The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

The Last Mapmaker

Christina Soontornvat, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Apr. 12, 2022

Pages: 368

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Fantasy, Mapmaking, Explorers, Ship, Adventure, Dragons

Book Jacket Synopsis:

In a fantasy adventure every bit as compelling and confident in its world building as her Newbery Honor Book A Wish in the Dark, Christina Soontornvat explores a young woman’s struggle to unburden herself of the past and chart her own destiny in a world of secrets. As assistant to Paiyoon, Mangkon’s most celebrated mapmaker, twelve-year-old Sai plays the part of a well-bred young lady with a glittering future. In reality, her father, Mud, is a conman.  In a kingdom where the status of one’s ancestors dictates their social position, the truth could ruin her.

Sai seizes the chance to join an expedition to chart the southern seas, but she isn’t the only one aboard with secrets. When Sai learns that the ship might be heading for the fabled Sunderlands—a land of dragons, dangers, and riches beyond imagining—she must weigh the cost of her dreams. Vivid, suspenseful, and thought-provoking, this tale of identity and integrity is as beautiful and intricate as the maps of old.

Why I like The Last Mapmaker:

Set in a Thai fantasy world, The Last Mapmaker is a suspenseful and thrilling high-seas adventure that will captivate readers, It will introduce them to some history of early colonizers exploring uncharted countries and staking their claims. And sometimes there are environmental consequences that are detrimental to the country.  

Soontornvat’s richly textured novel is original, fast-paced and tightly plotted with surprise twists, secrets, and betrayals that will keep readers engaged. Her prose is lyrical and visual. Readers will experience both the beauty and wrath of the sea, deal with sea sickness, smell the salty air, and enjoy the time in ports.

The diverse cast of characters are complex, messy and real. Sai is a determined and resourceful character who dreams big. She gets her chance when the aging mapmaker, Paiyoon, invites Sai to assist him on expedition to chart and discover the fabled Sunderlands for the Queen. His handwriting has become shaky and Sai can duplicate his writing without anyone knowing — their secret. He is somewhat fatherly toward Sai. The Captain of the ship is a female war hero, Anchalee Sangra, who is professional and aloof. Sai connects with the Captain’s friend Rian Prasomsap, who takes her under her wings, but she has her own agenda. Readers will enjoy seeing women in leadership roles.  Sai recognizes a crew member on the ship, Grebe, who could reveal some of her own secrets. And Sai’s relationship with with a colorful pickpocket/stowaway, Bo, could get her in a lot of trouble. 

When the Captain suddenly falls ill, the voyage takes a dramatic turn and the captain’s friend, Rian takes command of the ship. She convinces the crew to chart a course for the fabled Sunderlands, a place thought to be beseeched by dragons. 

This story deals with some serious themes written in a way that is relatable to middle grade students. It has a contemporary takeaway for readers about being true to yourself and charting the right course in your life when others disagree — much like navigating a course through an unmapped ocean.  It is easy to lose yourself in The Last Mapmaker. I highly recommend this story to those who enjoy fantasy, adventure and history. I will be reading this gem again!

Christina Soontornvat is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for children of all ages, including A Wish in the Dark and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, both of which received Newberry Honors. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, two young children and one old cat.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

Over and Out by Jenni L. Walsh

Over and Out

Jenni L. Walsh, Author

Scholastic, Historical fiction, Mar. 1, 2022

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Family, Cold War, Berlin Wall, Secret police, Oppression, Family Escape

Synopsis:

Sophie has spent her entire life behind the Berlin Wall, guarded by land mines, towers, and attack dogs. A science lover, Sophie dreams of becoming an inventor… but that’s unlikely in East Berlin, where the Stasi, the secret police, are always watching.

Though she tries to avoid their notice, when her beloved neighbor is arrested, Sophie is called to her principal’s office. There, a young Stasi officer asks Sophie if she’ll spy on her neighbor after she is released. Sophie doesn’t want to agree, but in reality has no choice: The Stasi threaten to bring her mother, who has a disability from post-polio syndrome, to an institution if Sophie does not comply. 

Sophie is backed into a corner, until she finds out, for the first time, that she has family on the other side of the Wall, in the West. This could be what she needs to attempt an escape with her mother to freedom — if she can invent her way out. 

