I Want to Be in a Scary Story by Sean Taylor

I Want to Be in a Scary Story

Sean Taylor, Author

Jean Jullien, Illustrator

Candlewick, Fiction, Jul. 11, 20017

Suitable for ages: 2-5

Themes: Monster, Scary story, Courage, Halloween

Opening: Hello, Little Monster. What do you want to do today? 

Publisher Synopsis: Our author would like to write a funny story, but his main character — Monster — has a different idea. He wants to be the star of a chilling, petrifying, utterly terrifying SCARY story. But scary stories . . . well, they can be very scary — especially for their characters! Particularly when they involve dark forests and creepy witches and spooky houses . . . Oh yikes and crikes, this is definitely not the scary story Monster had in mind! Maybe he wants to be in a funny story after all!

Why I like this book:

Sean Taylor has written a playful and clever story about the antics of a Monster who wants to star in a scary story, as long as he is the one doing the scaring. Taylor assumes the role of the narrator and commentator for Monster. The story is character driven and focuses entirely upon Monster. The text flows nicely as the narrator tries to help the Monster set the scene and select the characters. There is only one problem, the Monster doesn’t like dark forests, haunted houses, ghosts and witches.

This is a great example where Jean Jullien’s colorful, bold and creepy illustrations deliver a funny response, much to the delight of readers. The words and illustrations depend upon each other. Readers will focus on the hilarious facial expressions.  I Want to Be in a Scary Story is adorable and has a great ending. It is a perfect Halloween book for children.

Resources: Read the book again and have them help make up other stories for Monster. Give them paper and markers and let them make their own scary story. This is also a time to talk about what scares your child and what makes them feel safe.

Sean Taylor is an author, storyteller, and teacher who has written more than forty books for young children, including Don’t Call Me Choochie Pooh!, A Brave Bear and Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise.

*I won I Want to Be in a Scary Story on Mia Wenjen’s website, Pragmatic Mom. Visit her wonderful diverse children’s literature site.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit her website.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee

Alan Gratz, Author

Scholastic Press, Historical Fiction, Jul. 25, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Child Refugees, Immigrants, Germany, Cuba, Syria, Courage, Bravery

Synopsis: Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board the MS St. Louis, a ship bound from Germany to Cuba with 937 passengers. Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994, with riots and unrest plaguing her country. She and her family set out on a home-made metal boat, hoping to find safety in America. Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by war, violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek through Europe to find “home.”

All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.

Why I LOVE this book:

Alan Gratz had me sitting on the edge of my seat swiftly turning the pages of his powerful and heart-breaking story about three young refugees seeking safety from dangerous and life-threatening conditions in their countries. No matter what their country or culture, these three heroes share a desire for safety and a place they can call home. This is a difficult novel told with brutal honesty and sensitivity.

His storytelling is masterful as Gratz tackles past and current refugee stories and skillfully weaves them together to show their relevancy today. Each character’s story is told sequentially in alternating chapters. Gratz keeps readers turning pages because of powerful cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter. Readers won’t want to miss a moment of the story.

The characters are brave, courageous and resilient 11- and 12-year-olds, who are forced to grow up quickly and make life and death decisions that help their families survive. Josef becomes the man of the family when his father returns from a concentration camp emotionally damaged. Isabel sacrifices her beloved trumpet to purchase the gas needed to power their boat from Cuba to Florida, and she saves the boat captain when he falls out of the boat. When the raft Mahmoud and his family are riding in crashes into a rock and sinks, he makes the painful decision to save his infant sister by handing her to a woman in passing raft. He knows he may never see her again. Courage!

Refugee is well-documented. Even though the three main characters are fictional, their tales are based on true stories. The MS St. Louis was a real ship not allowed to dock in Cuba. The captain, the crew and many passengers mentioned were real. With food shortages in Cuba in 1994, Cuban president Fidel Castro did allow unhappy and starving to leave Cuba for five weeks without being thrown into jail. Many lost their lives at sea, while others call America their home. After six years of war, Syrians continue to flee their decimated country and their chapter in history is still being written on the world stage.

