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The Mysterious Road to THE IN-BETWEEN, a guest post by Rebecca Ansari

I was raised on puzzles, games and mysteries.

The earliest memories I have of my grandfather are the two of us, stooped over a so-full-it-can’t-be-used-for-dining table, scanning 2000 jigsaw pieces for the right color or shape to fit into the emerging image of a church, country bridge, or whatever was depicted on the nearby box. When we tired of that, we would move to the card table for a family match of Hearts, everyone focused on their hands, calculating how to trick the others and Shoot the Moon. My mother’s bookshelf was dominated by Agatha Christie who-done-its, my dad’s with Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers Club and others, books they subsequently put in my hands. They would delight in watching to see if I could solve them before the last page. To this day, my mother emails my own children word and math puzzles just for fun.

My mother having finished the puzzle my 4 sons gave her for Xmas this year

This love of problem solving was part of my parents’ professional lives as well. My mother, a math major, spent her career looking at MRI’s, CT scans and ultrasounds, trying to sleuth out the source of a patient’s malady. My father took me to his lab every weekend as he did research to answer questions about why his patients were born premature, and how to best treat their tiny bodies and lungs. I followed in their footsteps, spending twelve years as an ER doctor, investigating if a given patient’s abdominal pain was appendicitis, ectopic pregnancy, a kidney stone, or another of the myriad possible causes.

Me in my doctoring days

When I jumped from ER doc to middle grade author, some of my peers were surprised. The two fields don’t appear to have much—anything?—in common. But it makes perfect sense to me. My whole life, I reveled in being the one to solve the mysteries.

Me in my writing space now

Then, as a writer, I found the thrill of creating the mysteries myself.

What if your little brother disappeared, and you’re the only one who notices? What if you discover that a new girl moving in next door is a very bad omen, but you’re the only one who sees it? These are the starting premises of my first two novels, and I didn’t know the answers to these questions when I began writing each. In trying to figure them out, I frequently wrote myself into such tight corners I was sure I could never find a way out. Story telling is its own mystery, its own puzzle—and it brings with it the thrill of success in figuring out the answers as well as the hope that I’ve created something that will give others that same sense of wonder and satisfaction.

People ask me if I miss being a doctor. I certainly miss a great case, a “good catch,” or a critical save under pressure, but I think many who have read my books find that I’m still doing those things, through the experiences of my characters. If you have a chance to read my debut, The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly, or my new book, The In-Between, I hope you too find a mystery to challenge you—and the thrill of finding the answer.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Amber Rishavy with Pixel Dust Photography

After twelve years as an ER doctor, Rebecca K.S. Ansari shelved her scrubs to write magical and mysterious worlds for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MISSING PIECE OF CHARLIE O’REILLY (2019, Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins) earned a starred review from School Library Journal, an ALA 2020 Notable Children’s Book nomination and was a Junior Library Guild selection. It was also a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Her second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN, releases January 26, 2021 and has received starred reviews Kirkus, Publisher Weekly, and School Library Journal. It is also a Junior Library Guild selection.

When Rebecca isn’t writing, you can find her joyously biking and skiing, begrudgingly running, or escaping “up north” in Minnesota with her husband, four boys, two huge dogs and a stack of good books. You can find her on Twitter at @RebeccaKSAnsari, on Instagram at @Rebeccaansariauthor, or at her website RebeccaAnsari.com.

The virtual launch party for THE IN-BETWEEN will be this Thursday, at 6:30CST. Everyone in the whole wide world is invited!

January 28 6:30 pm CST. Virtual Book Event! A Conversation with Rebecca K. S. Ansari and Anne Ursu 

About The In-Between

A dark, twisty adventure about the forgotten among us and what it means to be seen, from the acclaimed author of The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly.

Cooper is lost. Ever since his father left their family three years ago, he has become distant from his friends, constantly annoyed by his little sister, Jess, and completely fed up with the pale, creepy rich girl who moved in next door and won’t stop staring at him. So when Cooper learns of an unsolved mystery his sister has discovered online, he welcomes the distraction.

It’s the tale of a deadly train crash that occurred a hundred years ago, in which one young boy among the dead was never identified. The only distinguishing mark on him was a strange insignia on his suit coat, a symbol no one had seen before or since. Jess is fascinated by the mystery of the unknown child— because she’s seen the insignia. It’s the symbol of the jacket of the girl next door.

As they uncover more information— and mounting evidence of the girl’s seemingly impossible connection to the tragedy—Cooper and Jess begin to wonder if a similar disaster could be heading to their hometown.

ISBN-13: 9780062916099
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Publisher’s description

Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

Amanda’s thoughts

As I write this, it’s the final days of 2020 and Minnesota has decided to be very Minnesota-y and is having a rather unexpected blizzard. I’m tired and cranky and just over EVERYTHING lately. I stop and start books, I scroll on my phone, I rewatch The Office. Nothing feels interesting. But then! BUT THEN! I picked up this book. I read it slowly, delighting in every clever department name and plot twist. I got completely caught up in Amari’s world and only really set the book down to text people how great this book is. This book is stupendous.

Amari is off on a fantastical adventure after she receives a mysterious interactive recording from her missing brother. Under the guise of it being a summer camp, she goes to attend training at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where her brother was apparently working before his disappearance. There, she’s paired up with her new roommate, Elsie Rodriguez, a weredragon and mastermind inventor, and learns that her brother was one of the most famous agents in recent history, responsible for helping bring about the end of two powerful magicians who were waging war on the supernatural world. Amari, whose aptitude and talents make it seem like she might be a hero, isn’t concerned about anything like that—she doesn’t want to be a hero; she just wants to find her brother. But when her talent is revealed to show her true abilities, suddenly Amari is seen as a potential villain, an enemy of the Bureau.

Now Amari has to prove herself to those in charge or she’ll be cut loose from the program and have her memory wiped. Staying and succeeding is the only chance she has at tracking down her brother. As Amari thinks, this is not so different from being a Black girl from the projects attending a private school (as she did). She’s used to standing out, to being judged. She doesn’t like being underestimated and will prove people that they’re wrong about her, but will have to deal with secrets, lies, blackmail, creatures, illusions, tests, and traitors along the way.

