~by Amanda Smith
Noah is a pretty typical middle schooler. He attends a small school where everybody knows everybody’s business, and the biggest news is who’s kissing who behind the storage shed. Yet, in Noah’s family, the Thing That Happened silently rules their household and interactions. As Noah’s sister, Emma, becomes increasingly controlling about food, Noah notices signs that The Thing is happening again, but his parents’ denial and efforts to keep Emma from relapsing cause Noah to suppress his own concerns. He frustration grows as his best friends bicker and fall out over, what seems to Noah, insignificant issues, while his family is unraveling.
STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS (2016, Candlewick Press) explores eating disorders and their effect on family members from a sibling’s point of view. Noah’s love and concern for Emma contrasts with his inability to understand why she makes herself sick, and his anger at her for doing so. Knowles illustrates these conflicting emotions in Noah’s response towards Curly, the school cat, who is, like Emma, stressed, frail, vulnerable and adored.
With a gentle touch, spots of bright humor, an interesting cast of secondary characters, and a loveable, believable main character, this thoughtful novel will have readers laughing out loud while reaching for the Kleenex. With empathy, Jo Knowles shows us the devastating effect of depression and eating disorders on families, while emphasizing the importance of relationships (with friends, parents, teachers, and pets) in times of crises.
Jo Knowles has a wonderful ability to reveal character in bite-size bits. When she first introduces a new character, she gives a short description, but builds on that description throughout the novel. This mirrors the little-bits-at-a-time way in which we get to know people in the real world, and results in readers feeling as if they’re gaining a circle of new friends.
In STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, Knowles also employs the animal characters in various ways. They are not just pets, but Curly and Captain offer comic relief, evoke empathy, and drive home points about characters and events in the story.
In the same way, food is used throughout the novel to convey emotions, illustrate differences, build tension, amp-up turning points, and reveal aspects of Noah’s character. Using food as a device in a novel about eating disorders is pure Jo Knowles brilliance!
To learn more about Jo Knowles and her books, visit her website www.joknowles.com/
In this video clip, Jo talks about the inspiration for the hilarious chapter titles for STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
In CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND, Clayton is devoted to two things: his grandfather and his blues harp (no, it’s not a harmonica!). All Clayton hopes for is a solo with the Bluesmen, the group his grandfather and Clayton perform with in Washington Square Park. So when Clayton’s grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, dies unexpectedly, the soulful melancholy of the blues songs he played becomes all too real. Devastated by his mother’s insistence to rid their lives of all things that remind her of Cool Papa, Clayton takes off in search of the Bluesmen, certain that when he finds them, they’ll take him under their wing and mentor him musically as his grandfather did. And he’ll finally get that solo he’s wanted to play so badly. But life on the run has other plans for Clayton, and his harrowing adventure opens up problems Clayton never dreamed he'd encounter. Throughout the story, Rita Williams-Garcia tenderly and skillfully navigates the emotions Clayton experiences as he struggles with the sudden loss of his grandfather and the resentment he feels towards his mother, who wants to bury Clayton’s love of the blues right along with Cool Papa.
CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND (Amistad, 2017) is a middle grade novel for children ages 8-12. This beautifully written story reads like a blues score with language that captures the very spirit of the music it features.
Rita Williams-Garcia explores the complexity of losing a loved one from the child’s perspective while also depicting the contrasting experiences of the parent. Written in third person, CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND does not shy away from the difficult topic of death; it seamlessly weaves the sadness of loss with the joy of how a person’s impact can keep shining even after he's gone. The characterization is strong, and the wailing tones of a blues melody are captured in every line, making it a laudable example of using linguistic style to elicit the tone of a story.
Rita Williams-Garcia is the bestselling author of many award-winning books, including One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. For more information on her work, visit her website at https://rita-williamsgarcia.squarespace.com/.
~ Review by Amanda Smith
Some books blink on writers’ radars long before they become common knowledge. These books show up in a plethora of kidlit groups; in Harold Underdown’s posts with comment threads as long as my arm; and on agents’ wish lists. MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY (2016, Walden Pond Press) is one of those books, and so, when it finally appeared on my library shelf, I expected literary greatness. I expected my need for boxes and boxes of Kleenex. It absolutely exceeded those expectations. What I did not expect was the laugh-out-loud humor. I’m not talking a giggle or a guffaw here. More than once I exasperated my family with outbursts of knee-slapping laughter. John David Anderson’s sharp humor is exactly what this book needed to balance the heart-wrenching story.
