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Middle School Monday – The Shrunken Head (Curiosity House #1)

23277166We all feel, sometimes, as if we a re living in a house full of freaks; in this case it’s true. Philippa, Thomas, Sam and Max are all orphans living in and working for Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders in the New York City of the 1930’s. Owned and operated by Mr. Dumfrey, who also serves as the children’s guardian, the museum is staffed and peopled by a collection of sideshow-like performers: a fat lady, a little person, alligator boy, elephant man, giant, etc. Additionally, the museum houses a collection of artifacts and wonders from around the world, each with a fascinating (if often manufactured) provenance. The four children add their particular skills to the performances, and use them to their advantage throughout the story. Philippa is a mentalist, although she has only developed her powers to reliably read the contents of other people’s pockets. Thomas is a contortionist; he is part of multiple acts, but spends most of his time traveling through the museum’s ventilation shafts and eavesdropping on conversations. Sam is a strong man (or boy) whose superhuman strength is a disadvantage at times. Max is a knife throwing phenom who is also a gifted pickpocket.

When Mr. Dumfrey comes into the possession of a ‘shrunken head’ – “Straight from the Amazon! Delivered only yesterday!” – he has high hopes that it will generate renewed interest in the museum, whose ticket sales have seen better days. Even better, a local newspaper reporter (Bill Evans of The Daily Screamer) comes to the unveiling and is both impressed with Philippa’s abilities and drawn to the shrunken head (which causes one elderly visitor to faint.) Later that evening, Evans visits to interview the elderly woman and finds her dead, having hurtled over the edge of a balcony. He immediately claims the shrunken head has a curse, much to the delight of Mr. Dumfrey, who enjoys a good bit of free advertising through sensational journalism. Unfortunately, the shrunken head is stolen, and more deaths follow its path. The children are curious as to who may have stolen the famous artifact and investigate, overhearing snatches of conversation, finding bodies, and running afoul of the law. Evans takes advantage of their curiosity to grill them for a follow up story which attracts the interest of local ‘do-gooder’ Andrea von Stikk, who wants to take the children away from what she sees as a vey unfit home. It looks like she may have a chance, too, when Mr. Dumfrey is arrested for murder!

Lauren Oliver has created a completely engaging work with The Shrunken Head (Curiosity House #1). Although the story is told in third person, the narrator’s focus shifts equally between all four of the main characters, revealing their thoughts, concerns, and interests. Each is a fully developed individual with unique strengths and weaknesses that work together to compliment the whole. The adult characters, while not as fully realized, are also not the focus of the story. Oliver has been careful to make each an individual, though, and not fallen into the trap of stereotype. I do love the fact that Phoebe, the ‘world’s fattest woman’ is a marvelous dancer – and that when she leaves the woman who auditions to replace her is found lacking for not being fat enough, and advised to “consider adding more carbohydrates to your diet.”

Although each of the children has reservations about being a ‘freak’, it is clear that they both love and are loved by every one of Mr. Dumfrey’s performers. It’s obvious that each of the children and adults in his employ has value to Dumfrey and is more than just an oddity to be enjoyed, but a family member to be loved. Complete with a fun twist at the end, this novel proves to be the auspicious start to a wonderful new series. I highly recommend purchasing it for your middle grades readers.

Want to win a copy of the book? That’s great! We’re giving away a copy to two separate winners in the U.S. this week. Do the Rafflecopter thingy below to be entered to win. I mentioned it was open to U.S. residents only right? And you have until Saturday at Midnight to enter to win.
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Middle Grade Monday – Changes

middlegrademondaySo, one of the things I’ve discovered since I’ve started Middle Grade Monday is that Middle Grade (MG) means a lot of different things to people – especially publishers. On the whole, I think we can all agree that MG stories tend to revolve around the themes of self discovery and establishing your own identity. But, these stories can be appropriate for a myriad of age groups, generally ranging from 2nd through 7th grades. Many publishers have been sending me items that really fall outside of the interest range of my students and I don’t have the time to read all of them (I wish I did!) That led to some introspection about the purpose of this weekly post.

