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Book Review: Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna by Alda P. Dobbs

Publisher’s description

Based on a true story, the tale of one girl’s perilous journey to cross the U.S. border and lead her family to safety during the Mexican Revolution

It is 1913, and twelve-year-old Petra Luna’s mama has died while the Revolution rages in Mexico. Before her papa is dragged away by soldiers, Petra vows to him that she will care for the family she has left—her abuelita, little sister Amelia, and baby brother Luisito—until they can be reunited. They flee north through the unforgiving desert as their town burns, searching for safe harbor in a world that offers none.

Each night when Petra closes her eyes, she holds her dreams close, especially her long-held desire to learn to read. Abuelita calls these barefoot dreams: “They’re like us barefoot peasants and indios—they’re not meant to go far.” But Petra refuses to listen. Through battlefields and deserts, hunger and fear, Petra will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and lead them to a better life across the U.S. border—a life where her barefoot dreams could finally become reality.

Amanda’s thoughts

12-year-old Petra lives with her 6-year-old sister Amelia, her 11-month-old brother Luisito, and her abuela. Her mother died in the hours after childbirth and her father was taken away and forced to join the Federales. We only get a tiny snapshot of life in their village before Petra and family are forced to flee. The Federales invade their home, steal from their, and ultimately burn their home down. The soldier instructed to destroy their home is also supposed to kill them, but he tells them to flee. The rest of the story takes place in the grim, hot, dry, wide-open landscape between their home village and the border crossing into the United States. Petra and family have no real plan as they walk north. They don’t want to leave their home behind—how will their father ever find them again? They seek temporary refuge in a church only to have to flee again, this time eventually getting brief help in a small town where a woman soldier, a rebel, comes to their aid. Luisito is in desperate need of a doctor (and, frankly, the entire family is in terrible shape—hungry, thirsty, tired, bleeding, sore), and the family is cared for while here. The solider wants Petra to consider joining the rebels, something she considers but ultimately can’t bring herself to do. When they finally reach the border, it’s closed and costs far more money than they can imagine scraping together to cross.

Though essentially the entire story is just them walking and walking and walking, so much happens. They encounter helpful people and are sent running repeatedly from those out to harm them. They survive in the face of what feel like impossible circumstances. And along the way, they talk. Petra so desperately wants to be able to attend school and learn how to read and write. Her grandma feels she should just accept her lot in life and not have such big dreams. Though I read this book assuming that Petra and family would be “okay,” a word I use verrrrry loosely, because nothing about what they’ve been through, have lost, or will face is okay/will allow them to be truly okay, I held my breath a lot as they faced illness, injury, setbacks, and exhaustion. An author’s note explains the inspiration for the story (the author’s great-grandma’s 1913 escape during the Mexican Revolution) and a timeline is also included. Readers won’t soon forget Petra’s harrowing story.

Review copy (hardcover) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781728234656
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Pausing to Check the Weather, a guest post by Tanita S. Davis

The first series I published – on binder paper, bristling with staples – was The Police Academy Chronicles. Protagonist Deenie Brown was Black, book-smart, and at fourteen, the youngest cadet in her police academy – which was apparently like high school, but with adults. Together with sidekick Danny (whose long, thick lashes did nothing to hide his utter lack of characterization), Deenie Brown’s adventures were legion, and heavily derivative of Encyclopedia Brown (and with the amount of cookie baking going on, Trixie Belden). No gangs, drugs, or violence, Deenie’s cases dealt with priceless art theft and missing princes (commonly found in every suburb) and ended with a loud “atta girl” from Danny and the proud gratitude of the community.  These novellas paint a clear (and endearingly awful) picture of my writer’s mind between the ages of twelve to fifteen.

During this same period, I was frequently told I had “an attitude” in the way I interacted with adults. The object of adult speculation in the form of “teasing” about the number of kids I would have or how early I would marry, I was frequently asked by pediatricians – from the age of ten, as I recall – if I was sexually active. I was mortified when my seventh-grade tumbling teacher wouldn’t spot me one day because I was “too much of a big girl now” to necessitate that. Even as I saw myself as goofy and scattered, bookish and unsure, adults around me seemed increasingly able to see something in me which I hadn’t yet seen in myself.

In 2017 the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality released a study detailing what they called ‘adultification bias,’ the idea of Black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers. The study revealed that even as young as five to nine years old, black girls are perceived as needing less nurturing, protection, comforting and care than white girls of the same age, as they’re considered more independent. This bias is strongest in girls ages ten – to – fourteen, which shapes ideas of innocence and experience. Until I read about this study, and the qualitative research conducted in 2019, I had no words for some of the experiences of my tweenhood. Like Deenie and many of my later teen characters, I was not particularly hip or worldly. Even as I leaned into the new requirements and abilities of young adulthood, I was still a child day-dreaming super sleuth adventures and solving imaginary crimes. Mine was not a graceful transition, and I went into teaching determined to grant girls like me more tools to make their liminal stage easier. All we needed, I reasoned, was a pause to check the weather before being expected to face the headwind on a new road.

Most of my first students had criminal records, social workers, parole officers, and a history of truancy. As a very junior teacher, I was to provide one-to-one tutoring and an educational approach that met them at their level, but which wasn’t insultingly infantilizing. With the supervisory support of the County’s independent study teacher, my little group home class struggled toward diplomas and GEDs.  Seeking any enticement to engage them, I hit on reading aloud. My kids would work, and better, urge each other to work, in exchange for a story – despite adultification bias’s claim that they should have “outgrown” that long ago.

We began by reading Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, the story of fourteen-year-old, college-bound LaVaughn, babysitting seventeen-year-old Jolly’s two small children. Resonating with the characters’ fears and intentions, my students listened fiercely as LaVaughn observed, judged, learned and transformed. With her, they were frustrated with, charmed by, and terrified for others. Within the pages of those blank verse poems, my students lived and breathed. The day we finished, my learners, who had listened in near reverent silence, refused to even consider the sequel, voting unanimously that we read it again. They seemed to need to re-immerse themselves in the moments and decisions that led the novel to the powerful hope in its conclusion.

Publishing stories for girls like me, girls who were tender inside, and dreamers, wasn’t as simple. As other Black authors published to well-deserved success, my editors grew disappointed with my work. “She needs to be edgier,” was the most common criticism of my characters. I was encouraged to depict characters with more “street smarts” whose lives were “grittier.” “Your characters are too innocent,” one editor told me bluntly. I couldn’t understand – what did “too” innocent mean? Isn’t every teen, merely by virtue of their age, innocent of a remarkable number of experiences? Despite criminal charges and court dates, my students had limited experience with a world which had already judged them as ‘knowing better.’ When an editor suggested I was more suited to write chapter books for early readers, I was shaken. Much like Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the danger of a single story, I realized that much of publishing had, in essence, defaulted to another single story, that of poverty and pain, a Black girl on the brutal streets, bereft of innocence and old too soon…a story I wasn’t convinced that I was capable of telling.

Still, I reconsidered Partly Cloudy, a book originally featuring a first-year college student, the unwilling subject of a viral video, making a cross-continental escape to her great-uncle’s house on the West Coast. In my rewrite, seventh-grader Madalyn arrives at Papa Lobo’s in a slightly more organized fashion, though she remains conflicted by the push-pull challenges and growth of interracial, intercultural friendships at her new school. How do we make friends with others raised to think and react differently than ourselves? How do we decide what has value, where we should put our energy, what is worth fighting for, and what is best allowed to fade? Junior high friendships can be fast-changing and painfully fraught. In Madalyn I wanted readers to feel nurtured by her relationships, and with her, take a moment to pause and process, to determine what friendships feel like, and to grow deliberately into the adulthood they’re so often assumed to have.

