If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

If You Plant a Seed 511V106f+0L__SY498_BO1,204,203,200_If You Plant a Seed

Kadir Nelson, Author and Illustrator

Balzer + Bray/Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Fiction, Mar. 3, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Animals, Nature, Planting and Growing, Sharing,  Seeds of kindness, Generosity, Friendship

Opening: “If you plant a tomato seed, a carrot seed, and a cabbage seed, / in time, / with love and care, /  tomato, carrot and cabbage plants will grow.”

Synopsis: Rabbit and mouse, plant seeds in their garden. They patiently tend to their garden and watch the rain and sun do their magic. As the fruits of their labor begin to pay off they do their happy dance and marvel at the sweetness of their bounty. When five birds appear from the sky, rabbit and mouse try to protect their vegetables from their winged friends.  The birds stare them down (illustrations are priceless) and pandemonium breaks out, until mouse gives the birds a peace-offering. Because of mouse’s act of generosity, the birds return with seeds of kindness and friendship reigns.

Why I like If You Plant a Seed:

Kadir Nelson’s If You Plant a Seed is a timeless story for the entire family that will charm you from the first double-spread to the last. His spare and clever text makes this story an easy book for kids to read alone or to a sibling. It shows children what happens when you are selfish and hoard your bounty. And it teaches them what happens when they are kind and share with others — friendships form. These are values they will easily understand. The cover is gorgeous. Nelson’s beautiful, oversized oil paintings are breathtaking! Facial expressions are dramatic, expressive and humorous. The vegetables look so real, that you want to reach out and take a bite of a carrot or tomato. If You Plant a Seed has heart, humor, connection and friendship. It  is a treasure! Visit Kadir Nelson online at his website.

Kadir Nelson won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award and Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. He received Caldecott Honors for Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he also garnered a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and won an NAACP Image Award. Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. Nelson’s authorial debut, We Are the Ship, was a New York Times bestseller, a Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book. He is also the author and illustrator of the acclaimed Baby Bear.

Penny and Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars

Penny & Jelly9780544280052-276x300Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars

Maria Gianferrari, Author

Thyra Heder, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiction, Jun. 14, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Sleepover, Dogs, Stargazing, Creativity, Solutions, Friendships

Opening: “Hooray!” said Penny. “Tomorrow is Sleepover Under the Stars Night, Jelly!”

Synopsis: Penny is excited when she receives an invitation to a sleepover under the stars from the recreation center.  She calls her four best friends to see if they are attending. Penny begins to make a list of what she needs: sleeping bag, pillow, PJs, book and Jelly. Then Penny realizes that the invitation says “no pets allowed.” She comes up with an idea to make a  pretend Jelly — out of paper, yarn, fleece, vegetables, marshmallow, cotton balls and clay. But, her creation just isn’t her beloved Jelly. Penny must find a solution.

Why I like Penny & Jelly:

Maria Gianferrari has written a perfect summer read for children about a determined girl and her devoted dog.  Slumber parties and outdoor sleepovers are a summer tradition for children. I especially like that this slumber party is about stargazing, a great activity for children to learn about constellations. Penny is a fun-loving character full of heart, who sports mismatched socks with every page turn. She’s imaginative, curious, enjoys picking out star constellations, and is resourceful in finding a solution to her problem. Thyra Heder’s  warm watercolor illustrations are cheerful, expressive and eye-catching. The characters are diverse.  I love the book cover. Verdict: This captivating story will be a popular summer read with children and parents as it lends itself to many discussions. Visit Penny & Jelly at their website.

Maria Gianferrari is also the author of Penny & Jelly: The School Show.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly 513tozBfREL__SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Listen, Slowly

Thanhha Lai, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Feb. 17, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Vietnam, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture-shock, Diversity, Intergenerational relationships, Family relationships, Respect, Friendship, Vietnam War, History

Synopsis: Mai is a 12-year-old California girl eager to spend her summer vacation at the beach with her best friends. Instead, her Vietnamese parents have planned her summer for her. They want Mai to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam so she can meet a man who may provide her answers to her husband’s disappearance during the war and find some closure. Her parents also want Mai to learn more about her own roots, meet relatives and develop some bonds. Mai barely understands the language. Trapped in a remote village, Mai must find a balance between her two different worlds if she has any hopes of surviving Vietnam.