I work in a middle school serving students aged 11 to 14, which is somewhat covered by the MG spectrum, but a lot of MG works are much too young to meet the reading interests of my students. And a good number of Young Adult titles fall within their interests. Most of the YA titles that meet middle school reading interests might be called ‘early YA’ and are generally reviewed as being of interest to students in 7th grade and up. The easiest (or maybe most universal) way I have of explaining this is with the Hunger Games trilogy. My students gobbled up the first 2 books. I have very few students, however, who’ve made it through book 3. Most of them (even the 14 year olds) just aren’t there yet.

So that’s where the title of this post comes in. After discussing it with Karen, I’ve decided to change the focus of this weekly post from strictly Middle Grade to Middle School (how convenient that it also starts with an ‘m.’) From now on I will be posting on issues that come up in middle school as well as reviewing titles that are of interest to middle school students (both upper MG titles and early YA titles.) I hope this doesn’t disappoint anyone.

For right now, however, I am completely immersed in a YA that is definitely suited to 10th grade and up, so I won’t be mentioning it here. You can look for that review soon elsewhere on the blog. (Hint: Libba Bray is a genius.)

Middle Grade Monday – Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas

Confessions CoverJacques Papier lives a relatively happy life with his family. He and his sister Fleur are thick as thieves, and she makes sure he’s never forgotten, even though it seems as if everyone else in their lives are determined to ignore him. It’s almost as if he’s invisible to everyone except Fleur. And then one day, he meets a rollerskating cowgirl who opens his eyes to the true facts of life: she is an imaginary friend, and so is Jacques (which is why she can see him.)

This news sends Jacques into a spiral of existential despair – who is he, and is he anyone if he is apart from Fleur? Jacques joins Imaginaries Anonymous to help him deal with this crisis, and meets the Oogly Boogly, who gives him some news – he can leave Fleur and be his own person. When he decides to act on this information, however, it doesn’t turn out quite as he imagined. What is does, though, is send Jacques on a voyage of self discovery. Along the way he helps several other children with their own struggles and learns his purpose in life.

This is a sweet, gentle, thoughtful, and very funny novel, and perfect for middle grade readers in the 7 to 11 year old range. I was fascinated by Jacques’ thought processes. The novel does get really deep into the meaning of existence, but that focus is well balanced by both the humor and the innovative writing. I was so intrigued by the ideas in this book, actually, that I invited the author to write a short piece about them.

author: Michelle Cuevas; photographer: Carlyle Massey

author: Michelle Cuevas; photographer: Carlyle Massey

The Imaginary and The Real

by Michelle Cuevas

Author of Confessions of an Imaginary Friend

I think the question I am asked most when working on a book is: “What is it about?” I think that’s a great question. Because really, with an infinite amount of books to write, why this book, these characters, these themes?

I would say my newest novel, Confessions of an Imaginary Friend, is about the word real – what it means and why it matters. It’s about the way everyone feels invisible sometimes, and about the things we can all do to feel seen.

I started with the image of a boy. Jacques Papier, age eight, believes that he is hated by all – teachers ignore him when he raises his hand, he is never chosen for sports teams, and even his parents need to be reminded to set a place for him at the dinner table. But soon, Jacques learns the truth – he is actually his sister Fleur’s imaginary friend. Cue existential crisis. The whole ordeal would be alarming for anyone, I think, but also relatable.

Feeling invisible is hard. There are the cars to dodge, and the school buses that drive away before you can get on. There are the birds that land on your head and try to make a nest in your hair.

I’ve felt invisible from time to time too. In crowded unknown cities, at night swimming in a dark lake; when I was small and would hide in the lilac bush, or when my parents forgot who was picking me up one day after band practice and I sat waiting and wondering.

