Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Take 5: Great Reads for Younger YA, or Upper Middle Grade – whatever it is we are calling 12-14 year olds these days

There has been a lot of talk here at TLT and on Book Twitter about the age ranges for YA. I’ve been doing this job long enough to remember when YA was classified as 12 and up; Now most YA you will see designated as 14+. So I tweeted, part tongue in cheek, the other day: if Middle Grade is grades 8-12 and Young Adult is ages 14 and up, does that mean 13 year olds don’t really exist. It was part snark, but there is also some truth here: 13-year olds are vastly under represented in today’s youth literature.

I have seen some discussion, again primarily on Twitter, of making a new classification called Upper Middle Grade or Younger YA. And I have noticed that middle grade seems to be the new YA, with tons of longstanding YA authors making their middle grade debuts, including Ellen Hopkins, Gayle Forman and even Jensen favorite A.S. King has written a few MG novels, under the name Amy Sarig King. You will notice that we started covering Middle Grade here at TLT several years ago in part because it helps us better serve our teens on the younger end of the teen age spectrum.

So while it’s clear that the age categories are in flux and the market is once again trying to figure out what it means to write for teens and how to market them, I thought I would take a moment to highlight 5 books here for the younger YA crowd, or the upper middle grade crowd if you prefer.

Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi

Publisher’s Book Description: Fourteen-year-old Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi sets out to win the ultimate date to homecoming in this heartfelt and outright hilarious debut.

Parvin has just had her heart broken when she meets the cutest boy at her new high school, Matty Fumero–with an emphasis on fumero, because he might be the smoking hot cure to all of her boy troubles. If Parvin can get Matty to ask her to homecoming, she’s positive it will erase all the awful and embarrassing feelings He Who Will Not Be Named left her with after the summer. The only problem is Matty is definitely too cool for bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Parvin. Since being herself has not worked for her in the past (see aforementioned relationship), she decides that to be the girl who finally gets the guy, she should start acting like the women in her favorite rom-coms. Those girls aren’t loud, they certainly don’t cackle when they laugh, and they smile much more than they talk. Easy enough, right?

But as Parvin struggles through her parent-mandated Farsi lessons on the weekends, a budding friendship with a boy she can’t help but be her unfiltered self with, and dealing with the ramifications of the Muslim Ban on her family in Iran, she realizes that being herself might just be the perfect thing after all.

Keeping it Real by Paula Chase

Publisher’s Book Description: Marigold Johnson is looking forward to a future full of family, friends, and fashion–but what will she do when it all explodes in her face? When she discovers that her entire life is a lie?

Paula Chase, the author of So Done, Dough Boys, and Turning Point, explores betrayal, conformity, and forgiveness–and what it means to be family–in this stand-alone novel perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Rebecca Stead, and Ren�e Watson.

Marigold Johnson can’t wait to attend a special program at her family’s business, Flexx Unlimited, for teens who love fashion. But Mari quickly realizes that she’s out of place compared to the three other trainees–and one girl, Kara, seems to hate her on sight.

As tension builds and the stakes at the program get higher, Mari uncovers exactly why Kara’s been so spiteful. She also discovers some hard truths about herself and her family.

Paula Chase explores complex themes centering on friendships, family, and what it means to conform to fit in. Keeping It Real is also a powerful exploration of what happens when parents pick and choose what they shield their children from. Timely and memorable, Paula Chase’s character-driven story touches on creativity, art, fashion, and music. A great choice for the upper middle grade audience.

You’ll want to check out other titles by Paula Chase for this age group as well.

Violets are Blue by Barbara Dee

Publisher’s Book Description: From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

You’ll also want to check out Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee for this age group as well.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Publisher’s Book Description:

Award-winning YA author Brandy Colbert’s debut middle-grade novel about the only two black girls in town who discover a collection of hidden journals revealing shocking secrets of the past.

Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.

Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.

When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems. 

Some of Brandy Colbert’s books are most assuredly upper YA – brilliant, but not necessarily middle grade friendly. But this title is solidly in the upper Middle Grade category and it’s a great read.

