Monday, September 18, 2017

THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET by David Barclay Moore for Diversity Monday

Welcome to another Diversity Monday!

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (September 19, 2017, Knopf/Penguin Random House, 304 pages, ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher)It’s Christmas Eve in Harlem, but twelve-year-old Lolly Rachpaul and his mom aren’t celebrating. They’re still reeling from his older brother’s death in a gang-related shooting just a few months earlier. Then Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend brings him a gift that will change everything: two enormous bags filled with Legos. Lolly’s always loved Legos, and he prides himself on following the kit instructions exactly. Now, faced with a pile of building blocks and no instructions, Lolly must find his own way forward.

His path isn’t clear—and the pressure to join a “crew,” as his brother did, is always there. When Lolly and his friend are beaten up and robbed, joining a crew almost seems like the safe choice. But building a fantastical Lego city at the community center provides Lolly with an escape—and an unexpected bridge back to the world.

Why I recommend it: The title drew me in and then the voice captivated me and enveloped me as if Lolly were right there in the room, whispering his story into my ear. The author presents an authentic portrait of a boy growing up in the projects, with all the pressures of life in Harlem. A gripping story and a beautiful, important book that deserves to win awards.

Oh, and then there are the Legos! My older son still loves Legos and he's not even a kid anymore, so I could relate to Lolly's passion for building.

Favorite lines:  "I waded my hands through all the Legos some more. There were so many. They made a sound like money, like quarters tumbling together."  (from p. 31)

Bonus: Writers, study this one for character growth. The realistic way Lolly changes how he sees the world makes him feel like an actual person, not a character in a book. This is also a moving portrayal of a boy coming to terms with grief.

David Barclay Moore's website

Follow him on Twitter

Monday, August 28, 2017

ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL by Leah Henderson

Welcome to another Diversity Monday.

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson (June 2017, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 438 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined. With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?

Why I recommend it: I had the honor of meeting and getting to know Leah when I attended the first Novels in Verse workshop at Highlights in May 2016. Note, though, that this is not a novel in verse. This book was already in the works before I met her. What I remember most about Leah from that magical week is her vibrant, infectious laughter. She's also a world traveler, and her travels inspire her stories.

Leah Henderson, from her website

But even if I didn't know Leah, I'd still highly recommend this heartwarming and beautifully-crafted coming of age tale. Yes, it sounds long for MG, but Mor's story will soak into you like the hot Senegalese sun and you'll finish reading it before you want to let go. Mor and the other characters are fully fleshed out, the plot abounds with twists and turns, and the language is exquisite. One Shadow on the Wall is a stunning debut and I can't wait to see what Leah Henderson writes next.

Favorite lines: "But the thought would not rest, like an overturned beetle trying to right itself. It kicked and kicked at Mor's brain." (from p. 95)

Bonus:  Besides being the kind of novel that deserves to win awards, this book is an excellent choice for libraries and classrooms. I learned a great deal about the culture, language, and food of Senegal. But more importantly, I got to know and understand one peace-loving Muslim family, who vow to stay together, no matter what.

Learn more about Leah Henderson on her website

Follow Leah on Twitter

Monday, July 10, 2017

CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND by Rita Williams-Garcia for MMGM and Diversity Monday

No, I didn't fall off the face of the Earth, but I have been traveling a lot and also occasionally dealing with migraines. I thought these new glasses would help but instead I suspect they're making it worse. Hope to get back to regular blogging again by September.

Now onto today's Diversity Monday and MMGM review:

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (May 2017, Amistad/HarperCollins, 176 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Clayton feels most alive when he's with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the band of Bluesmen--he can't wait to join them, just as soon as he has a blues song of his own. But then the unthinkable happens. Cool Papa Byrd dies, and Clayton's mother forbids Clayton from playing the blues. And Clayton knows that's no way to live.

Armed with his grandfather's brown porkpie hat and his harmonica, he runs away from home in search of the Bluesmen, hoping he can join them on the road. But on the journey that takes him through the New York City subways and to Washington Square Park, Clayton learns some things that surprise him.

Why I recommend it: Knowing up front that Cool Papa is going to die doesn't make it any less heartwrenching, but there are still many uplifting moments in this touching little gem of a novel. Short chapters and spare lyrical language make it a smooth and easy read. Clayton is a likable character and you'll find yourself pulled in as he goes underground, in both senses of the word.

Rita Williams-Garcia is the talented author of One Crazy Summer and other books.

Favorite lines: "Clayton stretched and opened his eyelids just as the violet of night turned pale blue and before white-yellow sun streams ran the pale blues out of the room." (from p.17 of the arc)


Monday, June 12, 2017

On Returning to the Highlights Foundation -- no longer a rookie, but still learning

Some of you may remember my blog post from last year about my first Workshop at The Highlights Foundation. I was such a rookie I didn't know how to find my cabin and I especially didn't know how to juggle my minor characters or add humor to a serious novel. I learned so much and came away impressed and vowing to return as soon as possible.

