Game Changer: A Visit with Tommy Greenwald

Cindy: An email from my Scholastic Book Fair rep diverted my spring break reading this year. Would I be able to host an author event with Tommy Greenwald the week I returned from vacation to fill in for another school that had to cancel? Why, yes. Yes I could. I put aside the adult book I was reading (The Library Book by Susan Orlean) and bought a copy of Tommy’s latest book, Game Changer (Amulet, 2019), and read it on the flight home. I already had the book in my middle school libraries, but the attractive cover had kept it in circulation and out of my hands. I’m glad I have the extra copy as this is going to be a popular booktalk next fall.

Eighth grade football player Teddy is hospitalized in a coma after a head injury during a summer training camp. The story plays out in Teddy’s inner thoughts, dialogue between hospital visitors, texts, newspaper articles, counselor transcripts, and a social media online forum. This format exposes truths, rumors, opinions, and secrets as the mystery of what really happened to Teddy is unraveled. Greenwald, a football fan himself, explores the dangers of the sport along with the traditions of hazing in this all too realistic portrayal of how the game is often played. Lots of white space (due to the multimedia format), in addition to the many discussion points and the mystery make this a great choice for reluctant readers. The pages turn quickly as the truth comes to light.

Tommy’s presentation to our 6th-8th grade students was fun. His idea for the Charlie Joe Jackson series came from his three sons, Charlie, Joe, and Jack, non-readers all. As you can see in the photo, he tried to bribe his boys with ice cream. I don’t know if the book (or the ice cream) worked on his kids, but Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading is popular with legions of middle grade readers. He had our students laughing while also thinking about the writing process. It’s always heartening when kids realize that they are not the only ones who are asked to edit their writing. We didn’t have much time to prepare for the visit, but all of Tommy’s books are in circ now and will be for awhile. Author visits are so beneficial for promoting reading and to remind students that REAL PEOPLE write the books they are reading, or perhaps NOT reading. šŸ˜‰ Thanks, Tommy!

Hop to It – Cynthia Lord’s New Rabbit Books

Lynn: Things are really hopping at Newbery Honor author Cynthia Lord’s house. As proof, we offer her two new enchanting books that both feature rabbits. They also happen to have the most enticing and adorable covers EVER! In fact, we think all you’ll have to do to promote these is to set them face out on the shelf and stand back. And, since you may never get much chance to read them once the kids see them, here’s what is happening inside those covers.

Lord and her family foster rabbits rescued by Maine’s Cottontail Cottage Rabbit Rescue. They help rescued domestic rabbits learn to trust humans and live in a house so they can be adopted. In her new nonfiction picture book, Borrowing Bunnies: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits (Farrar, 2019), Lord tells the story of when two Netherland dwarf rabbits joined the family. Lord’s husband, professional photographer John Bald, decided to photograph their steps toward adoption. It was quite a surprise when one of the rabbits gave birth to four tiny babies. Sadly two of the babies died but the remaining two, Fezzi and Dodger, prospered.

The book introduces the original two rabbits, explains what fostering is and how rabbits are helped to feel safe and comfortable. The story then documents the surprising arrival of the babies and follows their growth and development. Lord uses clear simple text suited to young readers, focusing on rabbit behavior.

The wide format and white background provide the perfect format for John Bald’s enchanting photographs of these irresistible creatures. And if all this cuteness wasn’t enough, charming sketches from illustrator Hazel Mitchell skip through the pages. What reader will not instantly yearn to add a rabbit to their family immediately? Happily, Cynthia Lord was well aware of this and has provided an important final page titled, ” Do You Want Your Own Rabbit for Keeps?” Here she emphasizes the need to do additional rabbit research and offers 5 important questions to answer before becoming a bunny owner.

Cindy: The cover art drew both Lynn and me to Lord’s fiction title, Because of the Rabbit (Scholastic, 2019) and it’s sure to attract young readers. Each chapter opens with a torn scrap of lined paper with a rabbit fact, which also coordinates with the focus of the story in that chapter. Emma’s homeschooling is coming to an end as the book opens. It’s the night before she is off to start 5th grade at a public school and she is nervous about finding a friend and setting a good first impression. Her school supplies are ready, but is she? That night she accompanies her game warden father to rescue a bunny caught in a fence. When they do, they discover it’s not a wild rabbit that can be released, but a pet breed that may have an owner looking for it. Emma convinces her dad that they should take it home to foster until they can find the owner. In addition to bunny wrangling, Emma gets paired with a boy named Jack for a big project. He is on the autism spectrum and friendship doesn’t come easily. As a storyteller, I really enjoyed the integration of trickster bunny Monsieur Lapin’s tales that Emma recounts from her grandfather’s storytelling. Lord writes books that children connect with, and this one will find a ready audience.

Publisher’s Weekly published a Q&A with Cynthia Lord earlier this month that will interest readers who want to know more about Lord’s fascination with bunnies and other animals and her personal experiences that informed her storytelling.

We’re Not From Here

Lynn: Years of working in a middle school library have taught me that if you want to talk to students about serious issues you have to get and keep their attention first. Geoff Rodkey clearly gets that important fact. Author of the New York Times bestselling Tapper Twins series, Rodkey’s new book,Ā We’re Not From HereĀ (Crown, 2019) takes on timely issues but in a way that is sure to captivate young readers and crack them up even as it gives them much to think about.