And what comes of such deliberation? Clarity. I see now that like Deenie, I wanted strongly to fix things, and restore what was broken or lost. Like Madalyn, I wanted to safely and honestly navigate friendships, to cut through distraction and find genuine connection. And like them both, I wasn’t gritty and street smart – I’m still not. I had to learn pragmatism and resilience, neither of which come easily, especially if you’re seen as “grown” and not in need of comfort or help.

I hope that this September we welcome tweens of all colors into our learning communities in the spirit of honoring what is within them. We can lend them all our nurture, protection, and comfort. And as Black girls pause among the books to check the weather, I hope we’ll be on hand to give them a loud “atta girl,” as they choose to open the door and step into the storm.

Meet the author

Tanita S. Davis is the award-winning author of six novels for middle grade and young adult readers, including Serena Says, Peas and CarrotsHappy Families, and Mare’s War, which was a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book and earned her a nomination for the NAACP Image Award. She grew up in California and was so chatty as a kid that her mother begged her to “just write it down.” Now she’s back in California, doing her best to keep writing it all down.


Website: www.tanitasdavis.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tanita_s_davis/

About Partly Cloudy

From award-winning author Tanita S. Davis comes a nuanced exploration of the microaggressions of middle school and a young Black girl named Madalyn who learns that being a good friend means dealing with the blue skies and the rain—and having the tough conversations on days that are partly cloudy. Perfect for fans of A Good Kind of Trouble and From the Desk of Zoe Washington.

Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? After a terrible year, Madalyn needs clear skies desperately. Moving in with her great-uncle, Papa Lobo, and switching to a new school is just the first step.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, though. Madalyn discovers she’s the only Black girl in her class, and while most of her classmates are friendly, assumptions lead to some serious storms.

Papa Lobo’s long-running feud with neighbor Mrs. Baylor brings wild weather of its own, and Madalyn wonders just how far things will go. But when fire threatens the community, Madalyn discovers that truly being neighborly means more than just staying on your side of the street— it means weathering tough conversations—and finding that together a family can pull through anything.

Award-winning author Tanita S. Davis shows us that life isn’t always clear, and that partly cloudy days still contain a bit of blue worth celebrating.

ISBN-13: 9780062937001
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

Publisher’s description

At a time when we are all asking questions about identity, grief, and how to stand up for what is right, this book by the author of A Thousand Questions will hit home with young readers who love Hena Khan and Varian Johnson—or anyone struggling to understand recent U.S. history and how it still affects us today.  

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.

Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.

With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Yusuf. And I love this book.

Pakistani American sixth grader Yusuf Azeem is in middle school in Texas. He’s best friends with Danial, one of the few other Muslims in town, and loves robotics and coding. But the year is off to a rocky start with mean notes in his locker. And as the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, tensions in his small town rise. Yusuf doesn’t really know a lot about 9/11. None of the adults in his life seem to want to talk to him about it, it’s hardly discussed in school, and is view by many as “ancient history.” Then his uncle, who was Yusuf’s age when 9/11 happened, gives him his journal. He’s finally able to gain more insight into what it was like for a Muslim in the US at that time, to learn more about what it felt like, how people were reacting, and so many other facts and feelings he just hasn’t been able to wrap his mind around.

Meanwhile, because disgustingly little has changed in 20 years, things in his own town in Texas are not great. The 11 Muslim families in town are working to build a small mosque and find themselves being picketed, challenged at zoning meetings, and harassed mainly by a small group of vocal townspeople called the Patriot Sons. Yusuf and others at school as called “terrorists” and told to go back where they came from, referred to as “the enemy” and sweeping statements are made about “your kind,” not just from the adults in this Patriot Sons group, but by their classmates. Yusuf is hurt and furious. This is their home. And so he starts calling out the bullying he’s witnessing. He doesn’t want to be a hero, but he does want to be a decent person who spreads kindness and protects others—things he sees as his duty as a Muslim. He’s speaking out and standing up, but horrible stuff just keeps happening—a peer’s hijab is ripped off, his father’s shop is vandalized, and, eventually, Yusuf is accused of having a bomb at school and hauled into the police station. He listens to his friends tell him it’s just easier to stay on the sidelines and not get involved, but that’s just not who Yusuf is. Someone has to be brave. Someone has to speak up.

The journal entries from 2001 and Yusuf’s narration from 2021 show the kind of hatred and cruelty that exists. And though Yusuf faces a lot during his sixth grade year, he is also surrounded by so many good people who also stand up for what’s right, who speak up, who are willing to learn and change and grow. This emotional read will give readers plenty to think about—whether because they’re learning to see people and events in a new light, or because they see their own experiences reflected in Yusuf’s. A must for all collections.

ISBN-13: 9780062943255
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Steven Banks Jumps All Over the Place Because That’s How His Mind Works, a guest post

I love monsters and they scare me. I wondered what would happen if the three classic “biters”; a vampire, a werewolf and a zombie, bit a kid the day before he started middle school. That became my book series Middle School Bites…Tom Marks is a Vam-Wolf-Zom. Any kid who felt different, strange, unique for any reason can identify with Tom. Book #3, Middle School Bites: Out for Blood comes out August 31. 

I don’t write for kids. I write for people. The majority of the people who read the books seem to be smaller and younger than I am. But I also wanted an adult to be able to pick up the book, read it and enjoy it. At some point they were eleven, right? Diary of A Wimpy Kid was originally conceived for adults looking back on their middle grade years.

It drives me crazy when kids don’t sound like kids in books. You must be true to your character’s age and background. I want to gently thrash authors who use sophisticated words and phrases that most kids (unless they were a genius) would never use, in dialogue or first-person action descriptions. It’s very difficult, I have to fight the urge to use more evocative words and phrases. Stephen Sondheim, to this day, regrets having Maria in West Side Story sing the line “It’s alarming how charming I feel” in the song l Feel Pretty. He said he cringes whenever he hears the line sung. She is a young, teenage Puerto Rican immigrant, she is not in a Noel Coward play. 

Big Fat Exception: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. How old is Scout and how is she using all these big ol’ fancy words?…But…The book has sold 30,000,000 copies so maybe you should not listen to me.

I think on paper. What does that mean? I have to write it out to see if something will work or is funny or good. And sometimes the process makes me come up with an idea or phrase I could not have imagined in my mind. Weird. I also like to move around and write in different locations; outside in the garden, the kitchen, living room, bed. For some reason it gives me a “new” and clearer view of things that I wrote at my office desk on the computer. After many years of writing books and scripts, I’ve learned to write anywhere. I wrote some of the Middle School Bites series in my car mechanic’s waiting room, doctor’s office, in my car waiting to get my Covid vaccination shot and at The Hollywood Bowl as I listened to the LA Philharmonic rehearse.

You don’t have to write about what you know. Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan, wrote a first-person narrated book as a middle-aged English butler in high society pre-World War II in Remains of The Day. He didn’t live that life. He did his research. He imagined it.

Write about anything and anyone. Just make it good (the hardest part). Beverly Cleary wrote the first book I adored, Henry Huggins. It’s about a third-grade boy and perfectly captured a boy’s POV. She was not a boy, but she could imagine and write that character. Like JK Rowling did with Harry Potter, or S.E. Hinton did with Pony Boy in The Outsiders (when she was 14! And finished at 15!). Ray Bradbury was not a Martian, but he took us to Mars. Seeing the world through another’s person’s eyes is a great journey and life experience. 