Every page of this story was a delight. Really all I want in life right now is for this whole series to be out and all the movies so I can just live inside the world of Amari and friends. I’m obsessed. Go order this right now. And get ready for it to fly off library shelves. One of the best starts to a fantasy series that I’ve read in a very long time.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062975164
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Series: Supernatural Investigations #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Ally’s Favorite Graphic Novels of 2020

It’s no secret that 2020 has been…a lot. But also, a lot of beautiful comics and graphic novels have come out this year. Here’s a few of my favorites middle grade and YA graphic novels from 2020, in no particular order:

Go With the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann

Go With the Flow is a great MG graphic novel about a group of friends fighting for menstrual equality at their school: why does the football team have more funding than female health?? I loved the palette on this one–the red accents are fun and the art is great!

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge

I really liked the Dark Matter of Mona Starr, both for its art and celebration of creativity AND the very real way it portrays depression in a teenager. Our teens are dealing with mental health issues and we need to take that seriously. MAJOR bonus points for normalized on-page therapy sessions!!

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

Almost American Girl tells the story of Robin Ha’s transition from a normal teenager in Seoul to an immigrant in Huntsville, Alabama. This graphic memoir is beautifully illustrated and also looks at how isolated and difficult it is for anyone to be dropped into a new country, a new language, a new school.

The Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

The Witches of Brooklyn is the cutest thing I’ve read in quite some time. I LOVED main character Sophie, who is mourning the loss of her mom, and her home. But things start to get interesting when she finds out that magic runs in her family!! (I liked this one so much I gave it to my niece for Christmas!)

Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley

Stepping Stones is Lucy Knisley’s first middle grade graphic novel. I’ve long been a fan of Knisley’s adult titles and her social media presence so I was excited to dig into this one. Jen is upset that she’s had to move away from the city and to a farm with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend. She’s even more upset when she finds out that she’ll be spending weekends with her new stepsisters. Can they become friends or are they all too different?

Twins by Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright

Twins is maybe the perfect middle grade graphic novel. It has everything: sibling rivalry, new friendships, starting middle school. I absolutely loved this story of twins Maureen and Francine who find themselves running against each other for student council president. The art is wonderful, and I’m really hoping this one becomes a whole series about the twins!!

Displacement by Kiku Hughes

Displacement is a gorgeous graphic novel mix of family history and magic. Kiku, a teen living today, becomes displaced in time and finds herself living in a Japanese internment camp in the 40s. She witnesses the lives of the residents of the camp, seeing how their civil liberties were violated by the American government. This is a powerful treatise on intergenerational trauma and memory.

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

The Magic Fish is…kind of a masterpiece? The art is absolutely breathtaking. If you haven’t picked this one up, you’re in for a treat. Thirteen year old Tiến is trying to find the words to tell his Vietnamese parents that he’s gay…but he hasn’t managed it yet, in English or in Vietnamese. The story of Tiến’s life is interwoven with the fairytales that he reads with his mother. Have I mentioned the art? Because it’ll make your jaw drop. I hope we see more from this artist very soon!!

What were your favorite graphic novels of 2020?

Bullies, best friends and phones: Will Covid shift the balance toward real-world socializing? a guest post by Sheila M. Averbuch

Friend Me

“Just be careful,” my husband called out as our teen-aged kids left for the first day back to school. Although mask-wearing was going to be enforced, we still sent them off with trepidation. “Stay away from other people, even your friends, especially if they’re laughing,” he added.

Wow. What a thing to say. I knew where my husband was coming from — how can we keep our kids safe when there’s still an airborne, incurable virus hopping from person to person? — but hearing the words made me realize just how much we’re asking young people to forego this year, their friends’ laughter included.

Here in Scotland we locked down in March: from then on, our kids had almost no contact with friends. At first they enjoyed the break from the grind of school, but then my daughter, especially, began to talk about and long for the chance to see friends in person.

This was new: typically she’d default to her phone for socializing, but a real, face-to-face meet-up was what she wanted most. Video calls were set up as a regular stopgap, but I could see how excited she was for those beach strolls and dog walks: outdoor,  socially-distanced meet-ups where she could hang out with friends in person. Other parents reported the same hunger among their teens to get back into a group and feel normal again.

Face to face, not phone-only

Covid has overturned so many norms, and I think the way tweens and teens use their phones may be one of those. So much has been written about how technology isolates young people and has created that digital default: socializing through their handsets can feel so much more natural than phoning a friend or meeting in person.

Roisin, the main character in my middle grade thriller debut FRIEND ME (Scholastic Press), repeatedly pushes away her brother and other real-world potential friends for her new online bestie. A spark for the story was the day my then 13-year-old said it was his best friend’s birthday; I urged him to phone the boy for a chat and he acted like it was a bizarre suggestion.

This got me thinking: it would be completely feasible for an entire friendship to blossom and grow via the phone, but without speaking to each other. I wanted to explore how and whether this could be a lifeline and a hazard. Can you really know friends you’ve only met through a screen? But if you find your tribe online, should you auto-mistrust them, just in case they’re bad actors?

In FRIEND ME, Roisin is an Irish transplant to Massachusetts who’s picked to pieces by a bully; the girl targets Roisin in school and online. The fact that both Roisin’s best friend and her enemy come to her through the same screen highlights a core problem with cyberbullying: phones are the most personal of personal electronics.

It’s hard to tell young people who are experiencing cyberbullying to stay away from their phones, when the phone has become an umbilical cord to the rest of life, from parental text messages to homework alerts from online classrooms.

It’s even harder for adults to impose rules, boundaries and time-of-day tech curfews unless we model that behavior. The issue here isn’t just the hypocrisy of ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ it’s that we’re putting these most addictive objects into kids’ hands — untested technology, that’s being tested on young people. There’s a reason that many Silicon Valley executives, who created today’s ultra-addictive tech, banned their own children from using the tech: they realized themselves just how hard it was to stop.

