Kathy’s Korner

Book reviews of new fiction for kids and tweens from our own youth services aide!

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Dust & Grimm, by Chuck Wendig

This week, I decided I wanted to read for fun, so I gravitated to the new Fantasy Fiction display.  I chose Dust & Grim, by Chuck Wendig, which turned out to be a bit of a fantasy/ghost story which was indeed, entertaining. On a scale of 1 to 10, I think I’d give it a 6 or 7 – not Harry Potter (few books reach that level) but a decent storyline.

Our heroine is Molly Grim, a thirteen year old girl who was raised by a neglectful, crappy father. When he dies, she discovers she has an Uncle Gordo, a sleazy lawyer who tells her of her deceased mother, and of her eighteen year old brother Dustin.  The book begins with Molly and Uncle Gordo arriving at her mother’s creepy house and confronting Dustin to demand her half of the inheritance.  Okay, Molly just wants the money to go to art school and become a costumer, since she loves losing herself in cosplay.  But she is initially such an angry, hurt and resentful teen that I had some trouble sympathizing with her.  She has a chip on her shoulder, and feels that she got dumped by her mom, whereas Dustin got everything, most of all their mom’s love.  But Dustin, who had no idea he had a sister, is a strange, uptight, overdisciplined teen who has had to shoulder a lot of burdens and give up a lot of his life, too.  Because guess what (and this is on the book jacket blurb, so I am not giving anything away) – his mother ran a funeral home for “the denizens of the supernatural world,” otherwise known as monsters.

When Molly messes up bigtime and causes serious chaos in the cemetery, she has to lose her resentment, work with Dustin, and save the world from their evil uncle.  You know, the typical problems of an orphaned, insecure thirteen year old girl whose uncle wants to gain power by eating the souls of deceased monsters. The story takes us through some kind of familiar themes: brother and sister resent each other, but eventually love and support each other; evil uncle threatens the existence of magic and has to be overcome; presumed evil advisor turns out to be sort of okay and helpful… then you toss in five representatives of different “nonstandard citizens,” such as the vampires, the Goodly Folk (fairies) and sorcerers.  Don’t forget the ghost boy in the wallpaper, and the guardian wolves that only Molly can see!  It’s fun, and kids who like stories that are a little creepy and a lot magical will certainly enjoy it.

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet

Written by Zanib Mian and Illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

This week’s book choice is a delightful Maine Student Book Award Nominee, Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet.  The story is told in first person by Omar, the middle child of a Muslim family in the London area.  His parents are both scientists, and when his mom is offered her dream job, so they have to move to a different town and school system.

Omar deals with the same issues any middle school kid has to face when starting a new school.  He worries about no one liking him, about finding friends, about difficult schoolwork – and of course, the possibility of his teacher being an alien!  He describes himself as having a “huge imagination,” and luckily, that can also help him deal with his fears.  For example, he imagines riding a “super-awesome, magnificent dragon” to school, which helps him feel much braver.  You watch as he meets his new best friend, Charlie; a wonderful teacher (who is not an alien); and unfortunately, Daniel, the mean bully.  At one point, Daniel tells Omar to “go back to your country before we kick you out.” Omar has grown up in England, not Pakistan, and is confused and worried by this threat.  However, as the story progresses, Omar still helps Daniel out during a disastrous field trip adventure, and they begin to understand each other and become friends.

Other important themes include family love, even when you frustrating siblings!  The kids are so normal in their bickering; and their scientist parents are embarrassing, loving and silly.  Their Muslim faith is woven naturally into the entire story, and you learn about some of their customs, food, and celebrations.  I love the gentle way the author integrates the way their faith shapes their life, in a sweet but often funny way.  And I also love the way the family wins over others, such as Mrs. Rogers, the crabby, bigoted old lady next door who refers to them as “The Muslims.”  Omar’s mom helps her when she is alone and hurt, she becomes a close friend.  In the same manner, Daniel and his family become friends after Omar helps him, and Daniel ends up apologizing for his mean behavior.

Finally, I need to comment on the wonderful illustrations throughout the book.  The laugh out loud line drawings are engaging and really help you to understand Omar’s thoughts.  Overall this is a delightful book for middle school readers, and I can highly recommend reading it with your child!

Samira Surfs, by Rukhsanna Guidroz

Since April is National Poetry Month, I decided to try reading a novel in verse, and I chose one of our newer books, Samira Surfs, written by Rudhsanna Guidroz, with illustrations by Fahmida Azim.  It is a beautifully written story about a young girl, Samira, who had to flee with her family from her homeland in Burma (now known as Myanmar) to a refugee camp in Bangladesh.  Except the camp is full, so they end up living as illegal refugees on the outskirts.  They belong to a primarily Muslim ethnic group called the Rohingya, which was no longer recognized by the Myanmar government in 1982.  Her people have been persecuted and driven to flee the country.  Unfortunately, their neighboring countries, such as Bangladesh, also struggle with terrible poverty, so the Rohingya are not always welcome.  The history behind the story is riveting, as is the depiction of the culture of the Indonesian people.  My only complaint about the book is that I wish there had been a glossary to help with some of the language scattered through the verse.

Samira, her parents, and her older brother fled to Bangladesh in 2012.  Samira sells hard boiled eggs to tourists on the beach; her father works on a shrimp boat, back breaking and underpaid labor; and her brother, Khaled, works at a café.  The book follows her story as she slowly gets to know a few other girls, both refugees and Bangladesh natives.  I was a bit appalled that Samira wants to go to school, yet is still told by her parents that “a girl does not need to go to school,” and “if we could afford school, we’d send your brother because only boys can change a family’s fate.”  Luckily for Samira, her older brother Khaled teaches her in secret.  He also supports her as she tries to get over her fear of the water – her grandparents drowned in a river during their flight to Bangladesh.  She overcomes her fears, and again with the help of her brother and friends, learns to surf in order to enter a surfing contest that actually encourages girls.  She quietly and courageously comes into her own.  The flashbacks of her family’s previous life; their treatment as refugees; their pride and courage; and overall, their love and eventual support for each other, shines through the pages of verse.  This is a wonderful, intergenerational read, and I would highly recommend parents and youth reading it together to learn more of another culture and a way of life that still goes on today.  Sometimes we forget how lucky we are.

Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice

By Mahogany L. Browne with Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood

April is National Poetry month, so I plan to review some of our newer poetry books.  This week I chose a Maine Student Book Award nominee of poetry called Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice. The book is written by three Black women poets, and it is beautifully illustrated by a talented Black artist, Theodore Taylor III.  The various poems address current issues of racial and social injustice, but in an uplifting and hopeful manner that is truly inspiring.

Let’s start with Mahogany Brown’s introduction, where she explains the meaning of the term “woke.”  As she describes it, it means to be aware – or as one of her four year old students told her, being woke is “to have your eyes wide open, seeing everything.”  It means working for equality and justice for everyone, asking questions, and standing up for yourself and for others.  Of the three poets, I personally loved the works of Mahogany L. Browne.  Her writing is always meaningful, yet gentle.  For example, I loved her poem, In the Next, which ends as follows:

Discrimination will no longer be tolerated

Hate will have nowhere to hide

Powerful and meek

Strong and brilliant

All of us combined, as one

This is when the sky will break open its blue blue wings

And we will celebrate its lush song

What utterly beautiful verse.  The other two poets featured in the book also write of acceptance for all, speaking of intersectionality, described by Mahogany L. Browne and Olivia Gatwood as “paths crossing one another with respect.” Olivia Gatwood also addresses gender identity, as in her poem, In Between, There is Light, where she compares the different shades between boy and girl to the different shades of the rainbow.  Another of my favorites is the poem by Elizabeth Acevedo, Rock the Boat, which talks of the courage it takes to stand up for yourself or others, even when it feels uncomfortable to speak up:

Rock the boat, rock the boat

With love and hope, rock the boat.

It’s National Poetry Month – I can truly recommend reading this book full of courage, hope and acceptance.  Be Woke.

Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park


This week I chose one of the Maine Student Book Award Books, Prairie Lotus, written by Korean American Author, Linda Sue Park.   As per her author note, the story is inspired by her love for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie series.  However, she incorporates some of her own personal experiences with bigotry into the storyline, creating a sobering view of that piece of American history.

The story is told in first person by Hanna Edmunds, a fourteen year old girl who is half Chinese.  Her white father and Chinese mother met in Los Angeles, and actually had to go to Arizona Territory to get legally married.  Her mother died of complications of smoke inhalation after a riot that killed a number of Chinese immigrants, and Hanna and her father pack up and wander for a while, until deciding to set down stakes in the Dakota Territory.  The author modeled the town of LaForge on De Smet, South Dakota, where Wilder’s books took place.  But unlike the Ingalls family, Hanna is not white, and faces a lot of very hurtful prejudice.  She just wants to go to a real school and graduate, yet the school board argues about whether she should even be allowed to go.  Hanna suffers nasty teasing and name calling, and slowly, parents start pulling their kids out of the one room schoolhouse, until only Hanna and two other girls are left.  Luckily, the school teacher is firmly on her side, but still, as you read, you feel terribly ashamed of the way the majority of the townsfolk treated her, simply because she is half Asian.

The prejudice against Native Americans also comes out, as Hannah meets and is kind to a few Native American women and children digging for turnips.  The story brings out the fact that the Native Americans have been driven onto reservation lands, and need a pass just to leave and dig for food.  Again, a shameful reminder of the unfairness to non-white people.

As the story progresses, Hannah quietly starts to stand up for herself, and works towards her goal of helping her father in his store, and becoming the store’s seamstress, like her mother.  She has to deal with her father’s moods, and his fears for her, but manages to gently manipulate him into letting her use her skills.  At one point, she is assaulted by a drunken white man, right on the main street of town, and she is initially the one blamed.  Luckily, with the help of her teacher and only friend, Beth, she is exonerated and the story ends well.

The book is beautifully written historical fiction, and addresses very real issues of bigotry in American history.

Whispering Pines, by Heidi Lang & Kati Bartkowski

Okay, I hesitated to pick up this MSBA book, since I am not a fan of horror books, and the book jacket blurb sounded creepy.  But I have to admit, once I started reading Whispering Pines by sisters Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski, I couldn’t put it down.  I am not honestly sure how to label its genre: definitely a mystery; with some creepy/horror; paranormal/magic/aliens; middle school relationships/friendship drama/slight romance – heck, it had something for nearly everyone!

After a chilling prologue, where several kids get their eyes ripped out (ugh), the story is told in alternating chapters by the two major characters, Rae Carter and Caden Price.   Rae has just moved to town with her mother and her older sister; they moved from California to Connecticut to start over after her father disappeared. No one believes Rae, who knows that her father was taken due to his participation in a secret government project involving aliens.   Rae is now the new kid in a school where “garlic is to be eaten, not worn”, and “absolutely no chalk allowed.”  Where a “code yellow” means a kid is missing (see traumatized and without eyes above…).  Caden is the outcast kid, whose parents deal in the paranormal and exorcisms.  Caden, who can feel everyone’s emotions, has been shunned since first grade because his classmates think he can read minds.  Toss in their suspicion that he killed his older brother Aiden, chopped him up and hid him in the wall, and he is pretty much a loner.  Oh, and as for Aiden, think Anakin Skywalker wrestling with ultimate dark power versus good, and clearly heading towards the Darth Vader dark side.  All I will say is that he is not really dead, but did I mention the existence of another dimension, with a rift between worlds?

Rae and Caden befriend each other as Rae tries to find out what happened to her new friend Brandi, and Caden tries to protect Rae from a terrible fate he foresaw in a dream.  In addition, Cade needs to figure out how to save the town from the Unseeing and close that aforementioned rift.  You will be on the edge of your seat as they battle powerful forces of evil, and although they mostly succeed, the story ends with a cliffhanger making you totally want to read the next book in the series.  I unexpectedly, and thoroughly, enjoyed the book!

Freedom over me, written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan

As part of Black History Month, I really wanted to feature a book written by the immensely talented Black author and illustrator of over 70 children’s books, Ashley Bryan.  An amazing artist and educator, he also became a Mainer, reportedly falling in love with Islesford/Little Cranberry Island in the 1940’s, and living there after retiring as a professor at Dartmouth College in 1988.  I had the pleasure of listening to Ashley Bryan speak at a library conference in 2017, when he received the Lupine Award for Freedom over me – a book which also received Newberry honor and Coretta Scott King Honor awards.  He passed away just 2 weeks ago, on February 4, 2022, at the age of 98.  Read about him – what a talented, lovely man.  https://ashleybryancenter.org/

Therefore, I chose to review his book, whose full title is Freedom over me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life by Ashley Bryan.  The author’s note states that he collected slave documents for many years, and he uses an actual estate appraisal from 1828 as the basis of this book.  The appraisal is duplicated at the beginning and end of the story, and it is gut-wrenching to see eleven people listed just as boy, girl, woman, or man, with prices next to them, intermixed with the prices of horses, cattle and hogs.  Ashley Bryan takes each person, and imagines their age, their current life history, and a backstory for each one.  He brings them to life as the people they were – not just possessions – giving them skills, and dreams of family and freedom.  For example, he begins with Peggy, a 48 year old cook, so talented she was lent out to other families to earn money for her owners.  Yet her real African name was Mariama, “Gift of God,” and she is skilled in herbs and healing.  Each of the eleven enslaved people is brought to life by his poetry and his gorgeous illustrations.  And make no mistake – it hurts to realize that Mrs. Fairchilds sees them only as property to be sold so she can return, a widow, to England.  All of them dream of freedom, and I desperately wanted the book to bring some closure and tell me that they achieved their goals, that they stayed together as family units.  But of course, there is no such reassurance; we don’t know what happens to them.

Yes it’s a picture book, but I understand why it was a Maine Student Book Award book in 2017-2018, since it is not a book for small children.  It is a book for older children and adults to discuss together, a testament to the strength and hope of these people who were so terribly wronged and enslaved. It’s also a lyrical, beautifully illustrated book of hope and courage.  We lost a talented, wonderful man two weeks ago, but Ashley Bryan truly lives on in his poetry and art.

“There are so many ways in which we learn about life and the self. Each day opens paths to this exploration. For many of us, books play a major role in that adventure” – Ashley Bryan

Becoming Muhammad Ali, by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander

Since February is Black History month, I decided to choose books written by Black authors, and/or about Black history and culture.

For this week’s review I chose Becoming Muhammed Ali, a Maine Student Book Award nominee which is a beautifully written novel combining both prose and poetry.  One of the authors, James Patterson, is a prolific writer of both adult and children’s fiction; the other, Kwame Alexander, is a well-known Black poet, educator and author.  I will admit, I was a bit hesitant, since I am in no way a fan of the sport of boxing.  But the book was not really about the boxing career of Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammed Ali.  No, the book was a testament to his early life growing up in a close knit Black community in the Deep South in the 1950’s.

The story was written from the point of view of both Cassius and his best friend, Lucky (Lucius).   Lucky’s memories were written in such realistic prose that I literally went to Google after reading the book to see if he was real (he’s fictional).  But the majority of the book was told in verse by Cassius, wonderful poetry that expressed his thoughts and his feelings.  You really came to understand his deep love for his family and friends; his drive and his self-confidence; and his utter commitment to being the best.  You also learned about how he met his trainer, and developed his work ethic and complete confidence in his ability to win.  “Just put me in the ring, and I’ll show you. I’ll win every time.” But his coach replied, “The fight is won before you get in the ring…It means you gotta work harder, and faster, with your body and your mind.”

The book quietly, but significantly, wove in the story of racial injustices in a time when Black and White communities were segregated.  Cassius and his friends could not go across the “line” to an amusement park only for whites; he couldn’t even get a drink of water in a “white” store.  As his Granddaddy Herman told him, “Boys, there’s two Louisvilles…One where you can go the amusement park with your friends and one where you stand outside the fence like a caged bird singing the summertime blues, because your skin is like a crow – black and unwelcome.  One for whites and one for blacks.”  An unjust world where a 12 year old Black boy, Emmett Till, was murdered for possibly whistling at a white woman.

It’s an impressive book, and a lyrical, thought-provoking look at one of the most famous Black men of the 20th century.

Primer, by Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski

Well, this MSBA graphic novel pick, Primer, was a delightful read!  Not only did it mix some serious issues with some downright superhero fun, the art work is stunning.

The story starts with our heroine, Ashley, in a juvenile home for kids, having been in and out of foster care. She has brief flashbacks of a horrific life with her abusive father, now in jail, and she escapes at night to spray paint gorgeous murals, titled “Ashley Unafraid.”  Luckily, a new foster family comes to interview her, and they are a perfect match.  The foster father, Kitch, is a wise cracking, sensitive college professor and artist who ends up teaching her to paint.  Her foster mom, Yuka, is the scientist who “brings home that vegan, soy-based bacon,” but she and Ashley bond over their love of football.   Ashley starts a new school, and rescues her new best friend, Luke, from bullies teasing him about the colored wigs he uses to practice hairstyling.  You can’t help rooting for Ashley, a survivor of the foster system who is a little tough on the outside, kind on the inside, and desperately wanting a family to love her for who she is.