That blog post received thousands of page views, more than any other blog post in my seven years of blogging, except, oddly enough, my Yorkshire post. In the latter case, I suspect kids writing book reports on The Shakespeare Stealer found it, shall we say, helpful. But in the former case, my Highlights blog post must have touched a nerve. It seems every children's writer longs to attend a Highlights Foundation Workshop (or Unworkshop). And it undoubtedly helped that Highlights posted a link to my post on their facebook page. Thank you, Highlights!

The Barn at the Highlights Foundation -- where magic happens!

This month, I was thrilled to again attend a workshop and again, it was Novels in Verse (an Advanced version), with returning faculty members Kathryn Erskine and Alma Fullerton, plus returning guest author Padma Venkatraman. They're all delightful human beings and fabulous writers who go the extra mile to coach and encourage their students. They told me to dig deeper and add more emotion so that was what I worked on, along with combining two characters into one to streamline the story a bit.

I learned so much from them and was so inspired that my novel soared to new heights in only four days. What impresses me the most about Kathy and Alma is although they divide up the twelve attendees and each mentor six of us, both of them read all twelve novels! I don't know how they do it.

Hello, Cabin 9, my old friend! New name holders and easy-to-see Cabin numbers this year.

I also don't know how I accomplished so much. There must be a magical time warp in those cabins that allows writers to achieve more in a few short days than we ever could at home. Whatever it is, I hope they keep it up!

My smartest move this year was adding an Unworkshop Day after the Workshop was officially over on Thursday (oh, how I wish I'd added two!). I got a chance to go on the tour of the Highlights offices in Honesdale, ate another delicious dinner, and then hunkered down in my cabin and flew through my revisions in close to four hours of hard work that evening. It was almost a mystical experience, sitting in Cabin 9 late at night, typing away on my laptop and seeing my characters grow stronger with every tweak.

As I write this, I've been home only a few days and already I want to go back. Not just for the writing inspiration and camaraderie, but for the fresh and delicious food:


Dessert (baked apples - yum!)

And for the fun of the Word Garden. I was thrilled when the rain stopped and I could play in it. Moving word rocks around is therapeutic and led to more than one new line for my novel.

Here's a tiny hint of what my novel in verse is all about:

Ready to sign up yet?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

LEMONS by Melissa Savage Blog Tour

I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for LEMONS, Melissa Savage's refreshing MG debut novel.

Lemons by Melissa Savage (May 2, 2017, Crown Books for Young Readers, 320 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher):  Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mama always told her: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But Lem can’t possibly make lemonade out of her new life in Willow Creek, California—the Bigfoot Capital of the World—where she’s forced to live with a grandfather she’s never met after her mother passes away.

Summer seems to bring Lem lemons upon lemons as she deals with an entire new life without any of the comforts of her old home—and then she meets Tobin Sky.

Eleven years old and the CEO of Bigfoot Detectives Inc., Tobin is the sole Bigfoot investigator for their small town. After he invites Lem to be his assistant for the summer, they set out on an epic adventure to capture the elusive beast on film. But along the way, Lem and Tobin end up discovering more than they ever could have imagined. And Lem realizes that maybe she can make lemonade out of her new life after all.

Why I recommend it: The voice captivated me from Page 1. Lemonade Liberty Witt is a 10-year-old you won't soon forget. Written in first person present tense, this sometimes bittersweet, always refreshing story has an immediacy that makes you feel all the feels right alongside Lemonade.

Yes, this is one of those novels where the mother has just died. But it's so well handled, and Tobin and grandfather Charlie and even minor characters like Mrs. Dickerson are so real and likable, you'll find yourself won over, even if you normally turn down novels where a parent dies. Surprisingly, there's a great deal of humor here. Perhaps that's what charmed me, that and the rollicking search for Bigfoot. No spoilers, but the adventure is worth the ride.

In addition, short chapters and lots of dialogue make this a fast, easy read.

Favorite lines (Lemonade's first impression of her grandfather, Charlie): "He's missing the middle part of his hair, like someone divided his head up into thirds and subtracted the center." (p. 12)

Bonus: The story actually takes place in 1975, at a time when you still had to get up to turn off the TV or change the channel. I think it was a brilliant move on the author's part, because these kids have no cell phones, no computers, no distractions to keep them from going outside.

Melissa Savage
Photo credit: Jerri Parness Photography

If you missed it, here's an interview with the author on Caroline Starr Rose's blog

The blog tour continues!

May 12: YA Books Central
May 13: Cafinated Reads
May 15: Middle Grade Mafioso

Monday, May 8, 2017

THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMORA by Pablo Cartaya for Diversity Monday and MMGM

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya (May 16, 2017, Viking Books for Young Readers, 256 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? 