Why I like this book:

  • Thanhha Lai beautifully crafted a love story between a granddaughter and her grandmother, as they travel to Vietnam together. It is a powerful intergenerational novel for teens.  It is richly textured, emotional, honest and humorous.
  • Lai skillfully shows Vietnam as a land of many contrasts. Her setting is very realistic of Vietnam today.  Lai’s writing touches all the senses so that the reader smells, hears, sees, and feels the unforgiving heat, heavy rain, sticky moisture, nasty mosquito bites, pungent smells, toxic fumes, noises and seas of mopeds on the overcrowded streets of Hanoi.
  • This is touching character-driven story. Mai (Mia) is a head-strong, outspoken, humorous and compassionate protagonist. In the beginning, Mai’s constantly plotting her trip out of Vietnam. Every angry/whiny text message to her mother begins with “I want to come home.” As she settles into the gentle pace of life surrounding her, it is a joy to watch Mai deal with the culture shock and mature. She’s a trooper and her challenges turn into acceptance of her doting family and surroundings. Mai’s fragile grandmother has clung to the old ways and is proper. She is patient, tender, quiet-spoken. Her family is surprised by her strong resolve to track down important leads that may reveal the truth of her husband’s death. Mai’s cousin, Ut, is the complete opposite of Mai. She wears a buzz haircut, crumpled pants and t-shirts, and hangs out with her frogs. They become partners in crime that lead to many hilarious moments.
  • The plot is multi-layered, complicated, courageous and hopeful. Lai delves deeply into Mai’s loneliness, the shock of living in an unfamiliar culture and the courage that it takes for her to handle a difficult situation. There are unexpected surprises and a realistic and satisfying ending.
  • I enjoyed learning about modern Vietnam. The story is so detailed that it feels like you are walking with Mai as she experiences the homeland of her family. I loved this story.

Thanhha Lai is the author of the Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winning Inside Out & Back Again. Click [here] to read my review. She was born in Vietnam and now lives with her family in New York. Visit Lai at her website.

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

The Great Good Summer

Great Good Summer 51pFkPl3l2L__SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The Great Good Summer

Liz Garton Scanlon, Author

Beach Lane Books, Fiction, May 5, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Runaways, Mothers and daughters, Absent mother, Family and Faith, Adventure, Friendship, Forgiveness

Pages: 213

Opening: “God is alive and well in Loomer, Texas, so I don’t know why Mama had to go all the way to The Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida to find him, or to find herself, either.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Ivy Green’s summer has gone all topsy-turvy since her mama ran off to The Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida with a charismatic preacher who calls himself Hallelujah Dave.

Hallelujah Dave, for goodness sake.

Ivy’s been left behind with her daddy and with the painful mystery of her missing mama. It’s no wonder she starts to lose faith in nearly everything she’s always counted on.

Meanwhile, Ivy’s friend Paul Dobbs is having a crummy summer too. The Space Shuttle program’s been scrapped, and Paul’s dream of being an astronaut look like it will never get off the ground. So Ivy and Paul hatch a secret plan to set things right and maybe, just maybe, reclaim their faith in the things in life that are most important.

Why I like this book:

Liz Garton Scanlon’s emotional and heartfelt story is a timely story for teens with realistic issues like parental betrayal and abandonment. It is also a lovely coming of age story as Ivy Green is pressed to rely on her own inner resources and an unwavering faith to track her mother from Texas to Florida. She sets off on a secret adventure with her best friend, Paul Dobbs, who is logical and obsessed with science and space. While their mission is to find Ivy’s mother and bring her home, they also plan to visit the Kennedy Space Center.

The plot is strong and complex, deftly interweaving the lives of two very good friends, Ivy and Paul. It is packed with so much suspense (one-way bus tickets, thugs that steal Ivy’s money, a jail visit) that it moves along rather quickly. The text is smart and polished. And, you have to love that cover!

Ivy is a strong and smart character, with a believable voice. She is the perfect narrator because she doesn’t hold back. She’s not afraid to ask tough questions, weave a few lies, stand up to her father, tell people off,  handle the truth and learn to forgive. Paul is the opposite of Ivy. He’s a dreamer, but offers a level-headed balance to Ivy’s impatience. Their friendship is honest and moving.

I was concerned the book would be heavy on a debate between religion and science, but it turns out that’s not what the story is about. The discussions between Ivy, who has faith and Paul, who only believes in science, add for some really great conversations that tie everything together at the end.  And it opens room for discussions among readers. The story does give readers a sense of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie. Verdict: This is an excellent summer read for tweens and teens.

Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of many celebrated picture books, including Happy Birthday, Bunny!, Noodle & Lou, and All the World. The Great Good Summer is her first novel. Visit her at her website.

The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob: Into the Lead

Blue Olbrys.ITL.CVR.08-10-15.LRThe Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob: Into the Lead

Brooks Olbrys, Author

Kevin Keele, Illustrator

Children’s Success Unlimited LLC, Fiction, Apr. 19, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 6-10, Early Chapter Book

Themes: Ocean Journey, Marine Life, Environment, Nature, Facing Fears and Challenges, Setting Goals, Making Friends

Award: Academic’s Choice Smart Book Award

Opening: “On a beautiful isle in the Sea of Kerchoo, / there lived a small boy with a big job to do. / Blue Ocean Bob worked for Mary Marine. / He protected the sea life and kept the shore clean.”