So that is our set-up, serious and funny.  Now let’s get to the super-hero stuff.  Turns out Yuka has been working on a top secret project that links paints to 32 superhero skills like flying, stretching, invincibility, and fire – to name a few.  But Yuka worries that they will be used to make the military become too powerful, thus the scene Ashley overhears with her foster mom whispering “this could ruin our lives.”  Of course Ashley thinks Yuka is talking about fostering her, not an evil military takeover!  Anyway – Yuka manages to switch suitcases, and brings the powerful paints home.  You guessed it, Ashley finds them, and turns herself into a superhero, eventually named “Primer.”  She has such fun trying all the powers out, and discovering you can only use three at a time: which means 5456 possible combinations.  Add in a rogue soldier, a scary dad, her sweet sidekick Luke, and her loving foster parents trying to navigate new parenthood – and you have an excellent graphic novel.

The authors have outstanding backgrounds – Muro has written for Star Wars, Justice League, Marvel, and Lego DC Superhero Girls; Krajewski has written animation for Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network, and Netflix, to name just a few.  And the illustrator, Gretel Lusky, has an extensive background in animation, and her illustrations are gorgeous.  I truly enjoyed this outstanding graphic novel.

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy, by Emmanuel Acho

I chose this week’s book, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy, because I had been impressed with seeing the author, Emmanuel Acho, on TV, talking about his podcast, and subsequent book, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.  This book is the young reader version, and it is a powerful, well written story that I would recommend to both upper middle school/high school readers, and to their parents.  It’s the kind of book that encourages discussion of the history behind black culture, and what we can all do to work towards dismantling racism.

The book is divided into sections which discuss three basic categories of racism, summarized near the end of the book as follows: “The first is individual – the acts and expressions of discrimination, stereotyping, ignorance, or hate one person can level at another…The second level is systemic racism; the unfair policies, practices and procedures of institutions that produce racially inequitable outcomes for black people and POC [people of color], while also yielding advantages for white people…The third level of racism is…internalized racism: when people of color support white privilege and power, or when they’re driven to doubt who they are, or doubt each other, or accept the status quo.” (Page 273)   This is heavy, important stuff, but the author makes it understandable and engaging, often giving examples from his own childhood and his career in professional football.  Some of the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and downright massacres, such as that in Tulsa in 1921, are incredibly horrific.  But the author is not angry or accusatory – he truly wants his young readers to understand the background behind today’s continued protests.

He manages to discuss current issues, some as simple as whether to use the term “Black” vs “African American” – his advice is to ask, if you are not sure.  He talks about the recent issues, such as the murder of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement.  Each chapter is divided into sections: the title topic for the chapter; “Let’s Rewind,” the history behind the topic; “Let’s Get Uncomfortable,” delving into the controversy and issues that may make the reader feel, well, uncomfortable; and my favorite part, “Talk It, Walk It.”  In that last section of each chapter, he discusses ideas of what the reader, even as a youth, can actually do to address racism and become an ally to black people and POC.  He often suggests books and movies to further educate the reader.  And throughout the book, he weaves in quotes from famous authors and leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Representative John Lewis.  It is such a great book – take the time to pick it up and read it, and try to understand what you as a kid, teen, or parent, can do to help.  As the author states at the close of the book, “Ending racism is not a finish line that we will cross.  It’s a road we we’ll travel.”

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu

Well, it’s time to get back into routine after the holidays!  This week I chose one of our new books, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy.  Set in the fantasy world of Dovia, the story centers on Marya Lupo, a twelve-year-old girl living in a society where males are completely dominant.  Marya’s older brother, Luca, is the favored child, and his family dreams of the day he will be tested to see if he is a sorcerer.  Marya, of course, is the one who constantly gets into trouble.  She secretly blames herself for her little brother dying of fever, since she had fallen asleep; her parents won’t even talk of him.  Her life is pretty miserable, other than when she visits her neighbor, Madame Bandu, a master weaver and her mother substitute.  When her goat, Anton, manages to mess up Luca’s interview, Marya disgraces the family.  Needless to say, she ends up at the titular school, Dragomir Academy, where “troubled girls” are given a second chance to learn CHARACTER, including punctuality, posture, participation, and positivity.  You get the idea – squash the girls into becoming paper dolls with no individuality.   Luckily, at least for Marya and her friends, that is easier said than done.

There is a fairly complicated and interesting magical background woven into the plot: the witches of Kel, who are considered evil and promote chaos; the terrible Dread, an evil fog that sucks the life out of entire villages; and the sorcerers of Illyria, men/boys who – supposedly – defend the people and are thus favored and richly rewarded.  But there are definite underlying themes, most prominent being the oppression of women; sadly, still a real issue in many cultures today.  Marya know that they are being lied to, and that things at the academy just aren’t right.  Despite being overwhelmed with guilt that she just can’t meet expectations, and that she is to blame for her younger brother’s death, she pushes to find out the truth.  She and her friend Elena search the archives to discover why the school was created, and what happened to the original Count’s daughter Nadia.  Luca actually reappears as a decent brother, and they all find the strength and courage to save the school when it is attacked by the Dread.  Marya’s determination to find out the truth leads to helping the girls and women of Illyria discover their true powers and place in society.  Not that I can tell you how, since that would spoil the plot…

Glitch, by Laura Martin

This week’s Maine State Book Award choice, Glitch, by Laura Martin, surprised me – in a good way!  I was a bit dubious since time traveling/science fiction isn’t usually a personal top choice, but I ended up really enjoying the book, and I got totally invested in the storyline and the characters.

The book has some pretty cool concepts, based around the premise that there are people with a gene mutation that allows them to time travel.  Babies are tested at birth, and if they carry the rare gene, they are placed in the Academy for training as Glitchers.  Glitchers, you see, have to travel back in time to prevent Butterflies – individuals who want to change the past – from doing so.  Think about it: preventing Lincoln from being assassinated could lead to an alternative history where the North and South never reconcile, a second Civil War breaks out, and the US is devastated.  Tough, ethical choices on both sides.

The story is told in alternating chapters by both Regan Fitz, whose mom is the Commander, and Elliot Mason, top student in their class.  Of course they have loathed each other since childhood.  Regan has an outstanding ability to sense what is off with the “Butterflies,” but has a terrible time with reading and remembering historic facts; almost dyslexic in a way.  Elliot reads and remembers everything, but has zero social skills, and is totally jealous of Regan for having a Mom and what he perceives as a privileged life.   But when Elliot picks up a letter, written by future Regan, they are launched into working together as a team to prevent a future disaster and mass loss of life.  All they have to work with are some vague, rushed clues in the letter.  But does that then make them Butterflies, the very people they are sworn to catch?  Hmmm.  Lots of good character growth, time travel science, and ethical dilemmas are all involved as they train and end up becoming Glitchers for real to save their friends and the Academy.  I couldn’t put the book down.

Ashlords, by Scott Reintgen

Well, it happened – I picked a Maine Student Book Award fantasy novel that I actually DIDN’T love.  I really wanted to like it – in general, fantasy novels are my favorites.  But I am not a fan of Hunger Games type dystopian worlds where teens compete with little mercy.  To remind you, the definition of dystopian is as follows: an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly.” (1)  But as I tell my book club kids, it’s okay to try a book and not like it – figuring out what books you enjoy, trying new genres, and discussing the books is, after all, the whole point of a book club.  And if you enjoy books like Divergent and Hunger Games, you will definitely appreciate Ashlords, by Scott Reintgen.

The plot centers around three main characters, each representing one of the major societal groups, and the chapters flip between each one so that you get differing points of view.  First, there is Imelda, an accomplished alchemist and a member of the lowest class, the Dividians; in case that is a new term for you, “alchemy is the very old study and philosophy of how to change basic substances (such as metals) into other substances. It also studied how substances (and how they are changed into other substances) were related to magic and astrology.” (2)  Then, there is Adrian, a member of the Longhand group that rebelled years ago against the ruling Ashlords and their gods, and was devastatingly punished.  Finally, there is Pippa, the favored entrant, a beautiful, clever Ashlord girl.  All three have trained for years to ride Phoenix horses in the annual Races, where competitors work magic, race their horses, and brutally fight to win.  The Phoenix horses are killed each evening, and they then turn into ash; powders are mixed with the ashes to recreate them when the sun rises.  I found even that part of the story cruel, despite knowing that the horses would rise again.  As far as the race – for you Star Wars Fans, think the Pod Races in the first movie, mixed with Hogwarts like magic, and add in a bunch of teens ready to kill each other to win, and there you’ve got it.  There are also undercurrents of rebellion, and revolution, as well as gods, wraiths, and even some awakening of mercy in the major characters.  But for me, honestly, I just didn’t care all that much about any of the characters, and I almost put the book down several times.  But that is me – I like happy endings and a bit of romance in my books.   While I can say that it is a well written, suspenseful story that dystopian fiction fans will definitely enjoy, I should also mention that it is aimed at older middle school readers/teens, and is catalogued as a Young Adult novel.

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dystopia
  2. https://kids.kiddle.co/Alchemy

The Mystwick School of Musicraft, by Jessica Khoury

Okay, I admit it, I often say I loved a book – but I REALLY loved this new Maine Student Book Award Book, The Mysterious School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury!  Full disclosure: I am a music geek/Band Boosters mom so I loved the idea of musical instruments playing the spells that heal, and run trains, and power Zeppelins.  Think Harry Potter with a musical twist!

The story is told by a twelve year old girl, Amelia Jones, who is musically gifted and dreams of going to the Mystwick School of Musicraft.  She lost her mother when she was four years old, and her father disappeared, so she has been raised by her Grandmother.  Amelia’s mother was a Maestro, one of the few musicians that can master the grand spells, and after finding her mother’s flute, she became obsessed with getting into the same music/magic school.  Clearly, a good part of this is her desperate desire to feel closer to her mother, and somehow prove that she, too, is capable and worthy of her mom’s legacy.

Unfortunately, she tends to be a normal kid who keeps getting into scrapes, and of course she messes up her audition.  Nonetheless, she gets accepted into the school – only to find that the letter that arrived was meant for another Amelia Jones, an incredibly talented musician who had drowned the day the letter went out.  The Maestros at the school immediately figure this out, since Amelia is a flutist and not a pianist, but Amelia is allowed to stay for the probationary two months to prove herself.  She is befriended by Jai Kapoor, a super nice, talented violinist who really wants to play guitar, and who encourages her to become more self-confident.  On the other hand, her roommate, Darby, was the “real” Amelia’s best friend and thus despises our heroine.  Amelia struggles with her feeling that she doesn’t deserve to be there, especially since her music spells keep getting sabotaged so she is at the bottom of the class.  She has nightmares of near drowning, and in addition someone keeps waking her up all night – eventually, she realizes a ghost is behind many of her problems.  Darby sees the ghost, and the girls assume it’s the other Amelia; Darby is determined to find a black spell to talk to her dead friend, and drags Amelia and Jai into her plans.  Toss in the rich Rock Band chick who knows dark magic; snarky middle school girls; and humming frogs, and you have a fascinating magical, musical mystery!  The ending is pretty phenomenal as all the students band together (see what I did there) to defeat evil and save the school, and Amelia discovers her real talent.

The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo

This week I just needed something enjoyable to read, and I chose The Beatryce Prophecy, a new book by Kate DiCamillo.  She is a fabulous writer, and this book did not disappoint.  The story is a beautiful fairy tale that begins by describing Answelica, the fiery goat that lives at the monastery of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing.  She terrifies all the monks, including Brother Edik, the gentle man with a left eye that rolls around.  But then one morning, he finds a young girl child curled up with the goat, and they both immediately love and care for her.  She is very ill, but when she recovers and awakes, she does not remember anything except her name: Beatryce.  As the story progresses, a second story of a weak king, an evil counselor, and a prophecy is interwoven into the narrative.  The prophecy tells of “a girl child who will unseat a king and bring about a great change.”  Yes – that girl child is Beatryce.

Beatryce is unusual in that she knows how to read and write, which is illegal since she is a girl.  Brother Edik shaves her hair and disguises her as a monk in order to protect her.  Enter Jack Dory, a wonderful 12 year old orphan who befriends Beatryce when he comes to the monastery to find a monk to write the confession of a dying soldier.   Beatryce immediately trusts him and goes with him; Answelica goes, too, and the other monks do not want them to come back.  The dying soldier confesses his guilt about what he has done to her family, and her memory begins to return.  She and Jack (and the goat) are forced to flee into the woods to escape the King’s soldiers, who are looking for her.  One more major character, Cannoc, then enters the story as a laughing, joyous hermit who saves them; he also later saves Brother Edik, who has left to monastery to find and help Beatryce.   As she remembers who she is, Beatryce becomes determined to face the king and “make him account for what he has done.”  Her friends, who all love her dearly, are steadfast in their loyalty and follow her – and end up rescuing her after she is abducted.

Obviously, I am not going to give away what the king has done, but let me just say that like all good fairy tales, there are morals, and adventure, brave heroes and goats, and a happy ending.  It’s a perfectly enchanting story, and I highly recommend it.

Linked, by Gordon Korman

This week’s book is from our new juvenile fiction collection.  One of the perks of working at the library is getting the chance to review new books before they go out onto the shelves.  And Linked, by Gordon Korman, is an amazing, thought-provoking book for older middle school and teen readers.  This novel is an excellent story of learning about tolerance, and searching for identity and redemption – all while introducing some interesting and relatable middle school kids as major characters.  There is still humor, and friendship, and family love mixed in, but the overall story of community involvement to combat racism is extremely powerful.

The story can be confusing, since each chapter is told by different characters, and switches back and forth.  It took me a bit to get used to it, but as you go through the book, you start to know the characters so well it makes more sense.  The main character is Link Rowley, the popular athlete who is always getting into trouble carrying out “epic” pranks.  Then there is Michael Amarosa, the Art Club geek who is also Dominican; Dana Levinson, the only Jewish kid in town; Caroline McNutt, the 7th Grade Student Council president; and ReelTok, the annoying vlogger – to name just a few.  The book begins with Michael discovering a swastika on the wall in the school, and the plot revolves around the reaction of the school kids, teachers and eventually the whole town as they respond to this horrid symbol of hate.  In addition, there are tales of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses around their little town of Chokecherry, back in 1978; history that many don’t want to believe.  When Link’s mother tells him that his grandmother was given up as an infant to save her from the German concentration camps, and the rest of her family was killed, Link is blown away.  He starts to wonder about his own identity, and his previously unknown Jewish heritage, and decides to try for his bar mitzvah, enlisting Dana’s help.  In the meantime, the kids at school want to figure out a way to combat the hate of more and more swastikas, and Michael comes up with the idea of a paper chain of 6 million links, to represent the 6 million Jews who lost their lives in the holocaust.  This huge project starts with the kids, but grows to involve the community and eventually people from around the world sending chains.  And finally, don’t forget the mystery of who is painting the swastikas – and what happens when the culprits are discovered.  It’s an incredible account of combatting hatred and tragedy with community collaboration, and tolerance – I really hope that kids, and their parents, will pick up this book, read it, and discuss it.

Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul

Stamped (For Kids) is a very well written, very important adaptation of an adult book about racism, antiracism, and the history behind the Black Lives Matter movement.  A Maine Student Book Award nominee, it truly is a “must read” non-fiction novel for middle-schoolers.  The introduction puts it beautifully, when emphasizing that it’s okay to talk about the subject of race – indeed, it’s essential: “Until we learn to talk about race, the poison of racism won’t go away.”  It begins by defining segregationists, “people who hate you for not being like them;” assimilationists, “people who like you only if you act like them;” and antiracists, people who “love you because you are you.”  Wow.  But most importantly, as the author states, “People can change.”  And that sums up the importance of the need to read this book, and to understand the history of racism and what we can do to make the world a better, more loving and accepting place for everyone.

The book traces the history of racism from 1415, when Gomes Eanes de Zurara wrote a book about Prince Harry of Portugal that tried to make him sound noble for enslaving Africans – tying slavery to skin color.  Short chapters describe, in chronological order, an account of slavery, and continued injustice even after the abolition of slavery by President Lincoln.  There are a lot of very interesting stories of different important African American men and women, from Phillis Wheatley, a Black woman poet during the Revolutionary War times, through Martin Luther King, Jr., and up to President Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris.  But the authors make sure to talk about the confusing contradictions found in both White and Black people along the way.  For example, look at Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “all men are created equal,” yet owned slaves; or W.E.B. Dubois, a Black leader who lived from 1868 to 1963, who initially believed that Black people should be educated, but only one in ten was exceptional enough for college; or Malcolm X, who wanted freedom and equality, but “by any means necessary.”  The author means this to be not just a book about the past, but what she calls a “present” book, for here and now, to help you learn, and think about the fight for freedom, and justice for all – for Antiracism.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks

And after a break for vacation, I am back!  This week’s Maine Student Book Award choice is an excellent realistic fiction book, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks.  There are a number of very important, very relevant themes in the story, but the author deftly weaves them in without overwhelming the reader.  For example, there is the underlying issue of Zoe’s birth father Marcus, jailed at age 18 for murder: he states he was innocent, but he was a poor student, had a lawyer who didn’t care, and was a young Black man who didn’t stand a real chance.  Then there are the family relationships: Zoe’s mom, who won’t even talk about Marcus and has been hiding his letters to Zoe for years; her Grandmother, who feels Zoe has the right to know about her birth father and helps her; and her Dad, a White man who married her mom when Zoe was 5 years old and has been a supportive, loving stepfather.  Finally, toss in Trevor, her best friend, who doesn’t know that she overheard his basketball friends make fun of her – he desperately wants to understand why she is angry and become her best friend again.  Oh, and don’t forget Zoe’s baking skills and her hopes to get on a televised baking show!  Lots of interesting plot lines strung together.

