A Month of Mondays by Joëlle Anthony

A Month of Mondays

Joëlle Anthony, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 7, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Abandonment, Family Relationships, Courage, Self-confidence, Healing

Opening: I have three women who think they’re my mom. My sister Tracie has mothered me since I was three, when ours left us. Aunt Jenny steps in when an authority figure is needed and she thinks my dad’s being a slacker. Caroline, the one who gave birth to me? She sends the checks.

Book Jacket Synopsis: This can’t be good! Suddenly Suze’s mom wants back into her life and her teacher wants her to “try harder”?”

As if middle school wasn’t hard enough, Suze Tamaki’s life gets turned upside down where her mother reappears after a ten-year absence. Once Suze gets over her shock, she thinks it might be cool to get to know her mom. But her older sister Tracie is determined not to let her back into their lives, after she walked away without an explanation.

At school things aren’t much better. One of her teachers decides the way to cure Suze’s lack of motivation is to move her into Honors English — a development Suze finds both inspiring and distressing. When she’s paired with straight-A student Amanda on an English assignment, she finds herself caring about people’s expectations like she’s never done before.

Why I like this book:

Joëlle Anthony’s has written a complex and heartwarming story that focuses on the impact of parental abandonment, complicated family relationships and healing.

There is a great cast of quirky characters, who are believable and well-crafted. Suze, is an engaging and edgy narrator. She perceives herself as an underdog at school. But she is smart, curious, and determined character who takes risks that often land her in detention. Her older sister, Tracie, is protective and makes Suze sign a contract to never have contact with their mother. No one in the family talks about her mother, Caroline, including her father, or aunt and uncle. Her friends Jessica and Amanda provide some normalcy in her life. Readers will relate to Suze and her quest to know her mother.

The plot is realistic, the tension is palpable, and the solutions flow organically.  Suze wants to get to know her mother, but is a conflicted. Their first contacts are awkward. Caroline is late, leaves to make phone calls, or has to work late. She sends gifts that aren’t appropriate.  But they work at their relationship and Suze begins to find answers to her questions. The pacing is a bit slow in the beginning, but it picks and keeps the reader turning pages. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

Joëlle Anthony is the author of Restoring Harmony, The Right & the Real, and Speed of Life (writing as J. M. Kelly). Visit Anthony at her website.

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

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice

Hena Khan, Author

Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fiction,  Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Pakistani and Asian Americans, Friendship, Peer Pressure, Family, Muslim Culture, Community, Prejudice, Racism

Opening: Something sharp pokes me in the rib. “You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class. I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.

Book Jacket SynopsisAmina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American,” now that she is to become a citizen. Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with  these questions, her local mosque is vandalized, and she is devastated.

Why I like this book:

Hena Khan has written a timely and empowering novel about a young Muslim American girl, who finds her voice with the help of friends, family, and community.

Khan’s novel is multi-layered with many themes. The central theme of Khan’s book is about what it’s like to be a Muslim girl growing up in America. She takes her readers into a loving and strict Muslim family, where cultural traditions are at the center of their lives, from praying, studying the Quran and meal preparation, to the respect shown to visitors and the value of community.

The main characters are multi-dimensional and diverse. Amina is a kind-hearted, shy, and talented pianist and vocalist. Her best friend, Soojin, is Chinese and wants to change her name because no one knows how to pronounce it. Bottom line, she wants to fit in. This raises important questions for Amina. Would the popular kids like her better if she changes her name? How does she be true to her Muslim values and still be American? Many readers will identify with the angst of middle school as they navigate through those sensitive years. Amina’s story will also resonate with children of immigrants.

The language is carefully crafted and uplifting. The plot is realistic and leaves readers with hope even after the Islamic Center is attacked and vandalized. It is heartwarming to see how the community rallies behind the Muslim community by inviting them to use their churches and providing labor to rebuild the center. It beautifully demonstrates to readers the meaning of our common humanity. I know my community would come to the rescue of our Muslim neighbors. Verdict: This book belong in every middle grade library. It’s a treasure!

Hena Khan is a Pakistani American who was born and raised in Maryland. She enjoys writing about her culture. She is the author of several books, including It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Night of the Moon. You can learn more about Hena Khan by visiting her website.

