The Christmas Pig by J. K. Rowling

The  Christmas Pig

J.K. Rowling, Author

Jim Field, Illustrator

Scholastic Inc., Fiction, Oct. 12, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8 and up

Themes: Boy, Stuffed toy, Family relationships, Magic, Adventure, Christmas

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Jack loves his childhood toy, Dur Pig. DP has always been there for him, through good and bad. Until one Christmas Eve, something terrible happens — DP is lost.

But Christmas Eve is a night for miracles and lost causes, a night when all things can come to life…even toys.

So Jack and the Christmas (DP’s irritating replacement) embark on a breathtaking journey through the magical Land of the Lost. With the help of a talking lunch box, a brave compass, and a winged thing called Hope, the set out to rescue the best friend Jack has ever known from the terrifying, toy-crunching Loser…

From one of the world’s greatest storytellers comes this heartwarming, page-turning adventure about one child’s love for his most treasured thing, and how far he will go to find it. With dazzling illustrations from renowned artist Jim Field, The Christmas Pig is destined to become a beloved classic for the whole family.

Why I like this book:

Another thrilling and magical adventure from J.K. Rowling about a six-year-old boy and his love for his  stuffed pig. The story is meant for middle grade readers, but it feels like a family story that can be read a few chapters at bedtime. Younger children will identify with the beloved stuffed pig and older readers will enjoy the magical journey into the Land of the Lost, where both good and bad is present. Jim Field’s full-page illustrations are lively and expressive and give readers a sense of the various lands Jack and the Christmas Pig travel through to search for DP.    

The story features a family with real life issues. Jack’s parents are splitting up and Jack and his mother are moving into a new home closer to his grandparents. He has to leave behind his friends and start a new school. His mother meets someone new, Brenden and his teenaged daughter Holly. When they become a blended family, tension erupts and that’s how DP is lost. 

There is a sweet relationship between Jack and DP. DP is a well-worn pig with a long history with Jack.  DP is no longer pink and puffy, but kind of limp and gray, with bent ears and buttons that replace his eyes. He’s been dropped in puddles, buried in sand on the beach, and lost all over the house. Due to all of his adventures, DP has a smell about him that Jack likes. And he’s always been there for Jack when he needs his tears wiped or is scared.  DP always seems to know exactly how Jack is feeling.

A master storyteller, Rowling’s world building is amazing and imaginative. Her plot is enchanting, dangerous, and humorous. It will keep readers fully engaged. There is a large cast of unusual, lovable, quirky and unforgettable characters. The ending is a heartwarming surprise. There are 58 chapters in the book, but they are short. Jim Field’s full-page illustrations are lively and expressive and give readers a sense of the various lands Jack and the Christmas Pig travel through to search for DP.

J.K. Rowling is the author of the seven Harry Potter books, which have sold over 500 million copies, been translated into over 80 languages, and made into eight blockbuster films. She has also written three short companion volumes for charity, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which later became the inspiration for a new series of films, also written by J. K. Rowling. She then continued Harry’s story as a grown-up in a stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which she wrote with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. In 2020, she returned to publishing for children with the fairy tale The Ickabog.  She’s received many awards and honors for her writing. She also supports a number of causes through her charitable trust, Volant, and is the founder of the children’s charity Lumos. She lives in Scotland with her family.

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 purchased copy.

 

 

Crashing in Love by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Crashing in Love

Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Oct. 2021

Suitable for ages:10-14

Themes: Summer vacation, Divorce, Family relationships, Romance, Mystery 

Publisher’s Synopsis:

When Peyton comes across the victim of a hit-and-run, she knows it’s destiny. But what exactly does fate have in store for her and the boy in the coma?

Guided by her collection of inspirational quotes and her growing list of ideal boyfriend traits, Peyton is convinced that this summer will be the perfect summer, complete with the perfect boyfriend! But when she discovers a boy lying unconscious in the middle of the road, the victim of a hit-and-run, her perfect summer takes a dramatic detour.

