New Fantasy Series Starts for Middle School Readers

Lynn: According to our middle school book club readers, there are NEVER too many fantasy series to keep them busy! Yup – they are a bottomless pit of fantasy eagerness. I’m sure you have readers like ours so I’m happy to suggest some brand new series that will delight our readers and yours. Of course this also means they will be bugging us all for the next book in the series the MINUTE they finish the first one!

Anya and the Dragon (Houghton/Versify, 2019) by Sofiya Pasternack

What would it hurt to help the Tsar’s people kill the scary river dragon? Anya thinks it would be worth it to save her family’s home and farm from being taken over for unpaid taxes. Her soldier father hasn’t been heard from and Anya’s Jewish family is often harassed by the villagers. But then the dragon saves Anya’s life and he turns out to be young and nice! What should she do? Pasternak fills her debut fantasy with creatures from Slavic and Jewish folklore and sets this exciting tale in an alternate Kievan Rus.

Touches of humor balance the more serious subjects of antisemitism and oppression. Anya is a strong and determined heroine and Pasternak’s dragon is fresh, inventive and easy to care about. A well-drawn cast of characters and the friendships with newcomer Ivan and the dragon are central to this tale of a lonely girl taught to avoid notice. There’s plenty of danger and adventure here and readers will be eager for the next installment.

 

 

The Changeling (Algonquin, 2019) by William Ritter

A goblin creeps into a nursery with a changeling who is desperately important to the magical world of the Wild Wood. But something goes wrong and he ends up leaving both babies in the nursery. Everyone knows one of the babies is a changeling but it is impossible to tell them apart and Annie Burton raises the twins, loving them both with her whole heart. 13 years later a mysterious letter arrives that leads the twins into the Wild Wood. There they encounter a fantastical array of magical beings including an annoying shape-shifting little girl, a hinkypunk and the Thing.

SO much fun with just the right amount of scariness and ultimate reassurance about the boundless capacity of love and family. I cannot wait to see where this leads next.

 

The Last Chance Hotel (Scholastic, 2019) by Nicki Thornton

Seth dreams of being a great chef like his father who left long ago. But for now he is a kitchen boy at the remote Last Chance Hotel, owned by the cruel Bunn family who take advantage of the lonely boy. Now an important gathering of magicians is taking place at the hotel and the Bunn’s are desperate to please the important guests. Seth creates a fabulous dessert especially for the most illustrious guest, Dr. Tallomius. The magicians meet in secret behind locked doors and Seth hopes his dessert will win him a ticket out of the Last Chance. But when the door are flung open, Dr. Thallomius lies dead on the floor and Seth is the chief suspect.

A little Agatha Christie, a little Harry Potter, but mostly this fun magical mystery is entirely its own original and entertaining story. Lots of engaging characters including a talking cat and a whole school of red herrings!

Sorry for Your Loss – a Look at Family Grief

Lynn: Jessie Ann Foley has just 3 novels under her writing belt but she has garnered a lot of honors already including a Printz Honor, a YALSA Teen Top Ten selection, and a Morris Debut Award Finalist among other honors. Despite this, I was totally unprepared for the emotional power and impact of Foley’s new book, Sorry for Your Loss (Harper, 2019). This story opens with a funny scene that introduces readers to Pup Flanagan, an awkward unmotivated high school boy and reveals his hopeless crush on a classmate. Then Foley broadens the view, bringing in the other members of the large and noisy Flanagan family—a Chicago Catholic family with 7 kids. Pup is the youngest at 17 and his siblings all live within a short distance in what he thinks of as “Flanland.” But this close and loving family is struggling with crippling grief over the sudden death of one of the sons from meningitis and they are all lost and alone in the midst of the family crowd.

An art teacher takes an interest in Pup and in a lucky moment, opens a door for Pup into the unusual experience of finding something he is good at and enjoys. Through his camera lens, Pup begins to really see his world, his family, his relationships and his own pain and his family’s anguish with an objective eye for the first time. Helping Pup with his photography and giving him experience with another family is Abrihet, an Eritrean immigrant girl from his art class who encourages Pup to keep looking for the light. As Pup finally begins to deal with this grief, he slowly takes his family with him on a journey that may help them all to heal.