For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a cute poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

Why I recommend it: Fans of books about kids who still have both parents will appreciate this. It's a lively, heartwarming, and often humorous family story. You'll get to know Arturo's immediate family and his extended family. It's also quite timely (I had to smile as I read about the nasty real estate developer!).  Sometimes change is wonderful, but sometimes keeping a tradition going is more important. 

Arturo is a flawed and therefore vulnerable and realistic character, who loves his family and their restaurant more than anything. But he's also 13 and developing a huge crush on Carmen, which makes for some funny and awkward moments. Sweet.

Favorite lines:  "I was excited for a bunch of reasons. It was the Sunday before the official start of summer, and summer meant hanging out, swinging on banyan trees, looking for manatees in the canals throughout Canal Grove, eating churros (because let's be real: those deep-fried sugary sticks are all kinds of delicious), listening to music, and jumping around in Bren's bounce house. Yeah, I know I'm thirteen, but there's just something about a bounce house that makes me feel awesome." (pg. 4)

Bonus: You'll learn about José Marti and his poetry and also about the sacrifices many Cuban-Americans have made to reach this country and become citizens. 

Look for other diverse kidlit at Pragmatic Mom and The Logonauts

Look for other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts at Shannon Messenger's blog

Monday, May 1, 2017


Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk  (May 2, 2017, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 304 pages, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from Indiebound):  Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow's only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar.

Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn't until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.

Why I recommend it:  It's rare that a novel is both a literary gem and a page-turning thriller.  Lauren Wolk's first MG novel, Wolf Hollow, won a Newbery honor. This book should win the Newbery medal itself. Of course, my batting average for Newbery predictions is not exactly perfect. But that's how strongly I feel about this gorgeously-written and deftly-plotted novel. It's also set in the 1920s, one of my favorite time periods. The metaphors made me gasp, the characters seemed like real islanders, and the mystery kept me guessing. Why was Crow set adrift when she was a newborn? No spoilers here! But as you read this, you'll ache and wonder along with Crow, who yearns to understand her origins. Though she's been raised by Osh, Crow doesn't look like him or like Miss Maggie or any of the folks in town. But that's not the only reason the townspeople avoid her.

Favorite lines:  "She took my chin and leaned down to look into my face, so close that I could see the green in her brown eyes, as if they were little round gardens."  (p. 42 of the arc)

Bonus:  This stunning book would be perfect for showing kids that families come in all forms. It could also convince readers who don't normally care for historical fiction that it can be just as exciting as a thriller.

Lauren Wolk's website

Follow Lauren on Twitter

For other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, see Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, April 17, 2017

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS by Amy Sarig King for Earth Month

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King (January 31, 2017, Arthur A. Levine Books, 256 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound):  Obe Devlin has problems. His family's farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn't like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his home, in the last wild patch left, picking up trash and looking for animal tracks. One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags... No one has seen a creature like this before, because there's never been a creature like this before. The animal--Marvin Gardens--becomes Obe's best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.

Why I recommend it:  I've read every weird and amazing YA novel A.S. King has written. So I was thrilled when I learned A.S. King (also known as Amy Sarig King) had finally written a novel for the middle grade reader. And what an extraordinary novel it is. The writing is spare and the voice is spot-on. I love the way each Obe-centered chapter begins. (Examples -- Chapter 1: "There were mosquitoes."  Chapter 3:"There was a mess." Chapter 9: "There were questions.") Interspersed with Obe's short present-day chapters are even shorter chapters titled "One Hundred Years Ago", where we learn more about Obe's ancestors and how the Devlin land was lost.

Obe is a likable character, filled with righteous anger over the development of his family's land. Marvin Gardens is undoubtedly the most unusual animal you'll ever encounter in MG fiction. And in case you're wondering -- yes, Obe names him for the Monopoly property. In fact, Monopoly plays an important part, and small illustrations of vintage Monopoly pieces decorate the beginning of each chapter.

If you've ever played Monopoly, you know it's a ruthless game of acquiring properties and building on them. It's easy to guess that Amy King hates the way developments have taken over once-beautiful and once-productive farmland, not just her own family's land in Pennsylvania (see the About the Author page) but all over our country. And she must feel the same way I do about global warming and pollution. This book is the perfect read for "Earth Month" -- which Obe's favorite teacher insists we should have instead of just one day.

Favorite lines:  "Upstream were two finished housing developments and across the tree line was a flattened dirt wasteland scattered with construction equipment that looked like monsters in the falling light. The developer bought the last of the Devlin fields six months ago and planted more house seeds. Soon, more houses would grow." (from p. 10 of the hardcover)

Bonus: Besides the environment (certainly a timely and important theme), this book explores bullying, friendship, and family relationships.

A.S. King's official hideout

Follow her on Twitter

Monday, April 10, 2017

CATCHING A STORY FISH by Janice N. Harrington for Poetry Month and Diversity Monday

Sorry for my absence but I've been dealing with family issues and health issues, as well as working on revisions for the Advanced Novels in Verse workshop I'll be attending at Highlights in June.