Most Titles from Rick Riordan Presents

Rick Riordan wrote the Percy Jackson series, which was right in the sweet spot for that transition from middle grade to YA, appealing to readers of all ages. And now he has his own publishing imprint where he publishes mythology from around the world and gives a platform to authors of color and each and every one of the titles is just as appealing to all ages as his own work.

Some other great resources for you:

55 Best Upper Middle Grade Reads

50 Middle Grade Books for Ages 11-15

You can also check out the hashtag #UpperMiddleGrade on Twitter

Take 5: 5 of the Best Books I’ve Read in 2020, Middle Grade Edition

Today I’m continuing my countdown of the Top 20 books I’ve read in 2020 with a look at middle grade fiction. We started with YA. Last week I dove into nonfiction. And today is all about Middle Grade.

Ghost Squad by Claribel Ortega

Publisher’s Book Description:

Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters in this action-packed supernatural fantasy.For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business. Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late. With the family dynamics of Coco and action-packed adventure of Ghostbusters, Claribel A. Ortega delivers both a thrillingly spooky and delightfully sweet debut novel.

Karen’s Thoughts: This book was long on my radar because, believe it or not, I loved the cover. Let’s be honest, sometimes we are drawn to a book by it’s cover. I picked up a copy of the book at BEA, back when there was still a BEA, and loved everything about this. I love a good story about family and friendship, which you will find in this book. Plus, there are ghosts and cats! It’s a heartwarming story that is chuck full of sense of both place and culture and you can’t go wrong sharing this with the youth in your life.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Publisher’s Book Description:

Seventh-grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it — is that a doll? — and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

Karen’s Thoughts: This book technically came out at the end of 2019, but its sequel, Tristan Strong Destroys the World, came out in 2020 so I’m including them both on this list. These are great books for those middle grade readers who love the ancient mythology of the Rick Riordan books and ask you what to read next. The characters are well written, complex and endearing – you will root for Tristan Strong. And it introduces a lot of readers to mythologies that we don’t often hear a lot about in mainstream culture. It’s a really great story that entertains, enlightens, and uplifts.

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter

Publisher’s Book Description:

April didn’t mean to start the fire. She wasn’t even the one who broke the vase. 

She had absolutely no intention of becoming the only person who knows that Gabriel Winterborne, the missing-and-presumed-dead billionaire, is neither missing nor dead and is actually living in the basement of Winterborne House, sharpening his swords and looking for vengeance. 

Now that April knows Gabriel Winterborne is alive, it’s up to her to keep him that way. But there’s only so much a twelve-year-old girl can do, so April must turn to the other orphans for help. Together, they’ll have to unravel the riddle of a missing heir and a creepy legend, and find a secret key, before the only home they’ve ever known is lost to them forever.

Karen’s Thoughts: I love a good mystery/adventure and find that you can’t go wrong with Ally Carter in this particular category. In a year when I needed some escapist fun, this fit the bill nicely.

Twins by Varian Johnson

Publisher’s Book Description:

Coretta Scott King Honor author Varian Johnson teams up with rising cartoonist Shannon Wright for a delightful middle-grade graphic novel!

Maureen and Francine Carter are twins and best friends. They participate in the same clubs, enjoy the same foods, and are partners on all their school projects. But just before the girls start sixth grade, Francine becomes Fran — a girl who wants to join the chorus, run for class president, and dress in fashionable outfits that set her apart from Maureen. A girl who seems happy to share only two classes with her sister!

Maureen and Francine are growing apart and there’s nothing Maureen can do to stop it. Are sisters really forever? Or will middle school change things for good?

Karen’s Thoughts: I asked Thing 2 what book she would include on this list, and Twins was her enthusiastic recommendation. This graphic novel is fun and has heart.

Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson

Publisher’s Book Description:

Ryan Hart loves to spend time with her friends, loves to invent recipes, and has a lot on her mind—school, self-image, and family. Her dad finally has a new job, but money is tight. That means changes like selling their second car and moving into a new (old) house. But Ryan is a girl who knows how to make sunshine out of setbacks. Because Ryan is all about trying to see the best. Even when things aren’t all she would wish for—her brother is infuriating, her parents don’t understand, when her recipes don’t turn out right, and when the unexpected occurs—she can find a way forward, with wit and plenty of sunshine.