This is a deceptively quiet book. It is written with a slight sense of distance that allows the reader to walk this emotional path with Pup while also looking on with an objective sense at the entire arc of their family dynamics. I found this story incredibly powerful and deeply moving. It is a brilliant portrait of family relationships and the way so many families deal—or don’t deal—with grief. Pup is a charming and achingly authentic character who stole my heart as did the entire Flanagan mob. I won’t soon forget them.

While this is a wonderful moving book for older teens, I think it will be equally effective as a cross-over book for the new adult and adult readers.

Finding Her Voice – The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Lynn: Finding your voice is an important theme of teen books. In Stacey Lee’s new historical fiction, The Downstairs Girl (Penguin/Putnam, 2019), we meet a young girl for whom speaking at all literally means risking the roof over her head and the food on the table. Jo Kuan works as a maid to the cruel and selfish daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Atlanta. She goes home at night to a secret basement home under the offices of The Focus, an Atlanta newspaper. Originally a part of the Underground Railroad, the little apartment is unknown to the upstairs Bell family and Jo has grown up knowing she and her grandfather must not make a sound to reveal their presence. Living in earshot of the lively Bell family has given Jo a wonderful education and vocabulary to assist her already sharp, curious mind and growing sense of justice. But Jo is Chinese in the Atlanta of 1890 and the Chinese, many of whom were brought to the South during the Reconstruction to work the plantations, are discriminated against in both law and society. So even outside of their little home, Jo must keep her thoughts to herself.

But then Jo wangles a job as the new advice columnist for The Focus – anonymously. Not even the young editor, handsome Nathan Bell, knows the identity of the Dear Miss Sweetie column and the success of the new column skyrockets. Gradually Jo takes on discrimination, women’s rights, and injustice in Atlanta and her columns and comments are the talk of the town. As deeply buried secrets about Jo’s past surface and controversy swirls, Jo begins to wonder if the price of speaking up is way too high.

Lee has once more done a stellar job of weaving fascinating history into a lively and highly entertaining story. I knew nothing of the history of Chinese immigrants in the South and the story also includes a less-than-flattering picture of the embedded discrimination in the suffragette movement, as well as the social and legal restrictions on women and minorities that existed at the time. The book is packed with vivid and well-developed characters and Jo, in particular, won my heart from the very first page. As Jo truly finds her voice and speaks up for herself and others, readers will cheer.

Cindy: The “Agony Aunt” columns, as they were nicknamed at the time, were often written by male journalists pretending to be female authors but Jo’s identity is a dangerous secret, and there are plenty of other dangers that keep the plot moving along. Interspersed with the serious themes and events, are chapter-opening sample advice responses to Miss Sweeties fan mail, some tongue in cheek and others with a good dose of snark. This story gallops to a finish, perhaps a little too neatly, but all but the most cynical readers will be cheering as author and protagonist cross the finish line. I’d love to see this book brought to film. Definitely recommend this one to fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s novel, These Shallow Graves (Delacorte, 2015), another 19th-century story with a feisty heroine, a family mystery, and issues of social and gender injustice.

Back to School Book Cover Trends: Classroom Desks

Cindy and Lynn: While store flyers have advertised Back to School sales since July 5th, the reality is just setting in here in Michigan. Cindy heads back officially on August 26th. Students are charging their Chromebooks and perhaps still sharpening a few pencils and figuring out what to wear next week on the first day. Some can’t wait, and others are dreading getting up early. Last year, we put together a cover trend of books featuring lockers and suggested putting together a display with directions on how to master that Masterlock. This year, we give you books with classic school desks on them, although in many schools, familiar rows of identical desks with attached chairs are being phased out and replaced by “flexible learning spaces.” For the vintage look, though, line up these titles for a back-to-school display:

 

The Unteachchables, by Gordan Korman

Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt

Cryer’s Cross, by Lisa McMann

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

What titles did we miss? School us!! Leave us a comment.

Warblers and Woodpeckers – Adult Book Break

Lynn: We love youth books and that is mostly what we read. But now and then it is fun to take a break and dip our toes in adult books. We’ve decided to add a new feature at Bookends – adult books that have a connection to kids, libraries, or the youth book world, and that we think our readers might be interested in. We’re calling it…..Adult Book Break. 