Welcome to another Diversity Monday. It's also Poetry Month, so I'm celebrating both at once with this lovely book. Thanks to a librarian friend from the 2016 Novels in Verse Workshop for introducing me to this one.

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington (September 2016, Wordsong, 224 pages, ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Keet knows the only good thing about moving away from her Alabama home is that she'll live near her beloved grandfather. When Keet starts school, it's even worse than she expected, as the kids tease her about her southern accent. Now Keet, who can "talk the whiskers off a catfish," doesn't want to open her mouth. Slowly, though, while fishing with her grandfather, she learns the art of listening. Gradually, she makes her first new friend. But just as she's beginning to settle in, her grandfather has a stroke, and even though he's still nearby, he suddenly feels ever-so-far-away. Keet is determined to reel him back to her by telling him stories; in the process she finds her voice and her grandfather again. This lyrical and deeply emotional novel-in-verse celebrates the power of story and of finding one's individual voice.

Why I recommend it: This is gorgeous. A warm and moving celebration of poetry, words, and voice. There's a compelling story here, told with plenty of humor and compassion, as Keet adjusts to her new life. But the book is also a word-feast, using many different forms of poetry. Concrete poetry, haiku, haibun, narrative poems, and even the difficult-to-write forms of pantoum (repeats the second and fourth line of each quatrain as the first and third line of the next) and contrapuntal, which can be read in three ways (the left column one poem, the right column another poem and when read together, left to right, there's a third poem!). A poetry glossary at the back explains it all.

Favorite lines (from JUST THE RIGHT SPOT, p. 39):   

                            Grandpa knows my tongue
                            is wiggly as a wiggle-worm
                            and quick as a mosquito
                            so wherever we look, he says, "Shhhhh.
                            Shhhh. The fish will hear you."

Bonus: Perfect for classroom lessons on different forms of poetry.

Monday, March 13, 2017

MOTOR GIRLS for Women's History Month

Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century by Sue Macy (February 7, 2017, National Geographic Children's Books, 96 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Come along for a joy ride in this enthralling tribute to the daring women - Motor Girls, as they were called at the turn of the century - who got behind the wheel of the first cars and paved the way for change. The automobile has always symbolized freedom, and in this book we meet the first generation of female motorists who drove cars for fun, profit, and to make a statement about the evolving role of women. From the advent of the auto in the 1890s to the 1920s when the breaking down of barriers for women was in full swing, readers will be delighted to see historical photos, art, and artifacts and to discover the many ways these progressive females influenced fashion, the economy, politics, and the world around them.

Why I recommend it:  I need to read more nonfiction, so when National Geographic offered me a free review copy, I gladly accepted (and I will donate it to my local library). I learned so much from reading this slim and yet entertaining book. It's chock-full of fascinating tidbits from automotive history, and the history of women's rights. Includes dozens of old photos, reproductions of original newspaper articles, and full-page bios of amazing women like Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the United States in (can you believe it?) 1909! And A'Lelia Walker (daughter of self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker) who drove wounded soldiers in World War I as one of the members of the only Colored Women's Motor Corps.

Sue Macy has done her research. This is a delightful book. And a painless way to absorb a little history and learn about some pioneering women. I would have been happier if the cover had more kid-appeal, though.  I found the photo on the back cover more interesting.

Favorite lines:  (from p. 90) Requirement for Girl Scout Automobiling Merit Badge, 1916

1) Must pass an examination equal to that required to obtain a permit or license to operate an automobile in her community.

2) Know how to start a motor and be able to do it and be able to explain necessary precautions.

3) Know how to extinguish burning oil or gasoline.

(Yeah. Isn't that last one a kicker?)

Bonus: This is a must-have for libraries.

Sue Macy's website

Monday, March 6, 2017

TWO NAOMIS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick for Diversity Monday and MMGM

First, I have a winner to announce. According to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover copy of THE UNCOMMONERS #1: THE CROOKED SIXPENCE by Jennifer Bell is:


Congratulations! Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.

*   *   *

And now for another Diversity Monday!

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick (September 2016, Balzer & Bray, 208 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Other than their first names, Naomi Marie and Naomi Edith are sure they have nothing in common, and they wouldn't mind keeping it that way.

Naomi Marie starts clubs at the library and adores being a big sister. Naomi Edith loves quiet Saturdays and hanging with her best friend in her backyard. And while Naomi Marie's father lives a few blocks away, Naomi Edith wonders how she's supposed to get through each day a whole country apart from her mother.

When Naomi Marie's mom and Naomi Edith's dad get serious about dating, each girl tries to cling to the life she knows and loves. Then their parents push them into attending a class together, where they might just have to find a way to work with each other--and maybe even join forces to find new ways to define family.

Why I recommend it: This is a warm-hearted, uplifting, and funny story about blended families, told in alternating POVs by the two Naomis. They're both jump-off-the-page real and honest and likable. I love that their differences are about which subject they like in school or which bakery in Brooklyn they prefer, or the fact that they simply don't want to get to know each other because they each already have a best friend. I like that the story isn't about race. It's about ten-year-old kids coping with divorce and blended families. It's about two girls who may even find they have something wonderful in common.

