Inspired by Susan Schaefer Bernardo

Inspired

Susan Schaefer Bernardo, Author

Inner Flower Child Books, YA Fantasy, May 6, 2018

Suitable for ages: 12 and up

Pages: 282

Themes:  Self-confidence, Creative ability, Greek muses and mythology, Family Relationships, Friendship

Synopsis: As if life weren’t complicated enough, 14-year-old Rocket Malone has just learned that her mysterious Aunt Polly is actually Polyhymnia, a Greek Muse who desperately needs her help. And there is the matter of the gift of a mysterious mirror from Aunt Polly that keeps glowing and draws Rocket into the timeless world of the nine muses. The more time she spends with the muses, the more lost Rocket feels at home and the more out-of-place she feels at school. Now Rocket needs to juggle middle school and apprentice Muse training, learn how to ride Pegasus and blow glass, stand up to Zeus and catch a crazed nymph named Echo — all without losing her best friend or looking like an idiot in front of her crush, Ryan. As she strives to inspire others, Rocket learns to trust her own voice and realizes that the most important spark she must ignite is her own — because the brighter she shines, the more she lights the way for those around her.

Why I like this book:

Inspired is a charming novel with a perfect balance of magic and Greek mythology, but is grounded in a strong dose of realism. It is set in Hollywood and takes place in a regular middle school with all of the angst of messy teen problems.

There is so much beauty in this novel. The tone of the prose is rich and wandering, inviting the reader along this magical journey about Greek muses, gods and mythological creatures, like a Pegasus. A school field trip to the Getty Villa opens the door for Rocket’s first contact with the mythological world, when she wanders off among the statues of muses and discovers Polyhymnia, who looks like her Aunt Polly. When the statue turns from stone to Aunt Polly, Rocket gasps and nearly collapses.

The characters are believable and have problems, which are handled with sensitivity by the author.  Rocket isn’t happy with the direction of her life, but she is a resilient character. Her father committed suicide and her mother has remarried. They are moving from their Venice Beach apartment to her stepfather’s home in the Hollywood Hills. Rocket isn’t pleased when her mother announces she is pregnant and expecting twin boys.  Her best friend Gillian, finds a new friend. Her friend Ryan is dealing with the death of his sister in a car accident and the loss of his home in a wild-fire.

I enjoyed the diversity among the female apprentice muses, each representing a different country, culture and different time period. It takes Rocket a while to realize that they all communicate with each other through a universal language when they are together. They aren’t fluent in English, as she first thought.

The plot is fast-paced with universal themes the author manages to keep fresh for readers. For instance, no matter how challenging our lives may seem, they are “part of our human, creative process.”  This is an engaging story about self-confidence, friendship, adventure, trust, embracing one’s uniqueness, and finding one’s voice. This novel shines!

Susan Schaefer Bernardo is a published poet and the author of several award-winning picture books, including Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs, The Big Adventures of Tiny House, and The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm (a collaboration with LeVar Burton that was sent via rocket to the International Space Station for Storytime from Space!). This is her first novel. She loves school, and has collected her B.A. from UCLA, a master’s degree in English Literature from Yale, and teaching credentials from Pepperdine University. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. You can visit Susan at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Reviewed from a copy provided by the author.

The Keeper of the Lost Cities Series by Shannon Messenger

shannon-messengerMeet Shannon Messenger, author of my all-time favorite middle grade, fantasy/dystopian series, The Keeper of the Lost Cities, and published by  Aladdin. There are five books in the series to date, with her most recent November 1 release, Lodestar. An ambitious undertaking for Messenger, book six is being written for 2017. This will please her multi-gender and global fans. The book covers are gorgeous!

Parents and grandparents, this series would make an exciting holiday gift for the tweens and teens in your lives. And they will thank you for the introduction. I recommend you start with the first book, The Keeper of the Lost Cities, before you move on to Exile, Everblaze, Neverseen and Lodestar.

Shannon Messenger is a master storyteller. Her writing is powerful and richly textured. The settings are vividly creative and capture a new magical world. Her adventure series keep readers engaged from the start, much like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Once you start a book, you are drawn into her magic until you have read the entire book.