Jenni L. Walsh, author of I Am Defiance, tells a page-turning story of a young girl taking charge of her own destiny, and helping others do the same, in the face of oppression.

Perfect for fans of Alan Gratz and Jennifer A. Nielsen, a gripping and accessible story of a young girl from Cold War East Berlin who is forced to spy for the secret police… but is determined to escape to freedom.

Why I like Over and Out:

Over and Out is a courageous and suspenseful tale that has many heart-stopping moments. Expertly researched, Jenni L. Walsh’s story is based on the true stories of real people. Their stories are woven together into a fictionalized tale that involves danger and a desire to save human lives at the risk of losing their own.

Sophie’s story is set in East Berlin around 1973, during the Cold War. The wall was erected in 1961 and came down in 1989. Readers will get a good glimpse of what life is like for those living there. The government provides/owns everything. Luxuries like cars must be requested. People wear what is available in stores. Food is rationed and people stand in long lines daily to get their allowance. People can’t choose their own jobs, they are assigned. Only one middle-class job is permitted in a family. Mail is opened and read. There are listening bugs planted everywhere. Those living in East Berlin can never visit West Berlin, but the same isn’t true for West Berliners. 

The story is driven by a cast of young and brave characters who are multi-layered. Sophie is smart and clever, and loves science and inventing things. She was born in East Berlin — the day the wall went up — even though her family lived in West Berlin. She and her mother are trapped and assume new identities,  so they can fly under the radar for 12 years. Her mother has polio and uses a wheelchair. Her best friends are Katrina and her babysitter, Monika,18. 

Sophie is approached by by the Stasi (secret police) to spy on her friend, Monika who doesn’t like the job she’s been assigned. Sophie is threatened by the Stasi that if she doesn’t co-operate, her disabled mother will be sent to an institution to live. The Stasi uses psychological mind games on children to get them to spy on teachers, family, and friends. This is the turning point for Sophie and she knows she needs to find a way to escape. 

Sophie narrates the story. Her voice is believable and she is very brave. I loved how the author weaves Sophie’s love of science and invention into her escape plan, along with the help from her best friend, Katrina. Together they have to figure out precise distances, gravity, tension, and torsion for their escape.  And they have to find right light-weight materials that are strong enough to carry them to freedom. Sorry, but I won’t divulge her escape plans. You’ll have to read the book. 

Over and Out begs the question for readers — would you have the courage to plan an escape, knowing the odds are against you? Well many did, as the author shares other escape attempts throughout the book — digging underground tunnels, walking tight ropes, derailing a train, flying an ultra-light plane, hiding in a truck of a car and flying homemade hot-air balloons. 

This riveting and fast-paced adventure is a great addition to any classroom and is a timely and important discussion book.

Jenni L. Walsh is the author of the companion to this book, I am Defiance: the She Dared books: Bethany Hamilton and Malala Yousafzai; and many other books for young readers and adults. Her passion lies in transporting readers to another world, be it in historical or contemporary settings. She is a proud graduate of Villanova University and lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her husband, daughter, son, and a handful of pets. Learn more about Jenni and her books at her website http://jennilwalsh.com,  and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @jennilwalsh.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

 

Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

Omar Rising

Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Feb 1, 2022

Suitable for ages: 10-14

Themes: Pakistan, Family Life, Education, Boarding school, Dreams, Courage, Social Injustice

Synopsis:

In this gripping companion to New York Times bestseller Amal Unbound, Amal’s lifelong friend Omar shows the world that he’s not going to accept being treated like a second-class citizen at an elite boarding school.

When Omar is chosen for a scholarship to the prestigious Ghalib Academy Boarding School, it is a game changer. It  will give him, the son of a servant, a once-in-a-lifetime an opportunity for a better future — and his whole village is cheering him on.

Omar can’t wait to dive into his classes, play soccer, and sign up for astronomy club — but those hopes are dashed when he learns first-year scholarship students can’t join clubs or teams. Instead, they must earn their keep doing menial chores. Even worse, it turns out the school deliberately “weeds out” scholarship kids by requiring them to get grades that are nearly impossible — better than kids who can pay tuition — making it almost impossible for scholarship students to graduate.