I knew this book would be funny and honest because I've had the privilege of attending a workshop, given by these two awesome authors, about humor in MG novels. It was a few years ago, at a New Jersey SCBWI conference, and the best thing about it was how their friendship came shining through. Oh, and the laughs were real.

Olugbemisola ("Bemi") from her website
Audrey from her website

Favorite lines:  I thought I'd give each girl a chance, so here's Naomi Marie, from p. 4. "Ms. Starr sparkles again, which must be something they teach in librarian school, because Momma is like that too, especially these days whenever she talks about Tom. She's almost as excited about Tom as she is about Poem in Your Pocket Day."

And here's Naomi E, from p. 12. "In the back corner, where the sun shines for most of the day in the summer, I have my own garden. Last summer I grew strawberries and tomatoes. I loved picking them when every last bit of green faded away and they were the perfect shade of ready-to-eat red. When they're ripe, you almost don't have to pull--they practically drop into your hand."

Bonus: All of the parents are likable people too. Often in MG novels the adults come off as mean or distant, or the divorce is someone's "fault". Not so here. I wanted to hug every one of the characters in this book, kids and grownups alike.

Olugbemisola's website

Follow Olugbemisola on Twitter

Audrey's website

Follow Audrey on Twitter

Monday, February 27, 2017

THE ONLY ROAD by Alexandra Diaz for Diversity Monday

Welcome to another Diversity Monday:

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz (Oct 4, 2016, Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly, he knows: Miguel, his cousin and best friend, is dead. Everyone in Jaime's small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a powerful gang that's known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed--like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There's only one choice: accompanied by his cousin Angela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother in New Mexico.

Inspired by true events, The Only Road is an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better life. It is a story of fear and bravery, love and loss, strangers becoming family, and one boy's treacherous and life-changing journey.

Why I recommend it: With mentions of a politician planning to build a wall, and the urgency of the two cousins' need to find safety in the United States, you can't get more timely than this. A lovely and at times harrowing book, The Only Road won a Pura Belpré honor for 2016, and it definitely deserves it. This is an important story, about fear and friendship and survival, that humanizes current issues. The characters are so real they seem like children you know. The sense of urgency keeps you turning the pages, while the sensory details draw you in and let you experience what the children are going through in the small dusty villages in Guatemala and Mexico.

You may read a lot in the news about Mexicans coming here illegally, but from reading books like this (and Libertad by Alma Fullerton -- reviewed here) you'll realize it's more often desperate refugees from Central America who are trying to flee to freedom through Mexico to the U.S. And it's not just kids from Guatemala. Jaime and Angela meet other refugee kids from Honduras and El Salvador, and all of them are trying to go north. They know if they stay, they'll be forced to join a gang or be killed for not joining the gang. This book is an impassioned plea for mercy for immigrant kids.

Here's a link to a recent New York Times article on this very subject.

Favorite lines:  (from p. 30) A mini-banquet of desayuno chapin had been laid out, like those American turkey feasts they showed in movies, "tanks geeveen" or something. Eggs from the chickens out back, Abuela's corn tortillas, black beans, fried plantains, sliced avocadoes and mangos, pork salchichas, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate...

Bonus: An excellent discussion-starter for classroom units on immigration and current politics.

Alexandra Diaz's website

Follow her on Twitter

Monday, February 20, 2017


First, I have a giveaway winner to announce, from Feb 6th. According to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover of JASPER AND THE RIDDLE OF RILEY'S MINE by Caroline Starr Rose (plus, a journal!) is:


Congratulations! Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.

*   *   *

Now on to today's MMGM (visit Shannon's blog for other MMGM posts).  And another giveaway!

The Uncommoners, Book One: The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell (January 31, 2017, Crown Books for Young Readers, 320 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher): When their grandmother Sylvie is rushed to the hospital, Ivy Sparrow and her annoying big brother Seb cannot imagine what adventure lies in store. Soon their house is ransacked by unknown intruders, and a very strange policeman turns up on the scene, determined to apprehend them . . . with a toilet brush. Ivy and Seb make their escape only to find themselves in a completely uncommon world, a secret underground city called Lundinor where ordinary objects have amazing powers. There are belts that enable the wearer to fly, yo-yos that turn into weapons, buttons with healing properties, and other enchanted objects capable of very unusual feats.

But the forces of evil are closing in fast, and when Ivy and Seb learn that their family is connected to one of the greatest uncommon treasures of all time, they must race to unearth the treasure and get to the bottom of a family secret . . . before it's too late.

Why I recommend it:  This book is adorable! An absorbing and imaginative fantasy/adventure, which provides a lovely escape from the real world. I was impressed by Bell's world-building and the details of the plot. Ivy is a likable character, and there's more than enough intrigue. You'll find yourself eager to accompany Ivy and Seb (along with their new friend, a thief named Valian), on their adventure.