Serious Middle Grade Fiction with heavy themes is terrific…But…There is a lot of it. My goal with my books is to write a fast-moving, entertaining and funny book, suck the reader in, but at the same time, slip in – judiciously! – in tiny bits – some serious ideas, thoughts, philosophy and history. Make ‘em laugh and trick them into thinking. I have Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh appear in my books, via assigned school projects. Tom imagines that if he had a time machine he would go tell them that they become world famous after they died. Tom then tries to buy a painting from Van Gogh, who now wants $85,000,000 for it.

I also slip in a message about doing life, not watching it. Tom goes to a dance and his Dad teaches him some simple moves and tells him to dance, as opposed to being the boys who just lean against the wall and watch, trying to be cool. Participate in life.

No big secret! I made a conscious decision to not have Tom hide the fact that he is a Vam-Wolf-Zom in the book.  Kids hiding their real identity, super power, etc., has been done to death. I thought…What if everyone knows Tom is a Vam-Wolf-Zom? The school’s motto is All Our Welcome and they announce Tom’s “predicament” at an assembly. However, some people do not treat him the way they are supposed to and tease him and make fun of him and call him names. That’s reality.

Why are people bullies? Tanner Gannt is the bully in my books. I wanted to explore the different sides of a bully. Why is he like that? Tom learns more about Tanner when he ends up in his bedroom, as a bat, hiding in his backpack. He also witnesses a poignant Christmas morning with Tanner and his mother. 

I was the head writer of SpongeBob Squarepants for six years. I did seasons 4 through 8. My mantra for the show: simple and silly. I oversaw six of writers and there were also the story board artists who wrote. We wrote what we thought was funny and amused us, but keeping in mind the show was predominantly for kids. It was a huge, collaborative group effort, with chances to “plus” or improve the episode at many different steps. Writing books is a solo flight. Very different. But…also rewarding. It’s a good thing to try different styles of writing, novels, non-fiction, poetry, short stories. You may discover what you’re really good at and you didn’t know it. Playwright August Wilson thought he was going to be a poet, but he became a playwright. And there’s poetry in his plays.

Superpowers! Because Tom is a Vam-Wolf-Zom he has super hearing, night vision, great strength, the ability to hypnotize people (if their wills are not too strong) and turn into a bat and fly or even turn into smoke…In a way, he is a superhero…But sometimes he hears and sees things using his powers that he would rather not…I also followed the “rules” of monsters and try to keep it “realistic”. Tom has to slather on sunscreen, wear hats and dark glasses in the sun, constantly eat to satisfy his zombie hunger (he does not eat brains) and blood, synthetic blood or raw liver smoothies seem to work.

A lot of “bad” things happen to Tom. Arthur Miller, the playwright, said that when he was writing Death Of A Salesman, would think to himself, each day, about his main character: “What can I do to Willy Loman today?” Poor Willy. Poor Tom. I would think the same thing. Get Tom into trouble. Have something bad happen. How does he react? There is your drama. Conflict. Humor. But Tom does have small triumphs along the way and learns things. 

Cliffhangers are cool. At the end of book one, on the last page, Tom meets the vampire that bit him. At the end of book two, he meets the werewolf who bit him and in book three he meets the zombie. 

I put stuff I like in books. I like Emily Dickinson, action figure toys, Monty Python, rabid collectors, good-bad movies and noir detective novels. So….Tom has to do a diorama for history class and uses an old action figure to be Emily Dickinson. He aims to impress a girl he likes, who loves Dickinson’s poetry. The action figure is from the worst super hero movie ever made called Vacuum Girl. She sucks baddies up in her vacuum, but it has to remain plugged in. The toy turns out to be valuable because the figure was a re-purposed toy (Big Jack Jackson) from an old TV show. It was dangerous for kids to play with, so it was recalled. The toy is stolen and Tom must track it in film noir / detective fashion. I wrote those chapters in a kid-styled version of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Tom also imagines the worker who had to re-paint the figure, complaining to his boss that it does not look like the actress in the movie and they are not fooling kids in a John Cleese / Michael Palin dialogue exchange. 

You can’t just put stuff in a book because you like it. You need a dramatic reason! I love Halloween…My brother, Alan, and I used to build a giant maze and walk through in his front and backyard. Filled with monsters (actor friends and neighbors in elaborate masks and costumes), special effects and very scary stuff.  We took three weeks to build it. We’d get over 1,000 people going through on Halloween night….So….Tom loves Halloween, but it is also a rare chance for him to go out in a mask and costume and be “in disguise”, so no one knows who he is. People don’t stare or ask questions. He can also ask other kids, “What do you think of that Tom Marks? So, that’s a good thing…But…Do you want to hear those answers? Meanwhile, the school bully, Tanner Gantt, dresses up like a Vam-Wolf-Zom, to make fun of Tom. 

I base some characters on real people. Abel Sherril is based on three people; My friend, Bill Prady, who co-created The Big Bang Theory, (the TV show, not the theory) read the entire World Book Encyclopedia when he was ten years old and was a Walking Google pre-Google. The fact that Abel wears a suit and tie to school every day is based on another friend, Mark Wheeler, (a geologist and a national champion fencer!) who wore a suit to kindergarten. And I used to bring my lunch to school in a briefcase. I love briefcases. Blame James Bond and Ian Fleming…Zeke, Tom’s best friend, is named after a nickname I called my dad and he is based on a good friend’s son, who is full of life, doesn’t get embarrassed, marches to his own drummer, is super enthusiastic and loyal…Good qualities in a human being. Tom sometimes wishes he was more like Zeke. So do I. 

I love libraries. You get to borrow books for free! The library I went to as a child is still there and not much has changed. It’s a little like going back in time when I go inside. Weird. I also wrote a great deal of a one-person show I did, that you can see on Amazon Prime “Steven Banks Home Entertainment Center” (Shameless plug). 

A good book is a good book, no matter what age it is written for. I pity the people who do not read YA or middle grade or even picture books. Where Is My Hat? by Jon Klassen is a masterpiece. I read the Ramona books as an adult. Ramona is a great American literary figure and I am being 100% serious. Beverly Clearly captured a child’s mind perfectly. 

Book you should read that you might not know about. One of the best new books I have read in the past 15 years is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. A 15-year-old Victorian-era girl becomes a nanny/teacher to three children who were literally raised by wolves. An adult can enjoy this as much as any middle grader. It’s that good and that funny. The writing attains a P.G. Wodehouse level at times. It’s a series of 7 books. Also The Dead Father’s Club by Matt Haig, narrated by an authentic sounding (!) 11-year-old. It’s a modern-day version of Hamlet. You’re welcome. Wait…One more: I wrote a YA novel called King of The Creeps. It’s not about monsters. It’s about a 15-year-old in 1963 who decides to become a folk singer to impress girls, buys a cheap guitar in Greenwich Village, has one lesson, learns one chord and two days later ends up on a big TV show The Ed Sullivan Show.

In conclusion…There is no conclusion. Read!

