Broken Strings – Healing Hearts: A Middle Grade Holocaust Tale

Lynn: Veteran authors Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer have joined forces in their new middle-grade novel, Broken Strings (Penguin/Puffin Canada, 2019) and the result is a complex, layered and very moving story that shouldn’t be missed.

There is a lot going in this book! Set in 2002 in the aftermath of the attack on the towers, Shirli Berman, a 7th grader, is disappointed to learn that she has been cast in the role of Goldi instead of Hodel in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Shirli rallies though and goes looking for possible costumes and props in the attic of her grandfather’s house. There Shirli is shocked to discover an old violin and a poster showing her grandfather as a young boy with what looks like a family group all posed with instruments. Zayde had never allowed music in the house nor had he ever attended any of Shirli’s recitals or performances. When she takes her discoveries down to her grandfather, he is deeply shocked and then angry. Confused and hurt, Shirli goes back a few days later with her father and then for the first time, Zayde begins to talk about his family and his past.

Slowly over the course of the next few months, the family learns about their Polish family who were a traveling Klezmer band, moving from village to village. When the Nazis took over Poland, the family managed to stay unnoticed at first and then hid in the forest until they were eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz. Stubbornly carrying his violin during the capture and transport, Zayde was conscripted in a camp orchestra and forced to play as each new transport arrived and the Jewish prisoners were sorted with most sent to their deaths. Shirli’s Zayde was the only survivor from his family and after the war, he put music aside forever until Shirli’s discovery opened the door to the beginnings of healing.

The authors do an outstanding job of providing this history for young readers, connecting it to the history of the Sept. 11th attack and examining issues of prejudice, hatred, and oppression in a way that is never heavy-handed but thoughtful and relevant for today. Plot threads of the middle school musical production and a sweet first crush provide a bit of lightness and help keep the interest high. The role and power of music is also a theme that flows throughout the story and young musicians will find much here to think about.

This piece of Holocaust history was new to me too and with Fiddler on the Roof being a personal favorite, I too learned and was deeply moved by the story. An Author’s Note at the end provides additional historical information.

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!

 

Graphic Novel Round-Up – Something for Every Reader

Lynn and Cindy: A flock of fabulous graphic novels has swept onto our doorsteps lately and we’ve been happily flying through them. There’s something here for every interest and every age and we’ve been loving them all. Here’s a quick round-up of some of what we’ve been enjoying, starting with graphic novels for high school readers and moving on through to one for our youngest readers.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki (First Second, 2019)

This is an absolutely brilliant look at love in a toxic relationship. Charismatic Laura Dean flies in and out of Freddie’s life, bewitching and beguiling her, taking complete advantage of Freddie’s adoration, stomping on her heart whenever she feels like it and leaving Freddie diminished at every turn.

We’ve all watched relationships like this. Maybe we’ve been IN a relationship like this. Tamaki nails the dynamics, the helpless attraction, the hurt that grows bigger and more destructive each time and the hope that THIS time will be different. Masterfully nuanced illustrations heighten the sense of being there and watching a dear friend walk back into the buzzsaw once again. High Schoolers exploring relationships will love and learn from this story.

Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis (Walker, 2019)

A stunningly beautiful graphic story loosely based on the history of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. While it was fun to notice the parallels, it isn’t necessary to know the history as Meconis creates her own richly immersive story full of period details, evocative characters, and vivid setting. The main protagonist, Margaret, an orphaned child who came to the island surrounded in mystery, is instantly endearing and readers experience the unfolding events along with her.

Meconis’ illustrations are gorgeous but they are also a brilliant part of the storytelling. Each panel has its own part to play in carrying the tale forward, providing important details and developing the characters. This is a visual treat but it is also masterful graphic storytelling. Readers ranging from high school to upper elementary will love the characters, the warmly human touches of humor, the historical feel, the fascinating political intrigue and the feel of an illuminated manuscript. Outstanding book design adds to all these masterfully done elements to make this an imaginative and immersive reading experience.

Sunny Rolls the Dice, by Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm (Graphix, 2019)

Middle school is fraught with changing friendships as tweens shift interests, alliances, and struggle to be “cool.” Some mature more quickly than others, some don’t care what others think, and some long for acceptance by a popular group, or are distraught when good friends leave them by the wayside. As a middle school librarian, I’ve watched these friendship struggles for decades. The Holms have captured the essence of this passage in this newest book in the series that started with Sunny Side Up. Sunny’s best friend has discovered boys, fashion, and makeup while Sunny doesn’t understand why they can’t pursue those interests while still playing Dungeons & Dragons with boys they are only trying to slay in the game. 70s memories of the perils of hot rollers and smelly rental roller skates bring the setting alive for those of us who lived through it…and it’s fun historical fiction with a timeless look at friendship for the intended audience.

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix, 2019)

Does this book need promotion? Probably not, but given the reception it’s received in my middle school, not because it is Raina’s new book, but due to the subject matter, it’s worth highlighting to be sure you don’t miss it. Telgemeier continues her graphic memoir series with this new entry about what anxiety can do physically and mentally to a child (or an adult). Scholastic published an initial print run of 1 million copies, according to this Forbes! article about the release. Grab your copies quickly, they are already thinking of a second run to meet demand.

The Singing Rock & Other Brand-New Fairy Tales, by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (First Second, 2019)

Here’s a graphic novel that is great for the Gr. 2-6 set. Bright, funny and also gorgeously illustrated stories tell four slightly twisted fairy tales that are joyful hoot.

Perfect for the young child who will appreciate the humor and I think middle school kids would love it if they’d be brave enough to look past the young appearance of the book. Besides being wonderful fun, this would make a GREAT writing prompt.

 

Bringing Down a President – A History for Today’s Teens

Lynn: With the term impeachment on everyone’s minds, Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandal (Roaring Brook, 2019) by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy couldn’t be more timely!

In chronological order, the authors take readers step-by-step through the events of the unfolding Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon. Beginning with the day Nixon installed the secret recording devices in the White House that became so pivotal, the authors then move to the break-in of the Democratic headquarters and follow the chain of events that brought down a presidency. The narrative device used by the authors called “Fly on the Wall” is chatty and irreverent but it clearly distinguishes between actual quotations and clarifying expositions that will help teen readers to sort through the convoluted issues of what was said in public, what was said in secret, and what lay at the heart of the actions of the Nixon staff.

For all of its light approach, the book is very clear on the moral and constitutional elements at the heart of the scandal and it is startling how many of these same elements are in play today on the national scene. Nixon’s statement that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal” is strongly disputed here with a legal and constitutional basis for this contention. Balis and Levy do an excellent job of presenting a clear accounting of who did what when and why it mattered. Having lived through this unfolding scandal, I remember the confusion, doubt, and fear that afflicted most of us and I think the authors do an excellent job of conveying the prevailing culture of public trust in the government that had mostly existed at the time and the impact of the scandal both then and on today’s cynical climate of distrust and suspicion.

Back matter includes a terrific Timeline (how I wish I’d had THIS at the time) and outstanding Source Notes. Throughout the book, the authors make it clear why accurate sources are critical to the accounting and in this time of political ambiguity, the authors are also clear on what is morally and legally right and what is not. Wonderful black and white illustration add to this lively you-are-there accounting. Fascinating and important!

 

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.

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. 😉 Thanks, Tommy!