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!

“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.

“Children Deserve Important Books!” Thank You, Margaret Wise Brown.

Lynn: As a young librarian I was taught to honor Margaret Wise Brown and as a parent I loved to read her books to my boys. But with all that, I knew very little about the life of this iconic author. Mac Barnett steps up to help me with that glaring error in his new stellar picture book biography, The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2019)

Right from the start, Margaret was a different soul and Barnett does an outstanding job of bringing that difference forward and letting readers know that it was more than okay. I LOVE Barnett’s writing in this book. He speaks directly to the reader, is conversational, blunt and refreshingly honest with kids, acknowledging some of Brown’s strange actions. Kids probably won’t know of many other authors who skinned a dead pet rabbit and wore its pelt around her waist, swam naked, or blew her entire first book earnings on an entire flower cart and threw a big party! And, Barnett goes on to say, Brown also wrote strange books, at least strange for her time although not so dissimilar, kids will note, to the very book they are reading.

What comes through wonderfully here is that it is OK to be strange and Margaret Wise Brown was strange in some truly important ways. Brown believed that children deserve important books and as Barnett again points out, life is strange and books that reflect that may seem strange but they also “feel true.” Margaret Wise Brown was a champion for children and books and after reading this amazing book, I think Mac Barnett is too.

Cindy: Maybe the reason we knew so little about Margaret Wise Brown is that she thought the stories were more important than the author! Here is the quote that Barnett opens with:

“It did not seem important that any one wrote these stories. They were true. And it still doesn’t seem important! All this emphasis today on who writes what seems silly to me as far as children are concerned.”

No matter, we know a little bit more now about the author of Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, The Important Book, The Little Fur Family, and so many more. While Barnett spins the tale, we get to immerse ourselves in Sarah Jacoby’s watercolor and Nupastel paintings. There are bunnies, and dogs, and many flowers and trees, and bunny children reading books or being read to by librarians like Anne Carroll Moore. The scenes are at once familiar and fresh.

And then, Mac Barnett slices into our hearts with his truthful pen, or computer, and says:

“Lives don’t work the way most books do.
They can end suddenly,
as fast as you kick your leg in the air.”

And it goes on and is beautiful and is a tribute that Margaret would have liked, I think. But you’ll have to buy the book and read the rest yourself because I am crying just a little and the words are blurring.

Gondra’s Treasure – Dragon Lore History and Blended Families in a Picture Book

Lynn:  Readers might be surprised if we described a new picture book for the PreK-Gr.2 set as an introduction to dragon lore, its history and cultural differences, a story about biracial families and a sweet bedtime tale all in one. But if we then revealed that the author is the talented Linda Sue Park, all would be explained. Park’s new picture book, Gondra’s Treasure (Clarion, 2019), is all of those unusual elements and more and the result is completely charming.

Gondra, a small dragon, confides that her mom’s family is from the West and her Dad’s is from the East. As Gondra goes on to describe her family, readers get an introductory lesson in dragon folklore and the cultural differences in the traditional stories. Gondra’s mother breathes fire and her father breathes mist. Her mother’s ancestors lived in caves with treasure and her father’s had a single magical pearl that could control the weather. Gondra herself is a charming mix of both and this blend is presented along with a loving banter between the parents that is both humorous and reassuring. In what is clearly bedtime routine, Gondra brushes her teeth, dons striped pajamas (with her tail sticking out)  and hauls her stuffed toy and a stack of books off to bed, asking on the way, “What happened to the magic pearl and all the treasure?”

“Oh, that’s right. We don’t need them

anymore – because I’m your treasure.”

While the simple dragon lore is front and center here, the subtle message of loving acceptance and biracial families is the sweetly told heart of this dragon tale.

Cindy: Linda Sue Park’s story is warm and tender and encouraging to children living in many types of blended families. The humor in the tale is brought to life brilliantly in Jennifer Black Reinhardt’s whimsical illustrations. Created in ink, watercolor and collage paper, they are bright and expressive and Gondra made me snort in almost every scene. Unfortunately, I produced neither flames nor mist. Sigh.

Gondra’s attempts to fly and the caution to only breathe fire with an adult present will be familiar to the intended audience who are learning new things or having to wait to learn them. Gondra’s imagination shines as she takes to a swing to soar in the air while she waits for her magic to unfold.

An author’s note explains the lore behind dragons from different regions and some theories related to dinosaur fossil beds as to how people on different continents imagined dragon stories. Or perhaps, dragons are real? Gondra makes me wish it were so.

 

ALA Exhibits: Books, Books, Books

Cindy and Lynn: Bookends Blog here, reporting from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Yeah, we know the exhibit hall included technology and furniture vendors, library suppliers, and a food court, but our favorite aisles are the ones with booth after booth of youth books and our familiar school and library marketing reps. While we tried to follow our own advice about not being greedy in the aisles, we are delighted that these books made it into our suitcase:

 

Dead Voices, by Katherine Arden (Penguin/Putnam, Aug. 2019)

We raved about Small Spaces last year, and it has become a middle school favorite. Its sequel, Dead Voices, was one of the books we most wanted to get and it was the arc that we read on the flight home. If you want middle grade creepy, this is your series. Dead Voices finds Ollie, Coco, and Brian who survived the scarecrows and spooky cornfields of the first book now snowed-in at a haunted ski lodge that did remind us a little of the setting of Stephen King’s The Shining. We gotta believe he would love this book, too.