Meet the author

Steven Banks is the Emmy nominated head writer of SpongeBob Squarepants and wrote on Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius and CatDog. He recently wrote the new animated series Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Steven wrote and starred in the cult classic special, Home Entertainment Center, on Amazon Prime.  His books include the YA novel, King of the Creeps and New York Times Bestseller, SpongeBob Exposed. His new book series is Middle School Bites. TV appearances include Mom, Penn & Teller Fool Us, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Jimmy Kimmel Show. Plays include Love Tapes, co-written with Penn Jillette, Looking at Christmas (NYC PBS) and Shadowland, which he co-created with the legendary dance/theater company, Pilobolus, which has been performed in 40 countries and seen by over one million people. Steven is a drop out of Los Angeles City College and a graduate of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College.

Links:

Middle School Bites on Facebook 

@vamwolfzom 

middleschoolbites on Instagram

About Middle School Bites: Out for Blood

Tom the Vam-Wolf-Zom is back—and so is the werewolf that bit him—in this monstrously funny series about a boy who’s dying to fit in.

Eleven-year-old Tom was bit by a vampire, a werewolf, and a zombie right before the first day of middle school. It was a weird and crazy day. And he didn’t even get excused from sixth grade!

Now he’s being hunted down by the werewolf that bit him. Should Tom join a wolf pack? On the one hand, he could give up school and homework forever. (He really doesn’t want to do his history report.) On the other hand, he’d miss his band, his friends, and Annie, his maybe-possibly-someday girlfriend. He might even miss his big sister, Emma.

Then the vampire that bit him returns with a warning: the werewolf is dangerous. Perhaps Tom should stick with sixth grade—even if it’s mostly talent show disappointments, detention, and chicken-turkey-salami-roast beef sandwiches. 

Created by an Emmy-nominated writer for SpongeBob, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, and CatDog,this hilarious series is illustrated with clever, cartoon-style art on every spread. Perfect for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Last Kids on Earth.

ISBN-13: 9780823446162
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/31/2021
Series: Middle School Bites #3
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Into the Dark: Why Kids Should Read Horror, a guest post by Ally Malinenko

The scene went like this:

“I would never let my children read that.”

I froze, shame flooding me, coloring my cheeks, tightening my throat. Her words echoed in my head.

 “I would never let my children read that.”

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? One of the things a lot of people might not know about publishing is that it involves secrets. Lots of them. For instance, you’re really not supposed to talk about your book being accepted for publication before the Publisher’s Weekly announcement. It’s fine to tell family and all but you aren’t supposed to go on Twitter and scream about it as much as you’d like to. Back in January 2020 Ghost Girl, my debut novel, had been accepted but we were waiting on contract stuff to finalize before the announcement was made. It had been over a month and to say I was getting antsy would be an understatement. I work in a research library and one day we had an appointment with a well-known biographer. It’s not important who. But let’s just say that this biographer happened to write one of my favorite books about one of my favorite writers.

To say I was excited to meet her was an understatement.

I’m not sure why I said it. It was almost like I couldn’t stop myself.

“My first book is being published.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, congrats. What do you write?”

The eternal question. What do you write? My lizard brain blurted out the same thing I say all the time, not even thinking it would elicit a response.

“I write middle grade horror.”

Her face wrinkled in surprise that then deepened into disgust. “Middle grade? Like…..for children.”

“Yes,” I said, my voice a pitch higher as the tips of my fingers started to tingle. Anxiety was descending.

“I would never let my children read that.”

And once again I was whisked through time back to the halls of my school, clutching my tattered copy of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark, teased by the other kids in the hall. Or in the library, same book in hand, a teacher giving me a cocked eyebrow and a sidelong look.

I handed the famous biographer her materials, muttered the usual reminder about the archive rules and left as quickly as possible wondering how after all these years, are we still of afraid of children who like dark, strange, scary things?

I have wondered about this before I started writing Ghost Girl, and while editing Ghost Girl and now that my book is out, I’m still thinking about it. Prior to working in the archive, I was a children’s librarian and I knew all the kids that were like me, the ones that beeline straight for the Goosebumps. Those kids are there, looking for these books. So why are parents, teacher and sometimes even librarians – the gatekeepers – worrying about it? What do adults think they are saving kids from? What do they think is going to happen if kids read scary books?

Because the truth is those books offer more than scares; they offer solace. It’s a thing I call Safe Scary. Kids know the world is a scary place. There is no way to shield that from them. Nor should we. Giving kids scary books gives them a place to navigate those feelings, to be scared in a safe way. If it’s too much they close the covers. But if it’s not they have a chance to be the hero, which is the other important thing that horror does for kids. It gives them agency. It gives them power. A thing that children, by nature and status, do not have. They live in a world where they are told when to get up, when to go to bed, what to eat, when to eat it, what to watch, and sadly what to read. When kids read books, they get to play act the main character. My main character is Zee, a girl who loves scary stories but didn’t expect to live in one. She is stubborn and brave and at times makes terrible decisions. She is, fully, a kid. Reading Zee’s story, kids get to experience it with her. They’ll go into the woods with Zee, into the dark, but they’ll come back out on the other side, where the light is. They’ll survive the night. That is what horror books teach us – survival. Let them defeat the monsters on the page so they’ll recognize the ones that will inevitably appear in their lives.

The other thing horror does is tells kids the truth. Adults often forget that kids have the same emotions as they do but often lack the skills to express them. They are acutely aware when things are not okay. But we are rarely honest with kids about the bad parts of life. We lie when their pets die. We tell them everything is fine when Mom and Dad aren’t speaking at the dinner table. We throw the truth in a dark corner and hope they never see it. Horror, on the other hand, doesn’t deal in platitudes. It doesn’t pretend away reality. It puts you front and center against a monster and then it places in your hand the sword you need to vanquish it. Horror believes in kids and trusts them to go along for this ride. It knows they’ll last the night.

Fear is a natural part of life and adults have learned coping skills for their fear. They have had years of experiences to pull from when the bottom drops out. But kids don’t. Horror books offer very important lessons about fear. The biggest being that you either conquer it for succumb to it. Fear offers no middle ground. It is through story telling that we learn how to navigate our emotions. Stories build empathy. They are a way for humans to say to each other “I felt this. Did you feel this too?” They are ways for us to make connections in a world that often seems devoid of them. Horror by nature builds empathy simply because when the main character is threatened, you root for them. You want them to win. You want them to survive the night. A connection is built.  A lesson is learned. A fear is conquered. A hero emerges, dusty and shaken but still standing.

I recently read an excellent piece about the loneliness of horror fandom for kids, especially for BIPOC kids, by Ally Russel. Ally wondered where her horror family was as a kid. Why she felt so disconnected. I understood that. It can be a lonely fandom. But we have now the opportunity to change that. As Ally says, “If you know a young horror fan, protect them at all costs. Let them explore the boundaries of their fear.”

Protect them at all costs.

Protecting them isn’t shielding them. It isn’t placating them. It is letting them know the dangers our there and putting a book in their hand so they’re ready when it happens. Monsters, eventually, come for all of us. It is best to be prepared.

If I could redo that afternoon with that very Important Biographer, I would have done it different. I would have told her all these things. I would have kept my head up. I would let her know I am proud to write horror for kids, proud to have the privilege to write horror for kids.

To watch them go, head up, shoulders back, right into the dark and know they’re going to be okay.

Meet the author

Ally Malinenko is a poet, novelist, and librarian living in Brooklyn, New York, where she pens her tales in a secret writing closet before dawn each day. Connect with Ally on her website at www.allymalinenko.comInstagram

About Ghost Girl

Perfect for fans of Small Spaces and Nightbooks, Ally Malinenko’s debut is an empowering and triumphant ghost story——with spooky twists sure to give readers a few good goosebumps!

