Shape Shifters and Dragons for Middle Grade Readers

Cindy and Lynn: Sometimes with science fiction or fantasy, you just have to accept the concept and go with the flow of a fun or intriguing story that may be more out-of-this-world than you might even expect from these genres. We each recently read one of these.

Lynn: Trouble in the Stars by Sarah PrineasSarah Prineas’ new book, Trouble in the Stars (Penguin/Philomel, 2021) avoids the pitfalls that often beset middle grade SF by not dwelling on the mechanics of the world building. Instead she simply establishes the setting as a multi-world universe with interstellar travel as a given. But a major premise of the book, that the young protagonist is a shape-shifter created in a laboratory, is something readers need to accept as possible. That isn’t hard to do since the fast-paced plot ramps up right from the start. Readers are introduced to Trouble, floating in space as a sort of amorphous cloud of goo, realizes something dangerous is searching for him. In short order he squeezes into a space station, transforms into the form of an adorable puppy, and stows away on a battered ship heading out into space. When the puppy is discovered and “spaced,” Trouble shape shifts into a 10-year old human boy, wins a 3-week reprieve till the next destination, and is set to work as a cabin boy. The Hindsight has a wonderfully engaging alien crew and it is clear that they are not being completely open about what their mission actually is. Just as Trouble starts to win over the crew, they spot the StarLeague ship that is tracking them!

 This terrific story is a character driven tale of family, identity, and finding a home. The characters are all well drawn, intriguing. and decidedly distinct individuals. Trouble himself is instantly appealing and relatable— quite a feat for a clump of goo 😉 There’s plenty of humor as Prineas manages a conventional trope of “alien-figuring-out-human-behavior” in a way that young readers will greatly enjoy. The plot has plenty of suspense and just enough danger to keep reader’s interest high. This would make an ideal read aloud for a classroom, Chapters end with just enough suspense to make listeners beg for more and the story is packed with themes that would make great discussion topics. I’m hoping there will be more adventures for Trouble and the Hindsight

Cindy: Despite the opening pitch, my offering is less fantasy, really, and more a blend of historical fiction, adventure, survival, and environmental tale with the threatened species being…dragons! A Discovery of Dragons (Scholastic, July, 1, 2021) is a debut novel by science teacher, Lindsay Galvin. Young Discovery of Dragons by Lindsay GalvinSimon Covington is an assistant to Charles Darwin on the USS Beagle, playing fiddle and labeling specimens on the scientist’s famous voyage to the Gallapagos Islands. When he is lost at sea after helping to rescue Darwin, he winds up on an unexplored island with an active volcano. He soon learns that the volcano is not the only thing breathing fire on the island. With the help of his fiddle (from which Simon hears advice and sarcasm) and a lizard he names Farthing, Simon manages rescue and returns to London. There he continues to help Darwin with his specimens but also to deal with his own—a set of eggs he rescued and that are now starting to hatch! Simon’s character is based on a real boy of the same name who aided Darwin on this voyage and details of Darwin’s life and work are woven into the story, but it remains an adventure focused on what may be the last dragon eggs in the world. Might Darwin have found dragons in addition to finches and tortoises if he’d looked in the right place? We may never know. I was willing to let the story unfold as a possibility. Young fans of dragon stories and young naturalists are going to enjoy this science-based adventure. Maybe it’s not fantasy at all….if the dragons are/were real? Hmmmmm….

Just Like That: Schmidt Does It Again

Lynn: Gary Schmidt has done it again. His new book Just Like That (Clarion, 2021) is another gem of a middle-grade novel. He makes a startling Just Like That by Gary D Schmidtmove with an event that takes place just prior to the book’s opening. A reader-favorite character, Holling Hoodhood, dies, leaving his best friend grappling with the grief and despair she terms “the Blank.” Unable to face returning to their shared junior high school in the fall, Meryl Lee is sent by her parents to an elite private boarding school in Maine, St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls. Placed in a room with 3 hostile girls from wealthy privileged families, Meryl Lee feels even more alone and adrift.