Determined to find the driver responsible, Peyton divides her time between searching her small town for clues and visiting the comatose (and cute!) boy in the hospital. When he wakes up, will he prove to be her destiny? Or does life have a few more surprises in store for Peyton?  

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Richard Jacobson has written a heartwarming story about a 12-year-old girl navigating the process of growing up with all the angst of losing a best friend, hoping to find a boyfriend, dividing her time between her divorced parents’ homes, family drama, and trying to solve a real-life hit-an-run mystery.

I smiled at Peyton’s ever-changing checklist of what she hopes to find in a boyfriend, perhaps a result of having divorced parents and needing to find some sense of security and order in her life. Gray, the boy in a coma becomes her idealized boyfriend as she visits him at the hospital. But that too changes as she realizes that the more she tries to define things perfectly, it’s harder to see the truth and how things really are in life.  

The plot keeps the story moving forward as readers wonder if Gray will recover and if Peyton or the police try to solve the hit-and-run accident. Everyone is suspect and there are many humorous moments and awkward situations. Peyton’s eager search for answers teaches her many valuable lessons about not jumping to conclusions too quickly.  

The characters are all memorable and believable. Peyton narrates and her voice is authentic and full of curiosity. The mother’s career as a journalist plays into the story, as does the over-possessive relationship between Peyton and her paternal grandmother. The Maine coastline setting, the characters, and the mystery will keep readers engaged in the outcome. This is a satisfying coming-of-age story.  

Jennifer Richard Jacobson is the author of the middle-grade novels Small as an Elephant, Paper Things, and the Dollar Kids, which is illustrated by Ryan Andrews. She is also the author of the Andy Shane chapter book series, illustrated by Abby Carter. Jacobson lives in Maine. Visit Jacobson 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 provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

Too Small Tola by Atinuke

Too Small Tola

Atinuke, Author, Onyinye Iwu, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 2, 2021

Suitable for ages: 7-9

Themes: Nigeria, Poverty, Family relationships, Community

Tola lives in “a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria,” with her older sister, Moji, who is very smart; her brother, Dapo, who is very athletic; and Grandmommy, who is very bossy. Tola may be small, but she finds that she has other abilities. 

In the first story, Tola accompanies Grandmommy to the market and balances a basket full of yams, vegetables, chili peppers, fish, football glue and diapers — on her head. It’s a long tiring walk, but she also manages to climb steep  stairs to their apartment without dropping anything. She discovers that she is strong.  She is also very clever with counting their money and makes sure Grandmommy isn’t being cheated by vendors.

In the next story, Tola wakes up very early and discovers that the electricity is off again and the faucets in the apartment aren’t working. There is no water for bathing or cooking.  She wakes her sister, Moji, and they grab empty jerry cans and head to the outside water pumps before a long line forms. They return and wake Dapo to grab more cans to gather water, although this time she runs into trouble.

In the final story Tola helps their tailor neighbor, Mr. Abdul, who breaks his leg in accident. Easter and the end of Ramdan feast of Eid is approaching, and Mr. Abdul isn’t able to ride his bike to measure his customers for new holiday garments. Tola is clever with numbers and measurements, so she offers to help. Dapo uses the bike to pedal Tola around the city. 

Award-winning children’s writer, Atinuke, is a master storyteller. She started her career as an oral storyteller of tales from the African continent. Today her stories are contemporary stories about life in Nigeria. Her stories are perfect chapter books for children 7-9. Each chapter lends itself to a short story, which will appeal to this age group.  In Too Small Tola, she shows the poverty of Nigeria, but also the strength and love of family and community. 

Readers will enjoy Onyinye Iwu pen and ink drawings that appear on every page and they show both the love and humor of the community. They will help readers visualize the story and help break up the text. A delightful read for kids preparing to move into middle grade books.

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.

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.

Merci Suarez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance

Meg Medina, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Apr. 6, 2021

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Themes:  Middle School, Friendship, Family, Love, Alzheimer’s, Latino, Dance

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Seventh grade is going to be a real trial for Merci Suárez. For science she’s got no-nonsense Mr. Ellis, who expects her to be as smart as her brother, Roli. She’s been assigned to co-manage the tiny school store with Wilson Bellevue, a boy she barely knows, but whom she might actually like. And she’s tangling again with classmate Edna Santos, who is bossier and more obnoxious than ever now that she is in charge of the annual Heart Ball.

