Too Good to Miss: Middle Grade Roundup

Cindy and Lynn: You’ve heard the saying, “So many books, so little time.” Well, we have a stack of books that we HAVE read this year but just haven’t gotten around to blogging. The year is wrapping up soon and we are eager to move on to 2020 titles, but first, some middle grade and middle school favorites.

The Absence of Sparrows, by Kurt Kirchmeier (Little, Brown, 2019)

Perhaps the oddest book you will read all year—part family story, part magical realism. Ben’s observations of birds quickly veer into watching the people in his town turn to glass statues as a strange cloud passes through. The phenomenon is happening worldwide, but there is a voice on the radio urging group action to turn things around. Debut novelist, Kirchmeier is an author to watch as closely as you might observe the sparrows.

All the Greys on Greene Street, by Laura Tucker (Viking, 2019)

A debut book that hits the mark in all categories. There is lyrical descriptive writing here that takes readers into a first-hand experience of being an artist and seeing the world through a young artist’s eyes. 1981 Soho is the setting for this story of 12-year-old Olympia who’s art restorer father has suddenly left. Ollie’s sculptor mother has gone to bed and can’t or won’t get up. Ollie tries to hide the situation from her friends, figure out the mystery of where and why her father has gone. And what about those mysterious threatening phone calls coming to the apartment? A poignant story dealing with issues of depression, family, friendship, and the importance of art and creativity.    

The Bridge Home, by Padma Venkatraman (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2019)

Patricia McCormick wrote the powerful book Sold, set on the streets of Calcutta. Padma Venkatraman has written the book about homeless children on the streets of India that I have wanted to share with my younger students who aren’t ready for McCormick’s. Adults are often not kind to children and family is often something you find, not what you are born into. This novel full of sadness and hope should be in all elementary and middle school library collections.

The Door at the End of the World, by Caroline Carlson (Harper, 2019)

Deputy Gatekeeper Lucy Ebersley enjoys her work, helping process the many travelers who go through the gate to the next worlds even though she has never once gone through the gate herself. But when the Gatekeeper disappears, a mysterious boy falls through the gate and the door refuses to open, Lucy has to put down her rubber stamp and begin a wild adventure that will change everything. This delightful fantasy is filled with clever humor, fantastic world-building, and a cheerfully chaotic plotting that reminds me strongly of the great Diana Wynne Jones.

Free Lunch, by Rex Ogle (Norton, 2019)

The only nonfiction on this list, Free Lunch is a memoir of Ogle’s middle school struggles as a poor and hungry young man living a tough life made harder by the humiliation heaped on him at school. We were grateful to see this on the 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction shortlist as the experiences and Ogle’s moving storytelling span many age groups.

Scary Stories for Young Foxes, by Christian McKay Heidicker (Holt, 2019)

A group of young fox kits demands their mother tell them a story “so scary our eyes will fall out of our heads.” Her story offerings disappoint, deemed “kits’ stuff,” so they sneak out to Bog Cavern to hear the old storyteller share some truly scary stories. On this premise, a series of frightful tales are spun, featuring two young foxes who face many perils. One of the dangers is capture by the creepiest rendering of Beatrix Potter you are ever likely to see!

 

YA Cover Trend: Need a New Haircut?

Cindy and Lynn: If you’re looking for a new haircut style, look no further than these two recent YA novels that feature identical cuts and NO features! 😉 The similarities end there, though, as the stories couldn’t be more different. Death Prefers Blondes (Feiwel, 2019) by Caleb Roehrig is a thriller about a band of drag queen cat burglars. Booklist’s review includes this statement: “Balancing Oceans 11–level heists, corporate espionage, and gender and sexual identity politics isn’t easy, but Roehrig manages it with aplomb, skillfully threading in Hamlet references to boot. Clever, thrilling, and a wildly good time.”

Meanwhile, Scars Like Wings (Delacorte, 2019) by Erin Stewart is a story of resilience in the face of life-changing tragedy after a fire brings loss and scars to a teen girl. School Library Journal’s verdict is: “Ava’s journey toward healing, both physically and mentally, is thought-provoking. Not all scars are evident to the eye, and this narrative will push readers to think deeply about empathy, hope, and resilience in the face of heartbreak.”