In a concurrent and very Dickensian story line, young Matthew Coffin has also landed in the area. On the run from a Fagin-type character and in possession of a cache of money stolen from him, Matt is also adrift in loneliness, guilt and grief. He works the fishing boats, avoids authorities, and fights to stay unnoticed. But Dr. Nora MacKnockater, head of St. Elene’s, sees both teens, their qualities and their struggles. Both story lines intersect as Meryl Lee takes on pearl-wearing roommates, class discrimination, Shakespearean sonnets, dissection, and field hockey. A catalyst for change, Meryl Lee alters the lives and paths of everyone around her—including her own. Heartfelt, insightful, very funny, and deeply moving, this memorable story is Schmidt at the top of his game. Stellar in every way, this book is a gift to readers of all ages.

Cindy: I started reading this in print but then had to be on the road so I bought the audio version and what a treat it was to hear this story read aloud. The 1968 Vietnam War era is well-infused into this story, sometimes in grief-stricken ways, and others more light-hearted, like the ill-fated luncheon when Vice President Spiro Agnew visits the school. Meryl Lee has a bit of Anne Shirley in her, she means well, but unfortunate things just happen sometimes. Dr. MacKnockater is the kind of teacher every kid needs at some time in their journey and both Meryl Lee and Matthew benefit from her wise counsel that also encourages them to figure out what they need to for themselves. Gentle nudges and loving support. Growing up is hard enough, growing up while grieving is even harder. Like last year’s fabulous Pay Attention, Carter Jones that we posted about, the grief is palpable and informed by Schmidt’s own journey, but his humor scenes show that life continues between the blanks. Obviously this is for fans of Schmidt’s connected novels, The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, but Kate DiCamillo fans will embrace these vivid characters and their story too. 

Unsolved Case Files: D.B. Cooper

Cindy: Have we got a new series for you to put on standing order! Escape at 10,000 Feet (Balzer+Bray/HarperAlley, March 2020) by Tom Sullivan is the first book in the new Unsolved Case Files series based on real FBI cases. This graphics-intensive nonfiction title features the D.B. Cooper case, the only unsolved U.S. airplane highjacking case. On Nov. 24, 1971 a man in his 40s wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase entered the Portland International Airport and bought a $20 one-way ticket to Seattle. Once seated in the back of the plane he lit a cigarette and handed a note to a flight attendant. The note?

Miss, I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit next to me.

From there, readers not familiar with the case learn about D.B. Cooper’s demands, the heist of $200,000, and the decades-long search for Cooper and the money. Young readers will be riveted with the details, including the astounding discovery of $5800 of the marked bills by an 8-year-old boy in 1980. Did Cooper survive the jump? If so where is he, and where is the rest of the money? A year or so ago a sixth-grade boy asked me if I had any books about D.B. Cooper. I wish I’d had this book then. The next in the series is Jailbreak at Alcatraz (Sept. 2021). I can’t wait!

Lynn: I know that there is crime and possible death at the heart of this unsolved crime but honestly, what a total hoot this book is!! Today’s kids are far too young to remember the show Dragnet but Tom Sullivan writes with a terrific deadpan Dragnet’s “Joe Friday” voice that is perfect for the topic. OK—most of you faithful readers are probably way too young to remember Dragnet too. So just take my word for it, this is Joe Friday with a sly sense of humor. Since this unsolved crime took place in 1971 when a LOT of things were different, Sullivan had to provide some background information for kids. The hijacker, for example, simply carried his briefcase/bomb on board with him, so one sidebar explains that, yes, in 1971 you just walked on a plane without ever having your baggage security checked. After settling into his seat, the hijacker ordered a drink, lit a cigarette, and handed a note to the stewardess. Here the sidebar assures readers that in 1970 people could smoke anywhere as astonishing as that sounds today. Sidebars also add a wild assortment of related ephemera that is irresistible, such as a diagram of the critically important rear staircase or what all the markings are on a $20 bill or a map of where the 3 bundles of marked bills were found nine years later by some campers.