Refugee comes to a resounding conclusion, with the fates of the three protagonists revealed. It’s emotional and there are some unexpected reveals. This timely book can’t help but stir empathy among young readers and help them grasp their role as global citizens. Some readers may see their own family stories among the pages. Verdict: Refugee is a winner that should be required reading in school.

Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book that gives detailed information  about the research for each character.  There is also information about What You Can Do and maps that chart the routes of each child’s journey.

Alan Gratz is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including Refugee, Projekt 1065, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, and The Brooklyn Nine. Visit Gratz at his website.

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

A Time to Dance and a Book Giveaway

I reviewed A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, when it was first released in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books.  It is a beautiful story written in free verse.  The author has sent me an autographed paperback copy (2015) to give away to one lucky reader. All you need to do is leave a comment below indicate your interest, follow my website, and be a resident of the US or Canada. I will announce the winner on September 13.  I have included part of my earlier review of this remarkable gem. The hardback copy is a permanent resident on my bookshelf.

Suitable for ages: 12 and up

Awards: ALA Notable Book, Booklist Editor’s Choice, Kirkus, other national and international awards

Themes: Dance, India, Amputee, Disabilities, Abilities, Loss, Courage, Recovery

Book Jacket SynopsisVeda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance–so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown up used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling.

But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

Why I like this book: This inspirational and courageous novel is lyrical with each word carefully chosen.  Verse is the perfect medium. Padma Venkatraman weaves together a story about loss and resilience of a girl determined to dance once again her beloved Indian Bharatanatyam. This is not a story about disability, but one of ability. It is about finding the deeper spiritual meaning of the dance over the applause. “For my invisible audience of the One I begin to dance./ Colors blur into whiteness and a lilting tune that is and is not of the world resonates within and without me./ My body feels whole./In the beat of my heart I hear again the eternal rhythm of Shiva’s feet.”

Reading Venkatraman’s novel is an experience of India in all its beauty, cultural traditions, senses and sounds. If you listen closely you can hear the faint echo of a dancing rhythm. Thaiya thai. Thaiya thai.  I highly recommend this beautiful novel for tweens and teens who have faced challenges in their lives.  This book is a treasure!

Padma Venkatraman is a chief scientist and oceanographer by training and a writer by choice. She is the author of Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End, both multi-award winners.  Padma was born in India, but is now an American citizen. Visit Padma at her website. It has discussion questions and teaching resources.

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

Blossom Plays Possum by Birdy Jones

Blossom Plays Possum: Because She’s Shy

Birdy Jones, Author

Janet McDonnell, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Jul. 17, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Anxiety, Bashful, Shy, School, Animals, Courage

Opening: Ask me my name? Want me to play? Call on me in class? I say nothing and hope no one will see me. I call that playing possum. It’s my way of being shy.

Synopsis: Blossom is a talented possum. She makes glitter headbands, plays the flute and recites to her  audience of stuffed animals.  But no one knows what Blossom can do because she is bashful and freezes up when other kids invite her to play. Playing possum isn’t the best way to make friends.  She wants to interact with the other kids, but she doesn’t know how. With the support and encouragement from her classmates and her teacher, Blossom learns to take some risks and have some fun.

Why I like this book:

Birdy Jones has created a believable main character in her story about an adorable possum who “plays possum” so that no one will notice her. Blossom is so shy around people that she freezes. Children will enjoy the fun wordplay with “possum.”

It is a realistic story about children dealing with common social anxieties. Many children will identify with Blossom, who is afraid of trying new things for fear of saying the wrong thing, being laughed at and making a mistake. This lovable possum will help kids talk about their own fears and anxieties and show them there is nothing wrong with being shy or making mistakes.

Janet McDonnell’s delightful and whimsical illustrations add a flare of drama and humor to the story as she shows Blossom playing possum — hanging upside down on the monkey bars or lying on her back with mouth wide open and all four limbs stiff in the air.