Zee Puckett loves ghost stories. She just never expected to be living one.

It all starts with a dark and stormy night. When the skies clear, everything is different. People are missing. There’s a creepy new principal who seems to know everyone’s darkest dreams. And Zee is seeing frightening things: large, scary dogs that talk and maybe even . . . a ghost.

When she tells her classmates, only her best friend Elijah believes her. Worse, mean girl Nellie gives Zee a cruel nickname: Ghost Girl.

But whatever the storm washed up isn’t going away. Everyone’s most selfish wishes start coming true in creepy ways.

To fight for what’s right, Zee will have to embrace what makes her different and what makes her Ghost Girl. And all three of them—Zee, Elijah, and Nellie—will have to work together if they want to give their ghost story a happy ending.

ISBN-13: 9780063044609
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/10/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Why I Like Complicated, Flawed, Perfectly Imperfect and Sometimes Downright Unlikeable Heroines (and You Should Too), a guest post by Brittany Geragotelis

As an author, I’ve gotten my fair share of critiques on my books. I know, I know, par for the course, right? And most of them I can let run off my back. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions and everyone has one. With that said, the one that actually irks me most is the argument that a character of mine isn’t totally “likeable.” Either she’s too self-absorbed or too bitchy or falls in love too fast or is too perfect…the list goes on and on. So, you’d think that by now I would just give in and write a fully likeable character.

But here’s the thing: I LIKE flawed characters.

I like the characters who are beautiful but make mistakes because they think their beauty is enough. I dig a girl who falls in love as quickly as a five-minute mile, only to have it implode just as fast. I go crazy over someone who is stubborn and self-absorbed or snarky or mean, as long as there’s a lesson to be learned there.

Because THAT’S interesting.

And it’s REALISTIC.

Newsflash: we all have flaws. We all mess up (especially in our youth). We’re all stubborn, and mean (at times), and selfish. We all fell for the boy—or girl—when we knew we shouldn’t. We all said something or did something we shouldn’t have and paid the price for it. That’s life, after all.

But beyond that, not all of these so-called unlikeable traits are wholly…bad.

In my series The Infamous Frankie Lorde, the main character is a thief. She’s the daughter of an infamous international con-artist and is an expert at just about everything to do with pulling a job. Stealing, lying, breaking and entering—she does it all. When we meet Frankie, her dad’s been sent to prison and she’s been sent to her own kind of prison: to live with her cop uncle in Greenwich, CT.

Photo credit: Brittany Geragotelis

This is when she decides to switch up her game: she vows to only steal from the criminal, corrupt and downright evil people in the community, and give back to those who deserve or need it. And suddenly her misdeeds aren’t so bad. Because, in the end, what she’s doing is for the greater good.

When I started writing the Frankie books, I was super excited at the thought of my two kiddos reading it one day. I have a 5-year-old and a nearly 2-year-old and despite the fact that Frankie’s a thief, I actually hope my kids recognize all the great traits the character has and maybe take on some of them themselves. Flaws and all.

Because sometimes we need our unlikeable moments in order to grow, learn and push us to become better humans. Also, sometimes all that separates a bad characteristic from a good one is how you choose to use it.

Here are some of the questionable traits that Frankie has that I hope my kids pick up someday:

TROUBLEMAKER:

Frankie is super clever and knows a little about everything. She knows how to speak multiple languages. She knows how to pick a lock. She knows how to BS her way into getting what she wants. She’s a master manipulator. My older son, Huck already has this trait in the bag. He’s so smart and driven and will go after something with everything he has if he wants it enough. As long as his focus is on a prize that won’t harm anyone else, I don’t mind him being a bit mischievous.

Photo credit: credit: Brittany Geragotelis

SELFISH:

At first, Frankie tries to keep her head down and not rock the boat in her new life—even when a new friend is being bullied. She thinks it’s the best way to keep her secret life a secret. In the end, she learns when she needs to come out of that mode to help others and when to focus on herself. Selfishness can be a great thing sometimes—like when it’s in the form of self-preservation. Also, if we focus solely on the needs of others, we can often forget about our own needs and wants, which could end up leaving us with nothing more to give. It’s like what they say on an airplane: In case of emergency, put your mask on first and THEN assist others. Selfishness can be our own way of doing this.

LIAR:

Let’s be honest, being a great liar can also make for a fantastic storyteller. It can also describe someone who has a very good imagination and is great at making people believe the tall tales they weave. This is a trait that isn’t always easy to come by. Besides, it’s not like I can argue with the fact that as an author, I myself am a professional liar by trade. I just choose to use my powers for good, and not evil. My goal as a parent will be to try to teach my kids to do the same.

COCKY

Overly-confident, know-it-all, sassy, argumentative—some may see these traits as negative, but they can also be incredibly useful. Confidence is important when you’re heading into a dangerous or scary situation. And questioning authority or those who are in any positions of power (i.e. bullies) can be a highly enviable characteristic. While I don’t want my kids to be rude for no reason or to outright disrespect their teachers or the law, I do want them to know that if something doesn’t sit right with their soul, they can question why. No matter who they’re up against. 

So, I say we celebrate a character’s messier qualities. These are the ones that will make us all think, learn and hopefully decide within ourselves just the kind of people we want to be.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Shani Barel

Brittany Geragotelis is the author of the perfectly imperfect THE INFAMOUS FRANKIE LORDE series, which is a youthful mashup of Ocean’s Eleven meets Robin Hood. She’s also the author of the magical teen series, LIFE’S A WITCH, mom to two mischievous boys, a cat, a dog and four fish, and wife to an awesome guy who spends all his time on YouTube. When she’s not writing or momming, she’s reading, binge-watching shows on Netflix and Hulu and making day-trips to Disneyland. For more on Brittany and her life, visit brittanygeragotelis.com, twitter.com/TheBookSlayer and Instagram.com/thebookslayer

About The Infamous Frankie Lorde 2: Going Wild

Tiger King meets Ocean’s 8 in this slick second book in the Infamous Frankie Lorde series as potentially reformed international thief Frankie dives into the dangerous and political world of trafficking exotic animals. Perfect for fans of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society.

For Frankie, using her less-than-legal set of skills to pull a heist against a crooked real estate mogul with the help of her new friend Ollie was super gratifying, but she’s getting restless now. And with her no end in sight for her dad’s prison sentence, she’s finally coming to terms with the fact that she may be in Connecticut for a lot longer than she expected. 

Volunteering at a local animal shelter over school break, Frankie and Ollie hear that there’s a dangerous exotic animal farm supplying Greenwich’s elite with lions and tigers and bears. (Oh my!) Feeling an instant kinship with the endangered creatures locked away in their cages, Frankie makes it her mission to find the perpetrators, free the beautiful beasts, and ensnare the bad guys in a trap of her own.

ISBN-13: 9781645950578
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/03/2021
Series: The Infamous Frankie Lorde #2
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

Larger Than Life Grandmothers and Best Friends, a guest post by Jaime Berry

Without really meaning to, I seem to write stories with a grandparent and a best friend at the center, and my novel Hope Springs is no different. My main character, Jubilee, lives with her grandmother, Nan. They abide by a set of Relocation Rules they’ve created to help them in their search for the “perfect place.” But Jubilee starts to feel their first rule—just the two of them is all they need—might leave them a little too close to alone.