The Social Dilemma and the siren call of social media

If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix, you’ll have discovered chilling new insights into the most addictive apps of all: social media, whose algorithms keep users hooked by dishing out dopamine hits of praise on an unpredictable basis. 

The documentary interlaces with a dramatization of social media at work on a ’typical’ American family, including a painfully realistic example of a tween girl who finds the compulsion to post selfies overwhelming. Seeing those likes and comments rack up is an ego boost, but one insult wipes out the positive. The character Isla, played masterfully by Sophia Hammons, can’t stop looking in the mirror and hating herself after one of her followers says her ears make her look like an elephant.

Safeguards for social

There are no easy answers in relation to tweens, mental health, and social media, but cyberbullying in particular is something every teen and carer can take action on right away, following excellent guidance like that from stopbullying.gov. There are best-practice tips on what young people should and shouldn’t post, or repost, and the importance of speaking up immediately about any bullying behavior.

There’s also solid advice on healthy use of apps: including, if you’re a young person, the importance of allowing parents or carers to follow you on social media, to keep them in the loop.

Disabling notifications is always good: it means you’re not yanked back into the app on its schedule, but when you choose. In the case of bullying, screenshot everything; principals and teachers will be grateful for the trail of evidence if they need to get involved.

The fact that our young people are isolated by Covid and in many places learning from home doesn’t protect them from the long arm of the bully. But 2020 has also, by necessity, caused many parents and carers to become more accustomed to technology, which better equips them to use and monitor the apps where bullies prowl.

Technology can be isolating, but it can also be a savior, linking young people to friends, learning and community. I’m also encouraged by the growing availability online of fantastic mental health and mindfulness resources, and the increasing societal awareness that mental health is just health and must be nurtured and protected. 

As long as adults model the self-control and tech-curfews with our own devices that we want our kids to exercise, I think we need to trust young people, and open our eyes to just how much they’re valuing real-world interaction with real-world friends right now.

The trend I’ve seen in my own kids, favoring face-to-face instead of online-only socializing, gives me hope. My daughter recently spent hours one Sunday with her friend group just roaming the parks and fields around us: hanging out, taking pics…and laughing.

ANTI-BULLYING IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

It’s a golden age for middle-grade fiction which tackles bullying and its fallout and demonstrates how young people can cope, thrive and prevail. Here are recommended reads to get you started:

Friend Me by Sheila M. Averbuch (Scholastic)

The Brave by James Bird (Feiwel & Friends)

Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy (Puffin Books)

Ella on the Outside by Cath Howe (Nosy Crow)

American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar (Aladdin)

Restart by Gordon Korman (Scholastic)

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado (Nancy Paulsen Books)

Meet the author

Photo credit: Rob McDougall

Sheila M. Averbuch is a former technology journalist and author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME publishing November 10, 2020 with Scholastic Press. Find Sheila at sheilamaverbuch.com

Sheila’s local independent bookshop near Edinburgh in Scotland is the marvellous Portobello Bookshop, which has signed copies of FRIEND ME while supplies last at bit.ly/SMAbuyindie  Or, find FRIEND ME at your own local indie here bit.ly/SMAorder

About Friend Me

Friend Me

What happens when an online friend becomes a real-life nightmare?

Roisin hasn’t made a single friend since moving from Ireland to Massachusetts. In fact, she is falling apart under constant abuse from a school bully, Zara. Zara torments Roisin in person and on social media. She makes Roisin the laughingstock of the whole school.

Roisin feels utterly alone… until she bonds with Haley online. Finally there’s someone who gets her. Haley is smart, strong, and shares anti-mean-girl memes that make Roisin laugh. Together, they are able to imagine what life could look like without Zara. Haley quickly becomes Roisin’s lifeline.

Then Zara has a painful accident, police investigate, and Roisin panics. Could her chats with Haley look incriminating?

Roisin wants Haley to delete her copies of their messages, but when she tries to meet Haley in person, she can’t find her anywhere. What’s going on? Her best friend would never have lied to her, right? Or is Haley not who she says she is…

With twists, turns, and lightning-fast pacing, this is a middle-grade thriller about bullying, revenge, and tech that young readers won’t be able to put down.

ISBN-13: 9781338618082
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/10/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Psst–Wanna Hear a Secret? Keeping Things Private in My Life in the Fish Tank, a guest post by Barbara Dee

This may sound funny to admit, but I’ve only recently realized that all my recent books are about secrecy.

I didn’t write these books with a recurring theme in mind.  My latest Middle Grade (or, to be precise, Upper Middle Grade) books explore a variety of  “tough topics”–sexual orientation (Star-Crossed),  pediatric cancer (Halfway Normal), eating disorders (Everything I Know About You), sexual harassment (Maybe He Just Likes You).  My next book, My Life in the Fish Tank (Aladdin/S&S, Sept 15, 2020) is about a family of four kids unsettled by the oldest son’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Looking over my shoulder, though, I see that what these very different stories have in common  is a protagonist struggling under the burden of a secret.  In Star-Crossed and Maybe He Just Likes You, it’s a secret that shouldn’t be a secret at all. In Halfway Normal, the secret is a form of self-protection. In Everything I Know About You and My Life in the Fish Tank, the secret is intended to protect others. But in all these stories, whatever motivates the desire to hide information, the secret is a source of anxiety, responsible for tensions with the protagonist’s friends and family.

My Life in the Fish Tank

In My Life in the Fish Tank, Zinny doesn’t want to keep her brother Gabriel’s mental illness secret–it’s her parents who insist on it. And actually, her parents never use the word secret–they simply ask that the kids in the family keep it private.  “For Gabriel’s sake,” they explain. 

But Zinny immediately sees through their language.

“You mean secret?” I asked.

“Not secret, private,” Dad said. He flashed mom a look.

“Okay,” I said.

