Fox Magic by Beverley Brenna

Fox Magic

Beverley Brenna, Author

Red Deer Press, Fiction, Dec. 15, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Pages: 115

Themes: Teen suicide, Grief, Loss, Bullying, Courage, Hope

Opening: The week after the Bad Thing happened, Chance is back in school. She’s walking away from the water fountain and Monika is right there in front of her.  “She was my cousin, you know,” Monika hisses. “It should have been you.”

Synopsis: Chance Devlin and her two best friends make a pact to commit suicide. They dress in their best clothes and meet at a planned site. Chance changes her mind and runs home. She doesn’t tell anyone. Now her two friends have killed themselves. Chance struggles with grief, loss, and guilt that she didn’t tell anyone or try to stop them. Kids at school bully her and leave nasty notes in her desk and backpack: “Traitor. You’re better off dead.” She keeps the Bad Thing a secret, feels empty inside and escapes through sleep.

Enter her parents. They immediately get Chance into counseling, which is agonizing for her. Her therapist encourages her to write in a journal. Her father is my hero. He takes some time off so he can be at home with Chance, cook her pancakes for breakfast, drive and pick her up from school, make her exercise with him in fun and sometimes nerdy places. And he takes her to see her mom at work as a nurse in a neonatal unit, where she observes the tender and loving care her mother gives each newborn.  Her father shares with her a very important story.

A fox begins to magically appear in her Chance’s life. The fox, she names Janet Johnson, helps Chance to begin to get in touch with her grief, the past, her feelings, find her voice and move forward towards healing.  Is it her subconscious? I like Brenna’s sweet touch of magical realism as it allows the readers to decide for themselves what the fox symbolizes.

Why this book is on my shelf:

Brenna’s coming of age novel is brave and skillfully written. Each chapter is short and features pen and ink drawings to highlight each chapter. Suicide is a difficult but timely subject for older middle grade students that offers a wealth of opportunities for family and classroom discussions. This is a hopeful book.

Brenna doesn’t linger on the suicide pact or reveal the details of that night, which makes this realistic story very approachable for middle grade students. The story is told from Chance’s viewpoint. Readers will grow with Chance’s character as she deals with pain and grief and finds the courage and determination to move forward in her life. She’s authentic, honest and believable. There are many memorable characters that play supportive roles in her growth.

Brenna is from Saskatchewan where there many Indigenous children. I like how she includes both “First Nation and Metis” beliefs in Chance’s classroom as the students talk about school bullying and come up with clever solutions. This classroom interaction plays another important role in Chance’s healing.

Resources: There is an excellent interview with Beverley Brenna with discussion questions, an afterword with a mental health professional, and resource links. Brenna has prepared a teacher’s guide on her website for use in the classroom.

Beverley Brenna is the author of the award-winning Wild Orchid series, about a girl on the autism spectrum. She teaches at the University of Saskatchewan in Suskatoon.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

The Problim Children by Natalie Lloyd

The Problim Children

Natalie Lloyd, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Magical Realism, Jan. 30, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Siblings, Adventure, Mystery, Courage, Friendship, Treasure

Book Jacket Synopsis: When the Problims’ beloved bungalow in the Swampy Wood goes kaboom, the seven siblings have no choice but to move into their grandpa’s abandoned old Victorian house in the town of Lost Cove. No problem! For the Problim children, every problem is a gift.

Wendell and Thea — twins born two minutes apart on a Wednesday and a Thursday — see the move as a change to make new friends in time for their birthday cake smash. But the neighbors find the Problims’ return problematic — what with Sal’s foggy garden full on Wrangling Ivy, toddler Toot’s 365 stanktastic fart varieties, and Mona’s human catapult.

Truth be told, rumors are flying about the Problims! Rumors of a bitter feud, a treasure, and a certain kind of magic that lingers in the halls of #7 Main Street. And an evil neighbor, Desdemona O’ Pinion, will do anything to get her hands on those secrets — including sending the Problim children to seven different homes on sever different continents!