Karen’s Thoughts: I love a feel good middle grade book, and definitely needed this more than anything in 2020. This is a great family read aloud that will remind us all that life can be challenging, but sometimes you can find ways to make sunshine. You will not be disappointed.

Join me next Monday as we wrap up the list how we began, with another Top 5 YA books. What were your favorite middle grade reads of 2020? Leave us a comment and let us know.

The Secret Sea Blog Tour – Interview with Barry Lyga

Secret Sea Banner

Author Barry Lyga has a new middle grade novel, The Secret Sea, coming out August 23. It is a complex and fascinating story of three friends who travel to a parallel universe. From the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Zak Killian is hearing a voice. Could it be a guardian angel? A ghost? No, that’s crazy. But sometimes the voice is so real. . . . It warns him of danger.

One day Zak is standing on the subway platform when the tunnel starts to fill with water. He sees it before anyone else. The voice warns him to run. His friends Moira and Khalid believe this is more than a premonition, and soon all three find themselves in an alternate universe that is both familiar and seriously strange. As Zak unravels the mystery behind the voice, he faces decisions that may mean the end of their world at home—if they can even get home!

In his most propulsive and heartfelt book yet, acclaimed author Barry Lyga explores the depths of friendship, the bonds of family, and the nature of the universe itself.

I really enjoyed this book and would recommend its purchase for the Middle School audience. Today, as a part of his blog tour, Barry joins us to answer a few questions.

You’re back to middle grade! How is it after writing your YA novels? Do you find one or the other easier or more rewarding, or is the writing experience fairly similar?

Neither is any easier or more rewarding than the other, but the experiences are different. There’s more of a reader reaction to YA, since middle grade readers don’t always have social media accounts or access to email, for example. Each has its own complexities and difficulties that may be different, but in the end, they still add up to roughly the same sense of “Can I really do this?”

The Secret Sea is a very complex novel with many societal issues being addressed. Do you find that people are surprised by the complexity of your writing for middle grades?

It’s funny you ask that — there were a couple of conceptual and vocabulary issues in the book that I worried would be too much for the age range, but my editor didn’t flag a single one. I think she knew better than I did that the kids attracted to this book would be the ones who could either handle that stuff or look it up and keep following along. I really try not to write down to readers of any age, but especially in middle grade — these kids can totally sense when you’re doing that and they’ll never forgive you for it!

How long have you been interested in the concept of parallel universes, and what made you want to write a story featuring them?

I’ve loved parallel universes since I was a little kid reading Justice League comics co-starring the Justice Society from Earth-2! (And then they would team up to fight the Crime Syndicate from Earth-3 — bliss!) I’ve been obsessed with parallel universes since then; I absolutely adore a good alternate world story. So, I’ve wanted to write my own since forever, really, and I finally sat down and did it with The Secret Sea!

9781250072832You delve into a lot of gender equality issues in this novel. Did you do a lot of research for this, or was it prompted by any particular experience?

There was no particular experience, other than just living in this world of ours and observing its steps toward a theoretical future of gender equality. I wanted the alternate universe to seem like the best place ever to be lost as a kid, with a dark side that isn’t immediately obvious. And I have to admit: I love the idea that the alternate universe has all this amazing technology and sophistication… and their worst nightmare is a super-smart, fiercely independent 12-year-old girl.

Do you have any particular memories of middle school you’d like to share with our readers?

I didn’t have a great time in middle school, honestly, but I met my best friend there, so that worked out all right! 🙂


#LastListEgmont: Jaguar Stones, Pirate Adventures, and a New Publisher, Matt Myklusch and Jon and Pamela Voelkel interview

Matt Myklusch and Jon and Pamela Voelkel first met on a panel at the Texas Library Association. At the time, the Voelkels were promoting their action-packed Jaguar Stones series, and Matt was doing the same for his superhero adventure books, The Jack Blank Adventures. Now, a couple years later, with Jon and Pamela Voelkel releasing The Lost City, the epic Jaguar Stones conclusion, and Matt launching Seaborne, the first book in a new series of his own, the three of them caught up to talk about their new books… and now, a new publisher too.