Ms. Bixby is that one teacher, that if you were really lucky, you had the honor of knowing. A Good One. The teacher who really sees you, the one for whom you want to be your very best, the one who makes even the boring stuff fun. And Ms. Bixby has cancer. In fact, she is so sick that she cannot even make her Last Day party at school.
But Brand, one of her sixth graders, still has something important left to say to her. He enlists his friends, Steve and Topher, to help him follow through on his plan to give her the perfect last day, not realizing that both his friends need to see to her as much as he does. Because, just as she saw him, she saw each one of them.
Told in three alternating first person narratives, the voices of the three boys, Anderson takes us along on their mission. Snippets of information about each character are carefully unpacked through what these characters show of themselves, and what they know (and don’t know) about their two friends. We get to know their strengths, insecurities, family life and what Ms. Bixby means to each of them, both from the character’s own point of view, and the others’ points of view. We see how they individually, but with the help of their friends, overcome their respective major obstacles, making it possible for them to bid Ms. Bixby goodbye.
MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY left some hilarious images burned in my mind forever – I will never look at cheesecake the same way. It has given my son and me some precious shared quotes like “I was in the basement, eating a body”… “Biscotti”. But more than that, MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY reminded me to see my children and my students; to recognize everyone has a back story, or a struggle; and to see things through no matter what.
John David Anderson is masterful at showing instead of telling. He never tells the reader outright what the characters’ struggles are, but he meticulously unfurls each character until the reader has a complete picture of Band, Steve, Topher, Ms. Bixby and the supporting cast.
MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY is also a study in voice. Anderson provides an engaging introduction of each character, their voices so distinct, that at the end of each character’s first paragraph, the reader already has a strong sense of each kid’s personality.
“Rebecca Roudabush has cooties, I’m not making this up. We’ve run tests. She came up positive on the cootometer, all red, off the charts.” (Topher, the creative boy with a vivid imagination)
“We found out on Tuesday. I was wearing a red sweater. Not bright red. More of a maroon, like the color of cherries – real cherries, not the ones you find in canned fruit that tastes a little like medicine.” (Steve, the detail-oriented, analytical stats-wizard)
“You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. That’s something my dad told me. Turns out … not entirely true.” (Brand, the rough-around-the-edges tough guy who idolizes his dad.)
Don’t you already love these three boys? By the end of the book you will be completely won over, cheering them on to succeed. In true Ms. Bixby fashion.
A review by Annie Cronin Romano
Set over a ten-month span during World War II, Lois Sepahban's PAPER WISHES follows ten-year-old Manami and her family as they are uprooted from their home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, to the Manzanar Japanese relocation camp in California. Manami is devastated by this move, particularly when her beloved dog, Yujiin, is not allowed to go with them. The emotional trauma of the move and internment causes Manami to go mute. Unable to verbally communicate, Manami turns to drawing and painting as a means of expressing herself. In her efforts to bring Yujiin back to her family, Manami sends some of her artwork up into the winds in the form of paper lanterns, hoping Yujiin will sense her wishes and find her again.
Sepahban thoughtfully and vividly depicts the confinement of Japanese-American families through Manami’s eyes. Told in the first person, PAPER WISHES skillfully captures Manami’s fears and hopes while strikingly depicting the pride and beauty of her family’s traditions, commitment to one another and, ultimately, Manami’s bravery. PAPER WISHES, a middle grade novel for children ages 9-12, unfolds like a fan into a rich canvas of devotion and courage. Do not let PAPER WISHES pass you by!
Lois Sepahban delves into the tensions of wartime mistrust with tenderness and spare yet vividly poetic language. The novel is structured so that each chapter depicts one month, beginning with March and ending in December. The great emotional distance travelled by Manami and her family during this time is conveyed brilliantly by Sepahban, and the pacing is well-balanced and engaging. Sepahban illuminates this important, morally disturbing event in America’s history with delicacy and emotional depth.
For more information on Lois Sepahban’s work, visit her website at www.loissepahban.com.
A review by Annie Cronin Romano
In COUNTING THYME, Melanie Conklin’s middle grade debut, eleven-year-old Thyme Owens is uprooted from her San Diego home and moved to New York City so her younger brother, Val, can undergo experimental cancer treatment. Thyme is determined to return home by March so she and her best friend can celebrate their birthdays together. Challenges at her new school and having to share a room with her emotionally volatile older sister further spur on Thyme’s desire to return home. Thyme uses her parents’ time reward system—a half hour for doing the dishes, an hour for helping with laundry—to save up enough days to visit her best friend. With each passing day, however, Thyme is making friends and mediating drama in New York, and she feels herself drifting further away from her previous life. These changes heighten Thyme’s desperation to return home. Anger and fear set in as Thyme begins to suspect that returning to San Diego may not be part of her parents’ plan after all. Throughout the story, Conklin tenderly and skillfully navigates the conflicting emotions Thyme experiences as she struggles between the resentment she feels about moving and her fear of losing her brother to his devastating disease.