The story begins on Zoe’s twelfth birthday, when she grabs the mail and finds a letter from Marcus, mailed from the penitentiary.  It’s the first letter from her birth father she has ever seen, and he sounds like a nice man who cares for her.  She doesn’t dare tell her mother, but she writes back to him.  Her grandmother eventually finds out, and agrees to help, as long as she can read the letters and make sure all is appropriate.  She gets up the courage to ask him about the murder, and he tells her he is innocent, and has an alibi witness his lawyer never found.  She struggles with whether or not he is innocent or lying, but although he tells Zoe not to get involved – he has made his peace, has taken classes, and hopes for parole at 25 years – she desperately wants to find the truth.  She and Trevor talk out and settle their differences, and he helps her as she searches for the witness.  Along the way, her parents eventually find out, leading to a lot of strain between Zoe and her mom.  The reader learns about the Innocence Project, which helps inmates wrongly accused – often young, disadvantaged Black men, sadly.  The story is very real, with genuine interactions between family members and friends, and I can strongly recommend it, especially to the older middle school readers.

The Great Pet Heist, by Emily Ecton

So if you are looking for a fun, silly book to read just for pleasure, and if you like animals, let me recommend The Great Pet Heist, by Emily Ecton.  A Maine State Book Award choice for the younger crowd, it’s a great read.  There are a few simple themes woven into the story, and a couple of mysteries, but nothing gut wrenching.  Sheer hilarity – and I enjoyed it!

The story centers around a group of pets: Butterbean the wiener dog, Walt the cat, Oscar the myna bird, and Marco and Polo, two pet rats.  The story is told almost entirely in the animals’ voices, and the author manages to make this entirely believable.   The adventure begins with “The Fall,” after Butterbean throws up her breakfast, and their elderly owner, Mrs. Food, slips on it and is taken to the hospital.   The animals then have to figure out how to survive, and how to avoid being taken to a shelter.  Oscar, the myna bird, has watched so much TV that he is the brains behind the plans; Walt, the cat, is the one who knows how to work the computer, among many other skills; Butterbean is a typical bouncy little dog, but she is the one who knows of the Coin Man, who dropped a gold coin in the elevator; and the mice can slip into the vents to reconnoiter.  Butterbean and Polo go floor to floor to discover the apartment occupied by the evil Coin Man, and thus the plans for the Great Heist begin.  Next, throw in the mystery surrounding Madison, the little girl that the superintendent assigns to care for the pets: why is she sad, and where is the aunt supposedly caring for her?

Despite the odds, the hilarious heist scheme works after Walt states she’s “got a guy’ – Chad, the pet octopus (yes, an octopus that lives in the toilet) on the eight floor.  Aided by Chad, and another timid rat, Wallace from the vents, the group somehow manages to steal the coins.  But when Madison is blamed, they have to decide how to save her.  There are some solid themes of friendship and family mixed into this adorable mystery story.  And to top it all off, the illustrations scattered throughout the book are cute and funny.  It would be a fun read aloud with parents and kids – enjoy!

96 Miles by J L Esplin

Wow, if you like survival stories and suspense, this Maine Student Book Award novel, 96 Miles, is the book for you!  Once I started reading it, I seriously couldn’t put it down.  The story takes place in the desert of Nevada, during a severe power outage that has knocked out the grid in several states.  Thirteen year old John Lockwood and his eleven year old brother, Stewart, are alone at their home when the power outage occurs; their father is off in the Carolinas on a job.  They have been raised to be survivalists, and have stores of food and water.  However, thieves arrive, hold them at gunpoint and steal all their supplies.  Their only “close” neighbors, with a baby due any day, have left. The boys have chosen to wait for their dad to come back; except the borders are closed and he can’t.  In order to survive, they need to walk to a friend’s ranch that is 96 miles away – in only three days.

The characters in the story are very real, with believable conflicts.  John and Stewart, like most siblings, do not always get along, but John is fiercely determined to save his brother.  Just as they are scooping water out of an old toilet to try to fill a canteen before they leave, they meet Cleverly, a thirteen year old girl, and her little brother Will.  Although they do not have enough food and water for themselves, let alone two more kids, Stewart looks at John and states, “Dad would do both,” and John ends up taking them along.  Cleverly turns out to be an excellent ally, and the suspense builds as they try to survive in burning sun, without enough water, and walk 33 miles a day.  John struggles with trying to take care of everyone, despite Stewart’s stubbornness and acting out.  Later in the story, you understand the absolute necessity of the three day race to find help at the ranch, and why Stewart is not himself.  As the story progresses, the four act together to help each other, and you cheer for them all as they call themselves the Battle Born club, after the state motto on the Nevada flag. The story shows how adversity can bring out the best, and also the worst in the people they meet.   It’s a thriller that I can highly recommend.

Kodi by Jared Cullum

This week, I chose Kodi, one of the Maine State Book Award nominees, an absolutely beautiful graphic novel written and illustrated by Jared Cullum. His drawings are gorgeous watercolors, often peaceful and full of light. Many of the panels do not require words – he is an expert at conveying emotions and storytelling with his drawings alone.  This is not to imply that there are no written words – his human characters certainly speak. But their feelings are so clearly drawn, and of course, Kodi, our giant Kodiak bear, manages to convey everything he is thinking with only his facial expressions and bear body language!

The story is a simple, fun tale of unusual friendships, starting with that between Katya and Kodi. Katya is staying with her slightly crazy Grandmother in Alaska; she is a solitary girl who hesitates to make human friends since they tease her about her large ears. She comes across Kodi, and realizes he is injured by a tree across his leg – she gets her grandmother to help her rescue him, brings him into the house and cares for him. They become best friends, reading and playing and snuggling together. She unexpectedly has to go back to Seattle, and leaves him a satchel with a drawing of the two of them. The sad and lonely bear then sets out to find her, stowing away on a boat, and carrying the satchel around his neck. His journey is silly and fun, and he makes it to Seattle, where he meets Joshua, a handicapped sailor with a heart of gold. Joshua decides to help Kodi in his search for Katya, and in the meantime, Kodi helps him on the ship. You have to smile at the drawings of them in matching red and white striped shirts! Needless to say, after a number of trials and tribulations, everyone ends up together and happy. It’s a feel good story, and you will fall in love with this big, sweet bear and his kind-hearted friends. The author is both a cartoonist, and a traditional painter, and this novel is really a work of art. I loved it.

The Seventh Handmaiden by Judith Pransky

This week’s Maine Student Book Award nominee is a fascinating, beautifully written historical fiction novel, The Seventh Handmaiden, by Judith Pransky. The story begins in Persia, in 485 BCE, and is based upon the history behind the Book of Esther in the Bible. Esther is one of a number of beautiful young women from all over Persia, brought to the palace in Suma to meet King Xerxes. Each young woman is assigned seven handmaidens, and Darya, our heroine, becomes Esther’s seventh servant. Esther is chosen to be Queen, and eventually is able to use her position to help save the Judean people from genocide.

Although the history of Esther is the background for the book, the main plotline centers on Darya, who is kidnapped as a five or six year old child and sold into slavery. Sick and near death, she has no real memory of her wealthy family and twin sister. The horrors of slavery are realistically depicted through her experiences, when she is at times beaten and starved, and a collar is placed on her neck. Luckily, she is bought by a widowed Captain, who wants a companion for his daughter Monir. The cook, Jaleh, and her daughter Parvaneh are free servants that befriend her.  Darya learns to read and write with Monir, skills which later essentially save her life. When Darya is twelve, the Captain dies in the war, Monir has to leave with her uncle and aunt, and once again, Darya is sold.  She is sent to the palace, along with Jaleh and Parvaneh. However, Darya is set to cleaning chamber pots, and is nearly beaten to death. Parvaneh, who is a handmaiden to Esther, gets her mistress to save her, and because of Darya’s ability to read and write, she, too becomes a handmaiden. From there, the story revolves around the palace life and intrigue, woven into the history of the Judean culture in Persia at the time. When Darya is seventeen, she falls in love with a quiet Jewish boy, David, who works for Esther’s friend Master Mordechai. Mordechai is another real historic figure, who had saved King Xerxes’ life and is thus in favor. The King’s evil minister Haman hates him, and manages to get a decree to wipe out the Judean people; Darya plays an important role in helping Esther to save them. And don’t worry, she does find her family, and happiness, at the end of the book – after a plot twist I didn’t see coming. It’s a wonderful book, and I highly recommend reading it.

My Wild Life: Adventures of a Wildlife Photographer by Suzi Eszterhas

Well, summer is nearly over and kids are going back to school, so I am going to concentrate more on the 2021 – 2022 Maine Student Book Award list. There are some really interesting looking books this year, and I already read a few. This week I picked a short, nonfiction book that is aimed at younger readers (an informational picture book, ages 7-10, per the Kirkus review). The stunning photographs will appeal to readers of all ages, however. Ms. Eszterhas previously wrote a book that was on the 2018 MSBA list, called Moto and me: my year as a wildcat’s foster mom that documented her time fostering an adorable serval kitten before releasing him into the wild. I loved the photos in that book, and the wildlife shots in this current book are just as striking and engaging.

The author focuses on what it is like to be a nature photographer, starting with her dreams as a child, through traveling all over the world, and living for months in the wild. Travel sounds pretty cool – until she describes waking up in Uganda with ticks and beetles in her nose! She talks about how to stay safe, and how to respect the animals; she sometimes spent months living around them in order to get them comfortable enough to allow photos. I especially love the endearing pictures of the mothers and babies. She discusses the importance of animal rescue, and of working with scientists and local guides. I am impressed by her work with conservation groups, in particular Cheetah Conservation, Sloth Conservation, and lions in the Wildlife Conservation Network. Finally, she talks off and on in the book about the difficulties she faced as a woman photographer, and she has actually started a program for girls interested in becoming wildlife photographers. Overall, the book is a quick read, but it is fun, interesting, and important, and it’s a good resource for younger kids interested in wildlife and in photography.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Okay, I totally enjoyed this new MSBA book, The Inheritance Games, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. I think I would describe it as Cinderella Story/Mystery Novel, with some endearing but pretty dysfunctional characters that you can’t help loving. It is such a fun read – I couldn’t put it down. There is not a murder, but there is a mysterious death that is integral to the plot. I would recommend the book to older middle school/high school readers, since it is 372 pages long, and the protagonists are high school and college age kids rather than middle schoolers.

Our heroine is Avery Kylie Grambs, a high school junior who has a deadbeat dad, and a mother who died while awaiting a transplant. She lives with her older half-sister, Libby – except that Libby has an abusive off and on boyfriend, so Avery sometimes lives in her car. She waitresses, goes to school, and is a brilliant student who just tries to get by and stay invisible. Then the incredibly handsome nineteen year old Grayson Hawthorne arrives to bring her to his family home in Texas, where his grandfather’s will is to be read. Of course, she finds out that Tobias Hawthorne left her the majority of his billions. And she has absolutely no idea why…

You meet the four Hawthorn brothers, all with the same mother, Skye, but different fathers: happy go lucky Xander; risk taking Jameson; straight-laced Grayson, the “heir apparent;” and Nash, the biker boy who wants to save everyone in trouble. They are all handsome, utterly brilliant, and have been solving intricate puzzles created by their grandfather for their entire lives. Oh, and let’s not forget the evil Aunt Zara who wants to get the estate back from Avery; or Zara’s niece, Thea, the popular but nasty cousin who warns Avery about the Hawthorne boys. And then there is beautiful Emily, the girl who died under very mysterious circumstances.  The plot revolves around the mystery of why Tobias Hawthorne left his billions to Avery, and all the puzzles and clues hidden in the enormous mansion full of secret passageways. I admit, once again, I did not figure out the multiple secrets discovered by Avery and the boys. If you are a fan of mysteries, particularly those with lots of brilliant, interesting characters – and maybe a tinge of romance – you will absolutely enjoy reading this book.

History Smashers: The Mayflower by Kate Messner

This week I picked up an MSBA book that I chose initially because I like the author, Kate Messner, who also writes the Ranger in Time series. It also simply looked fun, like a hybrid graphic novel, and promised to be an interesting view of history. The book actually does live up to that promise, and it proceeds to debunk a good number of myths that we all learned in school about Pilgrims. I admit, I was already prepared for the fact that Plymouth Rock is just a small stone – I saw it a number of years ago and was totally unimpressed.

I thought the history behind the Separatists was fascinating – for example, I had no idea they initially fled to Amsterdam, and that the first group was arrested and imprisoned as they tried to escape England. And how about the first Thanksgiving, which was really a harvest festival in September or October, and did not include cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie! The Pilgrims weren’t called Pilgrims until many years later, and didn’t wear black outfits and hats with buckles on them, despite all those crafts we did as kids. The book includes great illustrations by Dylan Meconis, with very funny graphic novel panels and sketches. There are also some fascinating photos, as well as information from first-hand accounts written by people who were really involved, such as William Bradford.

But most importantly, she carefully points out all the misinformation around the relationship between the settlers, and the Wampanoag people who had lived there for thousands of years. It is sobering to realize that 90% of the native population had already been wiped out by an epidemic that spread down from Maine, where a group of European fishermen had landed. Or that in 1614, prior to the Plymouth landing, a Captain Thomas Hunt had captured over twenty Native Americans and sold them into slavery – “Squanto,” real name Tisqantum, was one of those men. The author states that one of the reasons that she wanted to write the book was so that kids “could learn the truth about history and hear all the different perspectives on what happened.” This book is one step towards that goal.

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge

I often have kids ask me for mystery novels, and it’s not always easy to find them – other than, say, the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew! I therefore picked up The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, since the book jacket describes it as a “thrilling mystery/adventure that will leave readers breathless.” Honestly, I think that description might be a little over the top, but it is a good, rather spooky mystery novel that will appeal to upper middle grade readers. Along the way, you learn a bit about a variety of secret codes, and how to break them. The plot even revolves around Time, and Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Interesting…

The story, set in 1933 England, is told by Charlie Noon, who has just moved to the country with her parents. Her best friend Dylan, known as “Dizzy,” has found stick patterns in the forest that seem to suggest a code, and Charlie is convinced that they may have been left by spies. Johnny, the class bully, makes fun of them and tells them of Old Crony, the monster in the woods who eats children. Charlie becomes determined to go into the woods with Dizzy; they follow the first set of stick directions, only to have Johnny jump out and scare them.  But then, they all get lost, and start finding more codes: trail markers; Morse Code signals; the Freemason’s code; an Enigma machine; and even semaphore symbols. They decode messages such as “the storm is coming,” and “the way forward is the way back.” As the story progresses, unnatural early darkness falls, and strange, creepy things happen that require the three of them to depend upon each other to survive. There is a definite eerie twist to the plot, especially at the end, all tied up in the concept of time. As the book states on the very first page, “But what exactly is a time?… Can I tell you a secret? Once upon a time doesn’t exist.” I will stop there, since I don’t want to give away the plot – but if you enjoy mysteries, and especially those that are a little bit strange and eerie, you will enjoy reading this book.

Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap

This week I picked up one of our new books, a quirky fairy tale written by an author from the Netherlands, and translated into English. The story revolves around Emilia, or “Lampie” as she is called, since she is the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Her mother has died of a terrible wasting illness, and her father, a drunkard who has lost his leg, depends on Lampie to light the flames in the lighthouse. Except, she forgets to buy matches, and a ship crashes. Life rapidly goes downhill, as her father is barricaded into the lighthouse and she is sent to the Black House, where she will be indentured for seven years to pay off the debt. There are rumors of a terrible monster living in the house, and the house is dark, dirty and dreary. Indeed, the day she is left there, there is a funeral, and she is forgotten in a dank room. But as the story progresses, you meet Martha, the weary housekeeper with Lennie, her special needs son; Ned, the old caretaker; and most of all, Edward, the monster in the tower. You start to see them through Lampie’s kind eyes, as she gets to know and befriend them all. So many secrets and story lines weave through the novel, and eventually come together. Edward is not a monster, but a boy with deformed legs, nearly abandoned by his father, the cold and unfeeling Admiral who visits only rarely. Lampie befriends him, slowly winning his trust. Along the way, you meet many other minor characters who are integral to the story, such as the puritanical schoolteacher, the kind lighthouse neighbor, and the “freaks” in the fair – a bearded lady, a dwarf, and others I can’t mention without spoiling the plot. You even grow to understand her father, his pain, and his love for Lampie despite his drunkenness and bitter depression.

Lily is a gentle, but brave girl who befriends the “monster,” the “simpleton,” and the “freaks,” and they in turn love and help her. A plot which initially seems simple, becomes more and more complex as pieces all come together. The story is a combination of Pirate Tales, Beauty and the Beast, and the Little Mermaid, but overall is a story of courage, family and friendship. I would absolutely recommend it to those of us who enjoy fairy tales where things finally do end happily ever after.