We’re ready to take a turn in the stylist’s chair if it involves a chance to read one of these two new teen books.

 

 

 

 

Celebrating the Book – Picture Books for Bibliophiles of All Ages

Bibliophiles come in all ages. Young or old, we share a common bond, a deep and abiding love of books. Even in this fast-paced digital age, we bibliophiles prosper, enriched and strengthened by this mutual ingrained passion. Don’t believe the current folk wisdom. Kids still love books. We see this in our book club and in our schools. Kids still want to hold books, absorb them, collect them, read them over and over, and protect them. Here are two heartfelt picture books that celebrate books and the readers that love them. The holidays are coming fast and these would make treasured gifts to the bibliophiles, both young AND old, on your list.

Lynn: This Book of Mine (Farrar, 2019) is by the renown writing-illustrating team Sarah Stewart and David Small. Stewart’s simple rhyming text celebrates the many ways that readers use books: to be a friend, to comfort after a scary dream, to spark imagination or sometimes just to smell that wonderful booky smell. Small’s charming and humorous illustrations fill the pages in warm shades of purple with a bright splash of color highlighting the book on each page. The cast of characters is diverse in age and race but clearly linked in their shared love of books. A New York Public Library lion is featured on the first and last page of the book in a lovely coda. Appropriate for our youngest bibliophiles as well as those of us who have been turning pages for many decades.

 

Cindy: You won’t be able to miss the neon-bright cover of How to Read a Book (HarperCollins, 2019) by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. This dream team creates something new and fresh with Alexander’s encouraging how-to poem for experiencing a book with all of your senses paired with Sweet’s electrifying collage art. I’m an unabashed fan of Sweet’s artistry, and she stretches yet again with this one. The color palette wakes the reader to the joys of reading. This is no passive act, but one that wakes you if you dig into that clementine and let the juices drip down your chin! A number of creative paper delights await in the turning of these pages. Lynn and I were lucky enough to see some of the original art at a publisher event at the American Library Association and we were in awe. I so want to play in Melissa’s studio!

Don’t miss the author and illustrator notes that provide lovely stories about the creating of this special book.

Kwame’s advice is appropriate for any book, but certainly especially so for both of these visual poetic treats celebrating the wonder of books.

“Don’t rush though:
your eyes need
time to taste.
Your soul needs
room to bloom.”

Picture Books about SCARY Appetites

Stories about scary appetites seem especially fascinating to kids – and if it is all a little gross all the better! Just think for a moment about how many fairy tales you know that have eating terrible things at their center? Remember the witch in Hansel and Gretel, fattening up Hans for the oven, the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk who is going to eat men’s bones or the troll under the bridge who wants the 3 Billy Goats Gruff for breakfast? We’ve recently found two terrific new picture books that take the theme of scary appetites and run with it.

Lynn: Hungry Jim (Chronicle, 2019) by Laurel Snyder is a tale about Jim who wakes up as a lion one morning AND a beastly appetite. When his mother calls him for breakfast, Jim discovers she looks delicious! He didn’t want to eat his mother but… and she WAS delicious! But he was still hungry and the more he ate, the hungrier and wilder he gets until he meets something as big and wild as he is.

This is a hilarious story about the hungry beast we sometimes wake up as and a wonderful tribute to Maurice Sendak who first understood about the wild beast inside all of us. Laurel Snyder’s text is pitch-perfect with an opening sentence that will grab the attention of every kid in the room! Chuck Groenink’s illustrations are equally terrific using lots of 2-page spreads, warm tones, and different perspectives. There is definitely a wild-things feel to the book but it is also very definitely it’s own creation.

Wonderful to use with a group or as a lap book, to use as a discussion starter or writing prompt or simply to enjoy!