Harry Potter fans may recognize the influence (maps that show were someone is, commoners being called not muggles but "muckers") but it didn't bother me. In fact, it made me smile. This could easily become a favorite new series for middle grade readers.

Favorite lines: (from p. 28 of the arc)  The rapid fire of hoofbeats sounded on the other side of the hedgerow. A wild neigh followed the clatter of something loud and heavy, and then Officer Smokehart came tearing along toward them. He moved impossibly fast, his arms pumping as his black cloak mushroomed up behind him.

Bonus: It's illustrated! Delightful drawings by Karl James Mountford are sprinkled throughout (final art not seen in arc).

Jennifer Bell's website

Follow Jennifer on Twitter

Giveaway details: The publisher has generously offered one hardcover copy for a giveaway. This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only (so sorry!) and will end on Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 10 pm EST, with the winner to be announced Monday March 6. To enter you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. Good luck!

Monday, February 13, 2017

MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON by Linda Williams Jackson for Diversity Monday and Black History Month

Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson (January 3, 2017, HMH Books for Young Readers, 312 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): It's Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter can't wait to move north, following in the footsteps of her mama and her aunt. But for now, she's living with Ma Pearl and Papa, her grandparents, who are sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. Though she's heard bits and pieces about the civil rights movement, Rose is more interested in leaving the South than in changing it.

Then, one town over, a fourteen-year-old African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When the killers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change but she doesn't know if she should be part of the movement.

Why I recommend it: Oh, there is so much to recommend here: an honest young-teen voice, authentic dialogue, memorable characters, and descriptions so fine you can just see the house Rose lives in, taste the butter beans, and feel the summer heat. After only a few pages, I felt as if Rose was a real 13-year-old, telling me her story. This is one of those novels you don't read so much as you inhabit, and you may find yourself walking around in Rose's shoes for a few days, justifiably angry at the terrible events of 1955. Even though this is historical fiction, it's absolutely relevant today, considering the state of the union.

Favorite lines: "The sun beat down on me like I owed it money from six years back. Sweat dripped in my eyes so bad that I couldn't tell cotton from weeds..."

Bonus: An excellent discussion-starter for classroom units about the Civil Rights movement. Plus, there's a sequel, A Sky Full of Stars, coming in January 2018!

Linda's website

Follow Linda on Twitter: @LindaWJackson

Read this moving guest post by Linda on Caroline Starr Rose's blog.

In honor of Black History Month, what's your favorite historical novel about the Civil Rights movement?

Monday, February 6, 2017


Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine by Caroline Starr Rose (Feb 7, 2017, Putnam, 304 pages, for ages 8 to 12).

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Desperate to get away from their drunkard of a father, eleven-year-old Jasper and his older brother Melvin often talk of running away, of heading north to Alaska to chase riches beyond their wildest dreams. The Klondike Gold Rush is calling, and Melvin has finally decided the time to go is now even if that means leaving Jasper behind. But Jasper has other plans, and follows his brother aboard a steamer as a stowaway. 

Onboard the ship, Jasper overhears a rumor about One-Eyed Riley, an old coot who's long since gone, but is said to have left clues to the location of his stake, which still has plenty of gold left. The first person to unravel the clues and find the mine can stake the claim and become filthy rich. Jasper is quick to catch gold fever and knows he and Melvin can find the mine; all they have to do is survive the rough Alaskan terrain, along with the steep competition from the unscrupulous and dangerous people they encounter along the way.

Why I recommend it: Caroline Starr Rose continues to impress me. I've been a fan of her blog since even before May B. pubbed. And May B. made me fall in love with verse novels. I found Blue Birds equally as gorgeous and impressive. Now, she's turned her expert historical fiction skills to prose. And an exciting tale it is.

Jasper is so gosh darn likable and funny, you can't help but want to cheer him on. He's flawed, of course, and often breaks the rules, but his heart is in the right place. If you're a writer, study this one for how to make your main character both realistic and likable. 

Of course, this is also is an adventure story on a grand scale. Rose keeps you turning pages as you race to decipher the clues to the riddle. You'll feel as if you're right there shivering with the boys as they head north, trying to locate the mine and meeting plenty of dastardly antagonists along the way. You can tell the author has done her research. The details about the Klondike Gold Rush are riveting. 

Favorite lines: "Gold," I say again. The word feels warm and round and strange on my tongue (from page 3 of the arc).

Bonus: This would make a wonderful read-aloud. 

For other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, see Shannon's blog

Giveaway details: One lucky reader will receive both a brand-new hardcover copy of JASPER AND THE RIDDLE OF RILEY'S MINE, plus (through the generosity of the author) one 40-page journal, with a quote from the book on its cover.