The plots are multi-layered, courageous, complicated, gripping and packed with thrilling adventures. Her stories are not predictable and readers won’t have a clue of what happens next because of the many cliff hangers. Sometimes my brain hurts as I wonder how in the world Messenger manages to tease and eventually outsmart me with her twists and turns. This is a unique character-driven series with Sophie and her friends Fitz, Keefe, Dex, and Biana who all possess special abilities. These are characters you will love and root for as they take on many dangerous adventures. And, there is diversity with elves, dwarves, goblins, ogres, and many magical creatures.  Enough from me. I want to share a brief publisher synopsis of each book to give you a sense of this brilliant series.

keeper-of-the-lost-516tqvac1sl__sx331_bo1204203200_Synopsis Book 1: Twelve-year-old Sophie Foster has a secret. She is a Telepath, and has a unique ability to hear the thoughts of everyone around her — something that she’s never known how to explain, and has made her an outcast, even in her own family. But everything changes the day she meets Fitz, a mysterious boy who appears out of nowhere and also reads minds. She discovers there’s somewhere she does belong, and staying where she is will put her in grave danger. In the blink of an eye, Sophie is forced to leave behind her family on earth and start a new life in a place that is vastly different from her own. She’s taken to a  parallel Elvin world where mystical creatures are protected and thrive. And she is startled to learn that she is an Elf. Sophie has new rules and skills to learn, a new school to attend, and not everyone is thrilled with her “homecoming.” There are secrets buried deep in Sophie’s memory, secrets that other people desperately want. Sophie must figure out why she is the key to her brand-new world—before the wrong person finds the answer first and would even kill for…

exile-51hbosuywtl__sx333_bo1204203200_jpgSynopsis Book 2: Sophie Foster thought she was safe. Settled in to her home at Havenfield, surrounded by friends, and using her unique telepathic abilities to train Silveny — the first female alicorn ever seen in the Lost Cities — her life finally seems to coming together.

But Sophie’s kidnappers are still out there. And when Sophie discovers new messages and clues from the mysterious Black Swan group, she’s forced to take a terrifying risk — one that puts everyone in incredible danger.

In this second book in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, Sophie must uncover hidden memories as long-buried secrets rise to the surface, before someone close to her is lost forever…

everblaze-untitledSynopsis Book 3: Sophie’s talents are getting stronger, and with the elusive Black Swan group ignoring her calls for help, she’s determined to find her kidnappers — before the come after her again.

But a daring mistake leaves the Lost Cities teetering on the edge of war — and causes many to fear that Sophie has finally gone too far. With her world turned against her, Sophie is forced to rely on her friends, even though it means putting their lives in danger. And the deeper they search, the farther the conspiracy stretches, proving that Sophie’s most deadly enemy might be closer than she realizes.  Sophie must fight the flames of rebellion before they destroy everyone and everything she loves.

neverseen-51lg2iodwal__sx334_bo1204203200_Synopsis Book 4: Sophie Foster is on the run — but at least she’s not alone. Her closest friends from the Lost Cities have gone with her to join the Black Swan. They still have doubts about the answers is to start working with them. As they settle into their new lives, they uncover secrets far bigger than anything they’d imagined.

But their enemies are  far from done, unleashing a terrifying plague that threatens the safety of an entire species. Sophie and her friends fight with everything they have — including aid from new allies joining them — but every choice has consequences. And trusting the wrong person could prove deadly. In this game-changing book, Sophie must question everything to find a truth that will either save her world — or shatter it.

lodestar-51j59ndelpl__sx331_bo1204203200_Synopsis Book 5: Sophie is back in the Lost Cities– but the Lost Cities have changed. The threat of war hangs heavy over her glittering world. And the Neverseen are wreaking havoc where they can. The lines between friend and enemy have also blurred, and Sophie is unsure exactly whom she can trust. But when she’s warned that the people she loves most will be the next victims, she knows she has to act.

A mysterious symbol could be the key — if only she knew how to translate it. And each new clue reveals how far the dark schemes spread. The black Swan aren’t the only ones who have plans. The Neverseen have their own Initiative, and if Sophie doesn’t stop it, they might finally have the ultimate means to control her. Loyalties are pushed to the limit as the villains twist the game into something Sophie might not have the talent to win.