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

The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla

The Someday Birds

Sally J. Pla, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Jan. 24, 2017

Suitable for Age: 8-12

Themes: Birding, Family Relationships, Road Trip, Injured Father, Autism Spectrum, Different Abilities, Hope

Opening: “My hands aren’t really clean until I’ve washed them twelve times, one for each year of my life. I soap-rinse-one-soap-rinse-two, open my palms to scalding water, and repeat.  I do it quick, so no one notices…”

Book Jacket Synopsis:  Charlie wishes his life could be as predictable and simple as chicken nuggets. And it usually is. He has his clean room, his carefully organized sketchbooks and colored pencils, his safe and comfortable routines.

But his perfectly ordinary life has unraveled ever since his war-journalist father was injured in Afghanistan. Now his life consists of living with Gram, trips to the hospital, and wishing things were back to normal.

When his father heads from California to Virginia for further medical treatment, Charlie reluctantly travels cross-country with his boy-crazy sister, unruly twin brothers, and a mysterious new family friend, Ludmila. Charlie loves birding. Along the way he decides that if he can spot all the birds that he and his father have hoped to see someday, then maybe just maybe, everything might turn out okay.

Why I like this book:

This is a heartwarming, compelling and hopeful debut novel by Sally J. Pla.  It is convincingly written  with skill and compassion. The family is in crisis mode. Charlie’s father has suffered a traumatic brain injury and is not responsive. It’s difficult for the siblings to deal with the unknown, especially since they’ve already lost their mother. Fortunately they have Gram to ground them.

The characters are rich, messy and real. Charlie narrates and guides readers through the trials of a 12-year-old who is trying to navigate a world that he doesn’t understand. His views are brutally honest and sometimes hilarious. Charlie’s voice makes this story sing. Kudos to the author for not labeling Charlie as being on the autism spectrum. His siblings treat him as their annoying brother with quirky behaviors and different abilities, like birding. Readers will cheer for Charlie as he steps outside his comfort zone, takes some risks and has a little fun. Gram is stern and loving, but amuses her grandkids with her sideways swearing with phrases like bee-hind, flipping heck and gosh-dang. Ludmila has an Eastern European accent and a painful story to share.

The setting is vivid and realistic with an adventurous cross-country road trip for the siblings with Ludmila behind the wheel of a camper, Old Bessie. They visit observatories, national parks, museums along their way. The plot is multi-layered with many themes. It is fast-moving with suspense, surprises and endearing moments. It is a story that celebrates family, heart, connection, love, humor and hope. Their  journey is one of healing and acceptance for everyone.

Even though this book is targeted towards middle grade readers, it is a book that would appeal to older teens and adults. This novel is a treasure! You may want to visit Sally J. Pla’s website.

Resources: April is World and National Autism Month. You may want to check out the following links for more information: Autism Society, Autism Speaks, Autism Acceptance Month, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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

Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

Red Butterfly

A. L. Sonnichsen, Author

Amy June Bates, Illustrator

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Free Verse, Feb. 2, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Abandonment, Abnormality, Adoption, Family relationships, China, Multicultural

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant in Tianjin, she was born with only two fingers on her right hand. She was taken into the home of an elderly American couple living in China. Her parents never tell authorities about finding Kara or try to formally adopt her, which leaves Kara without an identify. When papa’s teaching job is finished he returns to Montana.  Her mama remains because she can’t bear to part with Kara.

Much of Kara’s life is isolated to keep her safe. She has a daily routine that includes study, but doesn’t attend a Chinese school or have any friends. Her English is excellent, but she can’t read or write in Chinese. When her loud and overbearing American half-sister Jody comes for a visit and ends up in the hospital, the authorities are suspicious. They discover her mama’s visa expired and Kara’s is taken to an orphanage, where she is put up for adoption.

Why I like this book:

This is a complex and multi-layered story where Kara is the innocent victim of secrecy and poor choices made by her foster parents. A.L. Sonnichsen has written a deeply moving story about Kara learning to find her voice and discovering that love knows no boundaries. It is an emotional read.

Free verse is the perfect medium to share this story because it is told in Kara’s voice, which shows her confusion, desperation and loss. The language is beautifully executed, lyrical and carefully crafted with skill and a lot of depth. The story is beautifully paced and a quick read. Amy June Bates pen and ink  illustrations add a creative flare to the spare text.

The plot is courageous and complicated. A.L. Sonnichsen delves deeply into the loneliness of a pre-teen trying to make sense of her mother’s secretive behavior. When the walls crumble around Kara, she has to find her way forward. She begins to find her strength at the orphanage where she helps care for the abandoned children with disabilities. She learns to build trust with some compassionate souls who try to make things right for her.