I love the illustrations in this graphic novel too. Not to mix my references but the style reminds me of another icon of my childhood, the comic Dick Tracy, the crime-fighting hero with a geometric square jaw and unsmiling visage. The drawings are a perfect match to the just-the-facts, ma’am text. I read this in galley so I haven’t yet seen the promised photos from the FBI Files on the case that are to be included in the finished copy but I’m eager to.

Elementary and middle school librarians—you are going to need a zillion copies of this book to meet demand once the kids see it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pura Belpre Honor – An “Army Kid” and the Vieja

Lynn: Nestor’s dad is deployed to Afghanistan and Nestor and his mom have moved AGAIN. This time they’ve moved in with Nestor’s abuela instead of to another army base. Nestor loves his abuela (and she is a great cook!) but this is the 10th time he’s been the new kid in school. How long before he has to move again? In The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Farrar, 2020), debut author Adrianna Cuevas explores the worries and struggles of kids with an active-duty military parent but also spices her story with a nail-biting supernatural adventure.

Nestor misses his dad deeply and worries about him, writing him letters that he keeps bright and positive but he also resists getting too comfortable in this new school, knowing he will have to move again. But this time might be different. Nestor quickly makes some friends and just as quickly gets drawn into a scary situation. Animals in town are disappearing, there is something terrifying in the woods and the townspeople are suspecting Nestor’s abuela of being a witch. Nestor and his friends set out to rescue the animals and solve the mystery. And, oh yes, Nestor has a secret gift – he can talk to animals and that just might be the key to everything.

Fast-paced and quickly immersive, this is a real treat to read. Well developed characters and an intriguing plot will keep kids racing through the pages. Nestor’s voice is immediate and authentic. South American folklore adds a terrific element to the tale. Readers from military families will appreciate Nestor’s struggles as will kids from so many families across the US who change schools often. A great addition to library collections, this will make a great book talk! Congratulations to Adrianna Cuevas for winning a Pura Belpré Author Honor Award!

Young Readers Meet the “Maestro of Glass” – World of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly

Lynn: The team of Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have brought a wonderful array of artists to the attention of young readers in their many books including Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Frank Gehry, Martha Graham and Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve found all the team’s books fascinating but their new book has to be my favorite yet. World of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly (Abrams, 2020),

This visually spectacular book is an excellent meshing of biography, introduction to the singular creative process of glassblowing, and an exploration of Chihuly’s work and series. The authors do an excellent job of presenting a complex and unusual subject in terms appropriate for younger readers without oversimplifying it. Greenberg and Jordan were able interview Chihuly extensively in his studio and the result is a fascinating look at this extraordinary artist. The text is peppered with Chihuly’s comments and reflections and has a terrific in-person feel to it.

And as it should, the book is as much photographs of Chihuly’s work as it is text. It is a stunningly beautiful book and masterfully designed, featuring color photographs, many full page. Some show Chihuly and his team at work, some are historical from his early life but most are of the gorgeous glass artwork in sites, installations, and museums. To see something created by Dale Chihuly is an unforgettable experience and this book will delight those already familiar with his work and will surely create new admirers. I learned a lot and esteem this artist all the more. I will never forget the Chihuly installation at the Frederick Meijer Gardens. It drew throngs of people and my young grandsons and I made multiple visits. They begged for repeat visits and what Grandmother could say no to that?

Cindy: Imagine with me. A family visits an outdoor exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s art and then spots this book in the gift shop. Mesmerized like Lynn and her grandsons, they buy the book and discover it is one that the whole family will look at again and again. They learn about the whole team behind Chihuly who help create his visions in thousands of pieces of blown glass. Glimpses into the studio of the glass blowing process are fascinating and often look more like circus acts than artistic creation. They see the protective suits worn to carry the new HOT creations to an annealing oven where they might cool for twenty-four hours. They read about the team of 30 that travels with him and the 100 local workers he hires to help install the many pieces of glass into the stunning completed work. Included in the story is the heartbreak of Chihuly losing his brother, his father, and one eye in tragic events and the loving support of a mother who encouraged a wild young boy to be who he needed to be. It’s a book to return to as many times as you long to return to a Chihuly Exhibit once you’ve seen one. I had the joy of seeing some of his same works exhibited in two very different environments, first at the Phoenix Botanical Garden, and then again in Grand Rapids, Michigan with Lynn at our exemplary Frederick Meijer Gardens. It was fascinating how different the glass looked among cactus with desert mountains behind compared with our green, wooded, and water landscapes. If you get out our way, you can see “Lena’s Garden” a glass flower ceiling in the cafe and the “Gilded Champagne Glass Chandelier”, both worth the visit. Of course, not every kid will have the opportunity to see these sculptures in the wild, or to purchase the book, so libraries, once again, will open new worlds and ideas and experiences for everyone. Stock up. Jan and Sandra, we already can’t wait to experience your next book! 

