The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff

The Great Treehouse War

Lisa Graff, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 16, 2017

Suitable for Ages : 8-12

Themes: Parents, Divorce, Interpersonal relationships, Friendship, Tree houses, Humor

Synopsis: On the last day of fourth grade, everything in Winnie’s world changed. That was the day Winnie’s parents got divorced and decided that Winnie would live three days a week with each of them and spend Wednesdays by herself in a treehouse smack between their houses, to divide her time  evenly. Before the divorce, her parents didn’t care much about holidays except Thanksgiving. When her mother realized she was never going to celebrate Thanksgiving with Winnie because it fell on Thursday, she decided to pick a new holiday and celebrate it better. The competition began and soon every day was a special holiday, as each parent tried to outdo the other: Ice Cream Sandwich Day, Underwear Day, National Slinky Day, Talk Like Shakespeare Day, and so on. Winnie was kept so busy, she couldn’t study or finish her homework. Wednesdays in the Treehouse became a sanctuary with her cat, Buttons. When her teacher warned her she was at risk of  not passing fifth grade, Winnie had enough. That’s when Winnie’s seed of frustration with her parents was planted.  That seed  grew until it felt like it was as big as a tree itself.

By the end of fifth grade, Winnie decided that the only way to change things was to barricade herself in her treehouse until her parents come to their senses.  Her friends ,who have their own parent issues,  decided to join her. It’s kids versus grown-ups, and no one wants to back down first. But with ten demanding kids in one treehouse, Winnie discovered that things can get pretty complicated pretty fast!

Why I like this book:

Lisa Graff’s witty storytelling makes The Great Treehouse War a superb summer read for kids. And it will fulfill any child’s dream of wanting to live in a treehouse — especially a two-story treehouse built 15 feet off the ground.  It is equipped with a bathroom, art station, skylights, bookshelves, a toaster oven, shelves full of fruit loops and a zip line escape to Winnie’s Uncle Huck’s house.

It is a cleverly designed book by Graff for kids who are in fifth grade and preparing to move on to middle school. It offers readers both tantalizing prose and humorous drawings and doodles, maps, sticky note comments, how-to instructions, plans, and treehouse rules. It has a comic book appeal to it and is perfect for the intended age group.

There are 10 Tulip Street kids with 10 very distinct and quirky personalities, which add to the fun and mayhem. Their diversity is uneventful, because the only way you know they are diverse is by their names like Winifred Malladi-Maraj (aka Winnie). Winnie is a spunky, creative, compassionate and courageous heroine.  She possesses what she and Uncle Huck describe at “artist vision,” where she is able to intuitively observe the needs of others. Her cat, Buttons, is the greatest cat in the world.  Other memorable characters include: Lyle and his tooth collection; Jolee the scrabble champ; Greta and her friendship bracelets; the twins Brogan the acrobat and Logan the jokester; and Tabitha and her lizards.

The plot is wacky and unique because Winnie’s divorced parents have her trapped in the middle of their selfish battle for equal access to their daughter. Any child being pulled in two different directions by divorced parents, will relate to the unfairness of it all.  Graff’s silly and sometimes outrageous approach to divorce is age appropriate and makes the topic easier to digest. There are other unusual subplots that make this book such a clever read, but I won’t spoil it for readers.

Lisa Graff is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of A Clatter of Jars, Lost in the Sun, Absolutely Almost, A Tangle of Knots, Double Dog Dare, Sophie Simon Solves Them All, Umbrella Summer, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, and The Thing About Georgie. You can visit Lisa Graff at her website.

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

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

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The Warden’s Daughter

Jerry Spinelli, Author

Alfred A Knopf, Fiction, Jan. 3, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

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

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

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

Why I liked this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Peddles by Elizabeth Rose Stanton

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Elizabeth Rose Stanton, Author and Illustrator

Paula Wiseman Books/ Simon & Schuster, Fiction, Jan. 6, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Pigs, Barnyard animals, Dreams, Dancing, Friendship, Humor

Opening: “Peddles was just a pig. He lived on a farm with the other pigs, doing the usual pig things: eating and sleeping and oinking and rooting and wallowing and…”

Synopsis: Unlike the other barnyard pigs, Peddles sees life differently. He thinks about eating pizza, soaking in a bath tub, sitting on a toilet and going into space. The other pigs tease him, but Peddles’ dreams even bigger. One night he hears a joyous sound coming from the barn and watches humans stomping and twirling. He wants to dance. When he finds a pair of red boots in a bag of shoes, he tries them on, stands up, falls over on his back  and can’t get up. His friends step in and give him a nudge.

Why I like this book:

Elizabeth Rose Stanton has written a playful and adorable story about Peddles, a pig with big dreams. Peddles will charm you from the first to the last page. What child would not giggle at the sight of pig poop! And look at that cover!

This is a humorous story about self-discovery and friendship. Children will cheer for Peddles for his big ideas and seeing a life for its possibilities. They will ache when he falls down on his back and they will smile when his friends nudge him forward. Children will identify with Peddles and laugh at the unexpected ending. The text is spare with humorous and expressive illustrations that will melt your heart. This is a wonderful example of how Stanton’s colored-pencil and watercolor illustrations really show the story.

Elizabeth Rose Stanton is the author of Henny, a rollicking story about a chicken with arms. Visit Stanton at her website.

Hildie Bitterpickles Needs Her Sleep

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Robin Newman, Author

Chris Ewald, Illustrator

Creston Books, Fiction, Feb. 23, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Witch, Noisy neighbors, Problem-solving, Differences, Humor

Opening: “There’s a little-known secret about Hildie Bitterpickles. She needs her sleep.”