But if there was a difference between those two words–“secret” and “private”–I didn’t know what it was. 

It’s not that Zinny wants to talk about her brother’s bipolar disorder (“The whole thing hurt my heart in a way I couldn’t describe…I couldn’t explain to anyone how it felt to wonder if he’d be okay.”) She’s also (rightfully) wary of friends like Maisie who pry, expecting gossipy details on demand.

But what Zinny comes to realize is that not talking to people about Gabriel  has a cost. If you don’t share vital information about yourself, if you hide your true feelings, you push people away. As the hospital social worker tells Nora in Halfway Normal, there’s no requirement that she “entertain anyone with (her) cancer story…Although not sharing can be tricky too…Maybe you want to consider how other people would feel about that.” 

I think one reason I write about secrecy so much is that in middle school, intimacy–sharing secrets–is the currency of friendship, especially among girls. So in Maybe He Just Likes You, when Mila doesn’t tell Zara about the boys’ s sexual harassment game, it seals the fate of their already rocky relationship. In Star-Crossed, Mattie’s instinct not to tell loyal but loudmouthed Tessa about her crush on Gemma almost wrecks their friendship too. In Halfway Normal Nora’s desire to keep her “cancer story” to herself is understandable–but it threatens her bonds with Harper and Griffin. Withholding secrets from your best friends can be  dangerous, a source of conflict–even when it’s for a good reason.

Sometimes I hear from adult readers, “I just wished the character had told an adult.” This comment always surprises me.  For upper elementary and middle school kids, one of the worst things you can be is a tattletale, which is why Tally resists sharing  Ava’s secret in Everything I Know About You. And when the secret is your own, you also don’t rush off to tell a grownup. You usually do one of two things: either you share it with your friends (if it’s the sort of secret that’s shareable) or you turn inward–closing yourself off, obsessing in potentially unhealthy ways.

Because as a bright, observant twelve-year-old, Zinny is starting to see that adults aren’t perfect and can’t solve all your problems. She watches her parents with sharp eyes: the way after her brother’s diagnosis her dad withdraws from the rest of the family but adopts a “bright, cheery voice” when they visit Gabriel at the residential treatment center  (“I couldn’t help thinking that he’d kept it from us, hidden away. Almost like he thought we didn’t deserve it or something.”) And even though Mom insists that she wants to keep Gabriel’s condition “private” out of respect for Gabriel, Zinny notes how Mom lies to her neighbor Mrs. Halloran, telling her that Gabriel is “back at school and working hard.”   Horrified, Zinny wonders: “Why would Mom lie about Gabriel? Was she ashamed that her own kid was crazy? Because I couldn’t think of any other reason.”

Eventually  Zinny is brave enough to confront her parents. She doesn’t call them out for stigmatizing mental illness;  she’s a kid, so she’s more focused on the way their insistence on secrecy has affected both the family and her own social life.  At the same time, Zinny has been identifying people she can confide in: kids like Kailani and the others in the Lunch Club. Adults like Mr. Patrick, the excellent guidance counselor who allows Zinny to proceed at her own pace, gradually feeling comfortable enough to share her secret. In all my stories about kids with secrets, there are good friends and less-good ones, adults who demand information (like Ms. Castro in Halfway Normal) and adults who offer support in unobtrusive ways that earn the protagonist’s trust  (like Mr. Torres in Star-Crossed and both Ms. Molina and Mr. Patrick  in Fish Tank).

If you ask me what Middle Grade books are about, I’d say they’re about this: learning to analyze behavior.  Evaluating friendships in ever-changing light. Seeing adults not as all-powerful, all-knowing paragons, but as complicated, flawed (if often benevolent) human beings.

And then figuring out your relationship with all these people–whom you can trust, especially with your precious secrets.  

Meet Barbara Dee

Barbara Dee is the author of several middle grade novels including Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have received several starred reviews and been included on many best-of lists, including the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Star-Crossed was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

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My wonderful local indie is Scattered Books.  They ship everywhere. I’m doing a signing there on Sat, Sept 26 from 2-4 pm. It will be outside, in front of the bookstore—COVID safe!

About My Life in the Fish Tank

My Life in the Fish Tank

From acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.

It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.

The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?

ISBN-13: 9781534432338
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

Book Review: My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee

My Life in the Fish Tank

Publisher’s description

From acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.

It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.

The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?

Amanda’s thoughts

The summary up there is pretty thorough and hits most of the main plot points of the story. What you need to know, what you can’t really learn from the summary, is how nuanced and emotional this story is. Many families choose to keep something like a mental illness private/secret/a family matter. I’m not here to judge people doing that (though, we all know I’m super open about our mental health issues here and think being open helps eliminate stigma and leads to more help for everyone) because mental illness is hard, family can be hard, choices are hard, and so on. But certainly for Zinny, being told to keep it private that her older brother is bipolar and in a treatment facility really destroys her.

Zinny’s parents become distant and shut down as the family tries to get through this hard time without really talking to one another about it or being open. Her mother shows signs of depression and takes a leave from her job as a teacher. Her father is always at work. No one makes dinner or takes care of things, leaving Zinny to feel like she should cook, get groceries, and so on. Her secrecy drives a wedge between her and her best friends, leaving her feeling even more isolated and alone. Her older sister is dealing with their brother’s diagnosis and absence differently than Zinny is, so she also feels a loss of kinship with her sister. She’s confused, ashamed, upset, and still not entirely clear what’s happening. Her feels even worse when she hears her mom straight up lie about her brother (he’s back at college and doing great!).

While all of that is really hard, surprising good things happen. Dee doesn’t leave Zinny alone and despairing. She gives her a great science teacher, Ms. Molina, who lets Zinny come help in her classroom during lunch, who supports her without overtly making it about what’s happening at home, and who encourages Zinny to be making connections and continuing to live her life. Dee also gives Zinny a group of new friends, a lunch bunch of other middle school kids dealing with rough issues. While Zinny isn’t thrilled to be in this group at first, she gets a lot out of those connections and finds not just kids who are also experiencing difficult times, but kids who want to be her friend, who include her, and who show her it’s okay to be dealing with family issues. Her family is struggling, but Zinny is surrounded by support and true caring. And while her parents definitely make missteps along the way (as a parent, I can safely say we all do, even if we’re certain we’re trying to do our best), they all work together to figure out how to get through this time.