MATT: Congratulations on wrapping up the Jaguar Stones series! Finishing a book, just by itself, is a huge accomplishment. Finishing a series is massive. How does it feel to be done?

J&P: Hey, Matt, congratulations to you too! As we’re sure you found with Jack Blank, it’s bittersweet to finish a series. In our case, it’s a delayed ending because the Jaguar Stones was planned as a trilogy, but the story took on a life of its own. Now with the fourth and final book, The Lost City, we end exactly where we always wanted to be. (We wrote the very last paragraph way back when we were working on Middleworld, the first book in the series.) So we’re elated that everything worked out, but we’re sad to say goodbye to characters who’ve become part of our family. It’s been fantastic to hear from readers who’ve stayed with us through the four books and get their take. Happy to say that no one predicted the ending!

MATT: I know that feeling! Personally, I felt tons of pressure when I was writing the final book in my Jack Blank trilogy. Did you guys feel anything different while you were writing this one?

J&P: For us, we probably felt most pressure for The End of the World Club, which was the second book. Middleworld – the first Jaguar Stones book and the first book we’d ever written together – got great reviews and we wanted to make sure the follow-up lived up to it. Moreover, our local children’s librarian had told us in no uncertain terms that she expected a proper story with a beginning, a middle and an end – not just a bridging book. By the third and fourth books, the story was writing itself. All we had to do was keep up with the characters.

MATT: I’m sure the series goes out with a bang. Tell me all about The Lost City.

J&P: By the end of the third Jaguar Stones book, The River of No Return, our readers have been on a wild ride through the Maya rainforest. Our two main characters – Max, a fourteen year old boy from Boston, and Lola, a Maya girl of about the same age – have failed once again to save the world from the ancient Maya Lords of Death. The forest is being destroyed, the wildlife is endangered, and Max has received an invitation to his own funeral.

For The Lost City, we turn everything on its head and journey from Central America via New Orleans to a Native American city on the Mississippi River. The bad guys have realized they can’t take over the world without mastering social media, so they trick Max and Lola into helping them. Meanwhile Lola, who used to be the brave one, loses heart, so Max has to step up to the plate. Literally – because the final showdown takes place in Fenway Park.

It was so much fun to write, and we hope our readers will agree that it’s the fastest, funniest, most  fantabulous Jaguar Stones book yet. The Lost City has everything: a parade of Maya monsters, a phantom riverboat, an alien spaceship, a howler monkey on rollerskates, the triumphant return of Thunderclaw the Chicken of Death, and the legendary Boston Red Sox!

MATT: I’m a Yankees fan, but I won’t hold that against you. It sounds a fun ride. Congratulations again on realizing your grand vision!

J&P: Thank you. We’re sad to say goodbye to the Jaguar Stones, but excited about our next project. You’re ahead of us in that respect, so please tell us what to expect! After pouring so much energy into your first series, how did you feel about starting something new?

MATT: On one hand, I was fired up to be flexing new creative muscles. I had lived with the characters of the Jack Blank universe, and been consumed by their story for so long, it was refreshing to turn the page and do something completely different.

On the other hand, I was starting from scratch again for the first time in years. I suddenly remembered what a giant task it is to create a whole world from the ground up. You need to figure out the rules of your world. What’s possible? What’s not possible? When you are writing the second or third book in a series, you go in with that infrastructure already built. With Seaborne, I had to get to know new characters again, each with their own voices, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. I had to figure out the right tone and voice for the story too. I’m always worried I’m going to ruin a great idea, so when it came time to start writing, I had a few false starts. It took me a little longer than usual to find my groove.

J&P: Now we’re intrigued! Tell us more about Seaborne. And by the way, we LOVE that cover!

MATT: Thank you! Me too. Matt Armstron, the illustrator, did a terrific job.