While Omar is devastated to find such odds stacked against him, the injustice of it all motivates him to try to do something else that seems impossible: change a rigged system. He and the other scholarship students begin to study and work together, forming their own study group and “family.” There is power in numbers. 

Why I like Omar Rising:

Fans of Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound, will eagerly devour Omar Rising, a courageous and hopeful story about believing in yourself and finding courage to change an unfair educational system. Saeed’s rich and bold storytelling, coupled with a complex look at the social injustices between classes, makes this story an uplifting contemporary tale for middle grade readers. And look at that beautiful cover!

The all-Pakistani cast of characters is authentic. Omar has his turn in the spotlight when he’s accepted to Ghalib Academy, Omar has the support and pride of his village cheering him — a lot of pressure for this serious and diligent and “stubbornly optimistic” 12-year-old.  Omar’s is pleased that his Ghalib roommate is fellow scholarship student, Kareem. He also makes friends with Naveed, a star scholarship student ready to graduate, who advises the boys throughout the year. The threesome will come to depend upon each other if they are going to survive.  When other students learn about the unfair treatment of the scholarship students, they want to help. With the support of all the students, they may have a chance to make real change for themselves and others. 

The chapters are short, with 4-5 pages. With such a compelling and suspenseful plot, it is a real page-turner. This book belongs in every school, and home library. It is a thought-provoking story that will lead to some very interesting discussions among readers. It’s important that readers learn about the educational barriers other kids face globally.

Aisha Saeed is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Amal Unbound, also and Indie Next Pick and a Global Read Aloud selection, and Yes No Maybe So (co-authored with Becky Albertalli). Her other highly acclaimed books include Written in the Stars, and the picture book Bilal Cooks Daal. As one of the founding members of the much-talked-about #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, she is helping change the conversation about diverse books. Aisha lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and sons. Visit Aisha at her website

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

 

Dream, Annie, Dream by Waka T. Brown

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – May 1 – 31, 2022

Dream, Annie, Dream

Waka T. Brown, Author

Quill Tree Books, Fiction, Feb. 8, 2022

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Japanese Americans, Differences, Diversity, Middle School, Theater, Racism, Friendships

Book Jacket Synopsis:

You can be anything you want to be.

Armed with her sixth-grade teacher’s parting words of encouragement, incoming seventh grader Annie Inoue was ready to take on the next year of her life doing just that: following her dreams.

As seventh grade unfolds, so do the opportunities for dreaming. There are basketball tryouts, Annie’s first  crush, and most importantly, auditions for a huge middle school production of the The King and I that Annie is dying to be in. So when she lands a prominent role in the play, she’s ecstatic…until she hears murmurs around school that she only got the role because it’s an Asian play with Asian characters. Then, she’s stunned. This was her dream, and now her classmates want to take it away from her? 

Devastated but determined, Annie channels her hurt into a new dream: showing everyone what she’s made of.  

Waka T. Brown, author of While I Was Away, delivers an uplifting coming-of-age story about a Japanese American girl’s fight to make space for herself in a world that claims to celebrate everyone’s differences but doesn’t always follow through.

Why I like Dream, Annie, Dream:

Waka T. Brown has written a captivating book that is so full of heart and big dreams. But it also tells a story of how American Asians are stereotyped and diversity is not necessarily welcome — an important theme running throughout the story. Set in 1987, there weren’t many people of color in movies, on TV or in books at that time.

I fell in love with Annie (Aoi Inoue) right away. Like Annie, I loved theater, music and the arts in middle grade and high school, so it stirred up many fond memories. I believe her big dreams will appeal to students who love the theater. Annie also loves playing on the basketball team, even though she’s short. Readers will love her spirit, enthusiasm and work ethic. They will identify with her dreams of being on Broadway or playing in the NBA.  But middle school is tough, especially when her best friends, Jessica and Ben unfairly turn on her because of the racism present. But this talented 12-year-old is determined to remain true to herself no matter what others think. The author nailed the middle school drama. 

I enjoyed how the director, Sam, involves both the middle school and high students in The King and I. It allows the students to bond and Annie learns a lot about high school dances, Homecoming, and Friday night football games.  They end up idolizing some of the high school actors. Well done.