Why I like this book:

Natalie Lloyd’s newest novel, The Problim Children, is a thrilling read packed with a lot of eye-popping kid-appeal. Readers will be happy to know it is the first of three books in the series.  It is a boisterous and rollicking ride through a wild and wacky world that is magical from the start. The children bring with them circus spiders, a purple robotic squirrel and a pet pig, Ichabod.

Lloyd is a master with clever wordplay, rhymes and clues. Her writing is lyrical and her voice is original. Scattered throughout the story are pen and ink drawings of the action, which adds to the quirky feel of the story. The book reminds me of my hours spent with Pippi Longstocking. But today’s readers will liken it to The Penderwicks and Lemony Snicket.

Meet the seven weird and lively Problim Children, each one born on a different day of the week and named after that day: Mona, Tootykins, Wendell, Thea, Frida, Sal and Sundae. These seven are open-minded and have heart. Their parents are off on an archaeological dig somewhere in the world, while 16-year-old Sundae is in charge of her siblings. For me, the strength in the story is in Lloyd’s richly developed characters. Baby Toot communicates with his siblings through his farts, which are footnoted at the bottom (i.e. #227: The Hushfart: Softer sounding than a referee’s whistle, but still shrill. Smells like dirty clothes. Means: be quiet!)

The plot is enchanting filled with wonder, mystery, danger and a lot of humor. And there are clues to a hidden  treasure. Moving into their grandpa’s house is an adventure, a new beginning and a chance to make new friends. Except the residents are suspicious and don’t welcome the children to their new town. There is history with the Problim family and people are afraid history may repeat itself. But the children are charming and find a way to work their way into some of the their hearts. Prediction: This will be a winner with readers! And they will be teased with the inclusion of the first chapter of the second book at the end.

Natalie Lloyd was born on a Monday (but she’s a Thursday girl at heart). She loves writing stories full of magic, friendship and the occasional toot, including A Snicker of Magic, which was a New York Times best seller, and Key to the Extraordinary. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband, Justin, and their dogs, Biscuit and Samson. Visit Natalie Lloyd at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

hour-of-the-bees-41ovl5tbiol__sx344_bo1204203200_Hour of the Bees

Lindsay Eagar, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 8, 2016

Pages: 360

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family relationships, Heritage, Magic, Grandfather, Dementia, Forgiveness, Understanding, Loss

Book Jacket Synopsis: While her friends are spending their summers having pool parties and sleepovers, twelve-year-old Carolina –Carol — is spending hers in the middle of the New Mexico desert, helping her parents move the grandfather she’s never met off his dying sheep ranch and into a home for people with dementia.

At first Carol keeps her distance from prickly Grandpa Serge, whose eyes are impossibly old and who chastises “Caro-leeen-a” for spitting on her roots. But as the summer drags on and the heat bears down, she finds herself drawn to Serge, enchanted by his stories about an oasis in the desert with a green-glass lake and a tree that gave the villagers the gift of immortality — and the bees that kept the tree alive.

When Serge weaves details of his own life into his stories and tells her to keep an eye out for the bees he is certain will return to the ranch and end the century-long drought, she chalks it up to dementia. But as the thin line between magic and reality starts to blur, Carol must decide for herself what is possible — and what it means to be true to her roots.

Why I like this book:

Lindsay Eagar’s heartfelt and sensitive intergenerational story is about finding and honoring your roots.  The language is strong and lyrical and captures the growing bond between Carolina (Carol) and Grandfather Serge. And there is an intermingling of Spanish and English that adds authenticity to the setting.

It also is a coming of age story for a 12-year-old Carol, who is the only family member interested in really getting to know her grandfather and is spellbound with his storytelling about a special tree that keeps the Spanish community safe, a girl who dares to leave and explore the world, and living forever.