Cindy: Families, food, and storytelling combine in this wild tale about Octopus Stew (Holiday House, 2019) by Eric Velasquez. Based on a family story of the time that Eric’s father had to rescue Eric and his grandmother from an overflowing octopus pot, the character Ramsey puts on his superhero cape and finds a way to defeat the ginormous octopus that has his grandmother wrapped in its tentacled arms. The text is infused with Spanish phrases, listed in a glossary in the back. Velasquez’s vibrant action-packed scenes and crazy adventure move the story along quickly, although a foldout spread adds a new dimension to the storytelling. The book jacket blurb presents the option of opening these fold-out pages or skipping them. The choice is yours, but, really, who could resist? The yellow endpapers with white octopus slice rings are a nice touch to the package. (The octopus might not agree!) The back matter also includes an author’s note encouraging the sharing of food and stories and the recipe to try making your own Octopus Stew…grab your copy now and switch up the turkey leftovers with something different!

Cindy and Lynn: As we publish this food-rich post the week of Thanksgiving in the U.S., we want to extend our thanks to our readers who followed us to our new blog home here at Bookendsblog.net. We’re also grateful for those of you who have found us recently. If you find our posts valuable, please share our link with a friend, a teacher, a librarian, or a parent who might enjoy them as well. Thanks!

The Moose of Ewenki: A Picture Book for All Ages

Lynn: One of the great joys of the children’s publishing world today is the small publishers bringing us books from other countries and cultures. This is such a gift to young readers whose understanding of the world will be enriched and expanded by these wonderful books. One of those publishers is Greystone Kids, a Canadian publisher of books by both Canadian and international authors. We have fallen in love with a new book from them, The Moose of Ewenki (Greystone, 2019) by Chinese author, Gerelchimeg Blackcrane and illustrated by Chinese artist Jiu Er.

Set in far northern forests of Mongolia, the story tells of an elder of Ewenki people, a hunter and herder of reindeer, who shoots a moose only to discover sadly that she had a young calf. The little creature follows the old hunter back to his campsite where he feeds and cares for it. Gree Shek names the calf, Xiao Han or Little Moose and raises the baby, including him in his daily life of caring for the reindeer herd, foraging for food and visiting the local village. Little Moose thrives and grows – and grows! In time he grows to adult size but thinks he should still sleep in Gree Shek’s tent, follows him everywhere and doesn’t seem to understand how big he is. After a series of mishaps and dangers, Gree Shek, who is growing older and frailer, realizes that for Little Moose’s own safety he must go into the forest. In some sad scenes that follow, he drives the young moose away and then the old man dies one night in his sleep. The hunters who find him, honor the old hunter by freeing his reindeer herd to join the moose in the forests.

This bittersweet story is full of both humor and tears, an evocative reflection of the life of the Ewenki people. Gree Shek and Little Moose stole my heart and no one who sees Jiu Er’s stunning illustrations will be able to resist this gorgeous book. But, I’ll let Cindy tell you about those!

Cindy: Animal-human bonding stories are popular in children’s literature but this one is a surprise. First, the setting…Inner Mongolia…a region we don’t see often in children’s literature. And then Xiao Han, “Little Moose,” who isn’t so little for long. I couldn’t help but get a flashback to one of my childhood favorites, The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth, but it didn’t linger as this is a very different book, of course. Little Moose peeks out from a bush on the title page but when he steps out from the bush a few pages later his timid gaze will melt the reader’s heart. The illustrations enhance the powerful story beautifully. Full-page spreads are interspersed with smaller vignettes that bring the landscape and its inhabitants to life. Creamy colored paper is perfect for the muted nature palette drawings that convey the humor and the sadness in this gentle story. A Junior Library Guild Section. Don’t miss it.

Owling: Whoooo Needs This Book? You Do!

Cindy: “You might not realize it, but you need to see an owl.” That’s the opening line of Owling (Storey, 2019) and you not only need to see an owl, but you need to see this book. Starting with a glow-in-the-dark cover, this large square book holds a wealth of fascinating details and gorgeous photographs of the 19 owls species that breed and nest in the United States and Canada. Can owls really turn their heads 360 degrees? How do an owl’s uneven ears help him pinpoint prey? These and other questions are answered in engaging text. Most welcome is the author Mark Wilson’s challenge to common owl “facts” not documented by research studies and his admission when his long study of owls leaves him without sure answers. Research never ends and we rarely have all the answers. 2-4 page spreads feature a specific owl species with a selection of photos, range maps, feather detail, size, behavior, voice, nesting behavior, menu, or other interesting features. The section on Poop and Pellets is sure to be a hit with the target audience, particularly if they’ve ever dissected an owl pellet to learn about an owl’s diet. The section on how to spot an owl has helpful tips that may produce success for young (and old) birders. Lynn heard about this book and then I received a review copy and have been reluctant to hand it over, but we can’t wait any longer to hoot about its publication. Owling is a perfect identification guide for a young birder, but it is so much more, and it has a place in elementary and middle school libraries and elementary science classrooms. Whooooo needs this book? You do!