Shannon Messenger graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she studied art, screenwriting and film production.  She realized her real passion was writing stories for children. She’s the bestselling author of this middle-grade series and the Sky Fall series for young adults. Her books have been published in numerous countries and translated into ten different languages. Visit Shannon Messenger online at her website. She also hosts a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post where  bloggers share links to their favorite middle grade books.

Echo

Echo 51Onv891e1L__SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Echo

Pam Munoz Ryan, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Feb. 24, 2015

Winner of the 2016 Newbery Honor

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Harmonica, Music, Destiny, Nazi Germany, Pennsylvania orphans, Mexican-Americans, WW II, Japanese-Americans, Family relationship

Opening: “FIFTY YEARS BEFORE THE WAR TO END ALL wars, a boy played hide-and-seek with his friends in a pear orchard bordered by a dark forest.”

Synopsis: Otto runs into the forbidden forest to hide from his friends. He becomes lost and is rescued by three sisters who are imprisoned in a circle of trees by a witch’s spell. The sisters are musical and they each impart a different tune into Otto’s harmonica. He promises to help free them by carrying their harmony out into the world and passing the harmonica along to other musicians who will add their musical gift. Decades later, the harmonica graces the lives of three children who are living in horrific situations: Friedrich, who has a birthmark and doesn’t fit in 1933 Nazi Germany; Mike and his little brother Frankie, who are finding a way to survive a deplorable orphanage during the depression in Pennsylvania; and Ivy, a Mexican-American girl in California, whose brother is a soldier and her family is caring for a farm left by a Japanese family who is sent to an internment camp.

Each child is already musically talented and they become linked together as destiny places Otto’s  harmonica into their hands. They each recognize that the harmonica is powerful and like no other instrument they’ve heard before. Playing it brings each of them courage, hope and joy during dire times. The thread that binds them together comes together in a magnificent ending.

Why I like this book:

  • Pam Munoz Ryan literally sweeps me off my feet with her thrilling and brilliant storytelling.  Her writing is polished, her narrative inspires one to believe in the power of music to heal and change lives, and her plot is complex.
  • Ryan thinks outside the box as she writes her masterpiece, Echo. Although there is an element of fantasy in Echo, I am delighted that the book is a great work of historical fiction that will engage many teens. It focuses on Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the Great Depression, Mexican-American itinerate farmers, World War II, and the anti-Japanese sentiment in America.
  • The author led me to care about four very different and memorable characters in a very human way. The book begins and ends with a fairy tale with Otto’s encounter with three mysterious sisters. The novel is told in three parts, each devoted to Friedrich, Mike and Ivy’s stories. The children face dire challenges as they struggle to keep their families together: rescuing a father from prison, protecting a brother in an orphanage, and dealing with poverty, discrimination and keeping a family together. The author builds tension and momentum by leaving their stories unfinished, until the story comes full circle.
  • I am a musician, so the idea of a harmonica infused with the melodious spirits of the three sisters  captivated me and I wondered how it would play out in the story. Each of the three children add their own energy and wisdom to the harmonica as they play it and pass it along. The thread that ties their destiny together is revealed at the end in a resounding crescendo that is spellbinding and beautiful. This novel captures my heart and I will read it again.

Pam Munoz Ryan is the author of over thirty books. Her most recent novels include the award-winning The Dreamer and Esperanza Rising. She is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Human and Civil Rights Award and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for multicultural literature. You may visit Ryan at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Rules for Stealing Stars

Rules for Stealing Stars 51lZ0dDU84L__SX333_BO1,204,203,200_,jpgRules for Stealing Stars

Corey Ann Haydu, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Sep. 29, 2015

Pages: 336

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Sisters, Magic, Mother and daughters, Family problems, Family secrets, Mental Illness, Hope

Book Jacket Synopsis: Silly is used to feeling left out. Her three older sisters think she’s too little for most things — especially when it comes to dealing with their mother’s unpredictable moods and outbursts. But for Silly, that’s normal. She hardly remembers a time when Mom wasn’t drinking.