 

 

 

Chance – Uri Shulevitz’s Story of Survival and Hope

Lynn: Survival in desperate times is often a matter of chance as Uri Shulevitz says in his new book, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (Farrar, 2020). But as in all things in life, there is much more to Shulevitz’s story. This book is a searing tale of horrifying privation but it is also about determination, love, and the start of an artistic life.

When Uri Shulevitz was only 4, the Nazis attacked Poland. Uri’s father fled into Russia and the plan was for Uri and his mother to join him later. In a brief period when the borders remained open, Uri and his mother traveled by smuggler’s truck from German-occupied Poland into Russia, joining his father in Bialystok. Escaping from the Nazis was an incredibly fortunate act but this still was the beginning of 10 years of horrifying oppression, extreme poverty, disease, and starvation. Denied employment except in labor camps, the family traveled to a settlement north of Arkangel on the Baltic Sea, east to Turkestan, and in 1945, an equally harrowing journey back to Warsaw and eventually to Paris.

Shulevitz writes for a young audience and he forges a remarkable combination of an honest picture of the reality in language and images appropriate for the audience and manages somehow to never be overly graphic. Shulevitz speaks straight to the reader and his choices of small vignettes move the story forward while also skillfully giving youngsters the tools to understand the unimaginable.

“Hunger is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” he writes.

He goes on to describe being so hungry that his mother made and cooked a patty of grass for him. Uri devoured every bit and then, unable to process it, he suffered intense diarrhea, having to flee to a maggot-ridden outhouse with no roof and wipe himself with stones because there was no toilet paper. Shulevitz also provides the moments that kept him going. Drawing was his lifeline and his love of the stories his mother told.

“My poor loving mother couldn’t feed my body but she did magnificently feed my mind.”

It is the masterful use of these and other brilliantly written moments that make this a book that readers will never forget. This is a truly inspiring story of deep suffering and amazing survival. It is a look inside a mind and soul who somehow came out the other side of a living hell and triumphed after all. This book is a gift to us all.

Cindy: We know Uri Shulevitz from his long, successful career authoring and illustrating award-winning picture books. Departing from this format, at age 85, he has written a memoir that will find a wide audience age range, starting with the upper elementary students who can handle the painful experiences. For the older students and adults who read this, it will be a book they won’t forget. The painful events and the sweet, simple joys that helped Uri and his family and all of those with shared experiences, are chronicled not just in words, but in Uri’s art. He started to draw at the age of three and encouraged by his parents, continued to use his art as one survival strategy. The scenes include touches of architecture and his surroundings but feature the vivid expressions of the many emotions, illnesses, and deprivations he experienced. Photographs and mementos that miraculously survived the wartime travels are included as well. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux deserve mention for giving this book the quality bookmaking that it deserves. It is a beautiful volume that will become a classic.

This past year as many have endured family loss and true hardships and others have complained about less serious deprivation like toilet paper shortages and mask-wearing, this memoir shows another time in our history in which true suffering was faced, and if you had good fortune or chance, you endured. Ingrid Roper interviewed Mr. Shulevitz for this July 17, 2020 Publisher Weekly article, and at the end, he speaks of what he hopes will help others through our current pandemic:

“My mother’s stories and drawing were a lifeline for me during that time as a refugee,” he says. “And I hope readers will seek their own lifeline now. Everyone is different, and it will be different for everyone. But finding that is critical. And if this book helps them do so, my book will be happy and so will I.”