Lynn: I really appreciate how this outstanding book is organized, the wonderfully researched information presented, and how much is packed into the book. But I need to mention the sheer audience appeal of the production. Talk about a kid magnet! Put this gorgeous book on display and watch it instantly fly off the shelf. Mark Wilson’s photographs almost steal the show. Every single page has a gallery of jaw-dropping pictures that beg to be studied. The images range from small collections illustrating a particular point to full-page photographs that are works of art. The painted illustrations by Jada Fitch are amazing, too.

I learned so much! The small sections showing what each of the various owls eats, “On the Menu,” was interesting and surprising. As a life-long birder, I really valued the identification information, especially tips on what each variety might be mistaken for and how to avoid that. Also as a birder, I loved the section of how to FIND owls in nature with its additional caution of how to also respect and treat them if you do find them or their roosts. Finally, also in the concluding sections, there is information on some of the current and on-going research projects on owls. The back matter includes a glossary and an extensive list of where to find Owls in Captivity by state so that readers can follow Wilson’s advice and become familiar with the appearance of the various owls.

Finally, I am on a mission to find my slides that were taken in the back yard of our first Holland house that sat in an old deeply forested woods. We had nesting Great Horned Owls there and summer after summer, a pair of adults parked their fledged but still dependent owlets on our deck during the day, I’m guessing while they went to hunt. The owlets were almost as big as the adults and absolutely delightful to watch. The squirrels seemed to know how clumsy the owl babies were and teased them by running just out of their reach on the railing underneath them.

Here is my picture of an Eastern Screech Owl but since I am no Mark Wilson, I urge you to find this book and see some REALLY terrific pictures!

The Things She’s Seen: Thriller, Murder Mystery, Ghost Story

Cindy: Fans of We Were Liars are going to want to read The Things She’s Seen (Knopf, 2019), another novel that begs to be read again as soon as you finish. Beth is dead but she hasn’t passed on. Her father is the only one who can see and hear Beth. He is a detective, lost in grief over first losing Beth’s mother a few years earlier, and then Beth. She thinks he needs something to think about so when a new case arises about a mysterious fire at a children’s home, she encourages him to take the case. While they investigate, Beth can observe and overhear things her living father cannot, aiding his detective work. While interviewing a surly teenage witness, Isobel Catching, Beth realizes that Isobel can see her, too. Isobel knows things about the fire and the school’s history but she is not quick to share. She has stories to tell, but is she willing, and are Beth and her father willing to listen carefully? Isobel tells her stories in magical realism verse, poems, and stories based on secrets and hard truths. The Aboriginal brother and sister storytellers weave painful Aboriginal history and racism into this haunting tale, spun from threads of folklore. As the story comes to a close, readers will want to return to the beginning to see how these storytellers wove such an intriguing tale. And, they’ll be begging their friends to read it, too, so they can talk it over. All this in under 200 pages! Yes!

Lynn: As Cindy says, remarkable young writers, Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, have packed a lot in this slim book! It somehow manages to be thriller, murder mystery, and supernatural ghost story with Palyku traditional tales all in one. Woven in are threads of dealing with grief, finding one’s voice, the powerful strengths of family bonds, the healing nature of storytelling, historical tragedies, and the monsters that lurk in our midst. This is a debut novel and the Kwaymullinas write with a powerful maturity, skillfully blending all these elements into a remarkable whole that is totally absorbing from start to finish. This is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.

Gather some snacks, settle into your reading chair, take a deep breath, and open to the first page. You won’t want to stop ’til the book is done!