My first recommendation is an adult book by a renown youth author, Sneed B. Collard III, Warblers & Woodpeckers: A Father-Son Big Year of Birding (Mountaineers Books, 2018). In 2016, Collard’s almost 13-year old son, Braden, suggested they do a “Big Year” together. Collard thought about it hard, citing some of the difficulties of such an effort from the physical to the financial. But Braden’s enthusiasm won the day. As Collard notes, “I wondered how much longer he would want to hang around with his dad.” And so it began.

I’ve been a birder all my life, inheriting the interest from my parents, but I am the rankest of amateurs! I have found some birding accounts a bit off-putting and, frankly, snobbish. Sneed Collard’s warm and lively book was accessible, informative, and anything but elitist. Told in a chatty confiding style, the stories of this father-son adventure are down-to-earth, relating triumphs and disasters from killer bee attacks to being stuck in the snow. The pair managed several special trips to important birding areas where they added a plethora of species to their growing lists. The stories of discovering new birds were really inspiring to me and I loved reading about the birding hot spots they experienced. Collard ends the chapters with a list of the birds seen that month and the back matter includes the complete Big Year list for each. There are also wonderful color photographs of birds that both Collards took during the year.

This Big Year experience was a joy to read and I came away feeling both as if I had been along on the trip and also yearning to pack my binoculars and head out immediately for my own Big Year. But the real heart of this book is the story of a father and his young son sharing something truly special. You don’t have to be an expert birder to love that.

Cindy: This was going to be a solo post by Lynn, but she talked about her “year list” all spring and when I headed to Arizona for Spring Break I decided to start my own Life List. By the time I returned to Michigan for the start of spring migration and the warblers started to dazzle me, I was hooked. It was fun to read about Sneed and Braden’s adventures as I had fresh memories of a couple of their Arizona hot spots. A Saguaro National Park ranger suggested I drive south an hour to Madera Canyon, and it was worth it!

I enjoyed their stories and their bonding over birds, and the peek into the birding research world through some of Collard’s contacts for his books. I appreciated Braden’s tenacity and enjoyment in building his list. Both father and son were hungry for the numbers, but their love of their special year together and their love and respect for the birds came shining through the text as well.

Queued up for this weekend is my first viewing of Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson’s 2011 film, The Big Year. It’s what got Braden into wanting to do his “Big Year,” so I figured I should add it to my list. Braden and Sneed (and the rest of the fam), you have an open invitation to come to West Michigan to bird with Lynn and me. There’s 380+ species in our county alone (Ottawa, MI). We have lots of gorgeous hot spots to show you!

For the children birders on your list, don’t miss our recent post, New Picture Books About Birds Take Flight. Sneed’s new book Birds of Every Color is included in the roundup.

 

New Picture Books about Birds Take Flight

Cindy and Lynn: We love the fun coincidences that enliven our days as reviewers! Ever since Lynn infected Cindy with her birding obsession this spring, everywhere we turn we find gorgeous new picture books about birds! Here is a round-up of this flock of wonderful books taking flight. All of them will make lovely additions sitting next to your Stokes and Sibley guidebooks to help encourage the next generation of birders.

Birds of Every Color, by Sneed B. Collard III (Bucking Horse, 2019)

An excellent explanation of the science behind bird coloration and the current theories on the whys behind all that beauty. Full page stunning color photographs on every page make this a real stand-out. Perfect for young readers, the writing is clear and simple yet includes scientific terms in an approachable way. Renown science author Collard and his teenage son took the breath-taking photographs and the outstanding book design and enticing cover make this simply irresistible.

Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends, by Heidi E.Y. Stemple (Seagrass, 2019)

Stemple introduces the little known ornithologist Frank Chapman and his development of the Christmas Day Bird Count. She also talks about that count, how it works, why it is so important and how kids can be involved.