Flashbacks to both happier times and moments with Gabriel that illuminate how long his mental illness went undiagnosed create a bigger and better picture of Zinny’s family. Given how many children are most certainly dealing with mental illness at home or with someone close to them, this is a much needed book that shows how hard and scary it can be, but also how much help there is and how much hope there is. Zinny’s story moves from feeling like they’re all just barely surviving this upheaval to seeing how everyone learns to function more honestly and healthily in this new reality. It’s hardly news to say that mental illness affects the entire family, but it’s so important that we see the ways this can happen and understand that it’s okay to be affected and to need to figure out a way forward. An important read and highly recommended.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534432338
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

A Tween’s Eye View on Graphic Novels: Click, Camp, The Breakaways, Snapdragon and Be Prepared

Thing 2, Scout, was 2 when I started Teen Librarian Toolbox. She has longed for the day when she, like her older sister, could write reviews and be a part of TLT. This year, and what a weird year it ended up being, she finished the 5th grade. Now that she is entering the 6th grade so she can officially be a TLTer. Today she is here sharing her reviews of some recent graphic novels that she has read. Scout and I have talked here often about her journey to like reading as a kid with dyslexia and graphic novels are the format she has embraced for herself. So check out her first official graphic novels column with TLT. A couple of year ago Scout created #OperationBB  in which she works hard to make sure that kids get to own books of their own.

Click by Kayla Miller

Publisher’s Book Description:

A debut graphic novel about friendship and finding where you “click” in school.

Olive wants to get in on the act . . .
. . . Any act!

Olive “clicks” with everyone in the fifth grade—until one day she doesn’t. When a school variety show leaves Olive stranded without an act to join, she begins to panic, wondering why all her friends have already formed their own groups . . . without her. With the performance drawing closer by the minute, will Olive be able to find her own place in the show before the curtain comes up?

Scout’s Thoughts: I like this book because it shows sometimes you need to ask your friends to be in a group instead of waiting for them to ask you.

Camp by Kayla Miller

Publisher’s Book Description:

Olive and Willow are happy campers!
Or are they?
 
Olive is sure she’ll have the best time at summer camp with her friend Willow – but while Olive makes quick friends with the other campers, Willow struggles to form connections and latches on to the only person she knows – Olive. It’s s’more than Olive can handle! The stress of being Willow’s living security blanket begins to wear on Olive and before long…the girls aren’t just fighting, they may not even be friends by the time camp is over. Will the two be able to patch things up before the final lights out?

Scout’s Thoughts: I like this book because it shows that sometimes friends fight.

The Breakaways by Cathy G. Johnson

Publisher’s Book Description:

Quiet, sensitive Faith starts middle school already worrying about how she will fit in. To her surprise, Amanda, a popular eighth grader, convinces her to join the school soccer team, the Bloodhounds. Having never played soccer in her life, Faith ends up on the C team, a ragtag group that’s way better at drama than at teamwork. Although they are awful at soccer, Faith and her teammates soon form a bond both on and off the soccer field that challenges their notions of loyalty, identity, friendship, and unity.

The Breakaways is a portrait of friendship in its many forms, and a raw and beautifully honest look into the lives of a diverse and defiantly independent group of kids learning to make room for themselves in the world.

Scout’s Thoughts: I like this book because it shows diversity and LGBTQ kids.

Snapkdragon by Kat Leyh

Publisher’s Book Description:

Kat Leyh’s Snapdragon is a magical realist graphic novel about a young girl who befriends her town’s witch and discovers the strange magic within herself.

Snap’s town had a witch.

At least, that’s how the rumor goes. But in reality, Jacks is just a crocks-wearing, internet-savvy old lady who sells roadkill skeletons online–after doing a little ritual to put their spirits to rest. It’s creepy, sure, but Snap thinks it’s kind of cool, too.

They make a deal: Jacks will teach Snap how to take care of the baby opossums that Snap rescued, and Snap will help Jacks with her work. But as Snap starts to get to know Jacks, she realizes that Jacks may in fact have real magic–and a connection with Snap’s family’s past.

Scout’s Thoughts: I like this book because it’s just fun to read. Also, it had witches.

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Publisher’s Book Description:

A gripping and hilarious middle-grade summer camp memoir from the author of Anya’s Ghost.

All Vera wants to do is fit in—but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there’s one summer camp in her price range—Russian summer camp.

Vera is sure she’s found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the “cool girl” drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!

Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, and Victoria Jamieson, Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared is a funny and relatable middle-grade graphic novel about navigating your own culture, struggling to belong, and the value of true friendship.

Scout’s Thoughts: I like this book because I like going to camp and that’s what this book is about.

As a mom, not just a librarian, I would appreciate it if you could do me a solid and leave her an encouraging comment for her debut here. Thank you!

Post-It Note Reviews: Mythology, fencing, basketball, HIV, and more

School ended for me on June 5th. I gave myself two treats that day: I went to get bubble tea from my favorite local business and I picked up the library books that had been waiting for me at the public library for weeks and weeks. Our local library has been doing curbside pickup nearly the entire pandemic, a move I don’t agree with or think was in the best interest of the staff. But starting June 1st, more things began to open up here in Minnesota and I decided to do curbside pickup. I look forward to burning through my TBR list this summer as we won’t be traveling, I won’t be doing any summer library/summer school stuff, and while I should be writing, I know at least for now I only have the concentration to read, to get out of my own head and into world’s created by other people.

All descriptions from the publishers. Post-it note review follows the description.

Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster (ISBN-13: 9781492697206 Publisher: Sourcebooks Publication date: 06/09/2020 Series: Emblem Island Series #1, Ages 8-12)

A fast-paced series starter, perfect for fans of Aru Shah and the End of Time and filled with adventure, mythology, and an unforgettable trio of friends.

On Emblem Island all are born knowing their fate. Their lifelines show the course of their life and an emblem dictates how they will spend it.

Twelve-year-old Tor Luna was born with a leadership emblem, just like his mother. But he hates his mark and is determined to choose a different path for himself. So, on the annual New Year’s Eve celebration, where Emblemites throw their wishes into a bonfire in the hopes of having them granted, Tor wishes for a different power.

The next morning Tor wakes up to discover a new marking on his skin…the symbol of a curse that has shortened his lifeline, giving him only a week before an untimely death. There is only one way to break the curse, and it requires a trip to the notorious Night Witch.

With only his village’s terrifying, ancient stories as a guide, and his two friends Engle and Melda by his side, Tor must travel across unpredictable Emblem Island, filled with wicked creatures he only knows through myths, in a race against his dwindling lifeline.

(POST-IT SAYS: With courage and cooperation, Tor and friends use generations of stories to try to track down the Night Witch and change Tor’s story. A fast-paced and action-filled adventure full of friendship, magic, and monsters. An easy rec for fans of fantasy.)

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes (ISBN-13: 9780316493802 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publication date: 03/03/2020, Ages 8-12)

From award-winning and bestselling author, Jewell Parker Rhodes comes a powerful coming-of-age story about two brothers, one who presents as white, the other as black, and the complex ways in which they are forced to navigate the world, all while training for a fencing competition.

Framed. Bullied. Disliked. But I know I can still be the best.

Sometimes, 12-year-old Donte wishes he were invisible. As one of the few black boys at Middlefield Prep, most of the students don’t look like him. They don’t like him either. Dubbing him “Black Brother,” Donte’s teachers and classmates make it clear they wish he were more like his lighter-skinned brother, Trey.

When he’s bullied and framed by the captain of the fencing team, “King” Alan, he’s suspended from school and arrested for something he didn’t do.

Terrified, searching for a place where he belongs, Donte joins a local youth center and meets former Olympic fencer Arden Jones. With Arden’s help, he begins training as a competitive fencer, setting his sights on taking down the fencing team captain, no matter what.

As Donte hones his fencing skills and grows closer to achieving his goal, he learns the fight for justice is far from over. Now Donte must confront his bullies, racism, and the corrupt systems of power that led to his arrest.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, Black Brother, Black Brother is a careful examination of the school-to-prison pipeline and follows one boy’s fight against racism and his empowering path to finding his voice.

(POST-IT SAYS: Get this book in the hands of a book club/literature circle. Readers will (hopefully) rage at the racism, bullying, and injustice. A quick read featuring a great family and a challenging and caring mentor. Will especially speak to biracial kids. Ages 8-12)

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (ISBN-13: 9781626720794 Publisher: First Second Publication date: 03/17/2020, Ages 14-17)

In his latest graphic novel, Dragon HoopsNew York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang turns the spotlight on his life, his family, and the high school where he teaches.

Gene understands stories—comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins.

But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it’s all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well.

(POST-IT SAYS: LOVED this! I 100% do not care about sports, but a well-written story will rope me in. An interesting memoir/biography/deep dive into one school’s team of mainly BIPOC athletes. Powerful, tense, and riveting.)

Rick by Alex Gino (ISBN-13: 9781338048100 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publication date: 04/21/2020, Ages 8-12)

From the award-winning author of George, the story of a boy named Rick who needs to explore his own identity apart from his jerk of a best friend.

Rick’s never questioned much. He’s gone along with his best friend Jeff even when Jeff’s acted like a bully and a jerk. He’s let his father joke with him about which hot girls he might want to date even though that kind of talk always makes him uncomfortable. And he hasn’t given his own identity much thought, because everyone else around him seemed to have figured it out.

But now Rick’s gotten to middle school, and new doors are opening. One of them leads to the school’s Rainbow Spectrum club, where kids of many genders and identities congregate, including Melissa, the girl who sits in front of Rick in class and seems to have her life together. Rick wants his own life to be that . . . understood. Even if it means breaking some old friendships and making some new ones.

As they did in their groundbreaking novel GEORGE, in RICK, award-winning author Alex Gino explores what it means to search for your own place in the world . . . and all the steps you and the people around you need to take in order to get where you need to be.

(POST-IT SAYS: This book should be in all collections because of the focus on a group of LGBTQIAP+ middle schoolers, how characters stand up to bullying and homophobia, and the asexual representation. Not the most well-written book, but covers important ground. Ages 8-12)

American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar (ISBN-13: 9781534439382 Publisher: Aladdin Publication date: 06/09/2020, Ages 8-12)

An Indian American girl navigates prejudice in her small town and learns the power of her own voice in this brilliant gem of a middle grade novel full of humor and heart, perfect for fans of Front Desk and Amina’s Voice.

As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

(POST-IT SAYS: Wide appeal—deals with common middle school issues like bullying, exclusion, and changing friendships. An easy rec for those who liked Amina’s Voice, Count Me In, and Wishtree. A great read full of warmth.)

You Say It First by Katie Cotugno (ISBN-13: 9780062674128 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 06/16/2020, Ages 13-17)

An addictive, irresistible YA novel about two teens from different worlds who fall for each other after a voter registration call turns into a long-distance romance—from Katie Cotugno, the New York Times bestselling author of 99 Days. Perfect for fans of Mary H.K. Choi, Robin Benway, and Nicola Yoon.

One conversation can change everything.

Meg has her entire life set up perfectly: she and her best friend, Emily, plan to head to Cornell together in the fall, and she works at a voter registration call center in her Philadelphia suburb. But everything changes when one of those calls connects her to a stranger from small-town Ohio.

Colby is stuck in a rut, reeling from a family tragedy and working a dead-end job. The last thing he has time for is some privileged rich girl preaching the sanctity of the political process. So he says the worst thing he can think of and hangs up.