2020 Just Won’t Let Up…Grim Books

Cindy and Lynn: You’ve got to be kidding? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, economic depression, and an unprecedented post-presidential election transition and you should see the books the publishers are sending us to read! We understand that reading builds empathy and provides survival and coping strategies, but we need cuddly puppies, comfort food, and beach reads since we can’t travel to beaches. Instead, take a look at the depressing topics the authors and publishers are offering up:

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison (Amulet, 2020)

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Yes, it’s a graphic novel, but that just makes it all the more depressing to think about reading since it illustrates in words AND pictures the horrors that happened at this prison. Important stories, to be sure, and about a subject most of us know little about, but hardly the beach read that the picture postcard-inspired cover promises.

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2020)

Narrated by Hunger, the tragic story of the men and women and children who end up stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with nothing to eat but their dead does make our toilet paper shortages of 2020 seem lame, but really? Is this the book you want to read NOW?

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic, 2020)

As if the natural disasters the world has been facing all year aren’t enough, let’s revisit one of the most horrific manmade disasters, which at its root was due to class divides and social injustice.

The Candy Mafia by Lavie Tidhar (Peachtree, 2020)

You know things are bad in the reading world when even the promise of sweet candy leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Welcome to the world of black market candy rings…

Good grief! This list looks like the Goodreads account for Count Olaf! What books have you seen that you just can’t pick up right now? Or, please….tell us what you are reading that is bringing you comfort!!!

Canyon’s Edge – a Literal Cliff-Hanger for Tweens

Lynn: My introduction to Dusti Bowling’s writing was with the wonderful Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Sterling, 2017) and I have enjoyed her books and desert country settings ever since. Her new book, Canyon’s Edge (Little, Brown, 2020) has just recently published and if ever there was a book guaranteed to hold a reader’s attention, it is this one!

It has been a year since the random shooting in a restaurant killed Nora’s mother. Both Nora and her father are suffering from PTSD and terrible grief and have pulled back from the world. Today is the first step back to attempting normal. Father and daughter are heading to the desert to rock climb and hike—a pastime the family has loved in the past. When a flash flood sweeps Nora’s father away along with her backpack and supplies, Nora is left to survive on her own in the aftermath. Determined to find her father and discovering a deep desire to live, Nora has to use all her skills, knowledge of the desert, and grit to survive.

The story is told partly in prose and partly in verse and it is quite literally a cliff-hanger! This short book was almost impossible to put down and it is going to make a terrific book talk. Nora’s journey to find her father is also a journey through the grief and anxiety that have been paralyzing her and this internal battle plays out starkly alongside her physical fight to survive. The setting is vividly portrayed and is almost a character as Nora battles the intensity of sun, harsh landscape, snakes, scorpions, the brutal conditions, and the “Beast” in her mind. Young readers will be rooting for her every step of the way.

I listened to this book on audio and the production was excellent.

How Kids Can Change the World

Lynn: Let’s set politics aside and admit that our world is in big trouble. Kids know it and are motivated to do something about it. But many also feel overwhelmed by the size of the problems and don’t know how to start. Happily, we have a book to help! You Can Change the World: The Kid’s Guide to a Better Planet (Andrews McNeal, 2020) by Lucy Bell is just what the planet doctor ordered. Practical and encouraging, this is a doable catalog of actions that kids everywhere can put into practice, backed up by solid information, interesting facts, and lists of resources.

The opening introduction says it perfectly:

“When we hear about these problems, most of us want to help, but it’s hard to know where to start. And some of these problems are so big, they can seem impossible for one person to fix. But we can fix them, if we each do our part.”

Bell next lists “Things to remember when you’re changing the world.” These are so encouraging, hopeful, and practical! The list reminds readers that change can’t happen in a day and you can’t change it all at once. She also advises kids not to feel they have to read the book cover to cover, but instead pick a topic they are most interested in and start there. The book is beautifully designed for kids to do just that. The table of contents lists 8 broad topics including plastics, food, energy, animal activism, and more. Each section lists simple easy-to-do activities, and why this matters. Bell includes fascinating facts on Did You Know pages that are easily shared and add to the reader’s knowledge. For example, did you know that there are more plastic flamingos in the world than living ones? Or that 85% of all textiles bought by Americans end up in landfills?