Seaborne is the story of a boy raised by pirates and forced into a life of crime. 13-year-old Dean Seaborne is a spy for One-Eyed Jack, the ruthless Pirate King. His job is to sneak onto ships and find out what they are carrying, or infiltrate crews before raids. Dean’s great at what he does, but he hates doing it. He feels like the angel of death, delivering ships into the hands of One-Eyed Jack’s men.

When Dean gets caught trying to run away, he nearly ends up fed to the sharks. One-Eyed Jack only spares his life because he’s got a line on the greatest treasure in all the Caribbean— an island where gold grows on trees. Dean infiltrates the island posing as its legendary lost prince. What he doesn’t know is, he might be exactly who he’s pretending to be.

J&P: Sounds amazing! We saw the National Theatre production of Treasure Island in London over the holidays and Seaborne has that same feeling of danger, thrills, and classic adventures. Was it easy for you to plunge into the pirate world? How was the writing process? Did you do anything differently this time around?

MATT: I learned to trust myself and my voice, for one thing. This book is set in the early 1700’s— the golden age of piracy. For some reason, that led to me writing the first draft in an “old timey narrator” voice that wasn’t my own. When people read it they felt like something was missing, and that thing was me. I got 100 pages in before I realized I was doing something wrong, but I think I got it right in the end.

Also, this was the first book I had to do a lot of research on. My earlier books had completely imaginary locations from start to finish. I had to educate myself for this one. Not too much, but more than I’m used to. You guys do a ton of research. Tell me about the background work you did for Jaguar Stones series.

J&P: In fact, we fell into the massive research project by accident. We’d originally planned a wild adventure story about a city boy lost in the jungle – with Maya pyramids as a cool background. Jon had grown up in South and Central America, so he already knew the terrain. We went down to Belize with our kids for one week, so Pamela could get a feel for it too. And that changed everything. We learned so much about the ancient Maya and met so many modern Maya people that they took over the story.

After that, we went down to Belize or Guatemala or Mexico every year. Sometimes twice a year. We became the kind of people who hang out at archaeology conferences. Jon even took a course at Harvard to learn how to read and write Maya glyphs. In our minds at least, the Jaguar Stones became more than an adventure series; it became the story of a boy from Boston and a modern Maya girl who are trying to understand each other’s worlds.

For Book Four, The Lost City, we followed the Mississippi from New Orleans to an ancient American city called Cahokia, just across the river from St Louis. It’s an amazing place and it’s hard to understand why it’s not as famous as, say, Mount Rushmore or Plymouth Rock. It was fascinating to look at the parallels between the pyramid builders of North and Central America. We’ll really miss researching the Jaguar Stones books because they’ve taken us to places we could never have imagined. Book Four also took us to the legendary Fenway Park. Neither of us knew the first thing about baseball before writing the book, but now we’re both diehard Red Sox fans!

MATT: Again, I’m going to let that slide ;]

The only field trips I did for this book were to a resort in Turks and Caicos, but I did do some reading. I know nothing about sailing or ships, so I had to research that kind of thing. I wanted to get the lingo down right, but I decided not to bother learning which empires controlled which islands in the Caribbean back in 1704. It was easier to use fictional islands like St. Diogenes, and port towns like Bartleby Bay. No one can tell me I got the facts wrong about places that don’t exist.

I guess it’s not surprising that I still made some mistakes. For example, I thought a “league” was six feet, but it’s actually about 3 miles. (This was not a problem until I had my main characters swimming a league or two underwater in cave). One of my readers caught that error in an ARC that Egmont sent out. We corrected that in the final version.

J&P: Good catch! And now that our mutual publisher, Egmont, has been bought by Lerner, how are you feeling about the future? What does this news mean for Seaborne?

MATT: I know it means that Book 1 will have a home with a fully operational, US based publisher who has been putting out quality books for over 50 years. That’s a very good thing. There’s a much better chance that the Seaborne series will continue now. There are no guarantees, but the good news is that I approached this series the same way that Indiana Jones is a series. Each story was meant to be a standalone adventure, so whatever happens with Book 2, it’s going to be okay. The people who pick up this book are going to get a complete story with no loose ends.