Science Comics. The Digestive System: A Tour Through Your Guts by Jason Viola with art by Andy Ristaino

Okay, for the home schooling parents out there, we actually have some pretty fun non-fiction graphic novels. We recently had one of the Science Comics come in, and I decided to try it out. The Digestive System: A Tour Through Your Guts is probably not a graphic novel the kids may not pick up for pleasure reading, but it’s a very fun way to learn! In my pre-library life, I worked in the medical field, and I was very impressed with the accuracy of the science facts, diagrams and explanations. The story is told by a little bacteria named simply “E,” who travels from the mouth, all the way through the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum. Along the way, you also learn about the gall bladder, liver, pancreas and appendix. E meets all sorts of other bacteria during his tour of the gut, often with accurate names. But if this sounds kind of dull – it’s not!

The dialog and the art is fun, with a lot of tongue in cheek humor. Yes, you learn about enzymes, but you also learn about why you burp, pass gas, vomit and poop. All important topics for middle schoolers. You learn about snot and mucus, with pictures of food on a slip and slide, and bacteria caught in the mucous saying, “I have a bad feeling about this…” The liver is pictured as a factory with assembly lines, where worker molecules – wearing hats – shoot cans of nutrients up a hepatic vein that looks like the pneumatic tubes at the bank. One of my favorite quotes: the cecum says to the appendix, “Do you ever wonder what your purpose is,” and the appendix replies, “all the time, Cecum, all the time.” Actually, it turns out the appendix does have a purpose – I had no idea.  I would strongly recommend this book to kids who want a fun way to learn, either for home schooling or traditional school learning. Now I kind of want to read some more of the Science Comics in our collection!

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

This week I picked up a fascinating non-fiction book, which also happens to be one of the new Maine Student Book Award nominees. The book details the rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team that was trapped deep in a cave after an unexpected rainstorm flooded the exit. The incident took place in July, 2018, and I remember following the story, as the whole world prayed that the boys would be rescued safely, and alive.

The author is Thai-American, and does not speak the Thai language, but her father and cousins traveled with her and translated. She interviewed many of the people involved in the rescue, including the expert cave divers; the Thai SEAL team; the US Air Force major who commanded the Special Tactics Squadron called in to help; and the water expert who supervised draining the ground water. She spoke with scientific experts, and with the kids and their families. She wove all this material together to create a gripping story of these twelve boys and their coach, and of the many, many people who were involved in rescuing them.

The author includes information about different Thai customs and religion, as well as very understandable scientific explanations of the cave geology, the water issues, and the engineering challenges. Above all, she draws you into the human elements of the story.  You sympathize with the grieving and terrified family members, who wait at the cave entrance for days.  You learn of the courage of the boys, normal young kids trapped for days with no food, who find strength in their strong bond as a team. As the story progresses, you meet so many of the people who worked to rescue them, against incredible odds, and you feel their determination to save all of the boys even at the risk of their own lives. The photos are absolutely stunning, detailing the Thai countryside, the cave, and most of all, the people involved with the ordeal. One SEAL team member died, but all the boys were safely rescued. It’s a truly amazing, real life story of heroism.

The Leak by Kate Reed Petty and illustrated by Andrea Bell

This week I picked out one of our new graphic novels, The Leak, and I was quite impressed with how the author managed to create a storyline that combined serious issues with some very relatable middle school drama. Ruth, our heroine, struggles with seventh grade teasing about her relationship with her friend, Jonathan, and you can’t help but groan a bit at the awkwardness of a first crush. She also deals with typical feelings that adults don’t listen to her, including her parents. All normal 12 year old concerns!

However, the novel addresses some important current affairs, such as pollution, trustworthy journalism, and corruption. Ruth wants to be a journalist, and publishes a weekly school newsletter online. She goes fishing with Jonathon and discovers black goop in the water, as well as a dead fish. This starts her on a crusade to discover the source of the toxic substance. Along the way, she learns to avoid sensationalist journalism and to write factual articles; she learns investigative skills (although breaking into the Country Club was not a great idea); and she learns to search for all sides of the story. Most of all, she learns to stand up for what is right, despite pressure from corporations and the well-meaning adults who underestimate her. Her brother’s girlfriend, Sarah, is a reporter for the New York Times, and guides her towards responsible journalism, helping her to move from a story about possible alien sludge, to a well-researched newsletter that attracts national attention. The novel teaches kids about the Flint Michigan water crisis, including both the associated serious health problems, and the political corruption and cover-up. The artist’s excellent illustrations were an integral part of the storyline, often carrying along the plot with graphics that needed no written words. This book is definitely a worthwhile graphic novel for middle school kids to both learn from, and to enjoy.

Wink by Rob Harrell

This week, I picked out one of our newest novels, and realized that it is also a Maine Student Book Award choice for the coming school year. I know I tend to say “I loved this book” a lot, but I really, really loved this book! The author, Rob Harrell, is a graphic novelist, as well as the cartoonist who writes and illustrates the comic strip, Adam@Home in our Sunday newspaper. He based the book on his own experience as an eye cancer survivor, although he went through treatment as an adult, not as a seventh grade boy.

The story starts with our hero, Ross, beginning his 8 weeks of radiation treatment, but includes flashbacks such as Bad Day #1 – his first symptoms, and Bad Day #2 –  finding out the diagnosis, and so on. His story is very real, as he goes through the ups and downs of his cancer journey, documenting his fears and hopes, his anger and courage. The author sprinkles the books with illustrations, such as the Batpig comic strips that Ross sketches in his journal. These drawings are funny, yet help you understand his feelings as he navigates middle school, changing friendships, and cancer treatments.

The characters are wonderful, well developed and believable. Take Ross, who desperately wants to be a normal seventh grader despite his surgical scars, the goop he has to put in his eye, his hair loss, and the cowboy hat he needs to wear to protect his eye. Then there is his best friend, Abby, with wild hair and clothes, who loves vampire music, and refuses to baby him just because he has cancer – which is exactly what he needs. You fall in love with Frank, the crazy radiation technician who teaches Ross about rock music, and eventually helps him learn to play the guitar. Then there is his Dad, desperately trying to help, despite his tendency to tell dad jokes, and his stepmother, Linda, who tries way too hard but cares for him deeply. And of course, there are the middle school kids such as Isaac, the best friend who faded off because he couldn’t handle Ross’s diagnosis; Sarah, the popular girl Ross has crushed on since fourth grade; and Jimmy, the big bully who turns into a friend and bandmate. To quote Terri Libenson, one of the reviewers on the back of the book, “Wink has all the right elements: humor, heart, and a Batpig.” I couldn’t put it better!

Wild River by Rodman Philbrick

This week I chose Wild River from our new fiction collection. I really enjoyed reading one of Rodman Philbrick’s other middle school novels, Wildfire, which was a Maine State Book Award nominee last year. However, I have to admit that although I thought Wild River was an okay survival story, I honestly didn’t find the story to be as engrossing as that of his previous book.

The book is told from the point of view of Daniel Redmayne, who describes himself as “a pale, skinny kid with glasses,” who doesn’t really understand why he was one of five kids chosen to go on a free whitewater rafting trip in Montana. In addition to the two guides, one of whom is a famous woman soccer star, there are four other kids: Deke, the nasty bully; Tony, who desperately wants to be cool like Deke; Mia, the smart and resourceful leader; and Imani, the girl with quiet courage. Maybe that was part of my problem – the kids were all just a bit too stereotyped, so I never felt very emotionally invested in their characters. Plus, right from the prologue, you know really bad things are going to happen, since its closing sentence is “But he had no way of knowing how it would turn out, or how many of us would die.” Which meant I spent a lot of the story worrying about who would die…

Everything rapidly goes wrong, starting when the river dam breaks, flooding their campsite and sweeping the adults away. The five kids have to survive on their own, and split into factions – Deke and Tony, versus Daniel and the girls. Things get really nasty, and I found that Deke’s bullying in the face of their need to survive was kind of unbelievable. I did like the fact that Mia was such a strong, courageous character, and that Daniel discovered hidden strengths and courage. As the story progresses, the kids experience life changing tragedy, develop significant survival skills, and eventually forge unexpected friendships. After a surprising plot twist, the story eventually has a pretty satisfying ending. And no, I am not going to tell you who dies – you will just have to read the book!

Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica by Rebecca e. F. Barone

This week I chose one of our new nonfiction books to read and review. We have so many fascinating nonfiction books, and they often get overlooked – I would encourage you to check them out when you come in to browse.

Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica meshes the stories of two historic races: the contest between Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, and the competition between Captain Lou Rudd and Colin O’Brady to make the first unaided, unsupported solo crossing of Antarctica in 2018. The narration switched between the two stories throughout the book, which was just a bit confusing in the beginning chapters. However, as the story progressed, the timelines became clearer. The history of the months to years of preparation for theses expeditions was fascinating, and the backstories of the adventurers made them seem very relatable and human. You started really cheering them on as they battled incredible odds, both weather and terrain, to traverse the ice to the South Pole. The photos of the expeditionary groups, especially the ones from the early 1900’s, were especially compelling. I have to ask, WHY would anyone want to explore a land where temperatures dip to -60 F or lower? Where the weather is so bad, you often travel in complete white-outs? Where you may lose 20 to 30 pounds because you burn so many calories just trying to survive, and you can only bring so much food with you? Where you sometimes have to kill and eat your sled dogs (that really bothered me)? I, truly, have no answer. However, these brave, somewhat fanatic men were passionate about their goals, despite great danger and tragedy. This book is a real life account of courage and endurance, full of science and history, all rolled up as an excellent adventure tale. I would definitely recommend it to the more advanced middle school readers who enjoy survival stories.

Brightly Woven: The Graphic Novel by Alexandra Bracken and adapted by Leigh Dragoon; Art by Kit Seaton

Graphic novels are not just comic books, and our collection includes fiction, biographies and non-fiction. An excellent guide to Graphic novels by Scholastic Books states: “Graphic novels powerfully attract and motivate kids to read…In fact, graphic novels are flexible enough that often the same titles can be equally appealing to both reluctant and advanced readers. Providing young people of all abilities with diverse reading materials, including graphic novels, can help them become lifelong readers” (1).  Having said that – I picked up one of our newer Graphic Novels, Brightly Woven, because the cover illustration appealed to my love of fantasy and magic, and I ended up enjoying it for both the story and the illustrations.

Brightly Woven is a recent middle school adaptation of a YA book written ten years ago by Alexandra Bracken. The story is set in the mythical kingdom of Palmarta, and centers around a fourteen year old girl named Sydelle Mirabi, and the fifteen year old wizard, Wayland North, who suddenly whirls into her life.  Literally, he can use his magic cloaks to whirl them around and transport them.  He has information vital to the kingdom (of course!) and needs Sydelle to help him get to the Sorceress Imperial in the capital, Provincia. She is no damsel in distress sidekick – as the village’s best weaver, she has the ability to repair his many magic cloaks, and she also becomes his navigator on their journey to the capitol city. Along the way, they run into the evil young wizard, Dorwan, who is trying to stop North from proving that it was Dorwan who poisoned the king. We find out that North’s family is cursed, and that he doubts his ability to control his sickness and his magic. Sydelle begins having odd dreams, and as the story progresses, she also discovers magical powers. Honestly, it’s a fun tale of magic, good and evil, with plot twists and a bit of romance. So I was completely drawn in… The illustrations were delightful, and really added to the story. If you are looking for a graphic novel take on a new fairy tale, and don’t really care if there is a lot of deep meaning, this is the book for you.

  1. https://www.scholastic.com/graphix_teacher/pdf/Graphix%20Teachers%20guide.pdf

A Dog-Friendly Town by Josephine Cameron

I often have kids ask me for mysteries, and I would definitely recommend A Dog-Friendly Town, by Josephine Cameron, to the more advanced middle school readers. It’s a really fun read, and if you are a dog-lover, you will be especially entertained by the plot. There are also themes of family, friendship, growing up, and facing fears of change, all woven in with some terrifically wacky characters. Oh, and there is a mystery to be solved, and a jewel thief to be caught – I mean, what more could you ask for!

Set in Carmelito, CA, which has just been named America’s #1 Dog Friendly Town, the story is told from the point of view of Epic, whose parents own a dog friendly Bed and Breakfast. He is the responsible one in the family, who has to look out for his younger brother Rondo and his little sister, Elvis, while his parents run the B&B. He is quietly stressed by changes to come in the fall, when he transitions from a tiny alternative school to a mainstream middle school, and there are themes of coping with new and/or changing friendships throughout the book. One of his chores is walking the adorable little Pico, owned by a wealthy couple who came to visit a year ago and stayed. Pico, an Italian Greyhound, has an anxiety disorder, and in some ways mirrors Epic’s worries; both become more confident and braver throughout the story.

But the main plot is woven around Sir Bentley, the famous St. Bernard sleuth from TV, who is staying at their family B&B along with her entourage–yes, Sir Bentley is a she! Chaos ensues as the media hits town, and the three famous TV Labradoodles stay at the rival B&B next door. A mysterious blogger starts writing gossipy misinformation that makes Sir Bentley look bad, and her TV show is threatened with cancellation. Then Sir Bentley’s bejeweled collar gets stolen, and Rondo decides to become a detective, pulling Epic way out of his comfort zone as he tries to keep him out of trouble. Add in the background story of a famous jewel thief, and everything gets way more complicated. Epic, Rondo and his friends end up trying to solve the mysteries of the stolen collar; the mysterious blogger; and the jewel thief – getting into all sorts of trouble along the way. It’s a fun mystery novel, with an entertaining cast of characters and adorable dogs – I would definitely recommend reading it.

Sisters Ever After: Thornwood by Leah Cypress

I love fantasy, so this week I chose one of our new fantasy novels to read just for fun. Sisters Ever After: Thornwood, by Leah Cypress, is an enjoyable retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Only this time, the story is told by 11-year-old Briony, the not so beautiful, but much more interesting younger sister. I thought at first the sisters might both be equally strong heroines, similar to Elsa and Anna from Frozen, but honestly, Briony is a much more admirable character than the stunningly beautiful Rosalin; kind of an Anna with a pale version of Elsa. The story begins on Roslin’s sixteenth birthday, the day that everyone knows she is cursed to prick her finger and fall asleep for 100 years. Indeed, for sixteen years, all life in the kingdom has centered around the fear of this spell (the kingdom is even in financial straits, since with no spinning wheels, all cloth has to be imported. I never thought of that before). Briony, the sister with frizzy brown hair, the one who gets into trouble and stains her dresses, has spent her life as the second-class princess. But it’s Briony who is the practical one who has to save her family when, of course, Rosalin manages to prick her finger on a spinning wheel.

Along the way, you meet Varian, the handsome prince – except is he really a prince? Because when the supposed prince kisses Rosalin, she wakes up, but the thorny vines are still there… And how about Edwin, the blacksmith’s apprentice and village dolt, who was so bullied and abused that he crept into the palace in hopes that he would fall asleep for a hundred years and escape his tormentors. Oh, and let’s talk about the fairy godmother and the fairy queen, who are definitely not sweet little Disney fairies. The thorny vines start growing and invading the castle, and Briony has to figure out a way to break the spell and save the few remaining castle folk (most had fled to avoid the curse before Rosalin pricked her finger). It’s fun to watch the fairy tale unfold in a whole new way, and to observe the major characters as they develop. Our spunky, courageous heroine, Briony, learns to see and care about everyone in the castle, not just her family; Edwin becomes her staunch and brave supporter; and even Rosalin seems less of a spoiled princess as you start to understand her fears, and her courage. And okay, I admit it, I did not figure out the plot twist at the end – read the book, and see if you can guess who is ultimately evil! Good luck, and have fun reading this excellent, updated fairy tale.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Starfish, by Lisa Fipps, is a beautiful new book in our collection. Written in free verse, it is one of the most meaningful, heart-wrenching, and powerful books I have read in a long time. The story is told by Ellie, an eleven year old obese girl who is mercilessly bullied by most of her family and classmates. Ever since she was 5 years old, when her sister and brother teased her at her birthday party, Ellie has felt humiliated about her weight. She has created Fat Girl Rules, such as “Move slowly so your fat doesn’t jiggle, drawing attention to your body.” These rules, and her terrible feelings of worthlessness because of her weight, define her life. Her mother has put her on countless diets since she was only 4 years old, and is talking to her about bariatric weight loss surgery, even though her aunt almost died from the procedure. Her own mother won’t even buy her new school clothes because she is afraid Ellie will just keep getting bigger; this honestly made me want to cry. No wonder Ellie feels as though her mother will never love her unless she loses weight.