 

White Bird, by R. J. Palacio (Random, Oct. 2019)

Palacio, the author of the wildly popular Wonder, has written and illustrated her first graphic novel, White Bird. We were so excited to receive a gorgeous color galley and cannot wait to read it! This story is about a young Jewish girl who is hidden from the Nazis in occupied France during WWII.

 

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers, by Celia C. Perez (Penguin/Kokila, Sep. 2019)

One of our favorites of 2018 was Perez’s debut, The First Rule of Punk (Penguin, 2018). We stood in a very long line to get our hands on her new book and it sounds fabulous. The cover blurb says, “When three very different girls find a mysterious invitation to a lavish mansion, the promise of adventure is too intriguing to pass up.”  See, you’d stand in line too!

 

Free Lunch by Rex OgleFree Lunch, by Rex Ogle (Norton, Sept. 2019)

Rex Ogle was looking forward to starting sixth grade. Things are tough at home, though, with his mom and her boyfriend out of work and so she signs Rex up for free lunch. Then Rex discovers he has to announce that fact out loud every day to the lunch lady. Our school district has almost 60% of our students on a free lunch program and we think this is one that is truly important for them and everyone else in the district as well.

 

Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe, by Josh Allen (Holiday, Sept. 2019)

A debut author collection, blurbed by Gary Schmidt: Wonderful and weird, compelling and unsettling…These stories are scary because they are so very true.” We’re in!

 

While there was no lack of swag at the booths, our favorite item this year was a button promoting Jessica Pan’s new book, Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come (Andrews McMeel, 2019). We can think of lots of places to sport this…staff meetings, anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

allthe rest of our student population.

ALA Exhibits: The Ones That Got Away

Cindy and Lynn: We picked up many great upcoming youth books at the recent ALA Exhibits and publisher events, but even so, there were a few that got away either because they went fast or won’t have an arc. The early bird gets the worm, and the hot new books. We try not to be greedy as we receive a bounty of books on our doorsteps throughout the year, but here are a few we are still eager to clutch in our hands.

 

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, by Mildred Taylor (Penguin, Jan. 2020)

The 10th and final book in the wonderful Logan Family Saga that began with Newbery Medal Winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. If you haven’t seen the repackaging of this series, with new cover art by Kadir Nelson, check it out.

 

Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters, by Emily Roberson (Farrar, Oct. 2019)

This one sounds like the Minotaur meets Hunger Games! A debut book we really wanted to find!

 

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, by Jason Reynolds (S&S/Atheneum, Oct. 2019)

Reynolds crafts ten tales, one per block, about what happens on the walk home after the dismissal bell rings. We would have been heroes for sure if we’d scored this arc!

 

The Queen of Nothing, by Holly Black (Little, Brown, Nov. 2019)

Book 3 of the Folk of the Air series! Need I say more? We’re grateful that this publishing two months earlier than previously scheduled.

 

The Toll, by Neal Shusterman (S&S, Nov. 2019)

This concluding volume was probably the most begged-for galley from the older focus group and our Best Books Book Club.
(We wanted it too!)

 

The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach

Lynn: I loved Ross Burach’s new picture book, The Very Impatient Caterpillar (Scholastic, 2019) from the moment I saw the cover. Burach is totally tuned into an important aspect of young readers. They can be intensely interested in the factual side of a topic while at the same time loving a goofily ridiculous take on it. This picture book presents the important and almost miraculous biological topic of metamorphosis while also managing to yank on the uniquely silly funny bones so typical of little kids.

A rather clueless green caterpillar notices that all his buddies are going somewhere without him. They tell him they are going to metamorphosize. “Wait,” he yells, “You’re telling me I can become a BUTTERFLY?” The caterpillar has no idea what to do and once he finally manages to become a chrysalis he nearly melts down when he discovers he is going to have to wait 2 weeks! My favorite part of this hilarious book is the section depicting the ways the caterpillar tries to pass the time inside the chrysalis.

I’m happy to report that this delightful book has already received 2 big thumbs up from the five-year-old member of our focus group whose teacher had read this to their class as part of a caterpillar unit. He assured me that it was the funniest book EVER!

Cindy: “Are we there yet?” What parent hasn’t heard that refrain from the backseat. Patience is a virtue but is often in short supply these days. This book pokes fun at that while the science and magic spins away and wraps us in a fun information presentation. Burach’s art is a brightly colored mix of pencil, crayon, acrylic paint, and digital coloring. Who knew caterpillars had such expressive tongues and eyes! The art teacher will want to take a look at this one, too! She’s going to need the full 64-pack of crayons for these wild butterflies!