One thing is for sure, though: Merci Suárez can’t dance—not at the Heart Ball or anywhere else. Dancing makes her almost as queasy as love does, especially now that Tía Inés, her merengue-teaching aunt, has a new man in her life. Unfortunately, Merci can’t seem to avoid love or dance for very long. She used to talk about everything with her grandfather, Lolo, but with his Alzheimer’s getting worse each day, whom can she trust to help her make sense of all the new things happening in her life? The Suárez family is back in a touching, funny story about growing up and discovering love’s many forms, including how we learn to love and believe in ourselves.

Why I like this book:

Meg Medina’s much anticipated sequel is a heartwarming and compelling novel that tackles big topics for Merci Suárez, who is now a seventh grade student at Seward Pines Academy. Medina’s narrative is engaging and immersive.  Her plot is classic middle grade tension and  — losing a BFF to a more popular crowd; a mean, rich-girl bully; racism; and the differences in culture and social status.  

Merci’s adventures in school paint a clear picture of a curious and resilient 12-year-old trying to make sense of who she is. She’s smart, has a good business head and is a talented photographer. She worries about her looks, is conscious about her changing body and dreads PE shower rooms. She can’t dance and doesn’t want to go to the big school dance.  She finds boy-girl relationships confusing. Is it scary or nice? She wants to know about holding a boy’s hand, kissing for the first time, dating, and breaking up. Medina also includes a very diverse cast of memorable characters: Edna who’s from the Dominican Republic, and Wilson who’s Louisiana Creole and Cajun, is differently-abled and wears a short ankle brace to straighten his leg when he walks. Merci’s friendship with Wilson, a math whiz, may mean a little more to her.

This richly textured Latino story is peppered with Spanish expressions from her Cuban-American family. Medina uses humor in this true-to-life story that is topsy-turvy, yet filled with heart. The Suárez family is a large multigenerational family that live in a group of three homes where all family members come and go, regardless of who lives where. Papi runs a painting business. The Suárez family is a close-knit family that work, cook and eat together, share childcare responsibilities, and support each other, even if money is tight. There is a lot of chaos at all times. Merci is often in charge of keeping an eye on her grandfather (Lolo), whose Alzheimer’s is rapidly progressing and babysitting her aunt’s active twin boys. And they all answer the call to help Tía Inez, when she decides to open a school of Latin dance.

Medina dedicates her book to “Merci fans who wanted to know what happened next.”  And fans will cheer for Merci, enjoy watching her grow and hope that Medina continues her story. Merci Suárez is a humorous and satisfying read.  

Check out the Teacher’s Guide, published by Candlewick Press.

Meg Medina is the author of the Newbery Medal-winning book, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, which was also a 2018 Kirkus Prize finalist.  Her YA novels Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, for which she won a 2014 Pura Belpre Author Award; Burn Baby Burn, which was long-listed for the National Book Award; and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in Queens, New York, and now lives in Richmond Virginia. Visit Meg Medina 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 provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Brother’s Keeper

Julie Lee, Author

Holiday House, Jul. 21, 2020

Pages: 320

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: North Korea, Family life, Communism, Refugees, Freedom, Korean War

Synopsis:

North Korea, 1950. Twelve-year-old Sora Pak and her family live under an iron set of rules: No travel without a permit. No criticism of the government. No absences from communist meetings. Repeat slogans. Don’t trust your neighbors. Don’t speak your mind. You are being watched.

There is no hope for escape…until war breaks out between North and South Korea. Suddenly there is chaos, and everyone is fleeing. The Paks’ plan to get to freedom is simple: they will walk hundreds of miles from their tiny mountain village to the South Korean city of Busan.

But when a bombing changes everything, Sora must get herself and her eight-year-old brother, Youngsoo, to South Korea alone — across rivers, over mountains, around enemy soldiers and border guards, and even through Pyongyang itself, all while staving off frostbite and starvation. Can two children survive three hundred miles of war zone winter?