(If you'd like the book but not the journal, please mention this in the comments, and if randomizer picks you, I'll choose someone else for the journal.) This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only and ends on Sunday February 19, 2017 at 10 pm EST. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. Winner will be announced on Monday February 20, 2017.

Monday, January 30, 2017

BONE JACK by Sara Crowe

Edited 1/31/17 to change from British cover to American!

Bone Jack by Sara Crowe (February 7, 2017, Philomel, 256 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): 
Times have been tough for Ash lately, and all he wants is for everything to go back to the way it used to be. Back before drought ruined the land and disease killed off the livestock. Before Ash’s father went off to war and returned carrying psychological scars. Before his best friend, Mark, started acting strangely.

As Ash trains for his town’s annual Stag Chase—a race rooted in violent, ancient lore—he’s certain that if he can win and make his father proud, life will return to normal. But the line between reality and illusion is rapidly blurring, and the past has a way of threatening the present.

When a run in the mountains brings Ash face-to-face with Bone Jack—a figure that guards the boundary between the living world and the dead—everything changes once more. As dark energies take root and the world as he knows it is upended, it’s up to Ash to restore things to their proper order and literally run for his life.

Why I recommend it: 
Dark, haunting, and atmospheric, this reminded me a little of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (my favorite fantasy of all time). It works for ages 10 and up, though the violence might frighten younger readers. Ash is a believable, likable character, and the reader will sympathize with his desire for life to return to normal. I especially loved the way the author deftly wove in the fantasy elements so that the line between reality and fantasy gradually dissolves. Brilliant. And the cover is simply stunning.

Favorite lines:  
          "He looked the way Ash remembered: tall, broad-shouldered, tough as teak. He was dressed in civilian clothes and his dark hair was starting to grow out of the regulation army cut, but he still looked like a soldier through and through.
         Captain Robert Tyler, home from war.
         Then Dad walked out onto the lawn and it all started to fall apart."

About the author (from the publisher): Sara Crowe was born in Cornwall and raised all over England by her restless parents. She taught cinema and photography studies until 2012, when she and her partner bought a van and spent the next eighteen months traveling around the British Isles. She currently lives in a tumbledown cottage in Lincolnshire. Bone Jack is her first novel.

Find her on Twitter: @dark_fell

For other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, see Shannon Messenger's blog

Monday, January 23, 2017

HOW I BECAME A GHOST by Tim Tingle for Diversity Monday

How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle (paperback 2015, The Road Runner Press, 141 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Told in the words of Isaac, a Choctaw boy who does not survive the Trail of Tears, How I Became a Ghost is a tale of innocence and resilience in the face of tragedy. From the opening line, "Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before," the reader is put on notice that this is no normal book. Isaac leads a remarkable foursome of Choctaw comrades: a tough-minded teenage girl, a shape-shifting panther boy, a lovable five-year-old ghost who only wants her mom and dad to be happy, and Isaac's talking dog, Jumper. The first in a trilogy, How I Became a Ghost thinly disguises an important and oft-overlooked piece of history.

Why I recommend it: This short, compelling novel will stun you with both the power of its writing and the way it humanizes a terrible event in our nation's past. The narrator, 10-year-old Isaac, tells us about his family and some of the other families on the forced walk from their homeland in the Deep South to their new home in what would eventually be called Oklahoma. His story will move you to tears at the extraordinary resilience of the Choctaw people. First the U.S. soldiers set fire to their homes, then made the people walk a thousand miles in brutal icy conditions, with very little food. Many of the Choctaw died from smallpox-laden blankets given to them deliberately by the soldiers. Written in spare and rhythmic language, this is a story that will infuriate you but at the same time inspire you.The way Isaac is able to help his people even after he becomes a ghost is heartwarming.

I learned some Choctaw words from reading this book. Hoke means okay. Yakoke means thank you. And Choctaws never say goodbye. Instead they say chi pisa lachike, meaning "I will see you again, in the future."

Favorite lines: I am not a ghost when this book begins so you have to pay very close attention. I see things before they happen. You are probably thinking, "I wish I could see things before they happen."
Be careful what you wish for.

Bonus: This is the first volume of a trilogy! I'm definitely planning to read the others when they become available.

Tim Tingle is an Oklahoma Choctaw, whose great-great-grandfather walked the Choctaw Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

Tim Tingle's website

Follow Tim on Twitter

*   *   *

It's Diversity Monday here at My Brain on Books. Look for other diverse posts at Pragmatic Mom,  Jump Into a Book, and The Logonauts.

Multicultural Children's Book Day is coming January 27th! The Multicultural Children's Book Day website has a helpful reading list here.

The #DiverseKidLit linkup theme this month is human rights.

Monday, January 16, 2017

STELLA BY STARLIGHT by Sharon Draper for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and I'm commemorating it with another Diversity Monday here at My Brain on Books! This is a book I missed reading last year, so during my November/December blogging break, I caught up.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper (hardcover January 2015, paperback March 2016, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 336 pages, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from the publisher):  It's 1932. Stella lives in the segregated South in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can't. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn't bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they're never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella's community, her world, is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don't necessarily signify an end.