COUNTING THYME is a contemporary middle grade novel for children ages 10 and up. This beautifully written story is engaging and heartfelt. A must read!
With humor and sensitivity, Conklin delves into the complexity of dealing with what Thyme wants (to go home) versus what she has (a brother with cancer). Written in first person, COUNTING THYME does not shy away from the emotional struggles of having a family member battling a serious illness. Conklin illuminates the importance of selflessness and sacrifice without being preachy or heavy-handed.
For more information on Melanie Conklin’s work, visit her website at www.melanieconklin.com.
A Review by Kelly Carey
Cassie Beasley’s middle grade fiction novel, Circus Mirandus, certainly deserves a space on the shelf with The Polar Express and Alice in Wonderland, as all three explore the importance of a belief in magic and the unexplainable through a creative explosion of fantastical characters that pluck at the very heart strings of love and life. On the surface, Beasley’s Circus Mirandus is a visual delight of fun house creatures, sideshow oddities and mind bending magicians, but pull the tent flap back just a bit and readers will find a touching examination of the special bond between a devoted grandfather and his grandson and a stunning message about faith and the magic of love.
In Circus Mirandus, Beasley conjours up a mystical traveling circus that appears like Brigadoon to the faithful who believe. The circus first materializes to a young Grandpa Ephraim and it both changes and shapes his life in essential ways. When the story opens, Ephraim is a dying old man whose powerful relationship with his grandson, Micah, makes them both reach out to Circus Mirandus for a miracle. Beasley wonderfully complicates Ephraim and Micah’s quest with a horribly wicked Aunt Gertrudis. Even her name sticks in your throat as you read it and her actions make you hate her in a most satisfying way. Then along comes clever and logical Jenny, a classmate and friend of Micah’s, to act as a perfect foil to both Aunt Gertrudis’ nastiness but also to Micah’s faith in the existence of magic.
The search to find Circus Mirandus will be just as harrowing as the sights and characters of the circus itself. Readers will feel their hearts swell and swoon as they join Micah on his quest to discover the circus and the miracle he and his grandfather desire. Along the way, it would be a good idea to adhere to British science fiction writer Arthur Clarke’s second law – The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. This is true both when hunting for a magical circus and in our universal pursuit of happiness.
Enjoy the discovery!
Plot, character and creativity are Beasley’s greatest strengths as she masterfully pulls readers into her story of magical realism. First, she makes you care about Ephraim and Micah. Then, she enthralls you with the fanciful charm of her circus and its performers. Finally, she presents a life or death problem plagued with a vile villain.
The formula may seem simple, but Beasley plays out her plot and characters with the skill of a master puppeteer and, at some point it may be true, that the strings are attached to the reader who happily allows Beasley to move them through her wonderful tale. Beasley lets her story unfold with a seamless flow back and forth between Ephraim’s boyhood to the present, where the reader is following Micah’s struggle to save his grandfather, find the circus and survive horrible Aunt Gertrudis. Backstory comes through chapters told within the tents of the circus and Beasley offers up each new bit of information just as the reader is relaxing. She ramps up the rising tension of her plot by removing the limits of Aunt Gertrudis’ wickedness, pushing Grandpa Ephraim closer and closer to death, and then snatching away the certainty of Circus Mirandus as a solution.
In the end it is simply magic.
~ Amanda Smith
Twelve-year-old Charlie’s life is filled with normal twelve-year-old stuff: friends, school, science fairs, Irish dancing, and missing her a sister who went off to college. When we first meet Charlie, her biggest problem is having too little money to buy the Irish dancing solo dress of her dreams. An opportunity to ice-fish, and sell her catch to the local tavern, offers Charlie a way to save for her perfect solo dress. However, her very first catch is a wishing fish. Soon she realizes the fish is not a figment of her imagination, but really grants her wishes (although not exactly as she would have liked it too). She hooks the fish again and again to manipulate things she cannot control by herself. Through a devastating family crisis, Charlie learns that some things cannot be controlled, not even by a wishing fish.