Why I like this book:

Julie Lee’s Brother’s Keeper is a powerful work of historical fiction that will transport readers to the Korean War in 1950 — also known as the “Forgotten War” — where millions of people lost their lives trying to flee to South Korea. It is a haunting and compelling story of danger, suffering, survival, taking risks and heroism.  It is also a story about family and home.

The setting is vivid and rich in detail. Sora’s family lives in a square-shaped farmhouse with a thatched roof hugging the house like “a mushroom cap.” Their home is surrounded by fields or corn and millet.  All of the homes in her village look the same, but the countryside is lush and the rivers are the center of activity. The communist (under Kim II Sung ) rule with a tight fist and there are rules to follow and neighbors who spy on each other in return for favors.

Sora is a smart, curious and compassionate sister to two younger brothers. She loves school, learning and dreams of going to college and living in America. Sora has a complicated relationship with her mother, who like most Korean women value their sons over their daughters. Sora is angry when Omahni insists that she quit school to watch her baby brother, Jisoo. She also has to learn to cook and care for a household, which will prepare her for marriage. She’s more like her Abahji and shares similar dreams of travel. Youngsoo is a sweet boy who lifts Sora’s spirit with his humor. And he’s always going to catch her a fish. He’s also small and more vulnerable. Protecting him is what she does.

When a bombing separates Sora and Youngsoo from their family, it becomes Sora’s responsibility to keep them alive. Does she return home, or push forward hoping to find her parents? Courageous and resilient, Sora, chooses the treacherous journey south with only a small map of Korea folded in her pocket. Death and danger lurk around every corner. They find abandoned homes overflowing with sleeping refugees; sparse food; lice infestations; frozen rivers that break up while crossing; bombings; broken bridges; sinking canoes; mountains to climb; kidnappers; violence at the Imjin crossing; cardboard houses; and a frightening box car ride to Busan.

Lee’s novel is also based on the harrowing journey her mother made during the Korean War. The author feels that stories like this deserve a place in American history because there aren’t many books about this “Forgotten War” and the resilient Koreans who fled to South Korea.  Many American soldiers lost their lives trying to liberate the country from communism.  This book is a story for teens and adults.

Make sure you check out the backmatter. There is an Author’s Note; photographs of the author’s mother, siblings and parents; a Timeline of the Korean War with historical information; and a glossary of Korean terms.

Julie Lee graduated from Cornell University with a degree in history. After working in market research in Manhattan for more than ten years, she decided to pursue writing full-time. Currently, Julie lives in Georgia with her husband and three children. When she is not spending time with her family, she is working on her next book while pursuing her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Brother’s Keeper is her debut novel. You can visit Julie 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.

Home for A While by Lauren H. Kerstein

Home for A While

Lauren H. Kerstein, Author

Natalia Moore, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Feb. 2, 2021

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Themes: Foster children, Belonging, Home, Emotions, Behavior, Trust

Opening: “Calvin clunked his suitcase up the steps of another house. THIS isn’t your home, his thoughts shouted. Nobody wants you, his feelings rumbled.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Calvin has lived in a lot of places, but he still hasn’t found his home. He’s afraid to offer his heart if he’s just going to move again anyway.

When he moves in with Maggie, she shows him respect, offers him kindness, helps him manage his emotions, and makes him see things in himself that he’s never noticed before. Maybe this isn’t just another house. Maybe this is a place Calvin can call home, for a while.

Why I like this book:

Home for a While is a sensitive book for foster parents to add to their book shelves. Foster kids need to see themselves in stories that may help them transition into a new home. It is scary time for children and they deal with BIG emotions. It’s not unusual for kids to want to protect themselves from disappointment, hurt and feeling let down. And like any child they act out and test their new foster parents.