Conversational in tone but with a wonderfully conveyed enthusiasm for birds and bird conservation, this book is perfect to use with kids in a classroom or storytime to introduce birding and spark interest in understanding and supporting conservation. Practical ideas and examples of how kids can be involved in the count are especially important as Stemple assures kids they can participate at their own bird feeders for a specific (and short) amount of time that is very practical. Cover Robin’s collage illustrations are as gorgeous as they are inviting. Back matter includes additional information about Chapman, how kids can be involved in Count Day and in helping to save birds.


Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me
, by Susan B. Roth (Holiday House/Neil Porter, 2019)

Roth focusses on a single species, the Bowerbird from Australia and New Guinea. She and the bird have a lot in common as they are both collage artists. The Bowerbird builds structures from a variety of materials and decorates it with bits of color and other found items to attract a mate. Roth uses a variety of colorful materials to build her attractive art to tell a story. The double-page spreads showing their similar work habits, materials, and resulting efforts are genius and make for an interesting way for children to understand both human and bird artists.

Hummingbird, by Nicola Davies (Candlewick, 2019)

Davies also takes on a single species while explaining bird migration. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are visiting my nectar feeders and flowers while they get ready for their long flight back to Mexico, Central America and the southern part of Florida to spend their winters. Even adults are amazed by the endurance of these tiny birds so children are sure to be enchanted with this book. It’s the story of a young girl who learns about the migration from her Granny and from her own observations after flying on an airplane to New York City where she sees her favorite bird during the summer. Hummingbird migration and breeding facts are included to supplement the story, beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray.

“Following the Bend in the Road” – Michael Morpurgo and WWII in the Camargue

Lynn: One of the things I love most about the world of books—and children’s books in particular—is the way authors keep crafting new stories from the past that connect deeply to the events of the present. There is no better way for readers to learn about history and its driving forces and to realize that those same forces impact us still. Michael Morpurgo’s new book, The Day the World Stopped Turning, (Feiwel, 2019) is a shining example of that. There have been thousands of books written about WWII (and we have read a LOT of them) but Morpurgo tells a story that is fresh and unique and one that shines a beam on today’s issues in a way that will resonate with young readers.

Morpurgo uses an unusual structure for a book for middle schoolers. The framing story is that of Vincent Carter, an adult over 50, looking back briefly at his youth and then at his decision as an 18-year-old to leave home and travel to the south of France, following the path of the artist who inspires him, Vincent Van Gogh. He is further motivated by a childhood story about the wisdom of following the bend in the road to wherever it takes him. While walking in the isolated marshy area of the Camargue, Vincent falls seriously ill and collapses. He is rescued by an autistic man, Lorenzo, and taken back to a farm by the beach where Lorenzo and his companion Kezia nurse Vincent back to health. It is here that that heart of the story lies. As Vincent gradually regains his health, he becomes curious about his rescuers and their mysterious history. The narration then shifts to Kezia as she slowly relates their story that begins in 1932, of Lorenzo and his farmer parents and of Kezia only child of Roma parents who moved from town to town with their beautiful carousel. As Kezia grew older, her parents decided to stay in the town near the farm so she could go to school. The war is on, France has been defeated and the Vichy government rules the Camargue but for the most part, the war has left the area relatively untouched. All that ends one day when the Germans roll into town to set up fortifications on the beach and to stay. Lorenzo’s parents know that Roma people are being rounded up and they offer to hide Zezia and her family on the farm. This decision will forever change the lives of the two children, their families, and the town. And the story, as Kezia tells it, will forever change Vincent’s life as well.

This is a quiet tale and although there are great tension and suspense, the story allows time for readers to absorb and to reflect. It is a story about the issues of racism and hatred, of war and fear. But it is also an uplifting story of the greater power of friendship, kindness and love, courage, and the enduring nature of doing what is right. The setting will be unfamiliar to most American students but the lyrical writing brings this remote and beautiful place to life. The narratives are an interesting blend of adult and child perspectives with the framing voice adult and the WWII sections of the book in young Kezia’s voice. This device brings added emphasis to the central story and puts readers firmly in the shoes of the children experiencing the events of the occupation.  The parallels to issues in the headlines today are stark and kids will readily make the comparisons and come to their own conclusions.

This book is not for every kid but it offers rich rewards for a mature and curious reader ready to try something different.