There are, of course, ways to feel less invisible.

Singing. Dancing. Waving your arms around and yelling like there are volcanic lava fire ants in your pants. Doing something small and kind for someone else, that usually does the trick. Telling the truth, whatever that may be, even if it’s just to say, out loud, “Hey! I don’t like being invisible!” Getting to know someone more invisible than you can help too (I, for example, had two imaginary friends as a child named Poodie and LaLa. Feel free to tease me about those names…) I think the best way is to take up all the space that’s available to you – to be yourself, and to see yourself. Never be that that ship that wants to stay sunken, that needle that hides in the haystack, or that pearl that stays buried forever beneath the sand.

In Margery Williams The Velveteen Rabbit, a stuffed rabbit wonders what it means to be real. “Real isn’t how you are made,” explains the Skin Horse to Rabbit. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

While writing this book, I thought about that question a lot, what that word “real” meant for Jacques Papier, and what it meant for me personally. And I think it’s whatever makes you feel the most like you, whatever or whoever brings you home to yourself. For me, that’s friends, family, and writing.

And so that leads me to My Second Most Frequently Asked Question: “How did you become a writer?” That’s a harder question, but I’ll try to answer it. I worked in museum education during and after college, and then went to graduate school to study fiction writing. There, we concentrated on writing short stories and novels for adults. I found myself writing some very weird stories – including one about a man with a talking houseplant and another about a woman who woke up every day to find a deer drinking from her toilet. My (wonderful) classmates often said, “This just doesn’t feel real enough…” And I would think, “It’s not! I made it up!” I started to despair, thinking that writing stories for adults wasn’t for me. But what to do? And then my mom sent me a care package, which included some children’s books she remembered I’d loved. I enjoyed them so much, I started reading more – Kate DiCamillo, and Roald Dahl, and EB White. And so, inspired by these books, I started (secretly) writing my own novel about a very talented painting elephant, one who held the brush in his trunk and raised an orphan from a baby. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I was having fun and feeling more like myself. That book would turn out to be my first published novel for children, and the kind of book I continue to write. I feel thankful for that every day.

And, as a bonus, it seems that no reader under the age of twelve ever says, “This just doesn’t feel real enough.”

Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas is available tomorrow. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Middle Grade Monday: There’s always next year: Things I’ve learned coordinating middle school volunteers (a guest post)

Tween-Volunteer-Page-1024x768Our library has two different volunteer programs that I have run for two years now. One is offered for two hours a week, five week sessions, four times during the school year; four weeks of work, the last week is an appreciation party. Registration is maxed at ten. They gather as a group, and act as our middle school advisory board. Then they splinter off to complete assigned tasks. The summer volunteer program is a different animal. In previous years the library has limited to the first ten kids to sign up. I tripled the registration limit to accommodate the needs of our community. Both years had close to 30 middle schoolers interested helping out in the library. I tweaked it to fit the needs of the community as well as myself. It’s been a crazy evolving experience, with still more to edit. If you are thinking of incorporating middle school volunteers at your library, you might learn from my two years of progress.


I had this brilliant idea where I would get all (most) of the prospective volunteers for a group training. The first year included a tour around to find out where everything was and where to use it. I had to do multiple “make up orientations”. This summer, I made a really cool and detailed PowerPoint. I had one make up orientation. Both years included me having to give personal one-on-one reminder sessions with nearly every volunteer – at least once.

Next year: Giving up on the orientation altogether. It takes time to coordinate just for them to forget everything I told them.


My first summer of volunteers, I had kids come in whenever they could, and trying to reach a minimum amount of time over the summer. Unfortunately, what happened was we had 15 kids coming at the same time each day for the first week, and virtually no one at the end of the summer. While the distribution of summer prep is more in demand in the beginning, we had no way of organizing volunteer duties for the rush, and needed more help wrapping up. The following summer, this summer, I had a new plan. I had created a document asking for volunteer availability. That way, I could not only control the flow of volunteers, but know exactly when the next one was coming. This worked to an extent, but I still scheduled more volunteers than we had work for.