Luckily, her father supports her, and despite Ellie’s misgivings, he brings her to a therapist who helps Ellie realize her own self-worth. She gradually learns to accept that she is smart and talented despite her weight, and she begins to face her feelings and stand up to some of the bullying. Thankfully, a new girl, Catalina, moves in next door; she accepts Ellie as she is, and Catalina’s whole family takes her into their loving, nonjudgmental circle. With the support of her father, Catalina, her therapist, and the librarian who recognizes her poetic talent, Ellie slowly works at shattering stereotypes. She begins to see that Catalina’s family is bullied for being Mexican Americans in Texas; her Enemy Number 3 is a poor boy, with ragged clothes, who bullies her since kids bully him. By the end of the book, she has gained the courage to face the absolutely horrible bullies at school, and more importantly, has made her mother and her sister realize how much hurt they have caused. There are so many beautiful verses in this book, and the story ends with strength and hope: “I deserve to be seen. To be noticed. To be heard. To be treated like a human. I starfish. There’s plenty of room for each and every one of us in the world.” The author writes from personal experience, and at the end of the book, she addresses bullying as follows: “know that no matter your size or who you are, you are lovable and deserve for people to treat you like you’re a valuable person. Because you are.” What an amazing, must read story.

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles

The 2020 – 2021 Maine Student Book Award cycle is done, and the new list is out. But I decided to wait until September to start the next round. Instead, I am going to review some of the new middle school books in our own Lithgow collection – we have so many really great fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels that I would love to promote.

I started with a book that I found when I googled “best new middle school novels,” Take Back the Block, by Chrystal D. Giles. A debut novel by a Black author, the story highlights themes that all middle schoolers can understand, such as the complexity of friendships, family, change and loss. But it also ties in some really relevant themes, such as social activism, gentrification, segregation, and the power of community. It emphasizes the idea that even an eleven year old can work to bring people together for a cause that he believes is vitally important.

The story is told in first person by Wesley Henderson, or “Wes,” as he prefers, since that name has way more cred. Wes has a core group of friends, but as they enter 6th grade, the group dynamic is already changing. Kari, a bit older, has had a falling out with one of the girls, and Wes is torn trying to balance his loyalties. In addition, Kari is struggling with poverty after his parents divorce, his family is displaced, and then his apartment building is bought out. Wes feels sorry for him, but Kari’s plight hits home when suddenly, a development company similarly wants to buy out the homes in Wes’s own neighborhood, Kensington Oaks, and redevelop it. The company offers a lot of money to the lower income families, which fuels the conflict between families willing to stay no matter what, and those who want to take the money and move. This theme of gentrification, where neighborhood improvements can lead to lower income families moving out, and wealthier families moving in, raises the issue of segregation. In this case, years before, the Oaks used to be predominantly White; then Black families started to move in and White families moved to the suburbs; and now, with the urban renewal and expensive shops and condos planned by the development company, this pattern may once again reverse.

Wes’s mom is director of the Community Board, and is very involved in social activism. Wes, who has always been a bit embarrassed by this, suddenly finds himself working towards uniting family, friends and neighbors to try to save Kensington Oaks. Along the way, he works with teachers, tries to keep up his grades, and is torn by conflicts in his close group of best friends. The characters are well developed, and you can empathize with them all; the challenges are real; and the ending is satisfying. I enjoyed the book and definitely recommend reading it.

Dictionary for a Better World by Irene Latham & Charles Waters

Today is the last day of National Poetry Month, and I have officially been converted to a Poetry Lover. Much to my surprise…

I absolutely loved Dictionary for a Better World: Poem, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z, by two poets, Irene Latham and Charles Waters.  This book is not a dictionary in the true sense of the word, but features words from the alphabet: Acceptance, Ally, Belonging, Compassion, Courage, Create and so on through the final word, Zest. As you read, the left page features the poem, with a small annotation about the poem’s form. On the right page, there is a quote about the word, generally from a well-known author or individual; followed by a very personal paragraph from the poet about what each word means to them. Finally, at the bottom of the right page is a “Try It” paragraph with suggestions of how the reader can use the word in their own lives.

Okay, that may sound confusing, but it is wonderful. For example, take the word “courage.” You read the poem:

courage can be
getting up to face life’s
stormy world when you’d rather hide
in bed.

That poem is called a cinquain, a term which is explained. Next, there is a wonderful quote about courage from an author, Geraldine McCaughrean, which ends, “So I decided that maybe if I started in a small way, I could gradually work my way up to being brave like the others.” This is then followed by Charles Waters, the poet, talking about days when he felt worried about life, as a kid and as an adult, and learned to tell himself to “get on with it,” a quote from Monty Python!  Finally, the “Try It!” section simply urges the reader to start their day with positivity by telling themselves, “I got this.”

Charles Waters is a black poet, and some of his poems deal with racial issues he has faced, and with diversity, but some are as simple as finding courage. Irene Latham is a white woman, who also talks about relatable issues such as her multiple moves as a child and worries about fitting in. Top this all off with glorious illustrations by Mehrdokht Amini, who uses collages and colors like an Eric Carle, and this book is just a beautiful, meaningful, read that middle schoolers, teens, and adults can all enjoy.

And if you want to top off your April poetry experience, read Amanda Gorman’s stunning inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb. Better yet, click HERE to watch and listen to her read it – she is a 23 year old immensely talented National Youth Poet Laureate, and her reading will take your breath away.

Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes edited by Tabatha Yeatts & Technically, It’s Not My Fault: Concrete Poems by John Grandits

I am back from vacation, and reviewing more poetry for National Poetry Month. As I mentioned before, I have never read a lot of poetry, but guess what – I am really enjoying it! This week I chose an anthology titled Imperfect, and subtitled Poems About Mistakes: an Anthology for Middle Schoolers. The premise of the book is that we all make mistakes, and we don’t need to feel embarrassed or upset; we just need to patch ourselves together and learn from them (read the story of the Japanese art of kintsugi in the explanation of the book cover). The anthology contains 70 poems by 50 authors, some short, some a bit longer; some funny, some more serious; but all thought-provoking. For example, here is a short one, titled “Once Upon a Time,” by April Halprin Wayland:

Once upon a time,
there was a girl
who never made a mistake.

Which is why
this is
a fairy tale.

At the end of the book, the editor teaches us a bit about some of the poem forms in the collection, including acrostic, diamante, double dactyl (complicated!), and double voice poetry. I can really recommend this anthology – it is fun, meaningful, and hopeful, and really speaks to the insecurities and emotions prevalent in middle school. Or frankly, in all stages of life. To quote the last phrase of the anthology, “Out of difficulties grow miracles” (Jean de la Bruyere).

And for another fun, quick poetry read, try the book Technically, It’s Not My Fault, by John Grandits. These concrete poems, all voiced by a middleschooler named Robert, are both written and illustrated by Grandits. The book jacket defines concrete poems as those “in which words, ideas, type, and art combine to make pictures and patterns.” The illustrations are as important as the words, and sometimes, you actually find yourself turning the book around to follow the verses. It’s a totally fun book that kids will laugh at and enjoy.


Hard-Boiled Eggs for Breakfast: and Other Tasty Poems by Jack Prelutsky

Well, it turns out that April is National Poetry Month, and I decided once again to go outside my comfort zone and try reviewing some poetry books. I admit – other than reading Shakespeare in my youth, and Shel Silverstein as a mother, I tend to avoid poetry. But guess what – poetry can be fun!  And Jack Prelutsky’s newest poetry book is really entertaining. Yes, the title is odd, but take a chance and start reading it – it’s rather like reading Dr. Seuss for older kids. I found myself laughing by page 4, when he describes his pets trying to play instruments, and the poem ends: “I wish my pets were talented – apparently they’re not.” My pets certainly are not…

The poems are short, entertaining, and frequently include imaginary animals such as the Kangarooster (half rooster, half kangaroo), the Revolving Doormouse (poor thing is stuck in a revolving door), Skigulls (yes, seagulls that ski) or even a Rubber Bandicoot (you will have to read about that one!). Although silly, the vocabulary is not juvenile and I noticed the author sneaking in a lot of more advanced words, such as “berserk,” “disconcerting,” and “enthralls,” just to name a very few. Most of the poems are traditional rhymes, but a few use shapes such as a figure 8 to create an infinite poem; or verse that looks like water going down a drain; or popping bubbles. The illustrations are fun, and really add to the poems’ stories. And mixed into the silliness are a few rather wonderful, more serious poems, such as “I am Lighter that a Feather,” a poem about being yourself, or “We are the Oceans,” about the Earth.

Jack Prelutsky was deservedly the first US Children’s Poet Laureate, from 2008 to 2010.  According to the Poetry Foundation website, “the Young People’s Poet Laureate aims to raise awareness that young people have a natural receptivity to poetry and are its most appreciative audience, especially when poems are written specifically for them.” I would recommend reading this book with your kids – it’s a great way to involve them with poems you can enjoy together. Let me end with the closing lines from “We are the Oceans” in honor of the upcoming Earth Day: “We are the creatures with feather and fin / we’re every last being that ever has been. / We’re all of these things on the world of our birth / this wonderful planet, our beautiful Earth.”

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

Book cover of Scary Stories for Young FoxesWell, I hate to admit this, but I didn’t really enjoy this week’s MSBA choice, Scary Stories for Young Foxes. I have to face the fact that I am not a fan of the horror story genre, and I have a hard time when truly awful things keep happening. This book uses the premise of seven fox kits who want to hear scary stories, so they go to the old storyteller in Bog Cavern (of course, after their mother warns them not to go because they will “hear a story so frightening it will put the white in your tail”). The old storyteller warns them that scary stories have two sides, bright and dark: if they stay until the end, “the stories can shine a light on the good in the world,” but if they don’t, the darkness can “swallow all hope.” As she tells her tales, one by one the kits become afraid and run home, until only the smallest one stays to hear the end.

And yes, if you make it to the end of the book, there is a pretty neat plot twist, and the story actually resolves reasonably well. But along the way, a lot of terrible things happen to Mia and Uly, our fox protagonists. Mia loses her siblings to a rabid fox, then loses her mom, then gets trapped by a truly scary Beatrix Potter (really – the author of Peter Rabbit is evil?!). Uly is crippled with a useless front leg, and is teased by his mean sisters; then his vicious father returns and wants to kill him because he is imperfect. Uly runs away, and the stories start to intertwine when he meets Mia and manages to save her from being killed. They become friends and travel companions, but they just get into more and more trouble. Every time you think things are better – nope, something rather horrible happens. Think Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books, but not as fun.

The story is clever, and I found myself becoming more involved as the stories interwove the fox characters. At the very end, things work out okay, but there is so much heartbreak and loss for the foxes along the way that I had a hard time with the story line. I didn’t totally dislike the book, but I would give it a “meh” rating. However, kids who enjoy scary stories will probably enjoy the book – it’s just not my favorite genre.

Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game by Rachel Poliquin and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler

Book cover of Beastly PuzzlesSometimes, you just need a simple book that is fun, interesting, and informative. This week’s MSBA choice Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game, is definitely aimed at younger readers, but I enjoyed it! The author challenges you to look at a puzzle of bits and pieces, and then to try and guess what animal could be created with these parts. Once you make your guess, you lift a flap (and who doesn’t love lift-the-flap books) to read the answer. I am not going to lie: I only figured out four of the thirteen creatures! And in the process, you also learn some pretty fascinating facts. For example, I had no idea that a mother kangaroo could carry a baby and an older joey in her pouch, and produce two different kinds of milk for them at the same time. Or, did you know that polar bear hair is clear tubes, but that the fur looks white because the transparent hairs reflect light? Or that a sloth has green fur because “algae turn it green in rainy season, and moths and beetles make a cozy home in it” – yuck!

The illustrations are absolutely marvelous, and are an integral part of the story telling. MSBA books are aimed at Fourth to Eighth graders, and this book is clearly for the younger crowd to enjoy. The book inspires creativity while teaching science, and it’s a clever, interactive way to learn (or for homeschooling parents, to teach).

Written by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler

Book cover of Genesis Begins AgainThis week’s MSBA book, Genesis Begins Again, is a thought-provoking realistic fiction novel that I would definitely recommend for the more advanced middle school readers, or even young adult/teen readers. The story tackles so many difficult topics, ranging from racism, to alcoholism and gambling, to broken families.

The story is told by a 13 year old girl, Genesis, and begins in Detroit when she brings home some school friends, only to find all the family furniture in the yard because they have been evicted – again. Her father is an alcoholic, and a gambler, and keeps lying about paying the rent, so they have been evicted several times. She and her mother have to stay with her maternal grandmother briefly, and her grandmother is hypercritical of her mother trying to hold the family together. Her father somehow finds a house to rent in an affluent, mostly white suburb, and Genesis once again has to start in a new school. Throughout the story, there is a heart-breaking conflict between the love both Genesis and her mom have for her father, and the anger and disappointment when time and time again, he lies about going to AA, or even about getting a job promotion.

Next is the issue of racism, and the biggest problem for Genesis is racism (more specifically, colorism) within the Black community itself. She, like her father, is very dark – and she desperately wants to be like her light skinned Black mother. When she was a child, she heard her father talking with friends about how he wanted her to be light like her mom, and she carries that in her heart for years. At one point, her grandmother admits that their family tried to keep lighter skinned Blacks in the family, because they thought they would have an easier time and go further in life professionally. There was even a paper bag test: if you were darker than a brown paper bag, the family didn’t approve of you, which is another reason Grandma didn’t want Genesis’s mom to marry her dad. Genesis tries desperately throughout the story to make her skin lighter, trying lemons, scouring pads, bleach, and creams. Her dark skin is just one item on a long written list of things she doesn’t like about herself, a list started by mean girls at a previous school, but added to by herself. She eventually comes to accept herself, but it is gut wrenching to read.

And then, of course, are the almost mundane issues of trying to fit into a new school, and make friends. That she manages pretty well, and she has the sense to stick with her real friends and not the popular, mean girls. Her wonderful music teacher helps her to find strength and confidence in her amazing voice, and this helps her begin to believe in herself and her own worth. The story does end with hope, and Genesis realizes that she needs to stop hating herself, and the way she looks; she just wants, in her own words, “to look in the mirror and be okay with myself.”

Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee

Book cover of Maybe He Just Likes YouThis week’s MSBA book choice, Maybe He Just Likes You, by Barbara Dee, tackles the difficult issue of middle school sexual harassment and bullying. It is not an easy topic to address, but the novel is well written, and the author skillfully addresses the fear and humiliation caused by such behavior. The story is told by Mila, a seventh grade girl who does not understand why, all of a sudden, a group of boys starts trying to hug her, and touch her, and make her feel uncomfortable. Initially, she is unsure as to whether she is making too much of it – and one of her closest friends tries to tell her it is just flirting. But as the book progresses, she continues to be hassled, and groped, and she has no idea how to stop the behavior. Although she had previously convinced her close friend Max to go to the principal about the bullying he experienced for being gay, she does not feel she has that option. The principal is the boys’ basketball coach, and she is too embarrassed to really talk to her male guidance counselor. Her single mother is under a great deal of stress at work, and actually gets fired, so Mila doesn’t want to cause any more anxiety at home.

Mila also has to deal with changing friendships, particularly when one of her four closest friends, Zara, is hot and cold about supporting her. Omi, her best friend, finds out that the group of boys considers the whole thing to be a joke, with a scorecard based on touching different parts of her. Mila is, understandably, furious and mortified, especially when she realizes that other classmates are aware of the “game.” Mila joins a karate class, and starts to gain some confidence, especially when a friend in the class talks to the Sensei, who then teaches the kids some self-defense. Subsequently kicking one of her tormenters was not perhaps the wisest move – but you can’t help cheering her on. Things come to a head at a band concert, and Mila finally is able to confide in an adult teacher, and eventually confront the boys. (Oh – and don’t worry, her mom finds a job, and is incredibly supportive when Mila finally confesses what has been going on). Not necessarily an easy read, but the topic of sexual harassment is relevant, and important, and yes, can occur even in Middle School.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

Book cover of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote SunriseI am back to reading Maine State Book Award Books, and this week’s choice, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart, is indeed a remarkable book. Full of love, and fun, and odd friendships, this is the kind of book that left me crying – in a good way – at the end.

The story is narrated by a 12 year old girl, Coyote, who is traveling in a renovated school bus with her father, Rodeo. They have been traveling for five years, ever since Coyote’s mother and two sisters were killed in a car crash. Her father, devastated, deals with the tragedy by burying it, never talking about them, and not letting Coyote even call him Dad. Actually, they even legally changed their names. Rodeo is a sweet, lost hippie, whose kindness shines out of his eyes; Coyote loves him fiercely and takes care of him. The story starts when she adopts Ivan, a tiny, amazing kitten, and she admits to herself that she needs more than just her dad. Then, she talks with her Grandmother and learns that the park in her old hometown is going to be bulldozed in just five days, and her world suddenly tilts. It turns out that literally days before her mother and sisters were killed, they put together a memory box, buried it under a tree in that park, and swore that they would dig it up in ten years. When her little sister Rose worried about finding it, Ella (Coyote’s given name) promised to remember – and now, five years later, that promise becomes her goal.

Of course, she has to figure out how to Rodeo to drive the bus from Florida to Washington State. In five days. Without telling him why, since he refuses to return home. She starts recruiting people along the way, all of whom become invested in helping her as much as she helps them: Lester, the broke musician trying to get to Boise to his girlfriend Tammy; Salvador, a boy just a bit older, and his mother, running from an abusive father to find a new home; Valerie, a 19 year old girl kicked out by her family for coming out as gay; then Salvador’s aunt; then a goat…all on a school bus to Washington state. Coyote makes close friends for the first time in years, and they all commit to helping each other out. Even Gladys the goat plays a minor, but important role. Eventually, when her dad finds out that she wants to go home, she confronts him with her need to remember her family, and for him to become a father again. The hilarious adventures along the way, the wonderful characters, and the amazing climax of the race to save her memory box, combine to create a remarkable story of love, kindness, and courage.