The characters are realistic and believable. Carol is a curious, sweet, patient and reliable tween who is the only family member who respects and even admires her grandfather. She attempts to connect with him, even when he lapses into the past and mistakes Carol for her Grandmother Rosa. Grandfather Serge is a crusty old man who is battling dementia and won’t leave his run-down sheep ranch. He can spin a great story and Carol wants to hear them all.

The plot is original with moments of action and tension in the ravaged desert environment that will keep readers engaged. There are personality struggles that teens will relate to with Carol and her sister, Alta, and Carol’s father and Grandfather Serge. This magical story inside the story is beautifully written and one you won’t forget.  I LOVED The Hour of the Bees.  The ending is very satisfying and will capture  readers’ imaginations.

This is a helpful story for teens who have grandparents suffering with dementia. It gives them insight into ways of communicating and connecting with loved ones. It is also an interesting story to read, discuss and write about because of the many  layered themes.

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

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

Seventh Wish51YFk8Hy66L__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Seventh Wish

Kate Messner, Author

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, Fiction, Jun. 7, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Magic, Wishes, Ice Fishing, Irish Dancing, Siblings, Family Relationships

Opening: “I’ve only seen the ice flowers once.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: When Charlie Brennan goes ice fishing on her town’s frozen lake, she’s hoping the fish she reels in will help pay for her dream: a fancy Irish dancing dress for her upcoming competition. But when Charlie’s first catch of the day happens to be a talking fish offering her a wish in exchange for its freedom, her world turns upside down, as her wishes go terribly — and hilariously — wrong.

Just as Charlie is finally getting the hang of communicating with a magical wishing fish, a family crisis with her older sister brings reality into sharp focus. Charlie quickly learns that the real world doesn’t always keep fairy-tale promises and life’s toughest challenges can’t be fixed by a simple wish.

Why I like this book:

Kate Messner’s charming coming of age book, The Seventh Wish, is appropriate for all middle grade students. Her imagery is beautiful as she cleverly weaves magic into the story with Charlie’s catching a talking fish that grants her wishes. The wishes may at first seem like an easy way to help herself and her friends, but she soon discovers that life’s challenges aren’t always easy. Especially when Charlie discovers her older sister has a drug addiction and overdoses.

Messner bravely addresses some meaty issues, like heroin addiction, in an age-appropriate manner. I know this has caused some controversy. But I believe it is an issue that siblings may face with older brothers and sisters. And as in any family health crisis, Charlie feels invisible when her parents’ focus shifts to concern about Abby’s addiction and Abby’s treatment. Because of Abby, Charlie dreams are put on hold as she has to adjust her life, make excuses to her science fair team and dance friends, misses an important Irish dance competition and can’t buy her new glittery costume. I know some families who would appreciate this book.

The story is character-driven, with Charlie narrating. Her voice is an authentic and typical of a middle grade girl and a younger sister. She loves school and is interested in her friends and boys. Her passion is Irish dancing and she’s working hard to move up to higher levels of difficulty. She overcomes her fear of the ice and spends a lot of time ice fishing on the pond with her neighbor, Drew, and his grandmother,  Mrs. McNeill, who bring some balance to Charlie’s life. She catches a lot of perch and realizes that she can earn enough money to buy her first real dance glittery Irish dress.

The strong plot is clever and engaging. In the first half of the story we really get to know Charlie and her relationship with her family and friends. After the fateful call about sister’s overdose, the second half  focuses on Abby and the family in crisis mode. The pace is fast-moving with many unexpected twists that will have reader fully engaged and surprised. This is an excellent book that will help teens to discuss drugs and addiction with family and teachers.

Kate Messner is a former middle-school English teacher and the author of All the Answers, Wake Up Missing, Eye of the Storm, Sugar and Ice, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. and its e-book companion, The Exact Location of Home, Capture the Flag, Hide and Seek, and All the Answers. She has also written chapter and picture books. Follow Kate Messner at her website.

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