This summer, Silly is more alone than ever, and it feels like everyone around her is keeping secrets. Mom is sick all the time. Dad acts like everything is fine when clearly it is isn’t. Silly’s sisters keep whispering and sneaking away to their rooms together, returning with signs that something mysterious is afoot and giggling about jokes that Silly doesn’t understand.

When Silly is brought into her sisters’ world, the truth is more exciting than she ever imagined. The sisters have discovered a magical place that gives them what they truly need: an escape from the complications of their home life. But there are dark truths there, too. Silly hopes the magic will be the secret to saving their family, but she’s soon forced to wonder if it might tear them apart.

What I like about this book:

  • A bold and skillfully written novel that touches on magic and realism. Teens will find this a thrilling read. The magic is exciting, but also borders on a dark side, with a little paranormal thrown in the mix.
  • The sisters live in a dysfunctional family, which is the very heart of the story. There is tension in the family and themes of  mental instability, abuse, and loss. Their journey is sad as family secrets unravel and they have to depend upon one another in order to cope with their mother’s illness.
  • The sisters’ characters are richly developed and believable. Eleanor and Astrid are 14-year-old twins who share a bond that make 13-year-old Marla and 11-year-old Silly, feel like they live in another universe. Eleanor is smart, bold, bossy and the protector. Astrid is creative and spacey. Marla is sensitive, sad and whiney. Silly (Priscilla) is the baby that everyone protects. She narrates the story in first person and turns out to be the strongest and wisest of the sisters.
  • The magic Eleanor and Astrid discover in the bedroom closets offer the sisters a way to escape into a fantasy world that is free of pain. The magic is different for each sister. It can be calming, exhilarating, or scary. It can hold memories. But it also offers the sisters a way to bring healing to a broken family. The ending is satisfying and hopeful. This story lends itself to important discussions among readers.

Corey Ann Haydu is the author of YA novels, OCD Love Story, Life by Committee, Making Pretty, the middle grade novel Rules for Stealing Stars, and the upcoming novel Falling Girls and Missing Boys.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

Key to Extraordinary 51KpzeoJqhL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Key to Extraordinary

Natalie Lloyd, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Feb. 23, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Ancestors, Family Relationships, Friendships, Magic, Community, Cleft Palate

Pages: 240

Opening: “It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary. It is a known fact for me, at least.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Everyone in Emma’s family is special. Her ancestors include Revolutionary War spies, brilliant scientists, and famous country music singers — every single one of which learned of their extraordinary destiny through a dream.

For Emma, her own destiny dream can’t come soon enough. Right before her mother died, Emma promised that she’d do whatever it took fulfill her destiny, and she doesn’t want let her mother down. But when Emma’s dream finally arrives, it points her toward an impossible task — finding a legendary treasure that’s supposedly hidden near her town’s historic cemetery. If Emma fails, she’ll let down generations of her extraordinary ancestors…including her mother. But how can she find something that’s been missing for centuries and might be protected by a mysterious singing ghost, known as the “Conductor?”

Why I like this book:

Natalie Lloyd has written a captivating tale that will delight readers and take them on a journey to Blackbird Hollow, a Tennessee community where  small-town neighbors care about each other. Lloyd’s writing is lyrical and magical. Her voice is original. Her storytelling and literary style set her a part from other authors. She succeeds in creating an experience for her readers. Fans of her debut novel, A Snicker of Magic, will not be disappointed.

Emma Pearl Casey and her brother live with their Granny Blue, who owns the family Boneyard Café, which sits on the edge of a famous historic graveyard. A ghost wanders among the gravestones at night singing about treasures. The café is where the town folk gather to chat, drink Granny’s famous Boneyard brew (cocoa), and sing and dance the night away. It is a setting where magic happens daily. Flowers and Telling Vines that are  unique only to Blackbird Hollow, whisper messages from the departed.

The characters are quirky, good-hearted, and unforgettable. Emma comes from a lineage of creative and strong women who call themselves the Wildflowers, because they learn about their extraordinary destiny through a dream. Emma still carries the “ache” of missing her mother and is self-conscious of a small scar above her lip, the result of a repaired cleft palate. She is a spirited young Wildflower, who is determined to find the hidden treasure. Eccentric and feisty Granny Blue is a former professional boxer, who has some secrets of her own. Sadness creeps over her as she struggles to keep the café afloat. Uncle Periwinkle tucks violets into his long white beard and shares the ghost songs and magic with Emma.

