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.

Changing Fate by Michelle Merrill

Changing Fate

Michelle Merrill, Author

CreateSpace, Fiction, May 6, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Chronic Illness, Cystic Fibrosis, Transplants, Secrecy, Friendships, Hope

Opening: “I reach into my backpack and wrap my fingers around my pill-box, but I can’t seem to pull it out. Maybe I’m a little embarrassed about taking meds with every meal…or maybe it’s the girl with the blue-streaked hair who’s staring at me from across the cafeteria. She steps towards me. I grip the container and flip the lid open.”

Book Synopsis: All Kate wants is to live. Battling cystic fibrosis is hard enough, dying from it is even harder. When her mom moves them closer to the hospital in the middle of her senior year, Kate’s determined to isolate herself – saving everyone the trouble of befriending a dying girl. It’s a difficult task when cheerful optimist Giana insists on being Kate’s friend.

Kate’s resolve falters even more when curly-haired Kyler captivates her with his sweet melodies. As her emotional walls collapse, Kate realizes the people she’s been pushing away may be the ones giving her a reason to live. But it might be too late.

Why I like this book:

There are few novels published for teens with cystic fibrosis (CF) and their families and friends. Kate’s story gives readers an authentic  look into what it’s like to live with CF and have a normal life. It’s a daily battle for Kate to breathe, let alone focus on friendships and outside activities.

Michelle Merrill has written a powerful and beautifully crafted story that is filled with vivid imagery, fear, anger, humor and courage. The characters are colorful, realistic and well-developed.

Kate is a determined and gutsy teen who keeps her CF a secret from the very classmates who are eager to befriend her, especially after she uses her black-belt skills on a lunch-room thief.  There is no resisting upbeat Giana who insists on being Kate’s best friend. And there is Kyler, with a freckle on his upper lip, soft curly hair and a song in his heart. They become a close threesome and Kate realizes their friendships give her a reason to live. Even Vivian, the school bully, manages to find a way into your heart.

The first half of the story gives readers a glimpse into Kate’s daily routine that includes taking enzymes before meals to help her digest  food, nebulizer medications that help her breathe more easily, and a compression vest to loosen mucous in her lungs. There are trips to the ER and hospital stays when she develops a lung infection. Her journey is realistic.

The second half of the story is very fast-paced with unraveling secrets and many unexpected surprises that keep you fiercely turning pages. It is an emotional story, so grab a tissue box. I won’t give away any spoilers because this book is one to savor.

Merrill did her homework. The idea for the story is based on a friend of the author’s two daughters. It is well-researched and I am thrilled to share her novel with readers. It is important for teens to see themselves in others. Each case of CF is different. Visit Michelle Merrill at her website.

Resources: I recently learned that cystic fibrosis is called a “rare” disease because there aren’t enough individuals with CF to meet the magic number for major medical research funding. Sad. To learn more about cystic fibrosis visit their website. This book with pair nicely with The Baking Life of Amelie Day, by Vanessa Curtis.

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

The Grand Wolf by Avril McDonald

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The Grand Wolf

Avril McDonald, Author

Tatiana Minina, Illustrator

Crown House Publishing Limited, Fiction, Apr. 26, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Animals, Wolf, Death, Dealing with Grief, Accepting Change, Friendship

Opening: “Once in a while, / on a clear sunny day, / Wolfgang would go / to the Grand Wolf’s to play.”

Synopsis: Wolfgang and his friends enjoyed visiting the Grand Wolf.  Grand Wolf always had fresh bread baking in his house and toys in his shed. He’d take Wolfgang on long walks and show him things in the forest. But one day when Wolfgang and his friends went for their visit, they sensed something was wrong. The Wise Owl tells them that Grand Wolf has died. At first they are angry and don’t believe Owl.  Spider helps them deal with their grief and reminds them Grand Wolf will always be in their hearts and memories.