Synopsis: One morning while Blue Ocean Bob is tying his boat to the dock, a jolt knocks him off his feet. An earthquake makes a deep crack in the ocean floor and creates an oil spill that endangers the marine life of Kerchoo. With the help of Marine Mary and Doc, the wise sea turtle, Bob faces a big challenge that requires him to temper his fear and dive with Mary to repair the damage. When they return he learns from Wallace Walrus that a great white shark has been beached because of the quake. With the help of his island friends they float the shark back into the sea.

Marine Mary puts Bob in charge while she travels to another island to aid with a problem.  Bob faces another challenge when some dolphins get caught in a net and he relies upon his sea friends to help with the rescue. The Island Council is pleased with Bob’s work, but Bob’s feels overwhelmed and realizes he needs some extra help. He finds an assistant in a Molly, who he meets at the shore.

Blue Ocean Bob photoB17Photo compliments of Brooks Olbrys

Why I like this book:

  • This is the third book in Brooks Olbrys’ The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob series. Olbrys has created a delightful and engaging sea adventure about Bob, a boy on a journey to pursue his dream of becoming a marine biologist and protecting the sea life and the ocean environment. Bob is an excellent role model for children.
  • The book is written in rhyme and is nicely paced. It is clever storytelling that will engage younger children who aren’t able to read alone. The plot is strong and packed with action. Each of the five chapters brings a new challenge for Bob. He learns to face his fear, develop a positive attitude, be courageous, and thoughtfully plan his missions. As he succeeds he becomes more self-confident and takes on more responsibility. Older readers will be drawn to Bob’s passion and enjoy the visit to the Sea of Kerchoo.
  • The characters are endearing, quirky, believable and faithful friends. Bob seeks advice from his mentor, Mary Marine, Doc, the wise sea turtle, Wallace the walrus, and Al the free-spirited dolphin. Xena is Bob’s lovable sidekick, always warning Bob about danger and adding some comic relief.
  • Readers interested in oceanography, marine life and protecting the environment, may want to check out the first two books in the series, The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob: A Journey Begins and The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob: A Challenging Job.
  • Kevin Keele’s rich and breathtaking illustrations of the marine life and Sea of Kerchoo fill every page and bring each chapter to life. Make sure you check out the end pages to view a map of the Island of Roses. The collaboration is a perfect marriage of art and text.

Resources: Parents and teachers can download a free Activity Guide on the Blue Ocean Bob website. You can also download iPhone and iPad apps. Endangered Species Day was celebrated May 20. Check out the National Marine Life Center where children can learn more about rehabilitation, adoption of rescued sea turtles and seals, and what they should do if they find stranded marine life.

Brooks Olbrys: Inspired by his son, Olbrys created this unique marine life series to share timeless achievement principles with children.  His over-arching theme is that “a positive attitude can help one overcome what at first may appear to be insurmountable obstacles.

Blackbird Fly

Blackbird Fly 51bUN1QbdVL__SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Blackbird Fly

Erin Entrada Kelly, Author

Greenwillow Books, Fiction, Mar. 24, 2015

Paperback Reprint Mar. 1, 2016, 320 pages

Suitable for Ages: 8-12 years

Themes: Bullying, Outcasts, Filipino Americans, Family relationships, Friendships, Middle School, Music, Multicultural

Book Synopsis:  Twelve-year-old Apple Yengko believes that there are at least three interesting facts about every person on Earth. Unfortunately, her three IFs make her an outcast in Chapel Spring Middle School in Chapel Spring, Louisiana. She has slanted eyes, a weird Filipino nickname, and a weird mother.

When Apple is voted the third ugliest girl in school, her life quickly falls apart. The boys bark at her in the halls and rumors spread that she eats dogs for dinner. Music is her only escape. All she needs is enough money to buy a guitar, and then she’ll be able to change herself and her life forever. So what if her mother doesn’t understand and thinks she’s becoming too American. So what if her supposed best friends turn the other way…

It might be the Beatles and their music who save Apple, or Mr. Z (Chapel Spring Middle’s awesome music teacher) — or it could be two unexpected friends who show her that standing out in a crowd is better than getting lost in it.