Annie’s family is strict, but loving and supportive in an interesting way. They understand what Annie is up against and are concerned that her aspirations are a dead end for her. Her father is a mathematics professor and and her mother is a stay-at-home mom, who isn’t comfortable socializing.  Readers will learn learn a lot about Annie’s culture. I enjoyed the role Annie plays in inspiring her mother to pursue her own dream of becoming a nurse.

Dream. Annie, Dream is a delightful read that will also open readers to many interesting discussions that impact our world today. I also recommend you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book. It will give readers insight into the story.

Waka T. Brown was the first American born in her family. She is a Stanford graduate with a master’s in secondary education. With her background, she’s worked to further US-Japan relations and promoted cultural exchange and awareness. She’s currently  an instructor at Stanford Program on International and Cross Cultural Education (SPICE), authoring curriculum on several international topics and winning the Association for Asian Studies’ Franklin R, Buchanan Prize. Waka’s also been awarded the US–Japan Foundation and Engage Asia’s 2019 Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher Award for her groundbreaking endeavors in teaching about US–Japan relations to high school students in Japan. While I Was Away was her debut memoir and is followed by Dream, Annie, Dream, her first work of fiction. She lives with her family in the Portland, Oregon area. To learn more about Waka, visit her website

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

 

The View from the Very Best Place in Town by Meera Trehan

The View from the Very Best House in Town

Meera Trehan, Author

Walker Books US, Fiction, Feb. 8, 2022

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes:  Autisim spectrum, Diversity, Friendship, Mansion, Classism, Mystery, 

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Part thriller, part friendship story, part real estate listing, this witty and inventive debut explores the nature of friendship and home.

Sam and Asha. Asha and Sam. Their friendship is so long established, they take it for granted. Just as Asha takes for granted that Donnybrooke, the mansion that sits on the highest hill in Coreville, is the best house in town.

But when Sam is accepted into snobbish Castleton Academy as an autistic “Miracle Boy,” he leaves Asha, who is also autistic, to navigate middle school alone. He also leaves her wondering if she can take anything for granted anymore. Because soon Sam is spending time with Prestyn, Asha’s nemesis, whose family owns Donnybrooke and, since a housewarming party gone wrong, has forbidden Asha to set foot inside.

Who is Asha without Sam? And who will she be when it becomes clear that Prestyn’s interest in her friend isn’t so friendly?

Told from the points of view of Asha, Sam, and Donnybrooke itself, this suspenseful and highly original debut explores issues of ableism and classism as it delves into the mysteries of what makes a person a friend and a house a home.

Why I like The View from the Very Best House in Town:

Meera Trehan has penned a compelling and suspenseful story that involves vivid characters a a fast-paced plot. It is told from three different viewpoints — Asha, Sam and Donnebrooke, (the mansion) — that provide valuable insight into the story. Trehan’s storytelling is captivating and her beautiful writing will draw readers into the story.

Asha and Sam are memorable characters and have been best friends since they were young. They are on the autism spectrum, each with their own gifts. Asha is of East Indian heritage. She loves architecture and is enthralled with the quirky features of Doneybrooke, the mansion that overlooks the town. Sam is obsessed with killing monsters in his favorite Househaunt game. They compliment one another, making his attendance at Castleton Academy hard for the twosome. Prestyn lives at Donneybrooke and attends Castleton, where she befriends Sam for the wrong reasons — to hurt Asha. Prestyn is mean and scary. She manipulates Sam with dangerous psychological games, making this story a real thriller.

Donneybrooke views itself in a class of it’s own — a mansion like no other. It is boastful and filled with pride, but over time it softens and only wants to be a home that is loved and cared for by it’s owners. Donneybrook likes Asha best because she appreciates its unique beauty. There is a lot of growth in the characters, as each forges a path forward, including Donneybrooke. The book would be a great read aloud at home or school. There are many themes to think about and discuss.

Meera Trehan grew up in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School, she practiced law for over a decade before turning to creative writing. She lives in Maryland with her family. The View from the Very Best House in Town is her debut novel.

Meera Trehan grew up in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School., she practiced law for over a decade before turning to creative writing. She lives in Maryland with her family.  The View form the Very Best House in Town is her debut novel.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Walker Books in exchange for a review. 