Why I like this book:

I am in awe of Avril McDonald’s tender and wise book about dealing with grief. The lovely rhythmic language and the beautiful illustrations blend perfectly to explore the emotional journey of love and loss, breaking your heart and then helping it to heal.  The book is so well written and talks about death in such a way that is perfect for children.  Wolfgang and his friends express their disbelief and anger and share their tears as Wise Owl and Spider support them, help them deal with this major change in their lives and remind them that just because someone is gone doesn’t mean they have left your heart.  Tatiana Minina’s colorful, bold and expressive illustrations really contribute to the book’s message.

The Grand Wolf is part of McDonald’s Feel Brave Series of books which are designed to help children deal with real life situations, manage tough emotions and reach their potential. Each book tells a story about a real life situation that children may face and offers simple coping strategies.  Each of the five books helps children deal with self-confidence, anxiety and fears, change, grief, loss, worries and bullying.  Follow Avril McDonald on her Feel Brave website.

Resources: This book is a great discussion book and resource for families and educators to use to talk about death with young children.  It is a helpful book for a family dealing with grief, approaching grief or separation. There is also a Feel Brave Teaching Guide available along with a CD.

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.

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.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

last-cherry-blossom-9781634506939_p0_v2_s192x300The Last Cherry Blossom

Kathleen Burkinshaw, Author

Sky Pony Press, Historical Fiction, Aug. 2,  2016

Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 11-13

Themes: Hiroshima, Children of war, WW II, Love, Loss, Traditions

Opening: “Get under your desks — now!” Yakamura-sensei shouted above the lonesome wail of the air raid siren.

Book Synopsis:  Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her five-year-old cousin, Genji, are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage.  And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.

Why I like this book:

Kathleen Burkinshaw’s debut novel is powerfully penned, authentic, emotionally raw and deeply personal. It is a captivating journey about life, love, secrets, pain, loss and hope that will tug at your heart long after you put the novel down.

Even though there are frequent air raid drills and black-out curtains, traditional Japanese life continues with a strong sense of community. The first half of the story focuses on family, cultural traditions, food preparation, ceremony, ritual, and the beautiful cherry blossom and New Year’s festivals. There are family secrets, the angst of adolescence and enduring friendships. Readers will easily fall in step with the pace of life in Japan before it begins to change.

The story is character-driven, with Yuriko narrating. Reader’s will be captivated by Yuriko’s curiosity, spirit, and strong will, which is nurtured by her papa, who publishes the newspaper. Their bond is tight and he tells her bedtime stories of their samurai ancestors and how they are the last branches of their family tree. Yuriko shares secrets and a love of jazz music with her best friend Machiko.

The plot picks up momentum as more soldiers are being sent to war and not returning home. Rumors spread that there isn’t enough scrap metal to build Japanese planes. The Emperor sends out propaganda that the Japanese are beating the Allies in the Pacific.  But, the Americans bomb Nagasaki.  Air raid sirens are going off many times daily. And in a blink of an eye there are war planes flying low overhead.  Sirens sound. There is an eruption of bright light and loud sounds. Yuriko’s world implodes that tragic day.

This is a dark period in humanity’s history 71 years ago. Children will learn that Japanese children shared the same fears as the children in Allied countries during World War II.  Her novel speaks to the enduring will to survive. It is my hope that Burkinshaw’s novel will help readers humanize historical events that have radically changed our world and take them more seriously as they become our future leaders.  The author’s mother shared her story because she felt “the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, is unacceptable.”

Resources: There is a very helpful glossary of Japanese words and expressions that are used throughout the novel, an Author’s Note, and Statistics About Hiroshima.

Kathleen Burkinshaw wrote The Last Cherry Blossom based on her mother’s story of growing up in Hiroshima during World War II. She was twelve years old when the bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945. Visit Kathleen Burkinshaw at her website.

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

Note: Watch for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which will be celebrated on Jan. 27, 2017. Hashtag: #ReadYourWorld.

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.