Why I like this book:

  • This is a painfully realistic story by Erin Entrada Kelly about the impact of bullying on an Filipino-American teen who is trying to find her place in a Louisiana middle school. It is an emotionally honest novel about Apple, who feels like an outsider because of her ethnic background. Her best friends turn on her and their boyfriends put Apple on a secret Dog Log list of the ugliest girls at school. Teens who feel different and deal daily with cruelty in middle school, will find Apple a must read.
  • Apple is a strong, smart, quirky and likeable character who loves the Beatles, wants to play the guitar, and be the next George Harrison. Music is her only link to her deceased father. Her over protective mother forbids her to play the guitar or join the school swing choir at school. Apple is embarrassed by her mother who speaks with an accent, clings to old values and cooks Filipino foods. She becomes friends with a new boy, Evan Temple, who is self-assured and doesn’t care what others think of him. He accepts Apple for who she is and encourages her music. They befriend Helena Moffett, who is overweight, is on the Dog Log and has a secret weapon — a powerful singing voice.  Together, the three friends take on the bullies.
  • Kelly’s first-person narrative is extremely effective. The plot is courageous and stays true the theme of what it feels like to be an outsider. I love that Apple spreads her wings like her favorite Beatles song, Blackbird. The pacing is fast, which makes this novel a quick read. There are many unexpected surprises, including the ending which is happily satisfying. 

Erin Entrada Kelly grew up in south Louisiana. Her mother was the first in her family to immigrate to the United States from the Philippines.  Blackbird Fly is her debut novel. Visit Kelly at her website.

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

Since many of my reviews include diverse books, please check out Diverse Children’s Booksa brand new book-sharing meme designed to promote the reading and writing of children’s books that feature diverse characters. This community embraces all kinds of diversity including (and certainly not limited to) diverse, inclusive, multicultural, and global books for children of all backgrounds. Spread the word by using #diversekidlit on Twitter. Check out the logo in my sidebar.

Echo

Echo 51Onv891e1L__SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Echo

Pam Munoz Ryan, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Feb. 24, 2015

Winner of the 2016 Newbery Honor

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Harmonica, Music, Destiny, Nazi Germany, Pennsylvania orphans, Mexican-Americans, WW II, Japanese-Americans, Family relationship

Opening: “FIFTY YEARS BEFORE THE WAR TO END ALL wars, a boy played hide-and-seek with his friends in a pear orchard bordered by a dark forest.”

Synopsis: Otto runs into the forbidden forest to hide from his friends. He becomes lost and is rescued by three sisters who are imprisoned in a circle of trees by a witch’s spell. The sisters are musical and they each impart a different tune into Otto’s harmonica. He promises to help free them by carrying their harmony out into the world and passing the harmonica along to other musicians who will add their musical gift. Decades later, the harmonica graces the lives of three children who are living in horrific situations: Friedrich, who has a birthmark and doesn’t fit in 1933 Nazi Germany; Mike and his little brother Frankie, who are finding a way to survive a deplorable orphanage during the depression in Pennsylvania; and Ivy, a Mexican-American girl in California, whose brother is a soldier and her family is caring for a farm left by a Japanese family who is sent to an internment camp.

Each child is already musically talented and they become linked together as destiny places Otto’s  harmonica into their hands. They each recognize that the harmonica is powerful and like no other instrument they’ve heard before. Playing it brings each of them courage, hope and joy during dire times. The thread that binds them together comes together in a magnificent ending.

Why I like this book:

  • Pam Munoz Ryan literally sweeps me off my feet with her thrilling and brilliant storytelling.  Her writing is polished, her narrative inspires one to believe in the power of music to heal and change lives, and her plot is complex.
  • Ryan thinks outside the box as she writes her masterpiece, Echo. Although there is an element of fantasy in Echo, I am delighted that the book is a great work of historical fiction that will engage many teens. It focuses on Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the Great Depression, Mexican-American itinerate farmers, World War II, and the anti-Japanese sentiment in America.
  • The author led me to care about four very different and memorable characters in a very human way. The book begins and ends with a fairy tale with Otto’s encounter with three mysterious sisters. The novel is told in three parts, each devoted to Friedrich, Mike and Ivy’s stories. The children face dire challenges as they struggle to keep their families together: rescuing a father from prison, protecting a brother in an orphanage, and dealing with poverty, discrimination and keeping a family together. The author builds tension and momentum by leaving their stories unfinished, until the story comes full circle.
  • I am a musician, so the idea of a harmonica infused with the melodious spirits of the three sisters  captivated me and I wondered how it would play out in the story. Each of the three children add their own energy and wisdom to the harmonica as they play it and pass it along. The thread that ties their destiny together is revealed at the end in a resounding crescendo that is spellbinding and beautiful. This novel captures my heart and I will read it again.

Pam Munoz Ryan is the author of over thirty books. Her most recent novels include the award-winning The Dreamer and Esperanza Rising. She is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Human and Civil Rights Award and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for multicultural literature. You may visit Ryan at her website.

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