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

Anna Hibiscus 

Atinuke, Author

Lauren Tobia, Illustrator

Candlewick Press edition, Fiction, Apr. 12, 2022

Suitable for ages: 6-9

Themes: Africa, Nigeria, Family, Traditions, Economics, Class, Poverty, Vacations 

Publisher’s Synopsis:

From acclaimed Nigerian storyteller Atinuke, the first in a series of chapter books set in contemporary West Africa introduces a little girl who has enchanted young readers.

Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa, amazing Africa, with her mother and father, her twin baby brothers (Double and Trouble), and lots of extended family in a big white house with a beautiful garden in a compound in a city. Anna is never lonely—there are always cousins to play and fight with, aunties and uncles laughing and shouting, and parents and grandparents close by.

Readers will happily follow as she goes on a seaside vacation, helps plan a party for Auntie Comfort from Canada (will she remember her Nigerian ways?), learns firsthand what it’s really like to be a child selling oranges outside the gate, and longs to see sweet snow.

Nigerian storyteller Atinuke’s debut book for children and its sequels, with their charming (and abundant) gray-scale drawings by Lauren Tobia, are newly published in the US by Candlewick Press, joining other celebrated Atinuke stories in captivating young readers.

What to I like about Anna Hibiscus:

Such a delightful and entertaining chapter book that contains four individual stories about Anna and her family and their life in West Africa. Children will be happily introduced to Anna’s very large Nigerian family, their traditions, economics and the differences between classes in an age-appropriate way. Pen and ink illustrations wonderfully compliment the stories. 

Children in North America don’t live in extended families. They will be intrigued to learn how important family is to Anna’s family. There are many aunties who work together to shop, prepare food, care for the children, uncles who work, and grandparents who are wise. No matter how noisy and rambunctious, family is everything!

Anna learns that first hand in the very first story when she goes on seaside vacation with her parents (Canadian mother, African father) and her two brothers. It’s boring. It’s a lot of work for her mother. And Anna’s is run ragged babysitting her twin brothers, Double and Trouble. The arrangement isn’t working and soon the entire extended family members begin to arrive at the cottage. And then the fun begins.

I am pleased that Candlewick is now publishing the Anna Hibiscus series of books in the US. Anna is such a spunky and curious character with a big heart. She will take young readers on a journey through Nigeria where they will learn about how other children live.  

Atinuke was born in Nigeria and spent her childhood in both Afria and the UK. She works as a traditional oral storyteller in schools and theaters all over the world. Atinuke is the author of many children’s book, including the Anna Hibiscus series, the No. 1 Car Spotter series, Too Small Tola, Africa, Amazing Africa: Country by Country, and Catch that Chicken. Atinuke lives on a mountain overlooking the sea in West Wales.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

 

Out of My Heart by Sharon Draper

Out of My Heart

Sharon M. Draper, Author

Atheneum/A Caitlyn Diouhy Book, Fiction, Nov. 9, 2021

Pages: 352

Suitable for ages: 10 and up

Themes: Cerebral palsy, Summer camp, Differently abled kids, Self-confidence, Emotions, Social themes, Friendships

Book Jacket Synopsis

Melody, the huge-hearted heroine of Out of My Mind, is a year older, and a year braver. And now with her Medi-talker, she feels nothing’s out of her reach, not even summer camp. There have to be camps for differently-abled kids like her, and she’s going to sleuth one out. A place where she can trek through a forest, fly on a zip line, and even ride on a horse! A place where she can make her own decisions, do things herself, and maybe maybe maybe, finally make a true friend. 

By the light of flickering campfires and the power of thunderstorms, through the terror of unexpected creatures in cabins and the first sparkle of a crush, Melody’s about to discover how brave and strong she really is. 

What I love about Out of My Heart:

Sharon Draper has hit a sweet spot in her sequel, Out of My Heart.  Melody Brooks has found her voice, expresses her feelings, shows her humorous side and has outwitted some serious bullies in the past year. Now she wants some independence to see what she can do. Topping her list — she wants to be with others who understand her, feel like she’s part of a group and develop some friendships.  