I didn’t live with my grandmother, but when I was young, I spent almost all my free time with her. She was spectacular—a painter, big, bold and loud, somewhat foul-mouthed, a fantastic cook, a crafter, an avid reader, a dog lover, and a soap opera and video game aficionado. She drove her enormous Crown Victoria sedan with burgundy plush interior, a car we called the Hooptie, with such wild abandon that every errand was a nail-biting adventure. From the time I was born until my late teens when she passed away, she never lived more than two blocks away from me.

After school, we watched Guiding Light, we took weekly trips to the library, drew or painted together, and rounded out the days with an hour or so of Super Mario Bros. She tried and failed to teach me to crochet but succeeded in teaching me to play gin rummy by age six. On weekends when my mother let me stay the night, Nanny Stella whisked me over to the local bingo game at Big Ben Skating Rink and let me manage two of her many cards. Despite being the youngest attendee by at least fifty years, I found the whole experience thrilling. She used to embarrass me to no end when she’d introduce me as her “bosom buddy” rather than her granddaughter, but deep down, I loved it. Unlike my main character, Jubilee, I never suspected I was missing out on anything at all.

In one way or another my grandmother always works her way into my stories. All the grandmotherly characters in Hope Springs are parts of her, but maybe she was most like the least grandmotherly of all—Nan. Like Nan, my grandmother was a real character, a scene stealer. She taught me to be strong and opinionated, to value creativity, and that sometimes being good and being polite are two very different things. Maybe it’s because she loved me unconditionally that it wasn’t until I had a best friend my own age that I felt those qualities were truly appreciated. And it’s only when Jubilee meets and befriends Abby that she feels ready to say what she truly wants out loud. I think that’s one of the things great friendships do, embolden us, and make us unafraid to be ourselves out loud.

When I wasn’t with my grandmother I wouldn’t say I was lonely, but I was often alone, especially at school. I was not good at following rules, and having grown up in the church, I was overly concerned about making decisions that would land me in hell (like maybe bingo and gin rummy). But when I was ten, a girl named Tamara showed up in my class. The arrival of a new kid in my hometown in rural Oklahoma was an event. There was almost a sort of competition to see who would get to be friends with her first. And I don’t know how in the world it got to be me, but it got to be me!

We spent recess racing and trying and failing to perform a cartwheel while holding hands, ending up in a tangled pile of giggles. Every weekend we alternated staying the night at each other’s houses. We painted toenails, caught crawdads (Tamara caught them, I squealed and ran for the shore), and rode four wheelers. At recess we ran like wild things, sang “Sweet Child of Mine” at the top of our lungs, and laughed in the faces of all who thought us strange. It was a kind of magic I’d never felt before. Nanny Stella was fantastic, but she sure didn’t sprint and she’d never heard of Guns N’ Roses.

I knew how much my grandmother’s influence impacted me but never thought about how that first real friendship shaped me until I noticed how much of it made its way into Hope Springs. Hope Springs, Texas is the perfect place for Jubilee to finally put down roots, but her friendship with Abby is what kickstarts her growth. With Abby, Jubilee learns to try new things, becomes involved in her community, develops connections to others, and finds the nerve to admit and to fight for what she really wants—to belong, to be loved, and to finally feel at home. Growing up I had all three, and I thought Jubilee should too.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Lee Seidenberg Photography

Jaime Berry is a native of rural Oklahoma and a former New York City public school teacher. After years with two small boys in a too-small Brooklyn apartment, Jaime and her husband moved to the wilds of suburban New Jersey and added another boy and a dog to the mix. Hope Springs is Jaime’s debut novel.

Social Links: Twitter: @jaime_berry3, Instagram: jaimeberryauthor, Website: jaimeberryauthor.com

About Hope Springs

Fans of Kate DiCamillo and Katherine Applegate will fall in love with this tug-at-your-heartstrings middle grade novel about one girl who is desperate to find the “perfect home” as she moves from one town to the next with her Grandmother.
Eleven-year-old Jubilee Johnson is an expert at three things: crafting, moving, and avoiding goodbyes. On the search for the “perfect place,” she and her Nan live by their Number One Relocation Rule — just the two of them is all they need. But Jubilee’s starting to feel like just two is a little too close to alone.

Desperate to settle down, Jubilee plans their next move, Hope Springs, Texas — home of her TV crafting idol, Arletta Paisley. Here she meets a girl set on winning the local fishing tournament and a boy who says exactly the right thing by hardly speaking at all. Soon, Jubilee wonders if Hope Springs might just be the place to call home.

But when the town is threatened by a mega-chain superstore fronted by Arletta Paisley, Jubilee is faced with skipping town yet again or standing up to her biggest bully yet. With the help of her new friends and the one person she never thought she’d need — her Momma — will Jubilee find a way to save the town she’s come to love and convince Nan that it’s finally time to settle down?

ISBN-13: 9780316540575
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 08/10/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Writing From Feeling, a guest post by Bill Harley

In the end, a good story is not about words. While writing is a craft with many parts, being a talented crafter of sentences, paragraphs and plot isn’t enough. In the end, we use the words to communicate experience, and human experience is centered in feeling.

I try to write from feeling. I’ve come to believe if I get the feeling right—what the characters are experiencing and feeling themselves—I’ll make a connection with the reader. Writing teachers will often talking about using all the senses, but for me, the most important sense is what it feels like inside.  My middle grade Charlie Bumpers series is told through the eyes of a well-adjusted fourth grade boy in a functional family. For all his failings, Charlie is very sensitive to the world around him and what other people are feeling. While he’s not very attentive to many details, his heart is true, and it’s his heart that guides the story. Whether it’s being disappointed in the part he gets in the class play, or experiencing loss after loss on his soccer team, the thing that drives the story is what things feel like to him. “What is Charlie feeling?” was a question I continually asked myself, and I wrote from there. And as I wrote, I often had those same feelings myself.

How do you measure success when you write from this perspective?  For me, it came in the form of a nine-year old boy who came up to me holding one of the Charlie Bumpers books. “I like your book,” he said. “It’s funny.” I nodded. And then, more tellingly, more importantly, he said, “I know how Charlie feels.”

Like we say around our house, “There’s one in a row.”

My new book, Now You Say Yes, presented a deeper challenge. This book tells the story of two kids who suddenly lose their single parent and are faced with the prospect of being separated and sent into foster care.  The older one, Mari, decides they should drive across the country, from Los Angeles to Lynn, Massachusetts, hoping to be taken in by their estranged grandmother. This is a pretty desperate move.  While I was, like Charlie, once a nine-year old boy in a typical elementary school, in Now You Say Yes, Mari, the main character, is a fifteen-year-old girl—something I never was and never will be. She’s adopted out of the foster care system, and there’s a whole lot of baggage that comes from that—baggage I don’t have. The other main character, her adoptive brother Conor, is on the autism spectrum. I have never been diagnosed as such, although after a lot of work on the book, I’m beginning to think the autism spectrum is very wide and includes many more of us than I had ever imagined.

How do I tell the story through their eyes, show who they are through their behavior? First, I did research – I talked to a lot of people, read a lot of books, and paid attention to people who were similar to these two kids. I began to see how they might see the world.

I had several break throughs in grasping their frustrations and challenges. In thinking about Mari, who harbors a deep hurt and anger over her early life, I was suddenly brought back to my own experiences as a kid. It’s only later in life I’ve realized my family watched me regularly boil over. So much energy, then frustration, then anger would sweep over me until sometimes I literally couldn’t see. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. I drew on that feeling when I wrote about Mari.

