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.

Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold

Undiscovered Country

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 4,2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Grief, Coming of age, South America, Humanitarian work, War, Mental Illness, Ethnic Minorities

Book Jacket Synopsis: You can run from grief, but it will follow…

Cat’s life is divided. There is the time Before her mom died, and After. When her mom got sick, Cat still did her homework and got accepted into a prestigious college, while her father slowly shut down. Now, everything seems meaningless.

Before, Cat was happy and had momentum. After, she feels stuck. And angry. There might be five stages of grief, but Cat can’t get past stage two. She’s so filled with rage, her doctor tries to medicate her. A pill to make her feel like a zombie? No thanks.

When Cat finds a brochure for Students Without Boundaries – a volunteer program that will send her to South America — she grabs it. It’s her escape from the memories of her mother and the reality of her absence. But life as a “voluntourist” is not an escape. The new people and places Cat meets bring new perspectives and challenges she never expected. Life may still have meaning after all.

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Gold has written a compelling coming of age story about Cat, who is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life after the death of her mother. Gold’s story is carefully crafted with skill and depth.

The story is written in first person with alternating chapters. The “Before” story focuses on Cat’s close bond with her mother throughout her battle with cancer and final moments of death. It is powerful and it carries secrets that will give readers insight into Cat’s choices to leave. “After,” shows Cat’s journey to the jungles of South America, the extreme hardships, poverty, violence, and danger she encounters and her important work in the Infirmary. The alternating chapters work because of the strong “Before” storyline.

The characters are authentic and vulnerable. Cat is a strong and convincing character that readers will connect with and like from the start. She knows that doing humanitarian work in of a war-torn country is a way for her to not dwell on her mother’s absence in her life. She meets other volunteers in the program, like Taylor, Margo, and Melody, who are running away from their own demons in a similar manner. Rafael is a local, who captures Cat’s heart. He heads up a local  resistance movement against the corrupt government and makes deals with some dark figures. Cat’s relationship with him is tricky and will challenge her to make grown-up decisions.

Readers will find the plot is courageous with complicated and multi-layered themes I haven’t even mentioned. The jungle setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are dripping in sweat, slapping huge mosquitoes, and checking their boots every morning for snakes. It is not a safe place to be with danger an ever-present concern.  The tension is palpable and will keep readers engaged.

Jennifer Gold is a lawyer and mother of two. She is the author of the YA novel Soldier Doll. A history buff, she also has degrees in psychology, law, and public health. She lives in Toronto. Visit Gold online 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 turn 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.

Halito Gianna: The Journey Continues by Becky Villareal

Halito Gianna: The Journey Continues

Becky Villareal, Author

CreateSpace, Fiction, Dec. 27, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 7-11

Themes: Exploring family roots, Multicultural, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Mystery

Opening: Halito means hello in Choctaw, but I didn’t find that out for a long, long time. At least that’s how it seems when you’re still in school and having to go every single day of the year!

Synopsis: Gianna is a fourth grader who came to America from Mexico. She is very interested in exploring her family’s roots.  Her teacher announces that the class will celebrate Halloween with a Book March and students are encouraged to wear a costume that matches a character in a favorite book. Gianna wants to dress as a Native American girl to honor her favorite book, The Rough-Faced Girl. While she searches her attic for costume possibilities, she discovers an old trunk that is full of old family pictures of Mexico, passports, and memorabilia. She realizes how much she doesn’t know her family history. Her mama tells her that her father was a soldier at Fort Bliss in El Paso and was shipped overseas. He didn’t return and her mother never knew what happened to him. Gianna decides that she’s going to find out. With the help of the social studies teacher, she learns how to search information about her father on veteran’s sites. With her new best friend, Aponi, who is Native American and speaks Choctaw, she begins to learn about her friend’s culture.  Aponi helps Gianna with her search, which takes a very unexpected turn. Will Gianna find her father and solve the mystery for her mother?

Why I like this book:

Becky Villareal has written a captivating chapter book about a girl interested in researching her family roots, finding answers about her father’s disappearance and learning something more about her own identity. Halito Gianna: The Journey Continues is the second book in the Gianna The Great series. It teaches young readers about genealogy, history, solving a mystery and tolerance for different cultures.

Gianna Saldana is a curious, determined and kind-hearted girl. She befriends Aponi, the new girl who is shy and self-conscious. Both characters are from different family backgrounds. Gianna’s mother is a single parent raising her daughter alone. Aponi is from a very large family, many living in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

The story is original and well-crafted, the plot is realistic and the ending will surprise and satisfy readers. It is an adventure story with a fun mystery to solve. Villareal incorporates both Spanish and Choctaw words throughout the story. The illustrations are colorful and cartoon-like. Verdict: This 37-page book will engage readers and is an excellent recommendation for reluctant readers.

Becky Enriquez Villareal is the author of Gianna the Great series. She was born in Dallas, Texas in 1954 to missionary parents. She grew up in several different Texas towns including McKinney. For twenty years she has taught early childhood in Dallas Independent School District. For the past ten years she has completed family research. The grandmother of three she enjoys writing and spending time with her family.

Resources: This is a wonderful discussion book for children and parents to explore their own family history. Answer your kids’ questions about your childhood and family life. Encourage them to interview their grandparents and great grandparents about their memories of family history so they have a sense of their roots.  They may be surprised about what they learn.  Visit Villareal‘s website, where kids can print out a variety of family trees and fill in their own family information.

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 in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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.

Cinderstella: A Tale of Planets Not Princes

Cinderstella: A Tale of Planets Not Princes

Brenda S. Miles and Susan D. Sweet, Authors

Valeria Docampo, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Oct. 17, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Gender Roles, Self-Confidence, Stepfamilies, Family Relationships, Dreams

Opening: Once upon a time there lived a  girl named Cinderstella. She had two stepsisters who made her work every day. But every night, Cinderstella climbed to her treehouse to be close to the stars.

Book Jacket Synopsis: Cinderstella has plans for her own happily ever after and a future princess she is not. She’d rather be an astronaut.

In this modern retelling of a beloved fairy tale, children are encouraged to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Cinderstella dares to be different, has a sense of curiosity, and knows what she wants. A universe of opportunities.

Why I like this book:

The authors have created a meaningful and entertaining retelling of the classic fairy tale, but with an inspiring twist. The text flows nicely and rhymes in places.  Cinderstella dreams of becoming an astronaut. While her stepsisters keep her busy sewing gowns for the ball, shining jewelry and styling their hair during the day, at night she studies the stars and planets and creates her own universe of dreams. She convinces her fairy godmother that she doesn’t want a gown and a carriage, but prefers a spacesuit and a rocket so that she can travel into space.

Cinderstella dreams big and steps outside gender specific pursuits. Refreshing. Her interest in science, technology and becoming an astronaut, should be encouraged in young children of either gender who show an interest.

Valeria Docampo’s colorful, lively and dreamy illustrations capture the wonder of what happens when you have a big dream. The authors and illustrator team up to produce a winning book for children.

Resources: There is a Note to Readers that provides suggestions for parents, caregivers, and educators to spark children’s interest in science and to encourage the pursuit of any career despite lingering stereotypes about what boys and girls can and should do.  This should help parents who may not know where to begin. Encourage kids to dream big. Take them outside to gaze at the stars. If you have a trunk of dress-up clothing for kids, add an astronaut costume. Use the book to help children draw their own space ship.

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.