Why I recommend it: Not only is the writing lovely, but this is an important story about a dreadful part of our history (which, unfortunately, in some ways is still going on). It's also written in a way that's accessible for the age group, despite the subject matter.

Furthermore, Stella is one of my new favorite MG characters, spunky, and smart, with so much honesty and heart that it fairly spills from the pages. Her struggles to write are relatable for any student who has trouble in school. This book may look long, but the 50 chapters are each quite short, some only two pages.

Favorite lines: "Stella loved the feel of that table--she loved to trace the circular patterns in the warm brown wood.  Made of elm and built by her father when he married her mother, the table was large, sturdy, and dependable--and so much more than a place for meals. " (from p. 4 of the paperback edition)

Bonus: An excellent discussion-starter about the KKK, segregation, and mistreatment of African-Americans, as well as life during the Great Depression.

Sharon M. Draper's website

Find links to other MMGM posts on Shannon Messenger's blog

Find plenty of diversity posts at Pragmatic Mom and The Logonauts

Read about Multicultural Children's Book Day here

Thursday, January 5, 2017


I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for The Warden's Daughter, Jerry Spinelli's new novel!

The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli (January 3, 2017, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 352 pages, for ages 9 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Cammie O'Reilly is the warden's daughter, living in an apartment above the entrance to the Hancock County Prison. But she's also living in a prison of grief and anger about the mother who died saving her from harm when she was just a baby. And prison has made her mad.
In the summer of 1959, as twelve turns to thirteen, everything is in flux. Cammie's best friend is discovering lipstick and American Bandstand. A child killer is caught and brought to her prison. And the only mother figures in her life include a flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo and a sullen reformed arsonist of a housekeeper. All will play a role in Cammie's coming-of-age. But one in particular will make a staggering sacrifice to ensure that Cammie breaks free from her past.

Jerry Spinelli
copyright Elmore DeMott

Why I recommend it: A new novel from Jerry Spinelli is always reason to celebrate. And this lovely historical novel revisits Two Mills, the town (based on Norristown, PA) that was the setting of Maniac Magee, my favorite Jerry Spinelli novel. Like all of Spinelli's novels, The Warden's Daughter is full of heart, sly humor, and gasp-inducing moments of drama. This one is also chock-full of 1959 culture (pedal pushers, crew cuts, convertibles) and of Philadelphia-area details, like Dick Clark's American Bandstand, Tastykakes, and scrapple. (I was born in Philadelphia and now live outside of it and yes, I've eaten scrapple, but I definitely do not like it!).

Cammie is a complex character who really grows on you, a curmudgeon of sorts, a 12-year-old who is not happy. But knowing about her past, you understand her and you feel for her. There are introspective chapters but there's also plenty of action, as Cammie rides her bike all over town and sometimes gets into fights. (There's a reason they call her Cannonball O'Reilly!)

Favorite lines:  "Some kids had tree houses. Some kids had hideouts. I had the Tower of Death." (from p. 35)

Bonus: To hear more about The Warden's Daughter from the author himself, watch this brief video:

Jerry Spinelli's website

Here are the next few stops on the blog tour:

January 6: Book Blather
January 9: Bookhounds YA
January 10: Reviews Coming at YA
January 11: Project Mayhem

For other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, visit Shannon's blog.

Monday, January 2, 2017


I'm back! Hope everyone had a safe and happy New Year's and I wish you all the best in 2017. Today I'm featuring another Diversity Monday.

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh (January 3, 2017, Crown Books for Young Readers, 240 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the bookjacket):  We need diverse stories. Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos,  first crushes, or new neighborhoods, these stories celebrate the uniqueness in all of us. Award-winning and bestselling middle grade authors Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Pena, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina,  Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson are joined by newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in this anthology partnership with We Need Diverse Books, edited by Ellen Oh. From ten distinct authors come ten unique stories ready for flight.

Why I recommend it: Providing diverse stories for our children (whether it's so they can see themselves, or so they can develop a better understanding of others) is more important than ever in these troubling times.  And these ten stories by a diverse group of middle-grade authors are accessible, fast-paced, and filled with memorable characters. They can be read in little sips (one story at a time) or big gulps (several at a time). They can be read in any order.

I believe that diversity should include more than different racial backgrounds, so, while all these stories are important, I'm also grateful for Walter Dean Myers's story about a boy on a wheelchair basketball team, and Tim Federle's story about gender identity.

Favorite story: These stories are all so fine and so well written that I had a hard time picking out a favorite. Read them all! (However, I admit I may be a bit partial to Kwame Alexander's intriguingly-titled story in verse, "Seventy- Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents".)

Bonus: This is an excellent read-aloud for classrooms or at home, and the perfect conversation-starter with your kids about diversity.

We Need Diverse Books website

Find other diverse children's books at: Pragmatic Mom and The Logonauts