We're Not From Here by Geoff RodkeyEarth has been made unlivable and the few who escaped are clinging to survival on the Mars station as food, supplies, and breathable air are running out. Told by 6th-grader Lan, a nick-of-time invitation arrives allowing these remaining humans to settle on the distant Planet Choom. Twenty years in stasis travel later, the human ship arrives only to be told that the government of Choom has changed its mind. Reluctantly, Choom officials agree to a test caseā€”one “human reproductive unit” will be allowed to settle temporarily. Lan’s family is chosen with the future of humanity riding on their shoulders. “No pressure!”

Rodkey knows his audience and this dark-edged story is packed with the sorts of elements and humor perfectly tuned to young readers. It turns out the mosquito-like Zhuri express emotion by emitting odors. Imagine where middle-school senses of humor will go with THAT concept! The Zhuri also love slap-stick comedy and cheezy videos and Lan is an expert on these. Lan’s chatty breezy tone is the perfect vehicle for this extremely funny science fiction tale. Both the humor and the suspense will keep readers turning the pages eagerly and they won’t miss the important issues along the way. Rodkey puts kids squarely in the worn-out shoes of these human immigrants, allowing them to view immigration, refugees, news manipulation, mob violence, discrimination and more from a whole new perspective. Head, heart, and funny bone are all involved in this imaginative, out-of-this-world tale.

Rodkey has some excellent resources available on his website including an interview about the book with the Nerdy Bookclub, a wonderful teacher’s guide, the opportunity for a free Skype visit and more!

Fate or Chance? Two New Books Explore What Happens Because…

Lynn: Do you believe in fate or coincidence? Maybe you think it’s a divine hand at work, or pure coincidence or perhaps there really is a touch of magic loose in the universe. No matter which way you lean, these are fun concepts to play with, especially in books. Early 2019 has brought us two delightful books that will get kids wondering about fate, magic, and connections.

A Drop of Hope by Keith CalabreseFirst up is a charming debut middle school book, A Drop of Hope (Scholastic, 2019) by Keith Calabrese. Take a town down on its luck, a boy new in town who has made his dying grandfather a promise, a girl whose family has come unglued, and a boy who secretly does chores for his neighbor. Add the town legend of a wishing well, a chance eavesdropping, and a spur-of-the-moment decision and watch what can happen to an entire town from one act of kindness.

Calabrese’s intricate plot traces the ripple effect of seemingly unrelated actions and individuals on the fortunes of an entire town. It’s a little like watching a Rube Goldberg invention: wacky, convoluted, highly entertaining, and it leaves you cheering at the result. There is a large cast of characters to keep track of but Calabrese manages to give them all a separate voice and readers will care about them all. Told in short individual vignettes, the story moves quickly, gaining speed as the connections begin to multiply.

I was given this arc at ALA and the publisher rep said it was a story of “hope that wasn’t cheezy,” and she was so right! It’s also a story of the mysterious forces that connect us all. Give this to a good reader looking for something really different.

Cindy:Ā Because a 4th grader was ahead in her work and because an elementary school librarian gave her jobs and because the girl had a hard time choosing between many subjects she loved, she became a librarian so she could dabble in them all. And over time, because she worked very hard, and she was lucky, she was chosen to serve on award committees and to review and blog for Booklist magazine. Because of that, books like Because (Hyperion, 2019) by Mo Willems and Amber Ren arrive on her doorstep waiting for her to read and promote. Mo writes the “score” here, telling the story of how chance, fate, coincidence, passion, hard work, and serendipity and, yes, perhaps a touch of mystery, results in a young girl finding her passion in a career as a musician and conductor. Amber Pen provides the “performance,” the illustrations, to this moving story of how small moments can result in life-changing opportunities. A colorful trail of musical notes winds through the pages that start and end with musical scores. The opening piece is Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B-minor, and the closing piece was composed for the book by Hilary Purrington. Have a listen.

Winter Blues? These Picture Books Cats Will Cheer You

Cindy:Ā Want a laugh? Just read the title of this book:Ā How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy StepsĀ (Tundra, 2019) by Nicola Winstanley. Despite the calm cover art, anyone who has owned a cat knows there is nothing, and I mean, nothing, easy about bathing a cat. The young girl in this book learns that very quickly, although she tries to follow the “five easy steps.” Once she gets the water just right, an effort that takes many tries, the next hurdle is finding the cat. Children and adults will be giggling at the escalating anticsĀ illustrated by John Martz’s humorous scenes as the hiding and chasing unfold. Simple repetitive text, spacious layout, and a cookie break will keep children reading and laughing through this story again and again.

Lynn: In Julia Sarcone-Roach’s story, There Are No Bears in This Bakery (Knopf, 2019) Muffin is the “whiskers” of his neighborhood and he takes his job seriously. So when a mysterious noise disturbs the night, he investigates. None of the usual mice, raccoons, or bats are to be seen but a “grrrrrrr” seems to be coming from the bakery. Inside is the biggest mouse Muffin has ever seen – or was it the smallest bear?

The little bear’s belly is rumbling but fortunately, Muffin knows just what to do and it turns out bears really like sprinkles. But the little bear isn’t alone and by the morning there is a big surprise waiting for the sleepy baker!

Muffin’s noir-detective tale is filled with over-the-top funny figures of speech and Muffin’s observations make this a hoot to read aloud.

Sarcone-Roach’s page-filling illustrations are done in acrylic paint, cut paper, and marker. Muted tones wash the pages making the orange of Muffin’s fur the visual focus of this very funny cat tale.