But things don’t end there.…

That night on the phone winds up being the first in a series of candid, sometimes heated, always surprising conversations that lead to a long-distance friendship and then—slowly—to something more. Across state lines and phone lines, Meg and Colby form a once-in-a-lifetime connection. But in the end, are they just too different to make it work?

You Say It First is a propulsive, layered novel about how sometimes the person who has the least in common with us can be the one who changes us most.

(POST-IT SAYS: A quick read that will appeal to those that like a rocky road to romance. The two white main characters connect despite their differences and learn from each other. Though Meg is politically passionate, politics plays a smaller role than I’d thought/hoped they would.)

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert (ISBN-13: 9780316456388 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publication date: 03/10/2020, Ages 10-13)

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.

(POST-IT SAYS: Huge fan of Colbert’s YA books and this MG debut is just as fantastic. A great look at managing new and old friendships, racism, and Black history. I loved Al’s dads and Edie’s mom and the diary/mystery element. One of the best books I’ve read lately.)

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée (ISBN-13: 9780062836687 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 03/12/2019, Ages 9-12)

From debut author Lisa Moore Ramée comes this funny and big-hearted debut middle grade novel about friendship, family, and standing up for what’s right, perfect for fans of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and the novels of Renée Watson and Jason Reynolds.

Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)

But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.

Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.

(POST-IT SAYS: As much about the Black Lives Matter movement as it is about friendship, identity, courage, and finding your voice. A little slow to really get going, but the engaging and multifaceted characters will keep readers reading.)

We Didn’t Ask for This by Adi Alsaid (ISBN-13: 9781335146762 Publisher: Inkyard Press Publication date: 04/07/2020, Ages 13-17)

From Adi Alsaid, the acclaimed author of Let’s Get LostNever Sometimes Always, and North of Happy

Every year, lock-in night changes lives. This year, it might just change the world.

Central International School’s annual lock-in is legendary — and for six students, this year’s lock-in is the answer to their dreams. The chance to finally win the contest. Kiss the guy. Make a friend. Become the star of a story that will be passed down from student to student for years to come.

But then a group of students, led by Marisa Cuevas, stage an eco-protest and chain themselves to the doors, vowing to keep everyone trapped inside until their list of demands is met. While some students rally to the cause, others are devastated as they watch their plans fall apart. And Marisa, once so certain of her goals, must now decide just how far she’ll go to attain them.

(POST-IT SAYS: I love bottle episodes! A great concept—locked in the school for a week—full of diverse and interesting characters. I devoured this, loving all the new relationships and truths that spring up when you’re trapped together.)

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett (ISBN-13: 9781984829955 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 10/29/2019, Ages 14-17)

Simone Garcia-Hampton is starting over at a new school, and this time things will be different. She’s making real friends, making a name for herself as student director of Rent, and making a play for Miles, the guy who makes her melt every time he walks into a room. The last thing she wants is for word to get out that she’s HIV-positive, because last time . . . well, last time things got ugly.
Keeping her viral load under control is easy, but keeping her diagnosis under wraps is not so simple. As Simone and Miles start going out for real—shy kisses escalating into much more—she feels an uneasiness that goes beyond butterflies. She knows she has to tell him that she’s positive, especially if sex is a possibility, but she’s terrified of how he’ll react! And then she finds an anonymous note in her locker: I know you have HIV. You have until Thanksgiving to stop hanging out with Miles. Or everyone else will know too.
Simone’s first instinct is to protect her secret at all costs, but as she gains a deeper understanding of the prejudice and fear in her community, she begins to wonder if the only way to rise above is to face the haters head-on.

(POST-IT SAYS: A really important book. Not a lot of representation yet of teens living with HIV. Full of typical teenage self-discovery complicated by Simone’s feelings about sharing her truth. Powerful and covers important ground.)

That’s the Thing with the Shots, Right? a guest post by Eve Yohalem

Eve and Jen

I don’t remember a time when diabetes wasn’t part of my life. I was eight and my sister, Jennifer, was thirteen when she developed type 1—what used to be called “juvenile diabetes” because it occurred most often in children. A couple of months after she was diagnosed, Jen read an article in PEOPLE magazine that said diabetes cut life expectancy in half, which meant she could expect to die by the time she was forty. From that moment on, Jen told me, she felt like she was living on borrowed time, scared she wouldn’t live to get married or have children, terrified she wouldn’t get to grow up.

Forty-five years later, Jen is still alive and married with a son and two dogs. Nowadays, thanks to huge improvements in treatments, plenty of people with diabetes live well into old age. But there’s still no cure. And another thing that hasn’t changed? Diabetes is still invisible.

I gave Blue, the main character in The Truth According to Blue, diabetes because I wanted to show what it’s like to have a life-threatening condition you need to think about all day every day that no one else can see. Best friends, teachers, and even sisters often don’t know how dangerous and all-consuming diabetes can be. I thought I knew a lot about the disease when I started writing. After all, I’d lived with my sister my whole childhood, and on top of that, I have borderline type 2. What could I possibly not know?

Turns out, a lot. I was amazed by how much I learned from my sister and other people with diabetes while I was researching. When you have diabetes, you’re never not thinking about it. Everything—and I mean everything—you eat, drink, do, and don’t do affects your blood sugar. And no matter how careful you are, sometimes your body just won’t listen. Or the technology breaks. Or both.

Last Thanksgiving, I sat next to Jen. Just before we started eating, she nudged me. I looked down at her glucose monitor. Her blood sugar was over 300, which is really high. I knew what that meant. You can’t eat with high blood sugar because food makes your sugar go even higher. Which meant Jen had to take insulin, wait fifteen minutes for it to kick in, check her blood sugar again, and repeat the process until her sugar went down to normal. Did I mention Thanksgiving dinner is Jen’s favorite meal?

“What’s up with that?” I whispered. Jen shrugged. “No clue. It’s been like that for two days. I can’t get it down.”