Synopsis: A redheaded young witch prepares for bed. As she cuddles with her cat, Clawdia, she hears a very noisy, “CLANGITY, CLANK, CLUNK, all night long.”  She discovers that a giant has moved in next door. The neighborhood gets another jolt when an old woman moves in with a brood of noisy children and a wolf blows off the roof of her house. In exasperation Hildie turns to Rat Realty to find a new home in a quiet neighborhood, only to discover moving isn’t her answer. What will Hildie do to get a good night’s sleep?

Why I like this book:

What a pickle! Robin Newman has written a playful and clever fractured fairy tale about a young witch who learns some very important lessons about getting along with her rambunctious neighbors. Moving away and avoiding them isn’t an easy solution. Hildie discovers that if she confronts her problems with her neighbors, they are willing to work with her to find solutions. This is also an important story about honoring the differences in others.

Newman’s story is character driven, with a feisty and determined witch. Readers will delight in spotting a host of fairy tale characters that include blind mice, black sheep and other familiar storybook figures. The pacing is perfect with quirky and humorous storytelling. Chris Ewald’s gauzy, caricatured images are expressive, colorful and funny. My favorite illustration shows Hildie standing between the Giant’s two very hairy feet. There is a perfect marriage between text and artwork.

Resources: This is a lively classroom discussion book about avoidance versus confrontation. Visit Robin Newman’s website where you will find a free teacher’s guide download and view the video trailer for Hildie Bitterpickles Needs Her Sleep. Children can also make their own Hildie Bitterpickles paper dolls.

Robin Newman is the author of Wilcox and Griswold: Case of the Missing Carrot Cake.  Newman will publish another Wilcox and Griswold mystery sequel, The Case of the Poached Egg, in the spring of 2017, and No Peacocks!, illustrated by Chris Ewald, in the fall of 2017. Newman was a practicing attorney and legal editor, but now prefers to write about witches, mice, pigs and peacocks.

Lost Dog by Michael Garland

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Michael Garland, Author and Illustrator

Holiday House, Fiction, Aug. 10, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Dogs, Animals, Road trip, Lost, Grandma

Opening: “Pete went to see Grandma. She lived on Mutt Street.”

Synopsis: A big dog Pete sets off to visit his grandmother on her birthday. He carefully wraps a present, signs a birthday card and picks some flowers and heads to his little yellow car. As he drives to Mutt Street there are too many cars stuck in traffic, so he gets off at an exit and drives and drives. He finds himself at the top of a mountain and is lost. Along the way he meets a bear, a bird, a big cat, a walrus and a whale who point the way. Will Pete ever find Mutt Street and visit Grandma?

What I like about Lost Dog:

Lost Dog is an “Easy Reader” and Garland uses spare text, repetition and an engaging plot for children learning to read on their own. Garland’s signature double page-spreads feature lively, expressive and colorful illustrations that will appeal to children. Each spread highlights a host of friendly animals in their natural environment. In Pete’s  journey to find his grandma on Mutt Street, Garland takes readers on a journey around the world. Lost Dog also indirectly encourages children who may become  lost to ask for directions or help. It is also a great discussion book about learning to follow directions. This delightful story will engage children who will have fun pouring over the details on each page. Visit Michael Garland’s website to view all of his books.

Lost dog whale photo22-23B

Compliments of Michael Garland

Resources: One of the things I like about this story is that it indirectly addresses spatial issues for young children. I know my daughter had a hard time with directions and I made up games when we went to visit grandparents, a friend, or a favorite store. I would play games that helped her distinguish between right and left turns and encouraged her to memorize landmarks. Spatial training needs to begin with young children. There are many resources on the internet. Visit Laura Leticia‘s Pinterest page on Following Directions. She shares activities, games and resources to help children learn directions.

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. 

Billy’s Booger

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William Joyce (and his younger self) Author and Illustrator

Athenum Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Jun. 2, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Imagination, Books and reading, Authorship, Memoir, School, Contest

Opening:Once upon a time, when TV was in black and white, and there were only three channels, and when kids didn’t have playdates — they just roamed free in the “out-of-doors” — there lived a kid named Billy.”

Synopsis: Billy has a huge imagination and thinks about class rooms in tree houses, gravity shoes, jet packs and automatic page turners. He likes to draw on his math tests and homework, read comic books, study the newspaper “funnies,” watch monster movies and invents his own sports. His teacher and principal find Billy the most challenging student — ever. The librarian announces a contest to see which student can create the best book. Billy is excited and researches, writes and illustrates his masterpiece. He is living his dream! Perhaps this will be Billy’s chance to show his talent.

Why I like this book:

This inspiring and highly entertaining picture book is about the young William (Billy) Joyce. Readers are given a peek at the man Billy will someday be. Joyce’s richly painted and expressive illustrations give readers a sense of life in the 1960s.

This book is about Billy’s childhood.  Children will fall in love with Billy’s overactive imagination, unconventional antics and his determination to march to his own drum beat. It is also a story about Billy’s first attempts to write his first book, Billy’s Booger: The Memoir of a Little Green Nose Buddy. Who would have ever thought that his journey as an author would begin with a quirky book about a booger.

The original fourth grade book is inserted inside the book on manila paper. Billy’s story is packed with spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors which adds a certain charm to reading about the super booger that gives Billy amazing super powers in math. Children are going to cheer Billy’s wacky imagination and pour over the details of his book.

Joyce’s book carries a very strong message for children not to give up on their dreams and be true to themselves. It also emphasizes that not everyone will like your work (especially teachers and librarians,) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an audience out there. There’s a great ending to this story, but you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Resources: Parents and teachers check out the suggestions and Activity Sheets for using Billy’s Booger in the classroom. I’d love to see this book in every school library.  I hope teachers and librarians use Joyce’s book in their lesson plans to encourage students to write a book about anything that inspires them. What a wonderful way to encourage children to dream big.

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.