The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

My last review for Black History Month is on The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, a Newberry Award winning book by a Black author, Christopher Paul Curtis. Although the novel is set during the Civil Rights movement, the plot primarily revolves around the Watsons, a Black family living in Flint, Michigan. The story is told from the point of view of Kenny, a ten year old boy with a little sister, Joetta, and a 13 year old brother, Byron. Poor Kenny is doomed at school by being smart, and having a “lazy eye;” he is both bullied and protected by Byron, the “god” of Clark Elementary. You can’t help but laugh at the whoppers Byron tells poor gullible Kenny and Joey; but you laugh even more when vain Byron kisses the car mirror when he is supposed to scraping the ice off – and  his lips get stuck! The family relationships between the kids and their parents are the focus of most of the book, particularly as Byron, now a teen, gets into more and more trouble. Therefore, his parents make good on a long term threat and decide to drive to Birmingham to leave him with the dreaded, scary Grandma Sands for the summer. Thus the name of the book – Momma’s journal for the trip. The plot continues to center on family as Kenny, disgusted that his brother is behaving, gets into trouble himself. For example, when Grandma Sands warns them not to swim at Collier’s Landing, Byron spins a tale of the “Wool Pool” that can kill you; Kenny tries to be brave, goes to check it out, nearly drowns, and is saved by Byron. Byron’s emotions at the near loss of his brother helps you realize how much he loves his family, despite the “cool kid” bravado.

Woven into the story are references to the racism that Black people experienced in the 60s. Initially just an undercurrent, the examples of prejudice build to the real climax of the novel: Joetta goes to Sunday School, and her Church is bombed – a fictional occurrence, but based on the real Birmingham bombing in 1963 which killed four young girls and blinded two others. Kenny walks into the Church looking for his sister, but becomes terrified and leaves. Joey does not die, and the whole family immediately heads back to Michigan. Kenny becomes withdrawn, and tries to cope with his trauma by hiding behind the couch. Ultimately, it is Byron, again, who saves him and slowly gets him to come out; Kenny is finally able to break down in grief, asking “Why would they hurt some little kids like that?”  Byron’s response demonstrates his growing maturity: “Kenny, things ain’t ever going to be fair.  How’s it fair that two grown men could hate Negroes so much that they’d kill some kids just to stop them from going to school…it ain’t. But you just gotta understand that that’s the way it is and keep on steppin’.” The novel is a testament to family, love, and the courage required to face the injustice of racism.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer is an award winning book, by a Black author, set in 1968 during the Civil Rights movement. It is a beautifully written book, although not an emotionally easy one, and chronicles a story within a story: that of three sisters meeting the mother who had abandoned them, and that of the Black Panthers and the struggle for Civil Rights in the 60’s.

The main narrative revolves around Delphine, a sweet, capable Black girl almost 12 years old, who is in charge of her 9 year old sister Vonetta and her 7 year old sister Fern. Their mother, Celeste, left them when Fern was just a few weeks old, and they have been raised in Brooklyn by their father and by their grandmother, Big Ma. Their father declares it is time they meet their mother, and the three girls are sent to Oakland, CA (by themselves) to meet her. As expected, they are not met by a warm and loving mother. Instead, she barely acknowledges them, sending them that night into a strange neighborhood to buy takeout food, and refusing to let them into her workspace in the kitchen. She remains unwelcoming and unattached, and seems to care only for her poetry. The morning after they arrive, she sends them out to walk to the People’s Center to get free breakfast, and to attend a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. Throughout their month in California, you watch as Delphine takes care of her sisters, acting, as always, as their mother figure. They slowly make friends, get used to a whole other lifestyle, and start to learn more about peaceful protests for civil rights. As a mother, I had a hard time with Celeste’s treatment of the girls; but as the story progresses, and you learn of her past, I could at least understand her better.

Which brings us to the second part of the story, that of the Black men, women, teens and children involved with the Black Panthers of the 60s. Once again, I was prompted to research the history behind the book. I had only a vague impression of the Panthers as a violent group of Black militant protesters. And yes, there was violence. But the movement was started to help protect Black people from police brutality, and the group also became involved in community social programs such as free breakfasts for children and medical clinics. There are always two sides to a story, and a book that makes you want to go and learn more is a special book indeed.

Mighty Justice: The Untold Story of Civil Rights Trailblazer Dovey Johnson Roundtree by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe, adapted by Jabari Asim

As I said last week, I decided to review books for Black History Month during February. This week, when previewing our new materials, I saw a non-fiction book called Mighty Justice, the Untold Story of Civil Rights Trailblazer Dovey Johnson Roundtree. I was intrigued because frankly, I had never heard of her name. And after reading this book, I don’t know why I never heard of her – except, I do know why. Most of us learn about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and maybe even Ruby Bridges. But there are so many other really important Black women and men that we never learn about in school. And that is why Black History Month is so essential.

The story begins in 1920, when Dovey Johnson is 6 years old, living in Charlotte, NC. Her Grandma Rachel takes her for her first trolley ride, and the little girl sits in the front row. The driver yells at her, calling her a “pickaninny,” and Grandma Rachel stops the trolley; they then proudly walks all the way to town. The book includes D

ovey’s writings and memories, and she remembers her grandmother’s words from that day, “words that lifted me up and made me forever proud: ‘My chillum is as good as anybody.’” Dovey overcomes great hardship and poverty, working multiple jobs, but is determined to attend Spelman College in Atlanta. When the Great Depression hits, and she cannot fund her senior year, Miss Neptune – a white woman who came to teach at a Black school – arranges a scholarship and loans her money. When she tries to thank her, Miss Neptune says simply, “pass it on!” Throughout her life, as the book notes, she is “lifted up by strong, brilliant, and

fearless women.” After college, she goes moves north and ends up working for Grandma Rachel’s friend, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune – another amazing Black woman in history. Dr. Bethune was president of the National Council of Negro Women, and advised President and Eleanor Roosevelt. Dr. Bethune encourages her to become one of only 40 Black women allowed to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She subsequently goes on to law school, and works tirelessly for many Black people wronged by discrimination. In her later years, she focuses her legal practice on the protection of children; and to top it all off, she becomes a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Her story is inspirational, and this middle school adaptation beautifully combines history with Dovey’s own words. It is an engaging and important story of a Black woman and her courageous commitment to the Civil Rights Movement.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

I decided to take a break from the Maine State Book Award choices in February, and read some middle school novels for Black History Month. This week, I chose Stella by Starlight, written by Sharon M. Draper. The story takes place in 1932, in Bumblebee, North Carolina, and is told Stella Mills, a young fifth-grade Black girl. The book opens with Stella and her younger brother, Jojo, coming upon a Ku Klux Klan meeting in the woods. Terrified, they run home to their parents, who call in the neighboring Black adults for a meeting. As Stella says to her friend, Tony, “I think when we get scared, they feel strong.” Wow – that sums up bullies of all kinds. Stella has a hard time writing her thoughts on paper, but she is amazingly thoughtful, and as the story progresses, her journal writings improve and becomes almost poetic.

The book is beautifully written, and it brings out both the love and support of family and friends in a close knit Black community, as well as a glimmer of hope in the few white people who do quietly help out. But it is appalling, even now, to realize how unfairly Black people were treated in the segregated South. For example, the Black children in the story share a one room school house, while the white children have a better school and new books. Stella’s community has a Black doctor, thankfully, but there is also a white doctor who treats only whites – in fact, at one point, the white doctor refuses to treat Stella’s mom for a snake bite, and she nearly dies. A central plot line involves Stella’s dad, as well as the pastor, and one other neighbor, Mr. Spencer, who have the courage to go register to vote in the presidential election. I am ashamed to admit that I had no idea that at one time, the South required a literacy test, a poll tax (they had to pay to register, unlike white voters), and a test about the constitution in order to register. The men are treated like trash, and derogatorily called “boys” by the ignorant town registrar. And after these three brave men calmly insist on their right to vote, the KKK burns down the Spencer family’s house. The story is lifted up by how the whole community comes together to put out the fire, and to help the family (who have 13 children) – and even some members of the white community pitch in. These sorts of things really happened, and it is so important that kids read about these injustices, in hopes that this will never happen again.

The World Ends in April by Stacy McAnulty

Book cover of The World Ends in AprilI have to say, this week’s MSBA book choice was really hard for me to put down. Yes, it’s another story about middle school angst, trying to fit in, and finding friendships where you least expect them. But the plot manages to be both both funny and poignant at the same time, and you end up caring so much about all the characters. The story is told from the point of view of Elle, a 12 year old girl who has only one close friend, Mack, who is legally blind. You never really know why she is the loner left out of the popular group, or why she just wants to disappear. Mack is a funny, likable, and supportive boy who does not let his vision impairment hold him back. But to Elle’s dismay, he is considering moving to a different school the following year, the Conrad School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and she desperately wants him to stay. Throw in Londyn, Elle’s evil nemesis who turns back into a close friend; plus Elle’s widowed Dad, doing his best, and her crazy survivalist “prepper” Grandpa Joe, and you have an endearing cast of characters.

In brief, Elle reads an article on line about an asteroid that is going to hit earth in April. It is written by a Harvard astrophysicist, and although he is fired due to his theories, he develops a huge following online. (Side note: this could be a good way to discuss the difficulty of evaluating the credibility of online news.) Elle becomes seriously concerned about what will happen to her family and Mack, and as they discuss it at school, a group of kids listen and join in. They start a club called the “Nature Club” – since they can’t call it “The End of the World Club,” and Elle teaches them the survival skills she has learned from Grandpa Joe. As they prep for TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It), Elle becomes president of the group, and Londyn joins in. Things begin to spiral out of control as the girls write an anonymous newsletter and the whole school gets involved. And when the world doesn’t end…Elle has to do some serious soul searching. The story is funny, and touching, and I would highly recommend reading the book.

Homerooms & Hall Passes by Tom O’Donnell

Book cover of Homerooms & Hall Passes

I love reading fantasy novels, and I was really looking forward to reading this week’s Maine State Book Award book choice, Homerooms & Hall Passes. I ended up giving it a “Meh” ranking, but I say that with the understanding that kids who love Dungeons and Dragons will almost certainly give this book rave reviews.

The premise of the book is amusing – our five protagonists are truly heroes of Briandalor, where they fight goblins, disarm poison traps, answer magic riddles and defeat demons. Once a week, they get together to play Homerooms & Hall Passes, a game set in J. A. Dewar Middle School, where they face challenges such as science quizzes, essays, band recitals, and algebra! Of course, on one of their quests, Devis the Thief steals a ruby – despite the curse forbidding the treasure be touched – and the five adventurers get transported to Middle School. All of a sudden, they find themselves inhabiting their game personas, but with no idea how to fit in.  Thromdurr the Barbarian – has to try to be Doug, the smart class nerd – but is used to solving everything by crushing things with a hammer; Sorrowshade, the assassin, is Melissa the Loner – but gets invited into the popular girls group; Vela the Valiant is Valerie, the class overachiever – but has no idea how to play the flute or manage her myriad of activities; Devis the thief is the class clown – and gets into trouble stealing; and Albiorix, as the Hall Master, has no game persona, so has to create an identity and live in a school closet. They have to adjust their flowery speech and clothing, and figure out how to pass their classes so they can return to Briandalor. Along the way, they deal with middle school problems, and befriend a new girl, June, who becomes an adventurer with them.

Despite the fun plot, I just had a hard time getting into the story, especially in the beginning. As the book progressed, I started to enjoy it more. There are no great themes other than dealing with middle school angst, but it’s okay just to have fun with a storyline. I suspect that kids who enjoy role-playing games – and there are many who do – will really enjoy the book!

Roll with It by Jamie Sumner

Book cover of Roll With ItThis week I read Roll with It, by Jamie Sumner, a thoroughly enjoyable realistic fiction novel from the Maine State Book Award collection. Yup, the cover shows a girl in a wheel chair – but that wheelchair has racing stripes, and Ellie is a 12 year old full of courage and a drive to be as independent as possible. She was born 3 months premature, and has cerebral palsy; she and her mother have each other, since her father left them when she was an infant, and now has a new family and new kids. Like any middle schooler, she wants to fit in, despite the enormous challenge of being the girl in a wheelchair, who needs an aide to help her to the bathroom (which is understandably mortifying at any age). She dreams of being a professional baker, and her letters to some of these chefs are both funny and endearing.

But there are so many other themes in this story, and it is really a story of family, friendship and love. Ellie and her mother need to move from Tennessee to Oklahoma to help out her fiercely independent grandmother, Mema, with her beloved Grandpa, whose Alzheimer’s disease is worsening. Ellie has to face starting over in a new middle school, much smaller and less prepared for physically disabled students. Her mom is terribly protective, so of course can be embarrassing; but really, all middle schoolers are embarrassed by their mothers! Mema and Grandpa live in a trailer park, where Ellie meets Coralee, her first real best friend. Coralee is a big, brassy girl with a wonderful voice, entering beauty pageants to promote her dream to be a singer. They also befriend a sweet but awkward boy, Bert, with mild autism, and become a group of three in the middle school world of popular girls and basketball boys. It doesn’t help when Coralee explains that they are trailer park kids, and the townies look down on them. But they persevere, and Ellie’s very real emotions, including frustration and hurt, as well as strength, pride and love, are wonderfully and realistically portrayed throughout the story. The author is the mother of a son with CP, and she clearly has a deep understanding of the added trials faced by people with physical, but not intellectual, disabilities. Read the book – it is fun, and heartwarming, and a really worthwhile novel.

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer

Book cover of To Night Owl From Dogfish

The holidays are over, and it’s time to get back to reviewing the rest of the Maine State Book Award Books (turns out there are 40 books, and we’ve looked at 24 of them so far.)

This week’s choice was a lot of fun, while still managing to focus on the themes of family and friendship. Non-traditional family, but family nonetheless! The story is told in a series of emails, mostly between two 12 year old girls, Bett and Avery. This type of back and forth writing can be tricky, but it really worked for this story – I suspect because there are two authors, close friends who live in CA and NYC, as do Bett and Avery. You can imagine the authors writing back and forth to each other, and playing off each other, and it’s really a great way to tell the story. In brief, the girls’ dads are gay, and single, and meet at a conference. Bett and her dad live in CA, and Avery and her dad live in NY City. The dads decide their daughters should meet each other, and send the girls to summer camp together in Wisconsin; to the girls’ dismay, the dads then go off to China on a motorcycle trip. Needless to say, our heroines are appalled, and start emailing back and forth. Turns out that Bett likes dogs and fish, and Avery likes owls – thus leading to the email names Dogfish and Night Owl.

The two girls are very different, and at first they are determined to dislike each other. Luckily, that doesn’t last long, and they start to become friends, initially over email, then in person at camp. The story traces their journey to becoming sisters because they choose each other; and when their dads’ relationship goes sour, the girls go to hilarious lengths to bring their fathers back together. Toss in a wonderful, funny grandmother, and a birth mother finding herself drawn back into the family unit, and the story gets more and more complicated. There is a lot of love, and growing up, a little tween drama, and finally a happy – but not necessarily expected – ending. It’s an enjoyable read, and I would definitely recommend it.

Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson

Book cover of Dog DrivenThis week’s MSBA book is another excellent survival story, Dog Driven, written by Terry Lynn Johnson.  The author herself ran a dogsledding business, and taught dogsledding in Ontario, so the writing feels very authentic. The heroine is McKenna, a fourteen year old girl whose younger sister has Stargardt’s disease, a genetic condition that leads to central vision loss. Her sister Emma, now eight years old, was only six when she was diagnosed, and McKenna has watched her mother become way too overprotective, while her father tries to deny the extent of the disability. McKenna has just recently realized that she, too, is losing vision. She has been hiding her problem from her family and friends, isolating herself in her effort to avoid losing her own independence.

But then, Emma begs her to enter a dog sled race that is following the path of the Great Superior Mail Trail; competitors carry bags of special mail, and Emma has written a letter about Stargardt’s disease, hoping to bring attention to the condition and raise money to look for a cure. Despite her misgivings, McKenna agrees, knowing that she is taking risks due to her own vision problems. During the course of the 3 day race, she makes friends with Guy, who is racing to help save his dad’s business so he doesn’t have to sell his dogs. McKenna discovers that Guy’s lead dog, Zesty, is blind, but is still able to lead his team. This realization helps her reexamine her own life: “Zesty is not disabled. Her differences make her better.” Guy figures out McKenna is having vision problems, and they start to work together even as they are competing to win the race.  Which, don’t forget, is a grueling race through storms and below zero weather, over rugged and dangerous terrain. Threaded throughout the story are letters Guy found in a book written by his great-great grandfather, bringing in some history of what it was like to run dog sleds to deliver mail in real life.

I really enjoyed this book, which is as much a chronicle of family relationships, friendship, and facing inner fears, as it is a story about teens working together to survive in the wilderness.

Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed, and Murdered Through History by Serah Marie McMahon and Alison Matthews David

Book cover of Killer StyleThis week I reviewed an MSBA book entitled Killer Style: How Fashion has Injured, Maimed & Murdered Through History. And this review may be my shortest yet: I really didn’t like this book. Of course, if an adult is turned off by the book, middle schoolers may well find it fun to be grossed out; and at least they will learn some historical facts!

This is a non-fiction selection that talks about the horrid things that have happened to people over the years, so called “fashion victims” harmed either by making, or wearing, different articles of clothing. The stories are pretty disturbing, as are the accompanying pictures. For example, the authors talk about the facial disfigurement and paranoid personality changes created by the mercury poisoning of hatters – mercury was used to make felt for hats. Or how about the young women who died in the early 1900’s of radium poisoning from painting watch dials? Or people dying of typhus due to the body lice in clothing (I really didn’t need to see the pictures of the lice). Okay, yes, it is important to learn of the 146 factory workers who died in a garment factory fire in NYC in 1911, leading to increased safety rules in the US. But that case didn’t help the 1,134 people who died in Bangladesh as recently as 2013 when a known unsafe building collapsed.

Personally, I found this to be an uncomfortable book that left me feeling vaguely nauseated, and certainly appalled, at some of the horrific fashion related tragedies. Even the cover is pretty unsettling. I am honestly surprised it is an MSBA book.

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

Book cover of The Bridge HomeThis week’s Maine State Book Award choice is a somewhat difficult read. Not because it’s overly long, or uses difficult vocabulary – but because it addresses real-life, heart wrenching issues for children. It’s a beautiful, realistic fiction novel about four children living in the slums of India, working together to survive. According to the author’s notes, the characters are based on real life homeless children that she met while visiting schools and shelters in India, a fact which only adds further emotional impact to the story.

The heroine is Viji, who takes her sister Rukka and runs away from their alcoholic, physically abusive father. To further complicate matters, even though Rukka is the older sister, she is a sweet, simple special needs girl. Viji feels responsible for her and loves her fiercely. They arrive in the city with little money, and look for jobs to survive. They adopt a little dog, Kutti, and then meet up with two boys, Arul and Muthi and become a sort of family. The boys teach Viji how to be a “ragpicker,” sifting through mountainous, awful trash heaps to find recyclables to sell. Rukka is actually talented at making beaded jewelry, which brings in more money than the trash. The children live first under a bridge, and then in a cemetery, building tarp shelters to survive. Despite this, they maintain a sense of pride and independence, rejecting charity, and finding moments of joy together. Although they are understandably wary of authority, when Muthi and Rukka get sick with dengue fever, the children finally end up asking for help from Celina Aunty, the director of the Safe Home for Working Children. Life begins to slowly change for the better, despite loss and tragedy. The book chronicles a way of life that we can barely imagine, yet imbues the story with the strength of love, friendship, family, and hope.

The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett

Oddly enough, the Maine State Book Award book list includes a picture book. My initial reaction was that it must be aimed at the younger age group – or honestly, that it was a mistake. However, The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, written by Mac Barnett and gorgeously illustrated by Sarah Jacoby, is not really a picture book for little kids at all. Frankly, it might be best read by a child and parent, in order to discuss some of its ideas.

Margaret Wise Brown lived to be 42 years old, and the author utilizes 42 pages to answer the question: “What is important about Margaret Wise Brown?” Personally, I had simply thought of her as an author who wrote many children’s books, including Good Night Moon, a story I can still quote more 30 years after reading it to my first child. However, this book starts out describing her life as a child, with many pets, including thirty-six rabbits. And when one of the rabbits died, she skinned it and wore its pelt. Okay, right then and there, I thought this book was strange. But the author addresses this by stating, “And isn’t it important that children’s books contain the things children think of and the things children do, even if those things seem strange?” He goes on to talk about Anne Carroll Moore, the Children’s librarian at the New York Public library, who was very influential and liked only “darling and innocent” books. She stamped all other books as not recommended. She didn’t like Margaret Wise Brown’s books, and banned them from her library because she felt they were strange (this despite the fact that Ms. Moore herself oddly kept a wooden doll named Nicholas Knickerbocker with her – even at her dinner table). An excellent lead-in to talking about censorship and banned books.

There are some really thought provoking passages in the book. And I admit it, I did find the book to be strange, but that is the author’s point: “Lives are strange. And there are people who do not like strange stories, especially in books for children. But sometimes you find a book that feels as strange as life does. These books feel true. These books are important. Margaret Wise Brown wrote books like this, and she wrote them for children, because she believe children deserve important books.” Talk with your family about this – it’s important.

Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters by Carlyn Beccia

Book cover of MonstrousNot gonna lie – I picked up this week’s Maine State Book Award choice, and groaned when I looked at the cover. I thought that Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters, by Carlyn Beccia, was going to be just another creepy Bigfoot book. But wait – it’s a GREAT book that combines silly humor with excellent scientific facts. In short – it’s a (mostly) nonfiction, entertaining science book. Kids – get your parents to use it for home schooling/remote learning! Parents, do so! And laugh as you learn.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to learn about electricity by reading about Frankenstein? The author discusses various real experiments with static electricity and electric current in the 1800’s; gives some history about Mary Shelley, who wrote her book about Frankenstein as part of a challenge to see who could write the most bloodcurdling story; and discusses atoms, protons, neutrons and electrons. All while tossing in the history of people who actually tried to reanimate corpses, and genetic experiments that resulted in glow in the dark pigs! Let’s move on to Dracula, and learn about the myths and history behind the stories; as well as how to tell the difference between the Dead and the Undead. There is an excellent discussion of where a vampire should bite – which ties in the vascular system and Blood Typing, and even vampire bats, whose saliva contains an anticoagulant. Then move on to the chapter about understanding flesh-eating zombies – and learn about which parts of the brain work and which do not when you are a zombie. For example, the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of impulse control and personality, no longer works if you are a zombie. The zombie virus life cycle is compared to real viruses and plagues. But never fear, you can still learn the best way to kill a zombie – a chainsaw, according to the Mythbusters show – and you can check the map of where you are most likely to be eaten by a zombie. Next, learn about volume and the square-cube law while discussing King Kong, and do the math to determine that he would need 10,769 bananas a day to survive.

Werewolves, the Kraken, Godzilla, and, yes, Bigfoot, are all used to introduce fairly high level scientific facts in a truly original and hilarious book. Oh – and the illustrations, done by the author, are amazing. She describes herself as an “author, illustrator, and graphic designer with blood type B+ (in case any vampires are reading this).” I found the book to be fascinating, fun, and a fabulous way to learn some science!

The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz

Book cover of The Dark Lord ClementineThis week, I felt the need to read a book that was simply fun – and the MSBA book, The Dark Lord Clementine, fit the bill nicely. The story centers on Clementine, the only child of the Dark Lord Elithor. Dark Lords are expected to do dastardly deeds, and terrorize their villagers. Clementine, as heir apparent, lives a solitary life, where she is expected to be very quiet, and to obediently learn dark spells. However, as the story begins, she can no longer ignore the fact that her father is slowly being whittled away by the Whittle Witch, also known as the Witch of the Wood – indeed, he has lost his nose, and his fingers are turning into spikes of wood. She starts having to do more and more of the chores and farm work around the castle – since the animated scarecrows aren’t managing well as her father’s power wanes. Next, she is required to figure out a qualifying Dastardly Deed in order to remain in the order of Dark Lords. Along the way, she starts to meet other people such as Sebastion, a village lad who wants to be a Knight; Darka Wesk-Sarzec, a huntress bent on revenge against the unicorn who killed her lover; and the black sheep who begins to talk to her (he is a transfigured village boy who prefers being a sheep). Her world expands to include the villagers that her father has long terrorized, and the hedge witches of the forest who fear and despise him – and she starts to realize that in her heart, she doesn’t really want to be a Dark Lord.

There are underlying plot lines of an evil curse that requires sacrifice to break it. There are unicorns; Vivienn, The Lady of the Lake; and a Grimoire (spell book) that got changed into a chicken who lays eggs with spells in them. There are themes of friendship and betrayal, and family and forgiveness. Above all, it is a fun, magical fairy tale and a coming of age story that is thoroughly enjoyable.

The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy

Book cover of The Best at ItOne of the nice things about the Maine State Book Award list is that I find myself reading–and enjoying–books I might not have picked out otherwise. It’s good to get out of my comfort zone of fantasies and mysteries every once in a while, and I would encourage you all to try the different genres of MSBA books.

The Best at It, by Maulik Pancholy, is a really fun and thoughtful realistic fiction novel about Rahul Kapoor, a 7th grade boy trying to take his grandfather’s advice to be “the best” at something, as he hopes to fit in better in middle school. He has a loving and supportive Indian family, and he simultaneously loves them and is a bit embarrassed by some of them. Every kid knows that feeling… You can’t help but love the Aunties who are arranging an International Bazaar, and it’s fun to learn a bit about Indian family life and customs. His dad, an ER physician, has started a band to play Bollywood music. His mother, the CEO of a company that makes satellite parts, still enjoys Indian dancing. Meanwhile, Rahul has to cope with the bully who makes fun of “his people”, and his own confusion about trying to fit in while honoring his heritage at the same time. He even finds himself dealing with some mild OCD.

But more of the story centers on Rahul’s attempts at trying to be really good at something–he tries out for the football team (a disaster); auditions for a commercial, where he is told that they want a “white family;” and eventually joins the school math team. He had tried to avoid the math team due to fears of being labeled a geek, but comes to realize that it’s better to play to his real skills. Woven through the story is his grappling with the fact that he thinks he may be gay, and the effect that has on some of his friendships. The story deals with that issue really well–it honestly wasn’t the major focus, just a natural part of the pains growing up, and his family and friends are very supportive. The book is semi-autobiographical, and the author manages to deal with all these important issues with grace.  It’s a very worthwhile, feel-good book that I can strongly recommend.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Book cover of Other Words for HomeI loved reading this week’s Maine State Book Award choice, Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga. I try to avoid including quotes from the book jacket blurb, but I am going to quote one sentence: “This lyrical, life-affirming story is about losing and finding home and, most important, finding yourself.” The book follows Jude, a 12 year old girl from Syria, as she and her mother go to the US due to the war in Syria. Although not an actual poem, the prose is written like a poetic description of her thoughts. The story begins in their little town on the seacoast of Syria, where Jude lives with her older brother, Issa, her Baba (father) and mother. Issa, a university student, becomes involved with the dissidents protesting against the Syrian president, to the dismay of his parents. Due to the increasing violence, when Jude’s mother discovers she is pregnant, she and Jude are sent to Cincinnati to stay with her physician brother and his family – leaving half their family, and Jude’s best friend behind.

What follows is a thought provoking description of the fear, hope, and courage involved with immigrating to a new country. Jude faces not only the challenge of starting a new school, but that of starting with a language barrier and cultural differences. She speaks English, but does need the help she gets through her ESL class; and she bonds with kids from other countries, facing the same feelings of loss and change. Her uncle’s wife is not Arabic, but is well meaning and honestly tries to help her feel at home; her cousin Sarah initially wants to distance herself from a not cool immigrant cousin. Over the course of the book, Jude slowly makes friends, such as the sweet, “weird” boy, Miles in her math class; Layla, another American born girl whose parents came from Lebanon; and eventually even her cousin. Yet she does not lose sight of her heritage; I love it when she tells her ESL friends, “I don’t think you have to forget in order to learn.” The book points out the issues she faces from anti-Muslim neighbors after a bombing – far distant, but in the West, so people noticed it; they don’t take note of bombings in Syria or Lebanon. What a sobering observation. I could list so many other compelling quotes, but will end with Jude’s comment when her friend Layla asks her if she is afraid to try out for the school musical. Jude’s reply: “I left home, I flew across an ocean. My brother is missing, in the middle of a war zone. What is there left to be afraid of?” So much wisdom in a 12 year old girl.

ghost by Illustratus

Book cover of Ghost: Thirteen Haunting Tales to TellHalloween is coming, so the MSBA book ghost seemed like an appropriate choice for this week’s review. And if you like really creepy ghost stories, then this is the book for you. I don’t – and I really did not enjoy reading this book. The book is actually a collection of short stories and poems, written by two different authors and illustrated by two different artists, members of a design collective named Illustratus. There is a prologue, and of course, 13 ghost stories. Two boys, Thomas and Skeeter, sneak out at night from Camp Champlain and travel deep into the forest to find Old Man Blackwood, who is rumored to know “all the best ghost stories, the ones that were too scary or too gruesome for the counselors to tell the young campers around the campfire.” Yup, I would agree with the scary and gruesome description.

In its favor, the illustrations are amazing, and are as much a part of the story telling as the written words. One illustrator is an Academy Award winner, and the other works for Pixar – the quality of their work is outstanding. The stories are very well written – but for me, they were creepy and depressing. Remember, I don’t even like books by the hugely popular Stephen King, or the master Edgar Allen Poe, so my review is somewhat biased. If you ARE a fan of the horror fiction genre, and enjoy the macabre, this is the Halloween book for you. If you don’t – be like me and stick to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Book cover of New KidNew Kid, by Jerry Craft, is a great graphic novel that has actually won numerous awards, including the 2020 Newberry Award. It just goes to show that graphic novels are NOT simply comic books! The story is semi-autobiographical, according to the author, and chronicles a school year for 12 year old Jordan Banks. Jordan is a Black kid from Washington Heights in NYC with an immense talent for drawing. He wants to be an artist, but his mother is entranced with the idea of him going to Riverdale Academy, a wealthy private prep school.

The first line of the book sums up Jordan’s feelings: “This is how I feel every single day of my life, like I’m falling without a parachute.” In addition to the usual stress of being a new kid in school and not knowing anyone – which is hard enough – he faces the challenge of being one of the few kids of color in his class. The story gently points out that even well- meaning people can be unintentionally offensive: for example, the teacher who worries that he might say something wrong, or the teachers who assume that all students of color are from poor backgrounds (even though one student’s father is CEO of a Fortune 500 company). Jordan’s home room teacher, in particular, cannot seem to remember his friend Drew’s name and mixes him up with a previous student of color. Then there is the usual middle school bullying, and the concerns about being looked down upon for being on student aid. Conversely, Liam, one of Jordan’s best friends, is actually worried that he will be judged for being too rich, and he just wants to be normal. Mixed into the narrative are humor and wonderful illustrations that keep readers of all ages engaged. Jordan’s black and white drawings, interspersed with the story, are laugh out loud funny. The novel as a whole manages to mix up the perils of middle school – including how one’s race and class affect one’s experience – as well as adolescent awkwardness, with friendship and the courage to stand up for yourself and others. It’s an excellent read, and I would highly recommend it. Consider checking out the author’s website, it’s worth it: https://jerrycraft.com

We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey

Book cover of We're Not From HereThis week’s Maine State Book Award choice, We’re Not From Here, by Geoff Rodkey, is a really good science fiction novel that manages to be both fun and thought provoking. Turns out, most of life on Earth was suddenly destroyed by war, and only 2300 or so humans managed to make it to Mars. Our hero, Lan Mifune, and his friends make comedy videos to cheer up the population; his sister, Ila, is a pop star who is now depressed and won’t sing; his mother is on the Governing Council; and his dad is an engineer who developed food – which tastes terrible but keeps them alive. However, food and water are running out, and they have to find a new planet that is habitable. 
Then the inhabitants of Choom, a planet that can support human life, invite them to come as refugees. There are four types of intelligent aliens: the Zhuri, which look like giant Mosquitos; the Ororo, giant marshmallow-like beings; the Krik, similar to little green werewolves; and the Nug, wormlike creatures. Lan, his family, and 1000 of the Mars settlers choose to go to Choom, traveling in bio suspension pods. But when they wake up 20 years later, the government has changed, and they are no longer welcome. They literally have nowhere else to go, and Lan’s mom manages to negotiate with the ruling Zhuri. One “reproductive unit,” or family, is allowed down as a test case – Lan’s family. They need to convince the inhabitants of the planet that humans are not all violent, a difficult task since humans destroyed Earth, and the governing Zhuri keep showing clips from war movies. Swarms of Zhuri often mob the family, protesting and demanding they be sent home. Lan and Ila are allowed to go to school, where he befriends a brilliant Ororo with a sense of humor, and a Krig (with no sense of humor). He realizes that although the Zhuri try to suppress all emotion, some secretly do welcome humor, and music. It’s a great story, and emphasizes the strength of family, as well as pointing out that on Choom – it’s the humans who are the aliens that need to figure out how to fit in.   And avoid being killed…

I, Cosmo by Carlie Sorosiak

Book cover of I, CosmoThis week, my Maine State Book Award choice was I, Cosmo, by Carlie Sorosiak. Told from the point of view of Cosmo, a 13 year old Golden Retriever, this story is sweet, and funny, and you can’t help but fall in love with this amazing dog. It can be tough to tell a tale from the point of view of a dog, or any other animal, but the author does it well and believably. Cosmo was adopted as a puppy by Dad and Mom, and when he was one year old, they had Max. Cosmo “vowed to protect Max – and my family – doggedly, for the rest of my life.”