Resources: The book is an excellent resource for parents and teachers. There is a Note to Parents and Other Caregivers at the end of the book with more information and resources about overcoming shyness.

*The publisher provided me with an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Birdy Jones loves to tell stories. Her debut book Mister Cool was named an Anti-Bullying Book of 2014 by Publisher’s Weekly.  She is a supporter of “We Need Diverse Books,” and stays engaged with hot topics that affect young readers today.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea

Lauren Wolk, Author

Dutton Children’s Books, May 2, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Abandonment, Orphan, Identity, Family, Love, Elizabeth Islands, Sea

Prologue Opening: “My name is Crow. When I was a baby, someone tucked me into an old boat and pushed me out to sea. I washed up on a tiny island, like a seed riding the tide. It was Osh who found me and took me in. Who taught me how to put down roots, and thrive on both sun and rain, and understand what it is to bloom.”

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. 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. Even though Miss Maggie sent telegraphs to the other Elisabeth Islands asking if anyone was looking for a new-born, there were no responses. The rest of the islanders are afraid Crow was born on Penikese Island, which housed a colony of lepers. They keep their distance and won’t allow her to attend school with their children.

Crow feels a connection to Penikese and knows in her heart the island is part of her history. One night she spots a mysterious fire burning across the water on Penikese. She convinces Osh and Miss Maggie to take her there. Little does Crow know her quest will lead her down a path of self-discovery, danger and a villain who thinks she has something he wants.

Why I recommend this book:

Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea is a brilliantly crafted novel that is mysterious, breathtaking and heartbreaking. It is set in 1925 on the tiny island of Cuttyhunk where Osh and Crow experience an unlikely new beginning together. The untamed beauty of the sea and island becomes a powerful character that weaves their lives together. The setting, the characters, the plot and the gorgeous imagery create an extraordinary experience for readers.  

The characters are complex and memorable. Crow is a determined, curious and resilient girl. Her greatest gift is her intuition which nudges her to piece together the puzzle that reveals her own history. It is a joy to experience the story narrative through her innocent, yet wise character. Osh is a quiet and kind-hearted man with secrets of his own. He leaves a world at war behind him to live alone on Cuttyhunk. Crow’s unexpected arrival by sea changes Osh’s solitary life and he becomes a caring and protective father. Crow grows up happy and safe with Osh teaching her everything she needs to know about the ocean, the moon, the tides and the weather. Miss Maggie is outspoken with a voice like thunder and a heart that embraces Crow with grand-motherly affection. She schools Crow since she isn’t permitted to attend classes with the locals. Miss Maggie is the only one on the island who isn’t afraid of Crow. Both Osh and Miss Maggie support Crow’s journey to uncover her past.

The plot is courageous, gripping, and dangerous. Wolk’s deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. There are secrets, unexpected surprises and some harrowing moments for all the characters. Crow learns that family is about the people who care about you no matter what. Wolk nicely pulls everything together in a realistic and satisfying ending.

Lauren Wolk is an award-winning poet and author of the critically acclaimed Wolf Hollow, described by The New York Times Book Review as “full of grace and stark, brutal beauty.” She is a graduate of Brown University with a degree in English Literature.  She lives on Cape Cod. Visit Wolk at her website.

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

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

       World Refugee Day, June 20, 2017

The Only Road

Alexandra Diaz, Author

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Book, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Child Refugees, Immigration, Guatemala, Courage, Hope, Freedom, Multicultural

Awards: Pura Belpre Honor Book and ALA Notable Book

Book Synopsis: 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 Ángela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother, Tomas, in the United States.

Inspired by true incidents, The Only Road tells 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 like this book:

Alexandra Diaz’s novel is powerful and timely. It is about two cousins fleeing from dangerous drug  trafficking gangs in Guatemala and making the treacherous journey north to the United States. There are no guarantees that they will survive. Their story is heartbreaking, but it underscores the problem of why many Central American children illegally immigrate to America.