My hope is that Dean Seaborne will keep sailing for adventure. I’m going to miss working with the Egmont team, but I’m very excited about the opportunities at Lerner.

J&P: What’s been astonishing is how Egmont authors have rallied together to promote each other’s books under the #lastlistegmont – and how much love we’ve all got from the publishing world. Speaking personally, we’ve been blown away by the support from bloggers, booksellers, librarians and booklovers we’ve never even met!

MATT: Absolutely. I love the way we banded together to help each other’s books succeed. And, we all got to share the great news about Lerner too. That was a nice moment. Speaking of the Last Listers, (or maybe now the Last Lerners?), anyone reading this can get information on all our books at egmontslastlist.tumblr.com. I would urge everyone to check out those books, and also visit JaguarStones.com and MattMyklusch.com for more on The Lost City and Seaborne: The Lost Prince. It’s been great talking to you guys again!

J&P: Maybe see you in Turks and Caicos next time!

MATT: Deal

Meet Our Guest Bloggers:

Matt Myklusch is a middle-grade fantasy/adventure author and the creator of SEABORNE (Egmont USA), and THE JACK BLANK ADVENTURES (Simon & Schuster, Aladdin). When he’s not busy writing about kite-boarding pirates, superheroes, and robot-zombies, Matt hosts THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY PODCAST, speaking with other authors about their creative process and path to publication. Matt lives in New Jersey with his wife and family, where he is always hard at work on his next book.

Jon and Pamela (J&P) Voelkel are the author-illustrators of the Jaguar Stones series; Pamela does most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating. Their books tell the story of a city boy and a jungle girl – a mirror image of Jon’s wild childhood in Latin America and Pamela’s altogether tamer upbringing in an English seaside town. The Voelkels met in London, where they both worked at the same advertising agency, and now live in Vermont.

To research the Jaguar Stones, they and their three adventure-loving children have explored over forty Maya sites in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico; canoed down underground rivers; tracked howler monkeys in the jungle; and learned to make tortillas on an open fire. Jon’s most frightening experience was being lost in a pitch-black labyrinth under a Maya pyramid. Pamela’s most frightening experience was being interviewed by Al Roker on Today.

  • Twitter: @pvoelkel @jaguarstones
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/JP-Voelkel
  • Website: www.jaguarstones.com

 Publisher’s Book Descriptions:

The Lost City (Jaguar Stones book 4)

The epic conclusion to the exciting Jaguar Stones series and a rip-roaring adventure into the heart of America!

With his parents in jail and the Maya Death Lords in possession of all five Jaguar Stones, fourteen-year-old Max Murphy is pretty sure that he’ll never get to leave the rainforest. But the Lords of Death have a problem–a new king calling himself Great Sun claims to have the Jaguar Stones, too. And they want Max to prove the guy’s a fraud. Or else.

Now, Max, and Lola, the mysterious girl who befriends him, are off on another wild adventure that will take them from Central America to New Orleans and up the Mississippi to the lost city at the heart of America’s past.

But one thing Max should have learned after all of this dealings with the Death Lords — they never keep their promises.

Seaborne #1: The Lost Prince

Middle-grade adventure readers will love this fresh take on classic pirate tropes. Fans of Percy Jackson and The Chronicles of Egg will enjoy Dean Seaborne’s adventures on the sea.

Dean Seaborne is thrown off his ship by the Pirate King and given one last chance to redeem himself before he meets Davy Jones’s locker. He has to spy on the Pirate King’s biggest rival, Gentleman Jack Harper, and find the treasure hidden on the mysterious island of Zenhala.

Once on Zenhala, Dean finds that the inhabitants of the island think he is the lost prince who went missing 13 year ago. In order to fulfill his mission for the Pirate King, Dean undergoes intense and fantastical trials to prove he is the lost prince. But the longer Dean stays on the island, the more he questions his mission.

In My Mailbox: Looking for Middle Grade Fiction that Deals with Sexual Violence

I often get emails and comments in regards to The #SVYALit Project asking about Middle Grade titles that deal with sexual abuse and violence of pre-teen kids. And each time I get a question, I go looking for some great recommendations. I have even tried to ask author and Middle Grade champion Anne Ursu and she too has had a hard time coming up with some good examples. She found this great list, but it is short on Middle Grade fiction as well.