When Melody decides she wants to go to a summer camp for girls and boys who are differently abled, she is catapulted into some exciting new adventures that challenge her to find out more of who she is and what she can do. She has set on the sidelines of life watching others, now it’s time for Melody to fly. She courageously learns to fly on a zip line, swim, ride in a boat, paint a mural, participate in races, break some camp rules (her best day ever), and attends the best campfires every night. She sees some really cool wheelchairs and devices. And has a first crush.   

Another bonus to camp, there are no helicopter parents hovering over her every move. Just one young counselor assigned to each camper to help ease her needs. Melody likes her counselor, Trinity, and the three other memorable girls: Karyn (spina bifida), Athena (Down syndrome), and Jocelyn (maybe autism spectrum). Towards the end of the week the four girls ask for their own space — without counselors — where they can chat, giggle and really become friends. Melody gives them each a friendship bracelet.    

Melody can’t walk, talk, and use her hands and fingers like most people. Yet she is smart, strong-willed, and determined. I was surprised to read a few disappointed reviewers, who wanted to connect with her hurt and pain, as they did in Out of My Mind. As someone who suffered a brain injury years ago and had to learn to walk, talk and use my hands again, I wanted to see Melody move forward and find out what was possible for her without anyone adding limitations. That’s why I am so thrilled with Melody’s real spunk to learn about herself and take some risks.   

And there are some important things I believe Melody would want you to remember from Out of My Mind when meeting or working with a child who is differently abled. Don’t talk about them as if they are invisible. Don’t assume that they are brain-damaged and aren’t intelligent. Always assume they can hear or understand you even if they can’t communicate. Look directly into their eyes and talk to them as if they understand you. Treat them with respect and dignity. Don’ talk in a loud voice, talk normally. Don’t look away if you feel awkward. Smile and say hello. Be friendly.

There is no feeling sorry for Melody Brooks in Out of My Heart. Hooray for Melody! Let’s hope Sharon Draper has it in her heart to carry Melody’s journey forward in a future sequel. Melody is not finished!  Melody’s story belongs in every middle school classroom as a new generation of kids will want to read and discuss her story.

Sharon M. Draper has written more than thirty books, including the New York Times bestsellers Out of My Mind, Blended, and Stella by Starlight and Coretta Scott King Award winners Copper Sun and Forge by Fire. When she’s not busy creating, she’s walking on the beach with her children and grandchildren, paying piano, and ballroom dancing. She lives in Florida. Visit this award-winning author, educator, speaker, poet and National Teacher of the Year at her online wbsite.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

 

Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Lies Like Wildfire

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, Author

Delacorte Press, Fiction, Sep. 7, 2021

Pages: 384

Suitable for ages: 14 – 17 and adults

Themes:  Best friends, Wildfires, California, Lies, Missing persons, Mystery

Book Jacket Synopsis:

We are the monsters — Mo, Luke, Violet, Drummer, and me, Hannah. It’s not what it sounds like, though. Just a nickname from when were little kids participating in a play.

We were at Gap Lake, the deepest in the mountains, and our favorite swimming hole. It was a hot, dry summer afternoon like every other one. And we knew to be careful. When you live in a small California forest town, you know more than you ever want to about wildfires.

But that day there was wind.

We didn’t mean to do it. But we did. And now one of the monsters is missing and everyone’s eyes are on us. This could ruin us. So we did what we had to do. We lied. And we have to keep lying. Telling the truth won’t erase the past.

We can’t crack. Sometimes good people get reckless and do bad things. And if there’s one thing people hate, it’s liars.

Why I liked Lies Like Wildfire:

Wow! What a thrilling read! Jennifer Lynn Alvarez’s debut YA novel is a fast-paced mystery with many unexpected twists and turns — realistic fiction at its best. Set during the fire season in Northern California, readers will be glued to her gripping, haunting and heartbreaking story about what happens when a group of close friends make a big mistake and lie. 

The five main characters in the story are multi-layered and complex. Hannah, the daughter of the local sheriff, narrates the story. She is the group protector. Mo (Maureen) is the group caretaker who makes sure the group has snacks and beverages for their outings. Luke is the reckless one and is on probation for vandalism. Drummer is the flirt. And Violet is the rich outsider, who spends every summer with her grandmother. They’ve just graduated from high school and are looking forward to one last summer together before they start college or jobs.  