In trying to see things from Conor’s point of view, I was taught by an experience with a young man on the spectrum, a friend of our family. Driving him to his mom’s workplace, he told me which way to go, but I told him I knew a better way.  At that, he fell silent and stared out the window. Half-way to the destination, I realized he was right, and I was wrong, and then I saw how his brilliance was so often overlooked and ignored. I had done it, too. His spatial knowledge and mapping are extraordinary.  I apologized and now, when he offers advice, I always listen. Being ignored and taken for granted is a very common experience for people on the spectrum. But I know what that feels like, too, and I could use that.

And so, after listening and reading, and thinking, I wrote from feeling. Of course, none of us can know exactly what others are thinking and experiencing, and while I can’t get completely in the head of a foster care kid, or someone who is diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum, I do have access to what their feelings might be. And those feelings are the guide for what I write.

It’s an act of faith, isn’t it? – trusting that our emotions are similar to other people’s regardless of their background, experiences, and mental make-up. But this faith, this ability to imagine, is at the heart of writing. E.L. Doctorow wrote, “A novelist is a person who lives in other people’s skins.”

In the emotional turning point of Now You Say Yes, Mari finds herself surrounded by hundreds of people she doesn’t know, watching a solar eclipse. While everyone else stares at the sky, she instead looks at the people and sees all their brokenness and realizes it’s that brokenness that binds them together—we’re all broken. There, for a moment, Mari feels what everyone feels, and realizes she’s not alone.

At the center of Now You Say Yes are feelings. The feeling of being ignored and overlooked. The feeling of being powerless. The feeling of wanting to belong and wanting to be valued. The feeling of caring for someone so deeply you will do things you’d never thought you’d do. These feelings are universal, and it’s where my best writing comes from.

Meet the author

Bill Harley is well-traveled, well-read, well-educated, well-spoken and well-loved. Accompanied by his guitar, his narrative songs and stories, both original and traditional, are a celebration of our common humanity. Best known for his work with children and families, his ability to navigate through a confusing world with humor and wisdom is evident in his masterful storytelling as well as his numerous award-winning recordings and books. A two-time Grammy winner, he is vibrant, outrageous, unpredictable and genuine with songs and stories about growing up, schooling and what it is to be human—our connections with one another and with the planet we share. Recognized by audiences and peers as one of the finest performing storytellers in the country, his work has influenced a generation of children, parents, performing artists and educators. Bill tours internationally as a performing artist, author and keynote speaker from his home in Seekonk, Massachusetts.

About Now You Say Yes

Award-winning author and storyteller Bill Harley returns with an unforgettable middle grade novel about two orphaned siblings on a cross-country journey in search of their place in the world.

“I rooted for outcast-misfit protagonists Mari and Conor every mile and (every single page!) of their intimate and epic, grief-fueled road trip. Bill Harley’s Now You Say Yes reminds us that acts of kindness—big and small—make all the difference.” —Patrick Flores-Scott, award-winning author of Jumped In and American Road Trip

When her mother dies, fifteen-year-old Mari and is desperate to avoid being caught up in the foster system. Again. And to complicate matters, she is now the only one who can take care of her super-smart and on-the-spectrum nine-year-old stepbrother, Conor.

Is there anyone Mari can trust to help them? Certainly not her mother’s current boyfriend, Dennis. Not the doctors or her teachers, who would be obliged to call in social services. So in a desperate move, Mari takes Conor and sets out to find their estranged grandmother, hoping to throw themselves at the mercy of the only person who might take them in.

On their way to New England, the duo experiences the snarls of LA traffic, the backroads of the Midwest, and a monumental stop in Missouri where they witness the solar eclipse, an event with which Conor is obsessed. Mari also learns about the inner workings of her stepbrother’s mind and about her connections to him and to the world…and maybe even a little about her own place in it.

A beautiful exploration of identity and family, this heartwarming and engaging middle grade novel comes from renowned storyteller and two-time Grammy Award winner Bill Harley.

ISBN-13: 9781682632475
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Publication date: 08/01/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

When Our Heroes Fail Us: The inspiration behind “The Verdigris Pawn,” a guest post by Alysa Wishingrad

When I was in fourth grade my family moved from the city to the suburbs. As the new kid in town, I had a few friends, but I was also terribly teased and taunted. It was not an easy transition, and I relied on those older and wise than me to help get me through.

One day when we were all trickling back into the classroom from recess, some of the other kids began laughing and pointing at my back. I reached around and could feel the edges of a piece of paper stuck to my shirt, but I couldn’t reach it. So, I went to the teacher, the one person in the room I thought I could trust above all others and asked if there was anything on my shirt.

She replied, “No.” 

Moments later a friend came back into the room and pulled a KICK ME sign off the back of my shirt.

Now, I can’t know why that teacher did what she did. Was she truly being cruel? Maybe she was distracted, somehow didn’t see it, or perhaps this is a false memory. But even if my recollections of the details aren’t accurate, the feeling of having someone who I’d placed my implicit trust in, who I’d thought of as a hero failing– and perhaps even betraying—me was powerful.

A very sad future author in 4th grade

Since then, I’ve had several mentors, professors, and teachers who saw what I was capable of and worked tirelessly to help me come to see it too. They were transformative guides whose influence is woven deeply into who I am and how I strive to move through the world.

But like my 4th grade teacher there have been those who failed me. There were the mentors who turned out to be empty shirts, more interested in self-aggrandizing and collecting acolytes than in teaching or inspiring. There have been those in the public realm who I considered heroes that were unworthy of my admiration. But as painful as it can be to see through your heroes, there’s an important lesson to be learned, one that I set out to explore in my debut middle-grade novel, The Verdigris Pawn.

Tea, work and a massage ball to work the kinks out

In The Verdigris Pawn, Beau and Nate go searching for a hero. Someone who can lead the revolution the Land is so desperately in need of. 

Beau, heir to the despotic leader of the Land, has been raised isolated, cut off from everyone but his tutors and the occasional audience with his father. He knows nothing about the desperate lives the people of the Land lead until he meets Cressi, a clever and wise servant girl with a hidden talent. Cressi sees a strength and courage in Beau and tries to convince him to take up the mantel of power to right the wrongs of his family. But Beau doesn’t believe himself capable of leading anyone.

Nate, an orphan raised in the cruel and hostile environment of Mastery House, has been trying for years to run off to join the rebels. But much like Beau, he’s been conditioned from an early age to look for the leaders, to be a soldier not a commander.

Together they risk everything to find a hero, the one person who can right all the wrongs perpetuated by Beau’s father, a man so feared people only dare refer to him as Himself.

But along the way they learn that not everyone and everything is as it seems. Charlatans and pretenders lurk around every corner professing to hold the key to freedom and happiness when, in truth, their sole interest is in shining their reputation and lining their pockets.

When our role models fail us, we’re left stunned, disillusioned, and questioning ourselves. If this person that I put so much faith in turned out to be a bad actor, what does that say about me? How did I not see them for what they are?

When Beau and Nate realize that their hero is not who or what they thought, they initially have very different reactions. One chooses to try and ignore it, to hold fast to the ideal he held in his head. The other simply thinks he chose the wrong hero and now he must go find the right one.

Encourage kids from an early age to be the hero of their own stories

At that point in the story, neither boy is willing to recognize that they’re the heroes they’ve been looking for.