Lauren Kerstein presents these challenges in a open and honest manner. Her story is full of heart and compassion. She alternates the dialogue between Calvin (red ink) and Maggie (purple ink), his new foster mom. When Maggie asks Calvin if she can give him a goodnight hug, he responds with a “NAH.” But follows with “Why do you want to hug me, anyway?”  This banter is repeated throughout the book. Maggie is a calm and stable foster mom and her responses and strategies open the door for Calvin to trust her. Actually this book is a moving read for any family and offers all parents some tips.

Natalia  Moore’s illustrations are colorful and lively.  She beautifully captures the interactions between Calvin and Maggie. Just look at that cover! And she incorporates loud, noisy words into her artwork, which children will enjoy.

Note: This book spoke to me because I have friends who had a daughter, but wanted more children. They decided to  become foster parents.  Their first foster child was a little girl.  Just as they were proceeding to adopt her, they were surprised to learn the birth mother had twin boys. Not wanting to break up the siblings, they said “yes.”  A few years later another sibling joined the family. They adopted all four siblings and their dream family is growing and thriving.

Resources: Make sure you read The Author’s Note, which provides important information about children in foster care or in temporary care with other family members.  There is valuable information on helping children deal with emotions.

Lauren Kerstein, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with children, adolescents, adults, and families. She is the author of Rosie the Dragon and Charlie picture book series and writes books for young adults. She has authored a textbook about Autism Spectrum Disorders. She lives in Englewood, CO. Visit Kerstein at her website, and on Facebook @Laurenkersteinauthor and Twitter @LaurenKerstein.

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 website.

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

That Missing Feeling by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

That Missing Feeling

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Author

Morena Forza, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Jan. 12, 2021

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Themes: Divorce, Change, Emotions, Diary, Grandfather, Intergenerational relationships

Opening: “Who wants to sprinkle cheese?” Mia’s dad called. Mia reached to sprinkle cheddar into a puffy omelet. The kitchen felt warm and smelled delicious. Luna and Toby snuggled.”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Mia’s life feels split in two after her parents get divorced—even her cat and dog now live in two separate places. When she’s at her dad’s house, Mia misses her mom’s jokes and singing. And when she’s at her mom’s house, she misses her dad’s laugh and cooking.

Mia just can’t quite shake that missing feeling. Sometimes that missing feeling makes her angry. And sometimes it makes her sad.

One day when Mia visits her Grandpa, he gives her a little blue notebook saying, “When I write about Grandma, I am sad but I am happy too. She is gone, but you are here. Life changes, and writing helps me think about these changes. My notebook is a home for my heart.”

Mia keeps her notebook wherever she goes, writing about happy and sad memories. And soon her notebook becomes a way to balance that missing feeling. And also a home for her heart.

Why I like this book:

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s That Missing Feeling is a heartwarming story about a child dealing with change after her parents divorce. But Mia misses so many things and her parents divorce stirs up big emotions like anger and sadness. This book will facilitate avenues of honest conversation about separation and divorce.

This is also about intergenerational relationships, where Mia and her grandfather bond over loss. For me, the most touching moment is when Mia’s grandfather realizes how much Mia misses her parents and hands her an empty journal to record all of her happy moments, draw pictures and write down her feelings.  It is refreshing and hopeful when Mia’s grandfather pulls out his journals to show Mia how he copes with the loss of her grandmother. The connection between Mia and her grandfather is simply beautiful!

Morena Forza’s beautiful illustrations reflect the mood of the story, showing sadness and many uplifting moments. What a great cover! Great collaboration between author and illustrator.

Resources: Make sure you check out the back of the book for a double-page spread about “Keeping Your Own Notebook” and ways to get started.  Journals help both children and adults sort out feelings through writing poetry, drawing pictures and jotting down feelings.

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater has taught writing for over twenty years,, and her children’s books have received accolades from the Junior Library Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the National Council of Teachers of English. Amy blogs for students and teachers at The Poem Farm and Sharing Our Notebooks. Visit VanDerwater at her website. Follow her on Twitter @amylvpoemfarm.

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 website.

*Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles

Take Back the Block

Chrystal D. Giles, Author

Random House Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Jan. 26, 2021

Pages: 240

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Community, Social Justice, Family, Neighborhoods, Gentrification, Friendship, African Americans

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Brand-new kicks, ripped denim shorts, Supreme tee–

Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That–and hanging out with his crew (his best friends since little-kid days) and playing video games–is what he wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived in his whole life, everything changes. The grownups are supposed to have all the answers, but all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known. Wes has always been good at puzzles, and he knows there has to be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it before it’s too late?

Why I like this book:

Chrystal D. Giles has written a timely and powerful novel for middle grade students that hits a sweet spot for me — kids making a difference in their communities and fighting for what they believe in. It celebrates the joy of family, friendship and community and will captivate readers from the start.  The plot is daring and hopeful. It is “loosely based on Giles’s hometown.

There is a  delightful cast of characters, with Wes Henderson leading his crew of best friends: Jasper (Jas), Mya, Alyssa, Takari (Kari) and Brent. They live in Kensington Oaks and are typical 6th graders, interested in video games, movies, school and birthday parties. Wes is a lovable and outgoing narrator, who is afraid of public speaking — especially when his social studies teacher, Mr. Bates, assigns each student to research a social justice issue, write a report and do a 10-minute presentation. He’s doomed.

Thumbs up to Wes’s parents for introducing him to social activism. His mother is an active community leader and takes Wes to a peaceful protests so that he understands what is happening in nearby neighborhoods that are being torn down for new shopping areas. This exposure is handy when the Oaks becomes the new target of a development group who wants to build condos and shops. There is no way Wes can leave the only home he’s ever known and holds his family’s history.

While the adults in the community are arguing, some selling their homes and others giving up, Wes knows he has to do something. A fire burns in his belly and he gathers his friends to fight for the survival of the Oaks. They enlist the support of a local group, Save Our City. Suddenly, Wes has his school social justice project, and Mr. Bates proves to give good advise and knows people. He allows Wes and his friends to meet in his classroom after school as they research and strategize each move. No more SPOILERS.

Take Back the Block deals with a topic that I haven’t seen addressed in children’s books — gentrification, the unfair displacement of families in lower income neighborhoods. Development companies buy up homes cheap, tear them down and replace them with high-end housing and shopping areas.  Most families can’t afford to live in the developments and are forced to find housing elsewhere. This is common in many Black communities.

This is an important book for a classroom to read together. Wes and his friends are the new faces of social justice and youth activism, whether it is gun control, climate change and equality. And student interested in social justice issues may gain courage from Wes.

Chrystal D. Giles is making her middle-grade debut with Take Back the Block. Chrystal was a 2018 W Need Diverse Books mentee, and her poem “Dimples” appears in the poetry anthology Thanku Poems of Gratitude. Chrystal lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and son. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @CREATIVELYCHRYS.

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 Space We’re In by Katya Balen

National Autism Awareness Month, Apr. 1 -30, 2021 

The Space We’re In

Katya Balen, Author

Margaret Ferguson Books, Fiction, October 2019

Pages: 208

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Brothers, Autism Spectrum, Family Relationships, Coding, Loss, School, Friendship

Synopsis:

Frank is ten. He loves soccer, codes, riding his bike, and playing with his friends. His brother Max is five. Max on eats foods that are beige or white, hates baths, loud noises, bright lights and if he has to wear a T-shirt that isn’t gray with yellow stripes me melts down down down.

Max is autistic, and Frank longs for the brother he was promised by his parents before Max was born — someone who was supposed to be his biggest fan so he could be the best big brother in the world. Instead, Frank has trouble navigating Max’s behavior and their relationship. But when tragedy strikes, Frank finds a way to try to repair their fractured family, and in doing so learns to love Max for who he is.

Why I like this book:

Katya Balen has written an emotional and sensitive novel about a 10-year-old boy who deals with the challenges of living with a younger autistic brother who is the center of his parents’ attention. Narrated by Frank, readers will gain insight into how deeply affected he is by Max. He feels resentment, anger, and the fatigue of living in a home where he feels dismissed. They will also hear from a Frank who loves Max and is ashamed when he doesn’t stand up for him with school bullies.