The ever-shifting dynamics of this teenage friendship group is well portrayed. Readers will observe it in their growing tension, toxic interactions, love triangles and lies. When one member of the group begs the the group to tell the truth, the other members refuse. The friend suddenly disappears.  (No more spoilers.)

The plot was well-developed and included other subplots — a bear attack and a bout with amnesia. The ending completely surprised me. And I’m still pondering the final chapters. It shocked me and made me think a lot about responsibility.

This novel is a great class discussion book about choices, loyalty, lying and faults. One reckless act ignites a fire that destroys a sizable portion of a community and claims lives along its path. What would you do?  Could you live with yourself knowing lives were lost and neighbors and friends lost everything? How does one move forward with your life in the aftermath of so much destruction? What about integrity?  Would you tell the truth?

Alvarez’s novel is based on her own personal experiences of living through the Tubbs Wildfire in Northern California. She knows the stakes, has relied on the Sheriff’s Nixle messages that alert residents to the location and direction of a fire, the deployment of firefighters, the containment level of a fire, and the orders to evacuate. She knows the emotional and physical toll it can take on residents in the aftermath of a monstrous fire. And she did extensive research into wildfires. Readers will learn a lot about how just one ember from a cigarette can quickly ignite dry pine needles and spread out of control within minutes, and how trained investigators can locate the starting point of a fire. Expert storytelling! 

Note:  For fans of Alvarez’s two middle grade fantasy series, The Guardian Herd and Riders of the Realm,  her realistic novel, Lies Like Wildfire is for teens over 14, young adults and adults. There is language and sex that is not appropriate for younger readers. 

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez earned her BA in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of two middle grade fantasy series, The Guardian Herd and Riders of the Realm, and is the Sonoma County coordinator for SCBWI. Jennifer supports public libraries by volunteering for her county’s library advisory board. Lies Like Wildfire is her debut young adult novel and her first thriller. She lives on a small ranch in Northern California with her family, horses and more than her fair share of pets. Visit her website or on Instagram and Twitter.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Copy reviewed from a library book.

Pighearted by Alex Perry

Pighearted

Alex Perry, Author

Little Brown Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Oct. 26, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Pages: 304

Themes: Animals, Chronic illness, Family life, Pig, Science, Ethics, Humor, Friendship

Synopsis:

Jeremiah’s heart skips a beat before his first soccer game, but it’s not nerves. It’s the first sign of a heart attack. He knows he needs to go to the hospital, but he’s determined to score a goal and not let his heart condition get in the way.  Charging after the ball, he refuses to stop…even if his heart does.

J6 is a pig and the only one of his five brothers who survived the research lab. Even though he’s never left Room 23, where he has a bed, good food and a TV, he thinks of himself as a therapy pig, a scholar, and a bodyguard. But when the lab sends him to live with Jeremiah’s family, there are two other new titles he’s desperate to have: brother and family.

At first, Jeremiah thinks his parents took in J6 to cheer him up. But before long, he begins to suspect there’s more to his new curly-tailed companion than meets the eye. When the truth is revealed, Jeremiah and J6 must protect each other at all costs—even if their lives depend on it.

Why I like Pighearted:

Alex Perry’s novel is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but it is the most original and entertaining story I’ve read in a while. It is a story about a boy with a fatal heart condition and a pig with a heart that could save his life. It is also a contemporary story that tackles difficult topics and pushes the boundaries of science and medical ethics, making it an excellent classroom discussion book. 

The story is narrated in the alternating views of the boy, Jerimiah, and the pig, J6. Jeremiah is a relatable character, especially children with chronic illnesses. Even though he has a fatal heart condition, he is a bright and compassionate boy who wants to be a normal kid. After the heart attack, a device is implanted inside his chest to help his heart pump. There are strict rules he has to follow to protect the device.  

J6’s pigs-eye view of the world is hilarious, since much of what he’s learned is by watching TV. (For me, J6 steals the show.) He may have a human heart, but he also may have a human brain. He is mischievous, cheeky, smart and opinionated. He has a lot to say, but the only sound that escapes him is: OINK. He will leave readers chuckling throughout the story with his pig-hearted narrative. It is Jeremiah’s little sister who teaches J6 to read and communicate with letter cards. He loves Jeremiah and they swiftly develop a brotherly bond. When J6 realizes that his mission in life is to give his heart, he worries about becoming “pulled pork on a bun served with French fries.” 