I enjoyed learning that the author grew up in Hong Kong and spent eight years there as an adult, where she was visited many local orphanages. Her passion for the abandoned children became the inspiration for the story.  Chinese law is complicated and it took the author and her husband seven years to adopt their daughter from a Chinese orphanage. During that time she worked with an organization that worked to improve conditions in orphanages.

Resources: There is a beautiful Author’s Note that talks about her personal experiences in China, as well as the “fall-out” from China’s one-child policy. There is a Reading Group Guide at the end, which would be perfect for classroom discussions. Visit the author at her website.

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

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

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The Warden’s Daughter

Jerry Spinelli, Author

Alfred A Knopf, Fiction, Jan. 3, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Growing up in a prison, Motherless, Grief, Coming of age, Courage

Opening: “It’s a BIRDHOUSE NOW. It used to be a jailhouse. The Hancock County Prison…It looks like a fortress from the Middle Ages…The prison was a city block long. It was home to over two hundred inmates, men and women, from shoplifters to murders. And one family. Mine. I was the warden’s daughter.”

Synopsis: Cammie O’Reilly lives in an apartment above the entrance to the Hancock County Jail in Pennsylvania with her father, the warden. She’s twelve years old and motherless. Her mother was killed in a tragic accident when she was a baby.  Cammie spends much of her time mad at the world and heaven.  She searches for mother figures in the only women she knows — the inmates she spends her mornings hanging out with in the women’s exercise yard. They are not ideal candidates, like the  flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo. But she settles on trying to make the family’s housekeeper, Eloda Pupko, her mother figure. Eloda understands Cammie better than anyone. She see’s Cammie’s torment, knows she is headed for trouble, and helps her grieve in an unexpected way.

Why I liked this book:

Spinelli’s novel will tug at reader’s heart-strings from the first page. This compelling and emotionally deep novel is a coming of age story about a troubled teen who has never really dealt with the tragic death of her mother — a mother she never had the chance to know. Instead she’s grown up in an odd and cold atmosphere not meant for a child. And she yearns for the warmth of a loving relationship with a mother and family. The subject of grief is realistically tackled with honesty and sensitivity.

Spinelli’s novel is fast-paced, tightly plotted, and the tension palpable. It will keep readers engaged. The story is driven by a cast of colorful characters who are dealing with their own demons. They add for many somber and humorous moments to the story. Cammie’s narrates the story with her strong voice, fiery personality and a determination that earns her the nickname Cannonball. She’s in danger of lighting the fuse, as her anger reaches a boiling point over the summer.

Readers will enjoy exploring the prison fortress and life behind bars, visiting the death tower with its dangling noose and hanging salamis, spending time in the prison exercise yard and meditation area, and walking the forbidden outside deck.

Jerry Spinelli is the author of many books for young readers, including Stargirl; Love, Stargirl; Milkweed; Crash; Maniac Magee, winner of the Newberry Medal; Wringer, winner of a Newbery Honor; Eggs; Jake and Lily; and Knots in my Yo-yo String, his autobiography.  Visit Jerry Spinelli at his website.

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

Loving Vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

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Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case

Patricia Hruby Powell, Author

Shadra Strickland, Artist

Chronicle Books, Historical Fiction, Jan. 31, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Interracial Marriage, Race Relations, Prejudice, African-Americans, Civil Rights, Social Justice, Virginia, Supreme Court

Synopsis: This is the story about Mildred Jeters, an African-American girl, and Richard Loving, a Caucasian boy, who live near one another, are childhood friends, and fall in love.  Mildred becomes pregnant in 1957 and delivers their first son. and a second son in 1958. They want to get married, but in Virginia, interracial marriages are against the law. They decide they won’t allow Sheriff Brooks and the government to tell them who they can marry. They travel to Washington D.C. and are married by a preacher. When they return home to Caroline County, Virginia, they have to be careful. They are arrested and put in jail. They are released as long as Mildred lives with her parents and Richard lives with his family. Even though they hire an attorney and go to court, they are not allowed to be seen together. They move to Washington D.C. to live with family. Richard continues to work as a brick layer in Caroline County and drives the 90 miles back Washington D.C. to spend the weekends with his wife  and children. After living in Washington D.C. for five years, Mildred hates the noise and crowded city and longs to raise her children in rural Virginia. After being arrested sneaking home, they contact the American Civil Liberties Union and meet an attorney, Mr. Cohen. He is eager to help the Loving’s face each stage of the legal system and takes their discrimination case to the highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court.