One of the titles, however, that gets mentioned frequently is I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson. I read this title a long time ago, and it is written with a beautiful tongue, as all Jacqueline Woodson novels are. And it is, of course, heartbreaking. The topic is heartbreaking.

“Death happens,” Woodson told Samiya A. Bashir in Black Issues Book Review. “Sexual abuse happens. Parents leave. These things happen every day and people think that if they don’t talk about it, then it will just go away. But that’s what makes it spread like the plague it is. People say that they’re censoring in the guise of protecting children, but if they’d open their eyes they’d see that kids are exposed to this stuff every day, and we need a venue by which to talk to them about it and start a dialogue. My writing comes from this place, of wanting to change the world. I feel like young people are the most open.” (from Woodson’s Wikipedia page)

The brief publisher synopsis reads like this: Marie, the only black girl in the eighth grade willing to befriend her white classmate Lena, discovers that Lena’s father is doing horrible things to her in private.

As two girls become friends, the other begins to realize that one of them is being sexually abused by her father. The process of getting to know one another and share these types of secrets, and then what do you do once you know the truth, is covered with sensitivity and grace.

“When I took these things from the house:
some tapes, some books, my winter clothes,
I did not know that these would become the
things I own.”

Jacqueline Woodson, I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This 

Lena’s story is continued in the follow-up title, simply Lena. In this, Lena and her little sister run away from her father and are searching to find safety, they hope, by seeking out their mother’s relatives. But being a runaway with no money is dangerous, but these girls will go to great lengths to try and find a safe place to lay their head.

“It seemed like someone was always leaving someone, like that’s the way the world worked—people were born and people died, people left and people came. It was like the world was saying you can’t have everything you want at the same time.”
Jacqueline Woodson, Lena 

Woodson is a fabulous and gifted author and she has written eloquently on this topic, you’ll definitely want to read these. And if you know of more middle grade titles that can help adults talk about these tough subjects with middle grade readers, please leave us a note in the comments.

In addition to the topic of sexual violence, Woodson tackles inter-racial friendships, racism and discrimination, runaways, poverty, and more. Definitely check them out.

Book Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Publisher’s Description:  

Galileo. Newton. Salk. Oppenheimer.
Science can change the world . . . but can it go too far?

Eleven-year-old Ellie has never liked change. She misses fifth grade. She misses her old best friend. She even misses her dearly departed goldfish. Then one day a strange boy shows up. He’s bossy. He’s cranky. And weirdly enough . . . he looks a lot like Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist who’s always been slightly obsessed with immortality. Could this pimply boy really be Grandpa Melvin? Has he finally found the secret to eternal youth?

Karen’s Thoughts:

After reading a ton of titles for the #SVYALit Project, a little bit of a lighter read was definitely needed and this middle grade title fit the bill perfectly. Recent stats have shown that younger girls show an interest in math and science but as they get older, around middle school age, the interest begins to wane. So while there are currently more females enrolled in college, I think the statistic I saw yesterday said 60%, there are more males enrolled in science and tech fields in college. So I loved the emphasis that this title placed on science and how our main character, Ellie, developed a slowly budding interest in science.

Born to very theatrical parents, Ellie has grown up in a house that emphasizes the arts. Her grandfather, however, is a scientist. In fact, her grandfather may very well be the teenage boy on her doorstep who claims to have found a way to reverse the aging process. The only problem is, the key to his research is now locked away in a lab that he can’t get access to, because people don’t really let teenagers wander around high tech labs doing that type of research.

The two of them, aided by a new friend, repeatedly try to break into the lab to steal a key part of the research while they navigate middle school and eat a lot of Chinese food.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a great, fun read about finding yourself, allowing yourself to be open to change, family, and friendship. And along the way, there are some interesting science facts sprinkled throughout the story. The humor of the story is balanced with some very real and deep questions, including questions about the ethics of science (just because you can do something does it mean that you should?) and thoughts about death, change, and allowing others to be who they are. I love that it is Ellie who grows in wisdom and challenges her grandfather to ask what would happen in the long run if nobody ever grew old.