There is never a dull moment in this fast-paced, action-packed story. There are hospital trips, escape plans, searches for a refuge for J6, festival antics, hurricanes and floods. And there is a large cast of memorable characters who all play a significant support role in the story — especially his sisters, Jazmine and Justus, and friends, Adnan and Paloma. 

Pighearted is a hopeful story, with heart at its very center. The unselfish bond between Jeremiah and J6 is unbreakable. It involves a sacrifice each is willing to make for the other. But, I won’t say anymore. The ending is a whirlwind that I did not anticipate. Sorry, no more spoilers. This is a fun and engaging middle grade book, suitable for all ages!

Alex Perry used to teach middle schoolers in Houston, but now she writes books for kids everywhere. When she was six, she babysat a potbellied piglet, and she’s been obsessed with his cuteness ever since. She just had to get the messy little guy into a book, and now she has. She lives in Arkansas with a messy little human baby, her husband, and two huge dogs. Pighearted is her debut novel. She invites you to visit her website, or follow her on Twitter @Alextheadequate.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Copy reviewed from a library book.

The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis

The Wolf’s Curse

Jessica Vitalis, Author

Greenwillow Books, Fiction, Sep. 21, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Death, Grief, Rites and ceremonies, Orphans, Wolves, Grandfathers, Fantasy

Book Jacket Synopsis:

The Wolf is not bound by the same rules as you are.

The Great White Wolf is very, very old. And she is tired. After living through 700 winters, she id searching for someone to take her place. But she is invisible to most people. In all those years, only three have seen her. One died young. One said no. One is still alive a — a twelve-year-old boy named Gauge.

Gauge lives in the fictional French village of Bouge-by-the-Sea with his grandfather, Bastien the Carpenter, and works hard as his apprentice. He’s been hiding much of his life in his grandfather’s shop, just because he once saw the invisible Wolf — and right after that the Lord Mayor’s wife died. Now his only protector, his beloved grandpapá, has died.

Everyone in the village is superstitious about death and believes that Gauge is a Voyant — witch. Gauge wants nothing to do with the Wolf, but the Wolf visits the boy regularly. The Wolf has an offer. She can save him the pain of growing up. Now that he’s all alone in the world, it may be the only way to escape the bounty on his head. If only his grandpapá’s last words hadn’t been, Stay away from the Wolf.

Why I like The Wolf’s Curse:

Jessica Vitalis’s debut novel, The Wolf’s Curse, is a captivating and unforgettable fantasy about about death, grief, loneliness, superstitions, magic, and friendship.  The storytelling is exceptional and full of depth. The plot is risky and engaging. And the ending is perfection. This is a story that will remain with readers. 

This beautiful tale is narrated by a snarky female Wolf, who has her own back story to tell. She’s old and tired and has set her hopes on Gauge taking her place to free the souls of Gatineau from their bodies and help them on their journey to a place of rest. The Wolf is not harmful. The Wolf also tells the stories of the the other characters and brings some humor to the story. Fans of The Book Thief may enjoy this novel.

Gauge is a relatable character who has endured isolation, loneliness and anger because of  how he’s been treated by the villagers. But, he’s also courageous and wise. When his grandpapá dies, he has no choice but to emerge from hiding and deal with his releasing ceremony alone.  With a bounty on his head, no one seems to care about Gauge, except Roux, the Blacksmith’s kind and smart daughter. They hide Gauge in their home while the authorities hunt for him. When Roux loses her father to lung disease, the two friends begin to question the village’s long-held beliefs and rituals, and search for the truth. In doing so, they bravely expose corruption.

The Wolf’s Curse addresses difficult and thought-provoking topics with a wonderful sense of hopefulness. It will enable readers to discuss death in a way that is less scary.

Jessica Vitalis is a full-time writer with a previous career in business and an MBS from Columbia Business School. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two daughters. This is her first novel. Visit her at her website

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy won on Natalie Aguirre’s website Literary Rambles, where she interviews authors and agents weekly and offers many giveaway opportunities to her readers. Make sure you check out her wonderful site and read her fascinating interview with Jessica Vitalis.