simon & Schuster, March 2020) is a middle grade historical fiction novel set in 1948 which examines the effects the war had on home front families. You'll fall in love with Glory Bea's feisty personality, devotion to her family, and unfaltering faith in what her heart desires.
On Writing: Anne Bustard employs light humor and an atmospheric subplot (middle school crushes at the soda fountain counter, anyone?) to assist in presenting the difficult subject of a family recovering from the impact of World War II. Her characters are well-developed and engaging, making this a strong mentor text for middle grade writers working on character development or writing about challenging topics.
For more information on Anne Bustard's work, visit her website at https://annebustard.com/.
SMALL SPACES, by Katherine Arden
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
In SMALL SPACES, Ollie is a 6th grader whose mother died last year. Despite a strong, loving relationship with her father, Ollie is left reeling and angry after her mother’s death and often acts on her frustrations. She pacifies herself by pulling away from her father, friends, and teachers, preferring to escape into the pages of her books. One afternoon, Ollie grabs a book from a frenzied woman who is about to destroy it by tossing it into the creek. As Ollie begins reading the book, she finds herself stumbling into a ghostly world of disorienting mists and cryptic warnings. The next day, when the school bus breaks down along an isolated, foggy road after a field trip, Ollie’s reality and her book’s story inexplicably intertwine, leading Ollie to realize that this book is not simply a fictional legend. As darkness descends, Ollie and her two friends must take on eerie scarecrows and the cunning smiling man as they attempt to save themselves and their classmates from a terrifying fate. Guided by her mother's compass watch, Ollie learns that her mother’s love lives on and guides her even after the tragedy of death. SMALL SPACES (G.P. Putnam Sons, 2018) is a middle grade novel for children ages 10-12. This spooky adventure will keep youngsters turning the page long after they should have turned out the light.
Katherine Arden explores the complexity of losing a loved one from the child’s perspective while also depicting how others react to the fallout of the main character’s struggles. Throughout the story, Arden deftly portrays the array of emotions the main character experiences after a tragedy. Through Ollie’s two friends, Arden highlights the ability of young people to demonstrate patience, kindness and understanding even the wake of another’s difficult behavior. Written in third person, SMALL SPACES is a strong example of an adventurous, darkly atmospheric middle grade tale that does not shy away from revving up the eerie factor. To learn more about Katherine Arden’s work, visit her website at www.katherinearden.com.
Review by Amanda Smith
Hannah Jordan lives in a Gilded Age mansion. Well, actually, she lives in the converted servant’s quarters of a mansion. Her father is the caretaker of The Elms, one of the most esteemed historical properties in Newport, RI. Hannah is a history buff and loves all things antique, but mostly she adores the reproduction portrait of Maggie and longs to spend a day in the rich heiress’ shoes.
Maggie is the twelve-year-old niece of the coal tycoon who built The Elms. Even though she loves her aunt and uncle, she finds her life mundane. Portrait sittings, tea with her stuck-up cousin, lawn tennis, and her aunt’s stifling opinions on what girls can and cannot do leave Maggie wanting.
In FREAKY FRIDAY-like fashion, Hannah and Maggie swap places though a mirror in the mansion. Hannah, who revels in everything 1905, is set on solving the mystery surrounding the heist of the original Maggie portrait, with the help of kitchen boy, Jonah. Both girls believe solving the heist will switch them back. While Hannah plays investigator and has to swallow archaic beliefs about women, Maggie navigates modern technology, encounters vastly different family relationships, and experiences the liberties and opportunities brought about by the women’s rights movement.
In this fun mystery adventure, the reader goes on a time traveling journey with Hannah, and experiences the wonders and restraints of the Gilded Age through the eyes of a modern twelve-year-old. The narrative leads the reader to reflect on today’s privileges and liberties that are often taken for granted. An endearing cast of characters strings readers along multiple twists and turns. They are forced to make difficult decisions and have us rooting for them all the way.
Even though THE ART OF THE SWAP (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin; 2018) has two girl main characters, the adventure and mystery aspect, humorous situations, and a strong male character in Jonah make this a story boys and girls will enjoy. The story sheds light on women’s rights and gender inequality. It had both my sons thinking, noticing, and commenting. THE ART OF THE SWAP is an enjoyable book to read aloud with your kids and a perfect classroom book for 5th - 7th grade that will springboard interesting and important discussions.
Hop on over to our blog here to read how Kris and Jen co-wrote THE ART OF THE SWAP.
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