The richly textured Latino text is peppered with Spanish words and expressions, which contribute to the reader’s experience. At the end of book, there is a glossary of words and expressions used throughout the story.

The story is distinctly character-driven. Jaime’s third person narrative will move readers. Twelve-year-old Jaime is driven by his grief over the death of his cousin. Jaime is brave and compassionate. He’s also a talented artist and sketches his journey. Fifteen-year-old Ángela is  a mother figure for Jaime and to other younger children they meet along their trip. She’s smart, cautious and reminds Jaime they can’t trust anyone. She’s particularly adept at changing her Guatemalan accent to a Mexican accent so she can fool immigration officers (la migra) and town locals. When they need more money for safe passage across the border, Jaime draws portraits and Ángela alters clothing for women.

The plot is multilayered, gripping and complicated. The trip is long and hazardous, which Diaz handles with care. Jaime and Ángela dodge brutal gangs, bandits, and immigration officers. Food and water is scarce. They are herded into a freight car heading north and nearly suffocate from the heat. They rest at safe houses and make friends with other teens who teach them survival techniques. They learn how to hop freight trains (la bestia) and ride on top the cars as they travel north through Mexico to the border of New Mexico. Their final challenge will be to find the right smuggler (coyote) who will help them safely cross the Rio Grande.

Immigration is a hot topic today. The UN reports there are 10 million refugees world-wide. This is an important book for middle school libraries to help students gain a better understanding of refugees, immigration and the reasons they risk their lives to find freedom.

Alexandra Diaz is the author of When We Were, which was an ALA Rainbow List book and a New Mexico Book Award finalist. Alexandra is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Make sure you read her Author’s Note at the end of the book that will give you further insight into immigration. Visit Diaz at her website.

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

Hand Over Hand by Alma Fullerton

Hand Over Hand

Alma Fullerton, Author

Renné Benoit, Illustrator

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Fishing, Gender roles, Courage, Empowerment, Intergenerational, Multicultural

Opening: On the shores of a Filipino fishing village an old banca boat rocks as waves lick its keel. WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH.

Synopsis: Nina wants to convince her grandfather – lolo –  to take her fishing with him on his old banca boat. Lolo’s answer is always the same: “A boat is not the place for a girl. Your job is on shore.”  Nina doesn’t want to dry fish with the women and is determined to show her grandfather that a girl can go fishing and do everything a boy can do. When she promises lolo that she will bait her own hook and remove her own fish, her grandfather says “Okay, we will try it. Just for today.”  The other fisherman scoff.  While lolo’s buckets fill with fish, Nina waits for a single tug. Will she prove to her village that a girl can fish?

Why I like this book:

Alma Fullerton has written a charming story about a Filipino girl with big ambitions and a lot of courage. It is also an empowering story for children to see Nina believe in herself. She wants to prove to her grandfather and her village that a girl can do what ever she wants. She’s smart and doesn’t give up, especially when she’s not getting any nibbles.

This a beautiful intergenerational story that celebrates the relationship between  a grandfather and his granddaughter who spend the day fishing together. Lolo is very patient with Nina and offers her helpful advice. And Nina makes lolo proud when she reels in the biggest catch of the day and proves that she can do anything.

The text is lyrical and has a rhythm to it like the rocking of a boat. Nina observes lolo’s fluid and swift movements “hand over hand ” and “fish after fish.” Children will enjoy the repeating this refrain with Nina throughout the story. Renné Benoit’s illustrations are soft and soothing watercolors that contribute to the mood of the story and show the joy of Nina’s journey .

Resources: This is a perfect classroom discussion book for all young children. Use Hand Over Hand to start a conversation about how girls and boys see each other. Can girls put worms on hooks, become scientists, or drive a truck? Can boys tap dance, babysit, or become a nurse?  The story takes place in another country. Do they think there may be more gender stereotypes for children living in another country like the Philippines?

Alma Fullerton is the award-winning author of the picture books A Good Trade, Community Soup and In a Cloud of Dust, When the Rain Comes. Visit Fullerton at her website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.