The plot is distinctly realistic and then tension is palpable. There is a tragedy (no spoilers) and the story is so sad.  But don’t stop reading. Frank may be vulnerable, but he’s also determined and resilient. Readers will ride Frank’s roller coaster as his world spins out of control, but they will watch his relationship with Max slowly grow as he helps his family move forward in a very creative way.

I love the special bond between Frank and his mother. She keeps the family together, unlike her husband who has difficulty with the chaotic family dynamics. Frank and his mom create their own private way of communicating with each other. They silently tap Morse code messages into each other’s hands. His mother is also a talented artist, but stopped painting after Max was born.  Frank likes to draw and has inherited some of her talent, which is revealed at the end of the story at a time when he uses his talent to help his family heal.

Frank’s love of coding is important part of the story and I was thrilled that the author wrote each chapter title in the “cypher code.” Readers will have fun challenging themselves to break the code. Frank is also fascinated with “the golden ratio” that links space, nature, and people — the spiral galaxy, the swirl of a hurricane, a snail’s shell, and the shape of our ears.

Frank also has a strong relationship with his friends Ahmed and Jamie. They have a special wilderness spot they ride their bikes to and it is the perfect escape for Frank. In the woods they tear off their shirts, rub mud on their faces, swing on ropes, build a den, chase each other with chunks of mud, howl like wolves, and laugh and laugh and laugh!  Before they leave they always scratch ” 23 9 12 4″ (wild) into the earth and their initials, 10 (Jamie)  6 (Frank) and 1 (Ahmed).

This book is an important story for youth who are living with a sibling on the autism spectrum. It’s also a book for parents to read with their kids. It’s a complex situation for families, when they have a child that requires so much attention.  This book will help encourage discussions.

Katya Balen has worked in a number of special schools for autistic children. She now runs Mainspring Arts, a nonprofit that organizes creative projects for neurodivergent people. The Space We’re In is her debut novel. She lives outside of London with her boyfriend and their unbelievably lazy rescue dog.

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 book.

The Heart of Mi Familia by Carrie Lara

The Heart of Mi Familia

Carrie Lara, Author

Christine Battuz, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Nov. 10, 2020

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Themes: Bicultural families, Intergenerational relationships, Identity, Culture, Traditions, Bilingual

Opening: “In my home, two worlds become one. My family is a mix of dos culturas, I am bicultural.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

My mommy was born in the United States. My daddy was born in Central America. In, my home, two worlds become one.

Follow a young girl as she works with her abuela and her grandma to create a wonderful birthday present for her brother that celebrates her multicultural family and honors both sides and generations of her family. This follow up to the award winning Marvelous Maravilliso: Me and My Beautiful Family is a must-read for all families.

Why I like this book:

Carrie Lara has written a heartwarming story about a little girl who is proudly shares her bicultural family.  Her mother was born in the United States and her family traveled on a ship from Europe. Her dad was born in Central America and came to the US by bus with his parents as a boy. She shares her culturally-rich visits to her abuela’s home near the ocean during the summer months. And she visits her grandparent’s vineyard home in the autumn, when the pumpkins are ripe for picking.

The story is laced with a lot of Spanish words that children will easily remember. The girl shares how lucky she is to visit and celebrate two different cultures because she can include all those traditions — foods, music, games, artwork and language — at home in her own blended family gatherings.

This story is based on the author’s own bicultural family life experiences.  So she speaks from experience. It is a treasure for bicultural families to use as a discussion book with their children. Kids need to see themselves in stories. And, teachers will find creative ways to use it in their classrooms!  Christine Battuz’s illustrations are beautiful! They are colorful and happy, and love of family shines through each illustration.

Resources: There is a Reader’s Note to parents to help them work with their children to acknowledge the differences, encourage them to explore their cultural histories, talk about cultural identity and help them deal with discrimination.  A must read for teachers too!

Carrie Lara specializes in working with children and families on child and human development, including foster and adoptive youth, those with learning disabilities and special education, and children dealing with trauma, using attachment-based play therapy. She lives in Sonoma County, CA.  Visit her at FB @authorcarrielara.

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 website.

*Reviewed from a copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.