This is a really great read. Touching, humorous, thoughtful and fun, Holm introduces us to characters that are a delight to spend time with. It is a sheer delight to see this wise, intelligent scientist wrestle with things like acne and the cafeteria while spewing out his cynical, scientific rhetoric.

The Fourteenth Goldfish comes out later in August 2014 from Random House Books for Young Readers. It has already received several starred reviews, including stars from Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly and Holm has an established reputation – she is a repeat Newbery winner – and fan base. You can’t go wrong with this title. Read it together as a family if you can. ISBN: 9780375870644

Check out this list of YA titles that highlight girls in STEM sciences

2 New GNs Coming Your Way, and a look at Scholastic’s GRAPHIX imprint

This is how things go at my house . . .

Me: Whacha doing?
The Tween: Reading
Me: Oh, you’re reading SMILE again.
The Tween: Yep

So when news came out that there might be ARCs of SISTERS by Raina Telgemeier at TLA, I tweeted Christie: “Our one mission is to get ARCs of SISTERS at TLA and be heroes.” We did not get ARCs of said book. We are not heroes. The tween just keeps her copy of SMILE on the floor by her bed, and occasionally she will say to me, with those puppy dog eyes, I really can’t wait to read the next one.

There’s not a lot out there yet about SISTERS. Goodreads doesn’t even list a release date or ISBN at this point. Another source, however, says 8/26/14 with the ISBN: 9780545540599. So just in case you need to be someone’s hero, I want to make sure this is on your radar. And if you haven’t read SMILE yet, the Tween really recommends you pick it up. It is, after all, a Will Eisner Award winner.

Graphic novels have long been popular in my YA area. And more and more I am getting requests from Middle Grader readers for GNs. Scholastic has the GRAPHIX imprint to help fulfill this need. There is even a fun Create Your Own Comic activity there you can share with your tweens and teens. BONE by Jeff Smith is perhaps the most popular; I have readers come in almost weekly and ask for this series by name. Some other popular titles include Amulet, Cardboard, Chickenhare and Pandemonium.

And here’s a new one coming your way . . .

Cleopatra in Space: Book One, Target Practice
by Mike Maihack

Actually, this title came out in April, so it is brand spanking new.  Here’s the publisher’s description:

“When a young Cleopatra (yes, THAT Cleopatra) finds a mysterious tablet that zaps her to the far, REALLY far future, she learns of an ancient prophecy that says she is destined to save the galaxy from the tyrannical rule of the evil Xaius Octavian. She enrolls in Yasiro Academy, a high-tech school with classes like algebra, biology, and alien languages (which Cleo could do without), and combat training (which is more Cleo’s style). With help from her teacher Khensu, Cleo learns what it takes to be a great leader, while trying to figure out how she’s going to get her homework done, make friends, and avoid detention!

It was a pretty fun read. I mean, of course Cleopatra belongs in space. If you ask me, everything is better in space. We are big Doctor Who fans, and it was kind of fun to read this after watching the episode Dinosaurs on a Space Ship which guest stars – you guessed it – Cleopatra. This is book 1 and we are looking forward to reading more in the series.

And I want to end by talking for a moment about reading and re-reading books. As I mentioned above, the Tween reads SMILE a lot. And last summer she kept reading The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books a lot. This drove The Mr. crazy. At one point he started to storm into her room and tell her she needed to read something different, anything, just something different. So we talked about it and I said things like this:

1. It’s okay to read books over and over again, don’t worry. Each time she’ll pick up something new.
2. She’ll read something different when she is ready.
3. Don’t turn reading into a war between you and her. Don’t fight about it. Don’t put your rules and expectations on it; if she enjoys reading books multiple times then let her do that, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Don’t take the joy of it away from her. If you make reading become a battleground, you will lose this war and she will lose because she will lose her love of reading.

I personally am not a huge re-reader. Except that I have read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin probably once a year every year since the 5th grade. I really love that book. But every time she reads Smile it makes her happy, I just can’t find anything bad about that.