Next year: I will be scheduling each volunteer for one hour shifts rather than two, once a week, and only one month for each volunteer.


Volunteer duties were a little sloppy the first year. The volunteers had a list next to their sign-in sheet with duties that they needed to check every day when they came in, but with so many kids coming in at once, the list wasn’t really effective. I also naively assumed that staff members would be eager for extra help and come up with duties on the fly. It did not work out very well. The second year, I made a Google Sheet accessible to all youth staff members. Staff members were asked to list duties for volunteers to complete for them as well as an explanation of the job, where the necessary supplies would be found, and when the job needed to be completed. Volunteers were coordinated by me. On days that I was not there (vacation), there was an assigned person in charge. Things went more smoothly, but after hearing feedback from fellow staff members, I know it still needs work.

Next year: I’m still on the fence about it, but I’m debating if I shouldn’t schedule volunteers on days that I know I won’t be in the library.


When I first inherited the volunteer program, the kids got to graze on candy while in the advisory board portion of the meeting. There were only asked to come in for 4 weeks. There was no appreciation party. There has always been an appreciation party for summer volunteers, but had smaller attendance due to the registration cap. In the summer of 2014, because volunteers were able to make their own schedule, I added a volunteering minimum to attend the party. Very few kids made the minimum of ten hours in two months. This minimum was removed this summer. Anyone who volunteered at all this summer was invited to the appreciation party. We had a higher attendance of kids throughout the summer and at the party.

Next year: I’m not changing much about the party aspect next summer. I think anyone who helps is welcome to come to the party.

It is important to acknowledge the fluidity of the middle school volunteer program. As time passes, the needs of this age group and the community may change slightly, and you will need to meet their needs. Don’t get too attached to any idea, or you may not notice when it stops working.

While sometimes it can be trying, seeing the friendships build between kids that need this social outlet is uplifting and beyond worth it.

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

christineChristina Keasler is the Middle School Librarian at Glen Ellyn Public Library. When she’s not making edible R2D2s with middle schoolers at the library, she’s out picnicking with her husband and toddler, eluding her cats with a laser pointer, or at the drive in seeing some cool movie probably about dinosaurs.

Middle Grade Monday Book Review – School for Sidekicks by Kelly McCullough

Something is rotten in the state of Heropolis! Or, rather, several somethings are rotten, and maybe not quite what you think. Well, really, it’s a very broad and layered situation with various levels of understanding and complexities to points of view. Obviously, this is not just another book where a kid discovers he has super powers.

Imagine a world where super heroes and villains (or metahumans) are real. This is the world Evan Quick knows. Instead of turning on the TV to see celebrities like Taylor Swift and Justing Beiber, he watches news stories about real life super heroes saving the day (Masks) against both natural disasters and those caused by super powered villains (Hoods.)

Evan’s compassionate and rational mathematician parents have always indulged their only child’s love of super heroes. For his 13th birthday, they buy him a special pass to the super hero theme park, Camp Commanding, owned by and based on the exploits of Evan’s favorite hero, Captain Commanding. Upon arrival, Evan is directed to a special area to be given a gift and entered for a chance to win his very own hero suit; he assumes it’s just part of the special pass package. He’s selected as a winner and directed into another special chamber to be fitted. The full body measurement scans are super tingly! Unfortunately for Evan, he’s involved in an accident at the park which causes it to close early, before he can return to pick up his special suit. When he goes back to pick it up several days later, the special area is no longer there and has been replaced by restrooms. He’s too embarrassed to ask questions and returns to life as normal. Or so he thinks.

Mix in an isolated school, a washed out superhero mentor, and multiple twists and turns, and you have a thoroughly engaging, thought provoking read. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is how all of the characters are complex and multifaceted(as well as ethnically diverse.) A highly recommended novel for all middle school collections – especially where superheroes are popular – although isn’t that everywhere?