In THE SEVENTH WISH Kate Messner masterfully weaves fantasy elements into realistic fiction. The silliness of the fish, and the hilarious outcomes of Charlie’s wishes form a striking paradox with the true conflict in the story: Charlie’s inability to control her sister’s choices or addiction. THE WISHING FISH is rich in imagery. Charlie ‘s dependency on the wishing is parallel to Abby’s dependency on drugs. The more Charlie goes out on the ice, the less she fears it, so even when there are clear warning signs, she ignores them, trusting that she will be fine. The ice becomes a false security, similar to Abby’s addiction.
THE SEVENTH WISH is an important and timely novel. In an age appropriate manner, Kate deals with the emotional turmoil drug addiction causes in families. Even though it deals with a heavy subject, it is an enjoyable read with relatable, multi-faceted characters, which makes it a perfect conversation starter. I will definitely be sharing this book with my kids.
THE SEVENTH WISH contains numerous swoon-worthy sentences delivered at just the right time. However, Kate Messner’s brilliance is most noticeable in the tight first chapter of this novel. Off the bat, Kate establishes a solid relationship between Charlie and Abby, and by page 6 we can already see the change in Abby and the resulting cracks in their relationship. Seamlessly throughout this chapter the reader is introduced to Charlie’s family and friends; conflict is established; magic is referenced; and a major theme is set up in a friend's warning, “Wish all you want. Wishing doesn’t make a thing so.” For writers, the first chapter of THE SEVENTH WISH serves as an excellent mentor text.
For a behind the scenes look at THE SEVENTH WISH, click here to read our interview with Kate Messner.
Review by Kelly Carey
For adults who loved All the Light We Cannot See, here is a middle grade novel for the young reader that similarly embraces the universality of the tiny threads that bind all of humanity together. This 2016 Newbery Honor novel blends a mystical fairy tale, complete with kings, queens, evil witches, spells and curses with the grounding historical reality of Nazi Germany, the Great Depression and the treatment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. On the surface, Ryan uses music, and specifically harmonica music, to connect the stories. But, on completion of this amazingly crafted novel, readers will find a linkage that goes beyond music, time and place.
Echo reels readers in with an opening story filled with enchantment and make-believe. The opening story is left incomplete as Echo introduces three separate tales told through the eyes of three young protagonists. As each protagonist faces their own daunting challenges, the history around their lives becomes relatable and personal. Friedrich is caught in Nazi Germany just before World War II. Mike struggles during the Great Depression, and Ivy’s story plays out after Pearl Harbor. For young readers who devoured the Magic Tree House series, and are ready to jump up a level, Echo is the natural next step in historical fiction for children.
Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo proves that a single story can jump genres and be more successful for the leap. Her novel is equal parts fairy tale and historical fiction. The combination has an amazingly readable effect.
While the history is there, Pam Munoz Ryan uses poetic, yet solid and simple characters, to show rather than tell the history. As a result, readers become entranced with each character. You will cheer for them and weep for them because they are complete in their humanity, in their flaws, in their hopes and in their struggles. Ryan’s characterization is so full that you know things about her main characters without her ever even telling you. Here is an author who didn’t just create characters, she created souls.
By Kelly Carey
Never before has vacuuming led to the adventure that Kate DiCamillo creates in Flora & Ulysses. She uses hilarious antics and crazy props, like a lamp shaped like a shepherdess, and a flying superhero typing squirrel named Ulysses to deliver Flora from a lonely life where she feels ignored and misunderstood.
Flora’s parents are divorced, and she lives with her romance novel writing mother. Flora’s mother is kooky and totally obsessed with writing her novels. Like so many kids, Flora cannot forge a connection with her mother. Her father used to read her the comic book adventures of the Amazing Incandesto, but he doesn’t live at home anymore and Flora is struggling to make sense of how their new relationship works. DiCamillo now adds a superhero squirrel, a quirky boy with trauma induced blindness , mayhem at a Donut Diner and a bag and shovel!
As Flora likens Ulysses to the comic book hero Incandesto, her mother becomes Ulysses’ arch-nemesis and the tension builds so high the reader will scream “Holy bagumba!”, a favorite Flora phrase.
As sweet as it is funny, readers will be both charmed and moved by Flora & Ulysses.
DiCamillo finds a way to make the absurd and ridiculous blend seamlessly into a story of vanquishing loneliness and finding friendship. She mixes the unreal with the real and creates a page turner that is both silly and serious. Despite the many adults populating the story, DiCamillo keeps her child protagonist in charge and her reader fully engaged.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.