What an enchanting plot filled with adventure, wonder, mystery and danger. The café is having financial problems and a scrupulous developer wants to purchase the land. Emma gives daily tours of the graveyard to visitors to help support the café. Emma and her best friends, Cody Belle and Earl, embark upon a secret mission to find the hidden treasure so they can save her family’s home and café. They explore the forbidden areas of the graveyard and the search the Wailing Woods, which hold secrets of their own. But treasures can take on different meanings and only the pure of heart can understand their meaning. For Emma, this is a story about believing in yourself and finding courage in the midst of danger.

Visit Natalie Lloyd at her website. She is the author of A Snicker of Magic, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and a Parents Magazine Best Children’s Book.

I received an advanced reading copy of this book. This review reflects my own honest opinion about the book.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

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Bayou Magic

Bayou Magic9780316224840_p0_v2_s192x300Bayou Magic

Jewell Parker Rhodes

Little, Brown and Company, Fiction, May 12, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 256

Themes: Bayous, Magic, Environment, African-Americans, Louisiana, Grandmothers, Friendship, Hope

Synopsis: At home, she’s just plain Maddy to her four older sisters. It is 10-year-old Maddy’s turn to spend the summer alone with her grandmother in the Louisiana bayou. Her sisters tease and frighten her about Grandmère Lavalier, who they claim is a witch. But after a few days in the bayou, Maddy begins to feel a kindred spirit in Grandmère and at home in the enchanted beauty of her surroundings. She learns about healing herbs, wisdom, and listens to stories about her ancestors and the Lavalier magic. Maddy begins to wonder if she is the only one in her family to carry family’s magical legacy.

Maddy finds a good friend, in “Bear,” a shaggy-haired boy who takes her on great adventures into the bayou. The bayou becomes her playground and she’s having the time of her life exploring its wonders and secrets. Everything speaks to Maddy, including the fireflies and a face she sees deep within the water. Could it be a mermaid, the legendary Mami Wata? When there is an explosion on an offshore oil rig and the leak threatens her beautiful bayou, Maddy knows that she may be the only one who can help save the Bons Temp bayou.

What I love about Bayou Magic:

  • Jewell Parker Rhodes’ novel is a whimsical adventure into another life that feels more real to Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson, than her real home in New Orleans. Rhodes has spun a story of pure magic. Her writing style is very lyrical.
  • The setting is lush, believable and magical. Fireflies shimmer in the sky at night as residents of the Bons Temp swamp come together to contribute to the pot of jambalaya, eat, dance and tell stories well into the night.
  • The characters are colorful, eccentric and realistic. Maddy is a courageous and hopeful heroine who already has a sense of reverence and gratitude about her. She thanks the hen for laying eggs for breakfast, a fish for giving its life for lunch, and the fireflies that call her. Grandmère is eccentric, the Queen of the bayou who takes care of its residents with her natural medicines. Bear is a lively friend that coaxes Maddy to explore and teaches her about the fragility of the bayou ecosystem.
  • What a glorious plot, filled with adventure, wonder, mystery and danger. When her grandmère asks Maddy one day, “Who do you want to be?” Maddy shares her secret, “A hero. Like in my stories. I want to do good. Be brave.” Maddy is tested before the summer is over when a disastrous oil spill threatens the gulf and the Bons Temp bayou. Does Maddy really have what it takes to be a hero when bad things happen? A time of great tension for Maddy and the community.
  • There is a quiet theme of hope rippling through the novel. At the end, the author says that “In Maddy, I poured all of my love for young people who seek, each and every day, new and better ways to care for our earth’s natural resources.” I highly recommend this novel.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Coretta Scott King Honor Book award-winning author of Ninth Ward and A Jane Addams Children’s Book Award winner of  Sugar, her first novels for young readers.  You can visit Jewell Parker Rhodes at her website. She has a Teaching Resource for educators.