What I like about this book:

Patricia Powell chose to write the narrative of this powerful story in free verse, alternating the voices of Mildred and Richard. It effectively achieves a balance between the Loving’s beautiful love story and their determination to fight the discrimination to live as husband and wife and win. The last thing the wanted was publicity. They wanted to raise their growing family at home in Virginia, where their children could run barefoot through the grass, see the stars at night and be near grandparents.

The author and artist craftily weave factual information, photographs and illustrations around the lyrical narrative, which lends itself to “visual journalism,” says Strickland. There are page inserts about court rulings on school segregation; the Virginia state, federal and supreme courts refusal of interracial marriages; and the U.S. Supreme Court final ruling in 1967 to uphold the 14th Amendment. There are news clippings from former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a 1958 map showing the 24 states that banned interracial marriage. There are photographs showing the contrasts between white schools and black schools, protest marches for and against integration and equality.

I’m in awe of the massive amount of research that went into this masterful book. Strickland’s  artwork of Richard and Mildred and their family throughout their story is a light and moving  tribute to their deeply moving journey that lasted about 10 years. She used photographs from  LIFE magazine to create her lively and brush and pen illustrations, which compliment the conversational text between Richard and Mildred.

Middle Grade students will find this oversized book a page-turner. Because it is in verse, it is a quick read. It belongs in every school library. It is a beautiful love story and a book full of resources with historical timelines and more information about the Loving family.

June 12 will be the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling by Chief Justice Warren on Loving Vs. Virginia.

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

The Thing About Leftovers by C.C. Payne

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The Thing About Leftovers

C.C. Payne, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Jul. 19, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes: Divorce, Family Relationships, Cooking Contest, Friendships

Synopsis: 12-year-old Fizzy is dealing with a lot of change in her life since her parents divorce, including a new stepmother. She’s moved to a new town, Lush Valley, where yards are manicured and the girls at school dress like models. Fizzy doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere — at home with her mother’s new boyfriend or her father’s perfect wife. She also is on the wrong side of the principal and her math teacher because she’s always tardy; her mother always runs late. Fizzy’s life seems to focus around constantly packing and unpacking her suitcase as she is shuffled back and forth between her parents homes every week. She feels like a leftover, no matter how hard she tries to be perfect.

Fizzy is luck to have her Aunt Liz, who shares Fizzy’s passion for southern cooking. When her aunt tells her about the Southern Living Cook-Off, Fizzy is fired up. Cooking is a distraction for Fizzy. So she and her aunt begin sorting through possible family recipes. Fizzy is talented at taking a recipe and making it her own.  She’s excited about the famous cooking contest, her new friendships with Miyoko and Zach, and her dream of winning. If she succeeds, maybe her parents will notice and love her.

Why I like this book:

C.C. Bell has written a novel that will have universal appeal for teens dealing with the complexities of divorce, separation, parental loss, step-parents and blended families. Payne’s skillfully weaves the metaphor of left-overs throughout the story to depict Fizzy’s predicament. People aren’t crazy about eating left-overs, just as Fizzy feels like she’s “the left-over kid from a marriage and a family that no longer exists.” Her parents are so preoccupied with their own lives, she feels invisible and not appreciated.

The book is character-driven and the plot is realistic. It is an entertaining read about a tough topic. Fizzy narrates the story. Payne nails Fizzy’s dramatic, sarcastic, and witty voice. She digs deeply into Fizzy’s turmoil and her tendency to internalize her hurt feelings, which is a big problem for her. Instead of talking over her worries with her parents, aunt  or a school counselor, she lets everything simmer until her pain reaches a boiling point. Perhaps readers will learn from Fizzy and make different choices about their own lives. Others will cheer for Fizzy. Verdict: Be ready to both cry and laugh as you read The Thing About Leftovers! It’s a winner!

For teens who enjoy cooking, this book would pair nicely with the Baking Life of Amelie Day, about a girl with Cystic Fibrosis who competes in a cooking contest. Each protagonist has a different challenge, but the cooking themes link these two novels and makes them satisfying reads.

C.C. Payne is the author of Something to Sing About, Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair.  Visit C.C. Payne at her website.

Note: A special thank you to Rosi Hollinbeck. I won the copy of this novel on her blog, The Write Stuff,  last September. I really enjoyed spending my evenings with Fizzy in The Thing About Leftovers.

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