Middle Grade Monday – Maker Space

We are about to launch our Maker Space in our school library media center – it is going to be what is referred to as a ‘soft launch.’ Our technology facilitator and one of our classroom teachers are really the driving force behind this initiative, and much more familiar with the items we have purchased. While I’m more than happy to house the materials and provide space for them to be used, I know almost nothing about them. So, I’m hopeful that I will be able to form a team of interested students to help manage the project. Tomorrow after school we will have our ‘Maker Team Interest Meeting.’ From the students who show up, we’re planning on forming a team to rotate being on hand when the maker space is open. They’ll be in charge of answering questions, helping students figure out directions, and keeping everything orderly.  Wish us luck!

Last year we used some school funds we were given to promote STEM to purchase items for the maker space, which will be heavily STEM focused.  Over the summer during our reconfiguration, we chose a designated space for the materials, and repurposed some furniture for the area, which is just to the right of the entry/exit doors:


You may be able to tell that I figured out how to remove every other drawer in our old atlas case. This leaves enough space to store maker materials in some inexpensive bins I found at Wal-Mart. Here are some pictures of the items being stored there:

IMG_0723 IMG_0724 IMG_0725








We also have and iPad to use with the Spheros, and one of these:



It is still in its box, and will probably remain so until tomorrow when we have our meeting – I plan on laying everything out around the library and letting the students that come explore and try to configure the materials (including constructing the 3D printer.) Stay tuned for regular updates on our progress.



Middle Grade Monday – Use it or Lose it (the kids’ perspective)

71Vr1K4vlqL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_This title recently came across my desk as a book to review. While objectively I can recognize it as something that will be immensely popular with my students, I’m old enough that it actually hurts my eyes. The color contrast and conglomeration of facts on each page are set up to appeal to a generation of young people who’ve never known a life without interactive screens and information that bombards you from all sides. It is, in fact, incredibly well put together. That doesn’t help squelch my desire to run away screaming when I try to read it. My eyes!

But that brings up an important reality of being an adult selecting materials for children – we need to be aware of our limitations. Knowing yourself, your likes and dislikes, the era in which you were a child, and realities that come into play when being an adult whose purpose in life is to nurture children, is crucial in helping to identify personal biases that will limit your ability to appropriately select materials for your patrons. These limitations can be physical, mental, or emotional.

In terms of the physical, I believe much of it has to do with the era in which you were a child and the media you were exposed to. In my case, both this book and every manga I’ve tried to read have made me want to physically remove my eyeballs. Similarly, an aversion to or phobia of something might make you less likely to add it to your collection. But certain ages of children are really attracted to things that are common phobias – snakes, spiders, sharks, etc., and you need to know what those are and embrace them in your collection development efforts.

Mental and emotional biases can be a little more difficult to identify, but I would begin by trying to objectively evaluate your dislike of any material that is popular with the population you serve. I now know that, as an adult whose profession is charged with the nurture and development of children, I am extremely disturbed by any literature where adults, whether knowingly or not, put children in harm’s way. That’s why it took me 4 attempts to get past the beginning of Nancy Farmer’s brilliant The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. And that book helped me figure that out about myself. That knowledge about myself helped me to understand from the moment I read the first review of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games that it would be a fantastic hit with my students…and that I would probably never be able to make myself read it. In fact, when I watched the trailer for the movie the first and only time, I simultaneously wanted to throw up and burst into tears. The only reason I didn’t was because I was surrounded by tweens.

Other biases can be both harder to recognize and more difficult to overcome. I struggle sometimes with wanting to include books in our collection where the main characters display an extreme lack of empathy, or where something very violent happens without a lot of foreshadowing. But I also know that those are arenas where I am sensitive, and I do my best to overcome these biases.

