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Book Review: Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom by Sangu Mandanna

Publisher’s description

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?

Amanda’s thoughts

If you know anything about this book, and have been reading my recent reviews, you’re probably like, “Let me guess—she read this book for the SLJ article on mental health in middle grade fiction that she keeps yammering on about.” And you’re right! I did! And like all the others I’ve read for this article, I’m so glad I had a reason to pick this book up (I mean, beyond the reason of, “I’m trying to read every book ever published!” which is a project that is futile, thus sometimes I need a real concrete reason to move a book from “maybe someday” to “right now!”).

When the pocket world Kiki has created in her sketchbooks turns out to be real, and Kiki is now in it, her anxiety has to morph from “oh no, if I left the door unlocked a goose may eat my mom!” (which, honestly, was such a relatable bit of anxiety brain—I mean, maybe minus the specific of the goose) to “can I get out of my own way far enough to save everyone in this world?!” That’s a big ask for anyone, but especially for Kiki, whose anxiety likes to make her worry about everything and doubt herself all the time. And in the real world, she tries to downplay how bad she sometimes feels. Her mom certainly seems loving and receptive and would certainly work to get her help, but Kiki doesn’t want to worry her. But it turns out if you end up somehow living inside a world you drew, you start to have more forthcoming conversations about mental health. This feels right, because Kiki threw herself so thoroughly into books and art as a way to distract from her anxiety, so I love that this very art literally helps her work out what’s going on with her.

The entire quest in Mysore is full of adventure, vibrant characters, and great details. Fantasy fans, whether they are familiar with Hindu mythology or not, will love Kiki’s journey. And while there is plenty of good stuff to say about that entire journey, I want to talk a little more about the mental health rep. I love that we are seeing not only more compassionate and accurate representation in middle grade books, period, but that it’s starting to show up beyond just realistic fiction stories. Because even brave (if somewhat reluctant) warriors can have anxiety! And even people with anxiety can become brave warriors! Kiki goes from feeling like her anxiety is her fault, like if she were stronger or braver this wouldn’t be happening to her, to understanding she has an illness that is just a part of her but not all of her.

Kiki learns important lessons on her quest. It’s okay to be messy and anxious and scared. You can still fight the monster, even if it’s in your brain. You can still be in control, be master of your fate, bear your teeth at the wolf. The monsters won’t always be there. You can take back your world. You just might need a little help along the way. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. Asking for help makes you an even braver warrior.

A fantastic and empowering read.

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

Book Review: Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh

Publisher’s description

For fans of Inside Out and Back Again and Amina’s Voice, We Need Diverse Books cofounder Ellen Oh creates a breathtaking story of family, hope, and survival, inspired by her mother’s real-life experiences during the Korean War. Faced with middle school racism, Junie Kim learns of her grandparents’ extraordinary strength and finds her voice.

“Filled with unforgettable characters, this profoundly moving story about a girl’s search for self is at once both unique and universal, timely and timeless. A book that should be on every shelf.” —Padma Venkatraman, Walter Award-winning author of The Bridge Home

Junie Kim just wants to fit in. So she keeps her head down and tries not to draw attention to herself. But when racist graffiti appears at her middle school, Junie must decide between staying silent or speaking out.

Then Junie’s history teacher assigns a project and Junie decides to interview her grandparents, learning about their unbelievable experiences as kids during the Korean War. Junie comes to admire her grandma’s fierce determination to overcome impossible odds, and her grandpa’s unwavering compassion during wartime. And as racism becomes more pervasive at school, Junie taps into the strength of her ancestors and finds the courage to do what is right.

Finding Junie Kim is a reminder that within all of us lies the power to overcome hardship and emerge triumphant.

Amanda’s thoughts

This is another book I picked up to read in preparation for my upcoming SLJ article on mental health in middle grade fiction. I have the luxury of reading at work when the kids do their cuddle up and read time, and I got so into this story that it was really difficult for me to not keep sneaking in a few pages here and there throughout the day.