This book is an absolute treasure for libraries, teachers, groups, and individual kids! Librarians, buy two if you can! This book is going to get heavy use. I’m off to try the recipe for toothpaste!

Cindy: Certainly, in a book like this for tweens, I figured Greta Thunberg would make an appearance, and she does, but interspersed throughout the book are many other profiles of inspiring youth who are leading the way. Nine-year-old Milo Cress launched the Be Straw Free campaign in 2011, Adeline Tiffanie Suwana, concerned about the natural disasters hitting her town in Indonesia formed the group “Friends of Nature” at the age of 12 and is making a difference in a multitude of projects, Maya Penn (18) has been designing and selling eco-friendly accessories and clothing for ten years, and 14-year-old Solli Raphael of Australia is a writer and slam poet using his voice to fight for the environment and animal protection among other issues. These are just a few of the youth included in the book who are taking action to change the world. Websites and social media links for these youths’ projects are listed in the backmatter along with listings for other organizations, stores, charities, and parks mentioned in the book.

A few of the tips and ideas will have to be put on hold until the pandemic is under control (many stores don’t allow bringing your own bags or snack counters your own cups right now), but there are plenty of ideas that can be put into practice immediately. Parents who are looking for activities to get kids active off of devices and screens will do well to have a copy ready. The recipes, handicraft projects, and gardening ideas for all seasons indoors and out will provide hours of productive activity while helping to change the world for the better. I defy you to just read a few pages and not get sucked in for a longer read…unless you are immediately spurred to start your own project NOW.

Once Upon a Now: The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Cindy: I’ll say right off the top that I’m not convinced this book is entirely successful but I admire Christopher Edge for creating a story that is unique and thought-provoking. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (Delacorte, 2020) starts with an intriguing opening:

Once upon a time doesn’t exist.
This story starts once upon a now.

Friends Charlie and Dizzy and bully Johnny become lost in the woods while trying to decode messages left there, perhaps by a child-eating monster. More dangerous, perhaps, is the woods itself and the night that falls more quickly than usual, the storms that threaten, and the stars that are not in their familiar constellations. As the night wears on and the weather changes impossibly, the children are not only lost in the woods but maybe, lost in time. Forget the monster, it may be the woods that gets them.

Edge plays with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and presents a story that is at once a page-turner creepy adventure and a thoughtful look at friendship, the fluidity of time, and who we choose to be. The book has two starred reviews already, so perhaps it is entirely successful; regardless, it’s a book for those kids who need challenging books without mature content. There’s plenty to think about here.

Lynn: Christopher Edge is doing a lot of things in this slim book. He’s got mystery, suspense and a bit of horror, a story of friendship and bullying, and kids finding their strengths. And he also has time travel. As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I am accustomed to being confused when I tackle time travel. I expect to be confused! Young readers have differing reactions to feeling off-footed by a plot. Some dislike it and others embrace it. Here, Edge helps readers to keep going when time travel adds its slippery effect by giving kids a lot of incentive to keep going. Charlie is in a dire situation and wondering what will happen next is a terrific impetus to keep turning the pages. And then there are the puzzling codes and, oh yes, the possibility of a kid-eating monster! It is cleverly designed to propel kids through what may be for some an off-putting sense of not really knowing what is going on. When they come out of the woods in the morning with the three protagonists, readers will find a lot of rewards. They’ll get a satisfying conclusion to the story, a summary of what happens to the characters when they grow up, and answers to at least some of their questions. Kids are going to want to immediately share and discuss the story, another great feature. Edge provides extensive and interesting back matter in “The Science in the Longest Night of Charlie Noon.” Here he explains the codes, code-breaking, and complicated concepts such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the speed of light.

Perhaps the biggest reward of all here for young readers is in understanding that being confused for a while in a book can be a really great thing!