In all of these cases, it’s important to turn to resources outside your own experience to develop a robust collection of materials for your students. These resources can include the more traditional reviews and bestsellers lists, but shouldn’t stop there. It’s important to regularly check in with your population and see what they find appealing. Some of them are very forthright and will simply ask for materials they want, but some of them don’t even know what’s out there until you make it available to them.

But it’s important to be in touch with what your population’s interests are. There are a myriad of ways of doing this, but I prefer asking them. Most of the students will willingly tell me about their favorite TV shows, musicians, YouTube channels, etc. It doesn’t hurt that I have a nephew who is about to start 8th grade. He is definitely an insight into the world of nerdy tween boys. This is knowledge you have to keep up with on a regular basis, and ‘use it or lose it.’ Interests in this age group change rapidly – so must your understanding of them.

So, tl;dr, know your limitations, trust your population. (Also, look up tl;dr if your don’t know what it means.)

Middle Grade Monday – Diary of a Mad Brownie (giveaway)

9780385392471Angus is a brownie (mythical creature, not chocolate dessert treat) living under a curse. Due to some mischief his father caused, the brownies of Angus’ line are bound to serve the McGonagalls, and to bring a curse upon the males of the household in which they live. So far, this has worked out well for Angus. He (as all brownies do) needs to serve someone, making sure their dwelling is both tidy and clean as well as performing minor mischief to keep his family on their toes. For many years Angus has lived with and served Sarah McGonagall, who conveniently lived alone and therefore Angus has not visited the second half of the curse on anyone in many years. Alas, humans do not live nearly as long as brownies, and at her death Angus’ services are transferred to the youngest female in the McGonagall line who is of age, who happens to be the American tween Alex Carhart. Not only is Alex unfamiliar with the concept of brownies, she doesn’t want any help cleaning her disastrously messy room (or her desk at school.)

Much of the humor and heart of the story comes from the conflict of personalities and the clash of cultures experienced by Angus and Alex. Both of them could use some anger management skills, but they manage to work through their differences and come to genuinely value each other. The reader watches Alex grow in her appreciation of Angus’ talents as their friendship blossoms. Unfortunately, Angus has also brought the other part of the curse to Alex’s household. Because he has been so long serving in a household without any males, he is hopeful that this part of the curse has died out. Unfortunately that is not the case, and both Alex’s father and brother are seized by the undeniable urge to create poetry (or write songs, in her father’s case.) Not just any poetry, but appallingly, laughably bad poetry. In order to break the curse, Alex and Angus must work together to return what was lost to the queen of the fairies. The many threads of the story weave together into a solution to this problem at just the right moment.

I have long been a fan of Bruce Coville’s writing. While humorous and engaging, his work also has a genuine and caring heart to it. This book more than lived up to my expectations. The fact that it is written in varying formats (diary entries, memos, letters, etc.) adds greatly to its charm. It is a good addition to any collection serving 8 to 11 year old readers, and would even be a good read aloud for a younger audience.

I have one hardcover copy of this title (provided by the publisher) to give away (within the US.) Please enter the Rafflecopter giveaway below.

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Middle Grade Monday – Making your library work for you

middlegrademondayOver the past six months or so, I have touched every piece of furniture, electronic or computer device, and every book in my school library media center (except the smart board, which I have to wait on for a trained professional.) Some might ask why, and my muscles would certainly chime in on that question. To be honest, it was because the library, the arrangement of the furniture, the amount of equipment, and the location of the books, simply wasn’t working for us. Neither the students nor I were getting what we needed out of it. And I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted – an organic space that encourages exploration and small group work, a place where the students can take ownership of their surroundings, a place where they feel comfortable, not a place where they feel monitored. I had no idea what to do.