Junie Kim is not feeling like herself. She’s cranky, cynical, sleeping all the time, moody, and just feels down. Those feelings eventually escalate to suicidal ideation, which lands her, thankfully, with a doctor and a therapist helping her through her major depressive disorder diagnosis. She gets good help, has supportive and loving parents, and is on medication. Readers see her move from one therapist to a second because the first was not a good fit. We see what therapy looks like for her and learn about mindfulness and emotion regulation. She has rough times, she gets help, she shares what’s going on with her to complete acceptance and understanding from people in her life, and we can rest assured that Junie is being well taken care of.

I picked this book up for its mental health rep, but was delighted to find so much else going on in Junie’s story (because, after all, a mental illness is always just one part of your story—it’s never your whole definition). Junie and her friends are dealing with racist vandalism at school and Junie hears a near infinite stream of racist garbage from certain peers. She and her friends brainstorm ways to be activists and to inspire their classmates to recognize racism and stand up against it. The other biggest piece of Junie’s current life is learning the stories of her grandparents’ younger years during the Korean War. Through their storytelling, we are put right back there with them, learning what they endured and dreamed of. Their own stories are riveting and their effect on Junie inspires action in her daily life as well as a deeper understanding of what her family has been through. An important read about standing up for yourself and others, about getting help, and about enduring. I’m so glad I didn’t miss this book.

ISBN-13: 9780062987983
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Living with Viola by Rosena Fung

Publisher’s description

Heartbreakingly honest and quietly funny, this #ownvoices graphic novel from a debut creator is a refreshingly real exploration of mental health, cultural differences, and the trials of middle school.

Livy is already having trouble fitting in as the new girl at school—and then there’s Viola. Viola is Livy’s anxiety brought to life, a shadowy twin that only Livy can see or hear. Livy tries to push back against Viola’s relentless judgment, but nothing seems to work until she strikes up new friendships at school. Livy hopes that Viola’s days are numbered. But when tensions arise both at home and at school, Viola rears her head stronger than ever. Only when Livy learns how to ask for help and face her anxiety does she finally figure out living with Viola.

Rosena Fung draws on her own early experiences with anxiety and the pressures of growing up as the child of Chinese immigrant parents to craft a charming, deeply personal story that combines the poignancy of Raina Telgemeier’s Guts with the wacky humor of Lumberjanes. Exuberant, colorful art brings Livy’s rich imaginative world—filled with everything from sentient dumplings to flying unicorns—to life on the page.

Amanda’s thoughts

Hard to do better than this book. Rosena Fung makes it clear just how cruel, smothering, and omnipresent mental illness can be as Viola, Livy’s anxieties, tags along behind her all day, shouting a constant stream of lies and worst-case scenarios at her. Livy is trying to navigate her 6th grade life, but it’s hard when there is just so much to worry about. She finds solace in books and art, but it’s hard to keep Viola quiet, even if Livy is otherwise occupied. She’s at a new school and figuring out new friendships. She’s self-conscious about her parents’ jobs and what her home is like. She’s made to feel inferior to how her cousins are doing and what their goals are. Even her lunches aren’t “right”—other kids make fun of how they smell, making her even more self-conscious about everything. She doesn’t feel like she fits anywhere, and a lot of that is just typical middle school stuff that will probably get worked out as time goes on, but a lot of it is specifically Viola, or her anxiety. It has a special knack for trying to ruin absolutely everything and gripping onto the smallest thing and making Livy feel terrible as she fixates on it.

Hard as all that is, there is so much good that happens over the course of the story. Friend things get figured out, though there are some rocky moments, Livy learns to share pieces of her home life and her culture with her new friends, and, most importantly, Livy finally confesses all of her fears and stresses to her parents, who get her help. When she tells new friend Charlotte what’s been going on, she shrugs it off as perfectly normal—her sister is in therapy too—it’s no big deal. Livy learns coping mechanisms that will begin to keep the worst of her anxiety at bay and will ground her in hard moments. An author’s note explains how Livy’s experiences mirror so many of Fung’s while growing up.