The story takes place when Max is 12 years old, and Max and Cosmo are inseparable best friends, although Cosmo is getting older and more arthritic. The plot centers around the tension and anxiety caused by Dad and Mom’s increasing fights and unhappiness; they try to hide this from the kids, but Max and his little sister Emmaline overhear the “divorce” word. Cosmo does his best to keep the family together, although he occasionally slips – witness the day he ate the Thanksgiving turkey. Mom’s brother Benji, a dog trainer back from Afghanistan, instructs Cosmo to “protect their hearts…promise me that you’ll protect their hearts.” Okay, I teared up at that. But there is a lot of fun mixed into the story as Cosmo faces his fear of the evil neighboring sheepdog; is horrified by his turtle costume at Halloween; and loves watching Turner Classic Network movies. His favorite movie is Grease, and he has the soul of a dancer. Uncle Reggie talks Max into going to a class for canine freestyle dancing, and the grand prize is the chance to be in a movie. Max convinces himself that if they can win that chance, he and Cosmo will never have to be separated, and maybe the family will come back together. You will fall further in love with Cosmo as he does his utmost to dance with his boy, and to protect and love his family.

Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation by Stuart Gibbs

Book Cover of Charlie Thorne and the Last EquationThis week’s Maine State Book Award choice is honestly just sheer fun! The book is a spy novel, centered on Charlotte “Charlie” Thorne, a 12 year old girl genius. And I mean a genius: her IQ is just below that of Albert Einstein; she is already blowing through college, showing up only for the exams. She is also – sort of – a wealthy thief, having hacked into a company that stole the computer program she sent them at age 8. Believe me, you are on her side.

But the story focuses on Charlie’s forced recruitment into the CIA. Turns out, the CIA and many other intelligence agencies have been trying for 70 years to find Einstein’s last equation, known as Pandora. This equation has the potential to create great good, but, of course, could also lead to terrible weapons of destruction if it fell into the wrong hands. Charlie, with her genius mathematical skills, is recommended and compelled into joining the CIA by Dante Garcia, the 28 year old brilliant agent who turns out to be her half-brother.  Since they had only met three times before, in between the non-stop spy action across several countries, you get a developing family relationship story. The book has obvious good and bad guys, as well as a mysterious evil leader.  But the plot also contains some questionable gray areas: Charlie has to deal with the question of whether anyone, even the US, should be trusted with an equation with such power. Toss in a bit of fun history about Einstein; some great descriptions of Jerusalem; a little romance (very little) between Dante and Milana Moon, the other CIA agent; and you have an exciting and fun read!

Wildfire by Rodman Philbrick

Book cover of WildfireI admit that I had already read this week’s Maine State Book Award book, Wildfire, by Rodman Philbrick. We read it in our Rockin Readers book group several months ago, and the kids unanimously enjoyed it. I reread it for the review, and liked it just as much as before. The topic of the book is quite timely, since it focuses on a raging wildfire in Northern Maine, similar to the wildfires currently burning out of control in California, Washington and Oregon. The author skillfully conveys the ferocity and the speed of the uncontrolled fires, and the action is nonstop.

The story focuses on Sam, a 12 year old boy who is at summer camp in Maine, and gets separated from the evacuation busses when he (foolishly) runs back to his cabin to get his cell phone. In his defense, his mom is in rehab for addiction to painkillers, and he wants to assure her that he is safe. But he isn’t… Luckily, Sam’s dad had taught him a lot of wilderness survival skills prior to his death in Afghanistan, so Sam is able to stay clear headed and focused on outrunning the fire. He finds an old army jeep, and the race begins. He also meets and rescues a 14 year old girl, Delphy, lost from the girl’s camp. Although injured with a sprained ankle, she adds her courage, knowledge, and friendship to the mix. Along the way, they discover, and subsequently fight off, the dangerous arsonists who set the fire. The story is a non-stop thriller that has you on the edge of your seats as they fight to survive.

The Oddmire: Changeling by William Ritter

Book cover of Oddmire: The ChangelingFor this week’s Maine State Book Award review, I chose Oddmire, by William Ritter. I absolutely loved this story, and if you are a fan of magic and fairy tales, you will love it, too! The plot draws upon the classic tales of changelings, “creatures spoken of in many folklore, fantasy and fairy tales from across the world – they are regarded as creatures that are placed into mortal homes by fairies or demons, who proceed to kidnap the original child of the home.” (1) In this book, a goblin named Krull brings a goblin changeling to a small town near the Wild Wood, hoping to exchange the boy and restore magic to his horde. Except he mixes them up, can’t tell them apart, and ends up leaving them both in the cradle. The boys are raised as twins, with everyone knowing that one is a human and one is a changeling – but no one know whether it’s Tinn or Cole.

There are some wonderful themes of family and friendship: the boys are totally bonded to each other, and would do anything to save the other. Their mother, Annie, my favorite character, loves them both fiercely; she puts up with their mischief, yet becomes a mother bear when they are threatened. Speaking of mother bears, you meet one in the book, as well as her cub – they are, of course, magic. You come to like Krull, the goblin, who has an odd, comical sense of honor. Add all this together with a creepy dark Thing that waits in the forest; an odd forest girl, Fable, who helps them; the Queen of the Deep Dark; Hinkypunks; and the need to save magic, and you’ve got an epic fable that you can’t put down. It helps that the author is clearly having fun writing this story, and you can’t resist laughing as you read. All in all, one of my favorite MSBA books yet. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series!

(1) https://mythology.wikia.org/wiki/Changeling

The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown

Book cover of The Forgotten GirlI admit it – I do not like horror stories, so I was a bit dubious when I picked up The Forgotten Girl, by India Hill Brown. But this book is actually a ghost story, mixed in with themes of family, friendship, and with racism/segregation in the South.

Our heroine, Iris, is dealing with wanting to be noticed, and remembered; she is an eleven year old Black girl in a primarily White school, and gets “accidentally” left out a lot. She also has a four year old sister, Vashti, who tends to get more attention from her parents.  She is brave, but secretly afraid of the dark, and of nightmares. Her best friend, Daniel, is trying to cope with the loss of his father; he lives with his mother, and his grandmother, Suga. He is embarrassed by Suga’s oddities, but Iris loves her stories. Together they sneak out in a snow storm, and make snow angels. Turns out, Iris makes a snow angel over a forgotten grave, belonging to an 11 year old girl named Avery. This sets off more nightmares for Iris, but she becomes determined to find out about this lost girl. She and Daniel start researching the forgotten graveyard for a school project, and along the way, they discover the history of segregated burial sites, as well as the story of their Middle School’s first nine Black students.

Meanwhile, the ghost story starts to twist around the two friends, Iris’s sister, and Daniel’s grandmother, becoming spookier as Avery the Ghost reveals her need to be remembered.  Spooky – but not grisly or gory – and all ends well. Overall, the book is an excellent ghost story that I enjoyed, and can recommend reading!

Captain Rosalie by Timothee De Fombelle (translated by Sam Gordon)

Book cover of Captain RosalieThis week’s MSBA book choice is a hauntingly beautiful short story, Captain Rosalie, written by French author Timothee de Fombelle, and translated into English. The heroine is a five and a half year old girl, who lives in France during World War I. Her father is away at war, and her mother has to work long hours at a factory, so Rosalie is allowed to sit in the back of the one room schoolhouse for hours. She has a secret mission of her own, which you discover by the end of the book. The writing is beautiful, and the illustrations are gorgeous. In just a brief narrative, the author manages to get across the pain and fear, as well as the courage and love, associated with wartime. Rosalie is brave, and wise beyond her five years.

I would suggest reading the book together, child and parent, in order to discuss the topics of war, family, love and loss. I think both youth and adult could benefit from talking about the history behind the story; how the themes could relate to today; and what feelings are evoked by the tale of Rosalie’s mission.

Caught! Nabbing History’s Most Wanted by Georgia Bragg

Book cover of Caught!: Nabbing History's Most WantedThis week, I decided to pick a non-fiction book from the MSBA shelf. I chose Caught! Nabbing History’s Most Wanted, written by Georgia Bragg and illustrated by Kevin O’Malley. It is such a fun read! The author writes in a very “tongue in cheek” style, but manages to sneak in some pretty interesting historical facts at the same time. She tells stories of fourteen different historical figures who got caught, and her subjects range from Joan of Arc, to Blackbeard the Pirate, to outlaws like Jesse James, to spies like Mata Hari. In addition to some pretty fascinating tales, she ends each chapter with fun facts about the time period, and some interesting vocabulary words. Okay, that may sound boring, but really – did you know that Blackbeard never actually killed anyone? Or that “Bootleggers” jammed bottles of liquor into their boots to hide them during Prohibition (a time in the 1920’s when alcohol was illegal). Or that Billy the Kid was a short little guy who started his career as an outlaw at age 15 (he was spanked the first time he was caught stealing), and who was only 21 years old when he died?

But the writing really makes the book. For example, when describing New Mexico, she states “Billy [the Kid] headed for the middle-of nowhere Lincoln County, New Mexico. It was west of Where is Everybody? and south of More Cows than People…” Or how about Sir Walter Raleigh, who was “tall, dark and handsome;” he was part of Queen Elizabeth’s court, a “palace full of cute guys, because her advisors had been holding an endless Mr. Universe pageant of men”! Add in fun pen and ink drawings on most pages, which totally catch your eye and add to the story. It’s not a graphic novel, but the illustrations really keep you fully engaged. Such a great way to hook kids into reading about history – I would absolutely recommend this book, especially for readers who enjoy non-fiction.

Lily the Thief by Janne Kukkonen and This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

Book cover of Lily the ThiefYes, MSBA books include Graphic Novels! I decided to try one this week, and actually ended up reviewing two books. Both novels had excellent illustrations, and I found the graphics really were enjoyable and added significantly to the storytelling.

The first book, Lily the Thief, honestly did not seem to have a lot of plot. It started out with a great “hook” to grab your interest: Lily is a young thief, and she begins by talking about the fact that “amid all the chaos and confusion, we [the thieves] have our honor.” Yet truthfully, in this story, they weren’t really honorable at all. Lily and her mentor, Seamus, were honest thieves, but otherwise, you didn’t care about the others – they were downright mean. Lily gets involved in trying to prove herself, which gets her into more and more trouble. There are three different groups trying to get treasures (I won’t get into that in detail), all of whom are nasty, and take advantage of her skills. She eventually ends up breaking the thieves’ code to the point of grave robbing and murder.  Actually, a lot of people die in this story, which I found sort of needless by the end. Oh well, she survives, saves Seamus, and they ride off together for more adventures.  Enough said.

Cover of This Was Our Pact by Ryan AndrewsThe second book, This Was Our Pact, was a much more enjoyable read. It’s an entrancing story that focuses on friendship. Briefly, at the beginning of the story, you find out that Ben’s townspeople release hundreds of lanterns in the river each autumn equinox. Ben and four friends make a pact with two rules: No One Turns for Home, and No One Looks Back, as they ride their bikes along the river to find out what happens to the floating lanterns. Ben’s nerdy friend, Nathaniel, follows, and Ben doesn’t want to include him (he’s not in the cool group); but the other friends quickly do turn back, and he and Nathaniel embark on an adventure that brings them together again. Along the way, they meet creatures out of fantasy, such as the fisherbear, who follows the lanterns since to him, they are fish making their way to the stars; Madam Majestic and her giant dog, Sebastian; and Margaret the Crow, who makes them a map when they get lost. Ben and Nathaniel (and the bear) learn to work together, and eventually complete their original mission of discovering the mystery of the lamps. The boys then head off to circumnavigate the earth. It’s really a neat fable centering on friendship and teamwork. I enjoyed it and would recommend it, especially to those readers who enjoy magic and fantasy.

Blood Mountain by James Preller

Book cover of Blood MountainI would recommend this MSBA book to readers who enjoy survival stories. I bet a lot of you read Lost on a Mountain in Maine for school. In this book, eleven year old Carter and his thirteen year old sister, Grace, forge ahead of their father on a hike – mistake number one of many others to follow. Accompanied by their dog, Sitka, they stray off the trail, and the book then follows their struggle to survive over the next 6 days. Grace gets injured, and Carter leaves to find help. And the complications just continue to pile up. Let’s see: there is the ex-marine/hermit who eventually finds Carter and saves him from the bog – but he has severe mental illness after his tour in Afghanistan. Then there is the mountain lion who escaped from a collector of exotic animals. And their dad had a heart attack. That’s just for starters.

The story flicks from one point of view to another, allowing you to get into the minds of all the major characters. It is interesting to see how they all think about, and deal with, their situations: not just Grace and Carter, but also their dad; John the ex-marine/hermit; Makayla, the incredible park ranger who searches for them; and even Sitka, the dog. As the story progresses, you get more involved with the characters and their complex relationships with each other and with the wilderness. You see how Grace becomes closer to nature, and how Carter tries to cope with John after he is both saved and captured. John is probably the most complex and tortured character, as he deals with his personal demons and mental illness – and I could have done without the vivid description of how he skinned a squirrel… Thankfully, things work out, and you are left with the knowledge that the kids learned some very important lessons about life and survival, and were fundamentally changed by their experience.

Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy

Good Enough, by Jen Petro-Roy, is such a thought provoking novel that I had a hard time putting it down. Written by an eating disorder survivor, the story focuses on Riley, a 12 year old girl with anorexia. The book uses Riley’s journal writings to follow her thoughts and feelings, and the journal draws you right into her fears and hopes as she goes through an inpatient hospital treatment program for eating disorders. You learn why she changed from a normal 12 year old into a child obsessed with running and dieting to unsafe levels. You come to care for her so much, as she struggles with her feelings that she is inadequate – not good enough – compared to her sister, her friends and her teammates. You feel her sadness, and her anger, when trying to get her parents to understand. You understand her fears about meeting other girls with eating disorders, and her worries about making friends and fitting in. You experience her reluctance and anxiety at trying to explain her feelings to her counselors. And luckily, by the end, you come to believe that she, at least, can make it, even though her recovery is not the quick fix that her parents hoped for. She finally starts to feel as though she is, indeed, “good enough.”
Many years ago, when I was in medical school, I did a psychiatric rotation, and my assigned patient was a young woman with anorexia. I still remember her, and I remember how difficult it was to try to get through to her. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are very real, very difficult problems, and they are far too common – and often unrecognized – in today’s society. This book can help both young readers, and adults, to understand how eating disorders become tied up with attempts to control something in a person’s life. Those affected are not just trying to be skinny, but the dieting or purging becomes a way of dealing with a sense of inferiority, of needing to fit in, of reacting to jeers about being “fat.” This truly is a “must read” book, and I highly recommend it to tween readers, teens, and their adults.

Fireborne by Rosaria Munda

This week, the MSBA book that I chose to read was Fireborne. I loved a series I read years ago, the Dragonriders of Pern; and I really liked the Wings of Fire book we read in Book Group, so I had high hopes for Fireborne. I tried very hard, but honestly, I just didn’t enjoy reading it.  In its favor, the book was well written, with engaging characters: a heroic 17 year old dragonrider, Lee, and his best friend Annie, an equally strong female dragonrider, who ultimately prevail – sort of – at the end. And there were a lot of well-developed secondary characters that I cared about, such as other dragonrider teens and their families.

But the story was so dark and depressing, all the way to the very end of the book. It was really more of a dystopian fantasy than a thrilling tale of dragons and their teen riders.  In case you don’t know the meaning of that term, google it and you will find the definition is as follows: “a dystopia is an imagined community or society that is dehumanizing and frightening.” A good example of a dystopian society that many of you may know about is the world of The Hunger Games series. In Fireborne, there are flashbacks to Lee as a child, the son of the Dragonlord, whose entire family is slaughtered by the downtrodden rebels. He is sent to an orphanage, and befriends Annie, whose entire family was burned to death by flames from, you guessed it, Lee’s father’s dragon.They befriend each other, and spend their time trying to sort out right and wrong under the new regime. Along the way, the good guys are forced to do bad things, supposedly for the betterment of the people, and the plot becomes bleaker. You start to question who is good, and who is bad – which is honestly probably the point of the storyline, so I guess I shouldn’t complain!

Older kids, particularly those who like novels similar to the Hunger games, will probably enjoy this novel. Even though it is not “my favorite cup of tea,” it is a well written and complex story. I would not recommend it for younger readers; it is a difficult read with some disturbing scenes.

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel

Book cover of The Mystery of Black Hollow LaneOkay, for my first Maine State Book Award review, I read The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane, by Julia Nobel.  This is actually her first book, and if you like mysteries – and I do – it was really a fun read!  The story follows Emmy, an American girl from Connecticut, whose mother is a parenting expert that is, of course, too busy to parent her own child; and whose father disappeared when she was 3 years old.  She is sent to a boarding school in England where she feels like the awkward new person until meeting friends, in particular Lola and Jack.  There are typical middle school themes about fitting in, as well as the theme of finding close friends to be a kind of family.

However, the part of the plot that grips your imagination is the mystery around why Emmy’s father disappeared, leaving her a box of secret medallions.  She, Jack and Lola end up working together, and discover an evil, power hungry secret society based at the school.  Was Emmy’s father good or bad? Is he dead or alive?  Who are the bad guys, and how are the kids going to expose them and survive?  And I have to say, I did not see the end of the book coming – I totally missed out on guessing who was evil and who was good!  It is an excellent mystery, with characters that you care for, and of course the ending leaves you waiting for the sequel.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mystery.