~ 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 Kelly Carey
In this lyrical and beautifully illustrated picture book, THE LITTLE BLUE COTTAGE (Page Street Kids, 2020) anticipates annual summer visits from a young girl. Each visit bonds the cottage and the growing girl as she sits in a quiet reading nook, swims with dolphins, and shelters from a wave crashing storm. Families will recognize their own vacation traditions tucked in the pages as this book celebrates the continuation of trips to favorite destinations that are passed down from generation to generation. If your summer plans involve a visit to grandmother’s or a getaway with your own children to a spot you were taken as a child, this is the perfect read-aloud.
In addition to gorgeous and sparse writing, author Kelly Jordan employs writing techniques that make The Little Blue Cottage an excellent mentor text for pacing and tension, and the use of senses.
Each time the girl returns to the cottage, Jordan creates a rhythm for the reader and this page turning beat adds a comfortable pacing to the book. She masterfully breaks this rhythm when the girl skips summer visits, and the result is a wonderful escalation of tension right in the middle of the book. This use of a repeating incident, the girl's visits, and the break from that repeat become a sharp tool for controlling the pacing and tension in the story.
Jordan also uses language to infuse a static house with emotion. The house “whistled and hummed and filled with light” when the girl arrives and from those well-chosen words, we know just how the house is feeling. When the text shares that the house smelled like "bacon, pancakes and popcorn" the reader will overlay their own experiences with those scents. Use this book to study how Jordan used all five senses to assign emotion and heart to a static main character.
The Little Blue Cottage is the perfect place to explore themes of seasons passing, weather, time, and the cyclical nature of shared traditions.
To learn more about Jordan Kelly visit her website.
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/
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA (Tor Books, 2020) is a delightful story about 40 year old Linus Baker, a simple, straightforward fellow employed as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Things go along rather routinely for Linus, until one day he is summoned to the Office of Extremely Upper Management and given a mysterious assignment: go to the orphanage on Marsyas Island and report back on the welfare of the six children there. With very little to go on, and with the knowledge that he will be given information only as it is warranted, Linus heads off. What he finds on the island challenges every notion he holds of the “magical” children he has previously encountered in his work. With each passing day, he finds it increasingly difficult to remain objective to the charms of the orphans—and their caretakers—all the while growing more suspicious of his employer’s true motives behind his visit.
Part magical adventure, part social equality piece, part romance, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is a charming, emotional, thoughtful novel that takes the reader on a journey to a beautiful island inhabited by unique, intriguing characters, all the while reminding us that not everything is as it seems—or, more importantly, as it should be. Read this story, and you’ll be dreaming of eating cherry ice cream with Linus and Arthur, gardening with Talia, listening to records with Lucy, and writing poetry with Sal! TJ Klune’s novel is an example of a beautifully written story laced with humor and infused with the themes of compassion and acceptance.
So, why did I chose an adult book for my book pick when our blog’s focus is kidlit? Because sometimes the most valuable books to use as mentor texts are not always within your writing genre, and THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is one such example. And it’s interesting to note that this book does not fit neatly into any genre. Most libraries and bookstores have it in their adult fiction section. A few have chosen to place it on their Young Adult shelves. Others have it in Science Fiction. Regardless of where you find it, the story is the same: a delightful adult fiction story with a childlike whimsy. But more importantly for writers, this novel is a solid example of developing strong characters and allowing them to unfold and develop as the story moves along. In particular, the six magical orphans in this novel seem at first glance to be somewhat unlikeable and not fully in focus, but as the story progresses and the layers of each child are pulled back, what is revealed is truly magical and illustrates how characters must be given the space to grow and develop depth within a story’s arc. Rather than rushing to dump too much information at once, Klune patiently and expertly discloses his characters, allowing the reader to connect with them in a “real time” sort of way. THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is also a strong example of straddling the magical world and the realistic one in terms of setting and character-building. The reader is able to understand the underlying themes of social justice and kindness through this unique approach to world-building, all the while keeping the emotional aspect relatable, relevant, and appealing.
To learn more about TJ Klune, visit his website at http://www.tjklunebooks.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/
~ Reviewed by Amanda Smith
A WHALE OF A MISTAKE by Ioana Hobai (Page Street Kids, 2020) is a picture book about how anxiety can inflate a mistake to colossal proportions. The story gently conveys how to find perspective and regain control. The protagonist makes a mistake which grows into a whale that swallows the protagonist and takes it out to sea. Along this wild ride, the protagonist feels trapped, powerless, and scared, but through observation and self-reflection, learns and grows, and eventually becomes brave enough to move on.
Hobai cleverly uses the whale, something concrete that young children can comprehend, as a metaphor for abstract, hard to pin-point emotions of guilt, anxiety and self-doubt. The watercolor illustrations bring the whale metaphor to life, and enhances the emotions through tumultuous swirls and stormy washes. The color story moves from dark bruise-like colors in the beginning towards light, bright and cheerful colors towards the end, reinforcing the emotional journey. A WHALE OF A MISTAKE is written in simple language, making it easily accessible to young readers, yet the content is universal which makes this a great conversation starter for readers of any age regarding regret and self-reflection.
A WHALE OF A MISTAKE deals with universal emotions and themes. By writing the book in the second person, removing the need for gender specific pronouns, and addressing the reader directly, Hobai makes this a book with which all readers can identify.
To purchase A WHALE OF A MISTAKE visit Indiebound , The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, or your local independent bookstore.
Learn more about Ioana Hobai and her books at http://www.ioanahobai.com/
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.