I am so glad that not only are we seeing so many more middle grade stories that address mental health concerns, but that we’re seeing these stories presented in a variety of ways. The graphic novel format is well-suited for this story as readers will see the impact of what it’s like to have a mental illness tagging along beside your every move. Smart, empathetic, and hopeful. I loved this.

Review copy (finished) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781773215488
Publisher: Annick Press, Limited
Publication date: 11/30/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Book Review: Stuntboy, in the Meantime by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Raúl the Third

Publisher’s description

From Newbery Medal honoree and #1 New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds comes a hilarious, hopeful, and action-packed middle grade novel about the greatest young superhero you’ve never heard of, filled with illustrations by Raúl the Third!

Portico Reeves’s superpower is making sure all the other superheroes—like his parents and two best friends—stay super. And safe. Super safe. And he does this all in secret. No one in his civilian life knows he’s actually…Stuntboy!

But his regular Portico identity is pretty cool, too. He lives in the biggest house on the block, maybe in the whole city, which basically makes it a castle. His mom calls where they live an apartment building. But a building with fifty doors just in the hallways is definitely a castle. And behind those fifty doors live a bunch of different people who Stuntboy saves all the time. In fact, he’s the only reason the cat, New Name Every Day, has nine lives.

All this is swell except for Portico’s other secret, his not-so-super secret. His parents are fighting allthe time. They’re trying to hide it by repeatedly telling Portico to go check on a neighbor “in the meantime.” But Portico knows “meantime” means his parents are heading into the Mean Time which means they’re about to get into it, and well, Portico’s superhero responsibility is to save them, too—as soon as he figures out how.

Only, all these secrets give Portico the worry wiggles, the frets, which his mom calls anxiety. Plus, like all superheroes, Portico has an arch-nemesis who is determined to prove that there is nothing super about Portico at all.

Amanda’s thoughts

This was another book I sought out as I worked on my article for School Library Journal on mental health rep in middle grade books (look for that March 2022!). As far as I can tell, there are not really a whole lot of middle grade books that address the mental health of boys, period, so when I saw this title, about a Black boy dealing with anxiety, I tracked it down right away. Given it’s written by Jason Reynolds and illustrated by Raul the Third, I figured it would be great. And it was.

Portico has “the frets,” as he calls them. The rest of us would probably call them an anxiety disorder. As someone who has an anxiety disorder with panic attacks, I sure recognized how quickly Portico’s mind would leap from “this thing might not be okay” to “AUGH! QUICK! MOVE! ACT! PANIC!” Portico’s parents are splitting up, something he doesn’t particularly understand until quite far into the book. But all of their constant arguing is taking its toll on him, causing those frets to crop up more and more frequently. He keeps busy and distracted by running around his apartment complex with his best friend, Zola, having little adventures while acting like Stuntboy, a kind of superhero who exists to keep others protected (again, hey there, recognizable anxiety). His building is full of larger-than-life characters who keep things interesting, but underlying everything are those blasted frets, just waiting to get in Portico’s way.

Not only is the story a total hit (and such a necessary depiction of a young Black boy navigating anxiety), but the format itself and all of the art make this exceedingly appealing. This fully illustrated novel includes comic book panels as a story within the story, little commercial break asides, double page spreads, and LOTS of dynamic action. A fantastic read with wide appeal. I look forward to more adventures of Stuntboy!

Review copy (finished) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534418165
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Publication date: 11/30/2021
Age Range: 7 – 12 Years

Book Review: The Golden Hour by Niki Smith

Publisher’s description

From the author of The Deep & Dark Blue comes a tender graphic novel, perfect for our time, that gently explores themes of self-discovery, friendship, healing from tragedy, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Struggling with anxiety after witnessing a harrowing instance of gun violence, Manuel Soto copes through photography, using his cell-phone camera to find anchors that keep him grounded. His days are a lonely, latchkey monotony until he’s teamed with his classmates, Sebastian and Caysha, for a group project.