Fortunately, I work for a large enough school district that we have people on staff who can help. Not only did they come out and talk to me for several hours, then come back and help me make a floor design (in which we got rid of about a third of the furniture and most of the equipment) and a collection map, they figured out a way to get several display pieces and some wheeled table legs to replace two on each of 9 tables, so it’s easier to reconfigure the furniture on the fly. Here, let me show you what it used to look like. This is the former view from my office door:Old office door

The entryway to the library is on the right, and I believe at this point we had already removed the security gates. Completely useless since I lost my assistant position and the students began checking out their own books. Also, not very friendly when we did use it – it rang a siren like when you set off the alarm at a department store. The mini lab of computers you see straight ahead are completely gone, as are most of those tables (they’ve been repurposed in other parts of the building.) And on the right is the circulation desk. Also completely useless since we lost our media assistant position. And a barrier to access and service.

Here are some panoramic views of the former arrangement from the center of the room (about where you see the blue column in the photo above.) The first is an image from the office door on the right to the far side of the room:Old front-2

This one is the other half of the room:

old back-2

And now it looks like this:

IMG_0712 IMG_0713We’ve gone from a standard two classroom and 1 mini lab setup with a traditional circulation desk to one large group space with multiple small group spaces coming off from it in a spiral shape. I’m afraid the pictures don’t do it justice. I’m so excited for the students to come in and use it!

Have you ever undertaken a similar project? What ideas/questions do you have?



Middle Grade Monday – The Truth About Twinkie Pie

middlegrademondayLet me start off by thanking Angie Manfredi of Fat Girl Reading for asking the author to send me a copy of this book. I love how the youth librarian community is all about sharing and spreading the word, and Angie is a strong member of it. Also, sorry it took me so long to get to it.

This book is the story of two sisters, DiDi and GiGi, on their own since the loss of their mother. DiDi, the elder sister, has custody of GiGi. A high school dropout, DiDi works as a hairstylist and does her best to raise GiGi, fostering her memories of their mother through one of their only remaining links – their mother’s recipes. The Twinkie Pie of the title is a special dessert they make for birthdays, but there is a whole book of recipes made from readily available ingredients. They remind me of many of the recipes I grew up with, which came from the backs of boxes of Bisquick and the labels of soup cans. When DiDi wins a large cash prize in a cooking contest, she moves herself and GiGi from South Carolina to New Jersey, and enrolls GiGi is a rigorous private school. DiDi is practical and thrifty to her roots, so they live in a one bedroom apartment over the new hair salon in which she works, and they still drive their ancient but dependable car.

The move is a huge shock to GiGi’s system. While she’s always been focussed on her studies, this new school requires even more of her. Additionally, most of the students at the school come from wealthy homes and and families who have lived in the area for generations. GiGi struggles to fit in, making friends with Trip and his group of friends, but attracting the ire of his friend, Mace, who resents their closeness. Along the way of figuring out how to fit in, GiGi makes completely normal missteps and has believable successes. She is an entirely relatable character, as are all of the well developed cast of secondary characters.


GiGi and DiDi have all of the usual family struggles, with several twists along the way. When GiGi seeks out a discontinued lipstick that she is sure will make DiDi happy, she learns that their mother is not actually dead. When she goes to find her, she eventually learns that the woman she thinks is her mother is actually her grandmother, and that DiDi is her mother, but was 14 when she had her. DiDi ran away from home to protect GiGi from her abusive mother, and had to manufacture a new life for them out of almost nothing. The shock of this sends GiGi straight into the arms of the least expected person, Mace, who has become a good friend of DiDi. The sisters/mother and daughter eventually reconcile in a moving (but not maudlin) conclusion.



I really enjoyed this novel. The way the author develops the relationships between the main character and her new friends is extremely well done. Additionally, there are multiple levels of friendship that GiGi has to navigate; the reader will be shown a number of different friendship scenarios which will serve as both a guide and a reassurance. We see GiGi grow as a person and discover who she really is. There is a lot of redemption of relationship in this book which I feel will prove very hopeful to readers who are struggling (just like GiGi) through this difficult phase of life. A highly recommended purchase for middle grade collections.