It’s hard to give up the notion that there’s someone out there with all the answers, someone who can save us. But even when there is that reliable leader, that stalwart of character and purpose, the truth is, none of us can afford to relinquish our power to anyone else. We do a great disservice to both ourselves and the collective by minimizing our ability to have a meaningful impact.

A heroine I can whole heartedly support.
Fun Fact: Lady Liberty, who is made of bronze, is … verdigris!

Beau and Nate learn this lesson the hard way. Had they listened to Cressi early on instead of chasing after a hero, desperate to find the answer outside themselves, they might have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble. She saw their gifts from the beginning, knew what they were capable of. In many ways she was the most meaningful mentor they had—the one who sought to inspire them to find the greatness within rather than emulate someone else. But as in both stories and life, self-discovery is a journey, one that’s shaped by the mentors—both the good and the deeply flawed–we meet along the way.

Meet the author

Alysa Wishingrad once had a whole different career working in theater, tv, and film, but nothing could be better or more exciting than writing stories and crafting worlds for middle-grade readers. 8–12-year-olds are some of the smartest, most open, and inquisitive people around. She’s dedicated to writing stories that help them hold onto that magic as they grow up.

Alysa’s favorite stories are those that meld the historical with the fantastic, and that find ways to shine a light on both the things that divide and unite us all.

When she’s not writing she’s probably out walking her two very demanding rescue dogs, or she might be trying to figure out what to make for dinner – again! – for her family. But, if she’s very lucky, she’s out at the theater getting lost in a wonderful story.

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is her debut novel and is available now from HarperCollins.

Visit her at www.alysawishingrad.com

On Twitter @agwishingrad

On Instagram @alysawishingradwrites

About The Verdigris Pawn

A JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD GOLD STANDARD SELECTION! 

A boy who underestimates his power . . .

A girl with a gift long thought lost . . .

A Land ready for revolution . . .

The heir to the Land should be strong. Fierce. Ruthless. At least, that’s what Beau’s father has been telling him his whole life, since Beau is the exact opposite of what the heir should be. With little control over his future, Beau is kept locked away, just another pawn in his father’s quest for ultimate power.

That is, until Beau meets a girl who shows him the secrets his father has kept hidden. For the first time, Beau begins to question everything he’s ever been told and sets off in search of a rebel who might hold the key to setting things right. 

Teaming up with a fiery runaway boy, their mission quickly turns into something far greater as sinister forces long lurking in the shadows prepare to make their final move—no matter what the cost. But it just might be Beau who wields the power he seeks . . . if he can go from pawn to player before the Land tears itself apart.

ISBN-13: 9780062908056
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/13/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

My Brain Doesn’t Believe in Getting Things Done, a guest post by Sangu Mandanna

My brain is, frankly, a menace. You know that friend, the one who turns up with an irresistible party invitation right when you need to finish that important piece of work? That’s my brain. It has Opinions about how I should spend my time. It doesn’t believe in Getting Things Done. It thinks I should just drop what I’m doing, no matter how important, because “ooh! Remember that book we wanted to look up? Let’s do that now!” and “oops, it’s been three hours because we fell down a rabbit hole of Random Stuff.”

To a lot of people, that sounds absurd. When they want to look that book up, they can put the thought aside until a better time. And if they do look it up, it takes them a few minutes and they go back to what they were doing. When I try to explain what my brain does, they’re confused.

“But why don’t you just ignore it?”

I only wish.

The thing about my brain is that I can’t ignore it. The part of me that controls how I make my decisions and how I act on a thought is, of course, in my brain. There’s plenty of science to explain it, but in short, my brain calls the shots and it likes its power a little too much. It’s pigheaded. It spends its time and energy on what it considers worthwhile, and nothing I or anyone else says will make a difference. It will, for example, put me at my laptop writing words for ten hours without so much as a break, but it can’t bring itself to walk down a flight of stairs and make a slice of toast.

And then there’s the other stuff. The stuff I don’t particularly like to talk about. Like when I lie awake for seven hours straight thinking of a horrific event I read in the news three years ago and, no matter what I do, I can’t make my brain switch off. Or when my friend’s cat has a cuddle on my lap and it’s lovely, but the moment I notice the cat hair on my clothes, suddenly, it’s like I can’t see or think about anything else until every single hair is gone. Or when I have to get up in the middle of the night to check that the front door is locked, even though I checked it an hour before that, and there’s no point telling myself not to do it because I’ll just end up thinking about it instead.

There are names for these conditions, but I didn’t know them for a long time. I never used to think of myself as neurodivergent or as having a mental illness. I just thought there was something wrong with me. It was a difficult thing to live with, this idea that I was somehow weak, or lazy, or just wrong in some way because I couldn’t control the way I felt or the thoughts I had. How could I not be able to tell my own brain what to do? Why couldn’t I just “get on with it” or “get a grip” like I was told to?

I know now, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with me. I am neurodivergent and I have a mental illness. My OCD, depression and anxiety may never go away, but they can be treated, and I no longer feel any sense of shame or guilt about them. As for my neurodivergence, which for me is mostly my ADHD, well, that’s something I’ve come to embrace. I used to think my brain was my enemy, but now I think of it with fond exasperation. It’s unquestionably a pest. It is. I wish it behaved better.

But I also never forget that it makes me who I am. Yes, it misbehaves, but it’s also creative, kind and brave. It gives me shelter from the real world and it gives me the stories I live to tell.

And that’s the space out of which Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom was born. Kiki, my young, creative heroine, is like me. She’s a British-Indian girl with ADHD and OCD, though she doesn’t know the words yet. She’s strong, but questions her own strength. She’s brave, but worries about big things and small things. She creates whole worlds in her sketchbook, but struggles to enjoy a simple day out with her friends because her brain has other ideas.

Then her sketchbook kingdom, a world of folklore and magic, comes to life and suddenly, Kiki has to be a hero. She doesn’t think she can do it, of course. She doesn’t think she’s strong enough or brave enough. She doesn’t think art, creativity and heart are as powerful as swords and monsters.

Spoiler: she’s wrong.

Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is all about creativity, magic, and friendship. There’s folklore from the south of India, a warrior goddess, a talking lion, a crew of plucky rebel kids, and, above all, a heroine who finds her own unique way of fighting back. I hope Kiki’s story finds a place in the hearts of the readers who need it most.

Meet the author

Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. She is the author of YA novels The Lost Girl, A Spark of White Fire and its sequels, and has contributed to several anthologies. She lives in Norwich, in the east of England, with her husband and kids. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is her first middle-grade novel.

About Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

For fans of the Aru Shah and Serpent’s Secret series, this action-packed fantasy-adventure sees a girl’s drawings of Indian mythology spring to vivid life—including the evil god who seeks to enter the real world and destroy it.

Kiki Kallira has always been a worrier. Did she lock the front door? Is there a terrible reason her mom is late? Recently her anxiety has been getting out of control, but one thing that has always soothed her is drawing. Kiki’s sketchbook is full of fanciful doodles of the rich Indian myths and legends her mother has told her over the years. 

One day, her sketchbook’s calming effect is broken when her mythological characters begin springing to life right out of its pages. Kiki ends up falling into the mystical world she drew, which includes a lot of wonderful discoveries like the band of rebel kids who protect the kingdom, as well as not-so-great ones like the ancient deity bent on total destruction. As the one responsible for creating the evil god, Kiki must overcome her fear and anxiety to save both worlds—the real and the imagined—from his wrath. But how can a girl armed with only a pencil defeat something so powerful?

ISBN-13: 9780593206973
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 07/06/2021
Series: Kiki Kallira #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years