I tried not to show my panic. What if her blood sugar won’t go down? How often does this happen? Her diabetes is getting worse. Meanwhile, no one else at the table had any idea what was going on. Jen must have felt sick, but she looked fine, and nobody except me noticed her pushing some food around her plate and not eating.

That’s what it’s like to have diabetes.

Blue is spending the summer hunting for sunken treasure in a bay off Sag Harbor and dealing with a movie star’s spoiled daughter who insists on tagging along with her. At the same time, she’s monitoring her blood sugar, and feeling dizzy or tired or nauseated or worse when it gets too high or too low. Lucky for Blue, she has Otis, her beloved diabetic alert dog who’s specially trained to smell changes in blood sugar. The picture on the book jacket tells the story: two girls and a dog on a dock, scanning the water, a sunken ship beneath them. Summer fun! Adventure! Mystery! Well, yes, that’s all in the book (or at least I hope it is!). But if you look closely, you’ll see Otis is bowing down, which is how he alerts Blue that her blood sugar is low. He isn’t playing; he’s telling her she needs to stop whatever she’s doing and deal with it. As Blue says, Otis saves her life every day.

Diabetes doesn’t cut your life expectancy in half anymore, but it’s still life-threatening, and it’s still a heavy, lonely burden to carry, especially when you’re a kid. I wish there had been an Otis for Jen when she was growing up. And a book with a girl like her who has diabetes but still makes new friends and goes on big adventures. I wrote The Truth According to Blue because I wanted kids today with diabetes—and their friends, classmates, siblings, and cousins—to have the book my sister didn’t have.

Meet Eve Yohalem

Photo credit: Nicholas Polsky

Eve Yohalem is the author of middle grade novels The Truth According to Blue, Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra De Winter and Bram Broen, and Escape Under the Forever Sky. She is also the co-creator and co-host of “Book Dreams,” a podcast for everyone who loves books and has ever wondered about them. Eve lives in New York City with her family and their two cats.

LINKS

Eve’s website: https://www.eveyohalem.com/

Eve talking about THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO BLUE: https://vimeo.com/394969283

Book Dreams podcast: https://www.bookdreamspodcast.com/

About The Truth According to Blue

A heartfelt middle grade adventure about one girl’s search for sunken treasure, friendship, and her place in the world.

Thirteen-year-old Blue Broen is on the hunt for a legendary ship of gold, lost centuries ago when her ancestors sailed to New York. Blue knows her overprotective parents won’t approve of her mission to find their family’s long-lost fortune, so she keeps it a secret from everyone except her constant companion, Otis, an 80-pound diabetic alert dog. But it’s hard to keep things quiet with rival treasure hunters on the loose, and with Blue’s reputation as the local poster child for a type 1 diabetes fundraiser.

Blue’s quest gets even harder when she’s forced to befriend Jules, the brainy but bratty daughter of a vacationing movie star who arrives on the scene and won’t leave Blue alone. While Blue initially resents getting stuck with this spoiled seventh grade stranger, Jules soon proves Blue’s not the only one who knows about secrets — and adventure.

Will Blue unravel a three hundred year-old family mystery, learn to stand up for herself, and find the missing treasure? Or is she destined to be nothing more than “diabetes girl” forever?

ISBN-13: 9780316424370
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

Publisher’s description

A timely, accessible, and beautifully written story exploring themes of food, friendship, family and what it means to belong, featuring sixth graders Sara, a Pakistani American, and Elizabeth, a white, Jewish girl taking a South Asian cooking class taught by Sara’s mom.

Sixth graders Sara and Elizabeth could not be more different. Sara is at a new school that is completely unlike the small Islamic school she used to attend. Elizabeth has her own problems: her British mum has been struggling with depression. The girls meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class, which Elizabeth takes because her mom has stopped cooking, and which Sara, who hates to cook, is forced to attend because her mother is the teacher. The girls form a shaky alliance that gradually deepens, and they make plans to create the most amazing, mouth-watering cross-cultural dish together and win a spot on a local food show. They make good cooking partners . . . but can they learn to trust each other enough to become true friends? 

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s the really easy way I will sell this middle grade book at my school: If you enjoyed Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks, check this out! Save Me a Seat has been a local reading award nominee so many of our older students have read and enjoyed it.

Sixth grade is a rough time. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to survive when my kid was in sixth grade. There’s so much going on. For many, it means a new school, new friends, likely drifting apart from old friends, and often an increased awareness of family issues and the world around them. These are all true things for Sara and Elizabeth. Both feel a little out of place in their suburban Maryland middle school. Sara is new to public school after years at an Islamic school. Now she’s one of very few Muslims at her school. And Elizabeth is being ditched by her best friend, in addition to worrying about if her British mother ever intends to become a citizen or may go back to England. When the two girls meet, their friendship is not immediate. It’s not some kind of instant relief or intimate understanding of the other. They are friendly-ish, on their best days, and maybe not cut out to be friends at all, on their worst days. After all, Elizabeth’s possibly former BFF is constantly saying horrific racist things to Sara, and does she really want to be friends with someone who could call a girl like that her best friend?

But they connect over cooking, and as they begin to get to know each other beyond surface impressions and quickly hurt feelings, they begin to really like one another. Their mothers become friends, too, as they both study for the citizenship test (Sara’s mother is from Pakistan). They learn about each other’s religions (Judaism and Islam), backgrounds, and families while preparing for their schools’ international festival and a cooking competition. Both girls deal with many large issues—Elizabeth’s mother is depressed after the death of her own mother and her father is often gone for work, while Sara knows that her family is not doing well financially. Having one really good friend helps both girls feel better about life in middle school, and the adults do the work of figuring out their issues and reassuring the girls that things will be okay.

I particularly value this story for showing how complex making a new friend can be, but showing characters who push through their discomfort and hesitations to make a real connection. Another strength of this story is that secondary characters work through their own issues and learn to be better friends, showing both growth and working to unlearn what they may hear at home. A valuable look at friendship, family, and fresh starts.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358116684
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 10 – 12 Years