Sebastian lives on a grass-fed cattle farm outside of town, and Manuel finds solace in the open fields and in the antics of the newborn calf Sebastian is hand-raising. As Manuel aides his new friends in their preparations for the local county fair, he learns to open up, confronts his deepest fears, and even finds first love.

This title will be simultaneously available in hardcover.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m working on an article for School Library Journal on mental health depictions in middle grade fiction. It was not all that long ago that I would have struggled to build a large list of books that accurately and compassionately address mental health. But as I worked, I found myself having to limit my book list to the past couple of years as a way to begin to pare down the long list of books I was interested in considering. What a great problem to have. I was fortunate enough to get a copy of this book for that article and wanted to talk a little about it here, too.

To say that I was moved by this beautiful and tender look at trauma, healing, and hope is an understatement. I was reading it at my desk at school and at one point looked around at all the kids sitting around reading and, knowing how much stuff has to be going on in so many of their lives, thought, I wish you these supportive and loving relationships. I wish you this kind of healing.

Manuel, who was present when his art teacher was attacked at school, is, understandably, having a really hard time clearing his mind of what he saw. Thankfully, he is in therapy and has some pretty great grounding techniques to help when he has derealization episodes. But it’s really difficult, even with help, to not feel afraid so much of the time, to not be triggered. When he makes two new friends, he finds further comfort in their steady, understanding presence. Together, they all work on projects and their friendship grows (and with Sebastian, it’s clear that there may be more than just friendship there). They help Manuel find grounding moments and make sure he knows they are there to listen whenever he may want to talk about it and are there to be supportive and steadying no matter what.

Manuel shows that healing from trauma is not quick or linear, and that’s okay. He shows the complexity of living day-to-day life riddled with moments of extreme distress. And more than anything, Manuel shows that vulnerability doesn’t have to be scary and that there is hope and joy even in the darkest and most unsettling of times. A deeply affecting read.

Review copy (finished) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316540339
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 11/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

On Writing For Children (When You Aren’t One), a guest post by Sabrina Kleckner

Cover Designer: Jake Slavik
Illustrator: Ana Bidault

I started writing my first novel when I was twelve. It was about murderers, because sure, and despite having no actual world-building, it did include a magical language I painstakingly crafted and a very intricate (definitely too intricate) plot. Needless to say, it was not a good book. But something I do think it had going for it was the voice. I was twelve, and my characters were thirteen. Even though I didn’t understand how to write a cohesive story or that character arcs are a thing that exist, I knew how kids sounded because I was one. Fast forward, and my debut releases this month. There are no murderers this time around (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), but I did write another young protagonist. She’s twelve, and I am now twenty-four. I’ve lived double her life, and am thus far removed from her perspective. When it came to getting her voice right, I wasn’t sure if I could do a good job.

(Thirteen-year-old Sabrina probably thinking about her murder book)

(Twenty-four-year-old Sabrina definitely thinking about her debut!)

If you’ve read my book, you might think I failed on the voice front. While querying, I got several rejections because agents did not think Maisie sounded her age, and I understand why. My protagonist is much more confident than I was at twelve, and is very independent. While this could be considered a flaw in my writing, I don’t see it that way. In order for THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY to work, Maisie needed to be bold enough to flee to another country with her estranged older brother. She needed to make rash decisions while trying to save her family’s art shop because, despite being an adult, her brother isn’t in a position to help her. And she needed to be self-aware enough to understand when her careless actions caused harm, because that is the crux of the story.

When I first got the feedback that Maisie sounded too old, I worried. I considered re-writing the novel from the ground up before sending out more queries. But then I thought back to my twelve-year-old self. Whether or not I was actually mature on the outside, I felt like I was on the inside. I already had a passion I knew I wanted to pursue—writing—and I didn’t care that I was a kid or that my stories weren’t up to par yet. I was convinced that, once I finished my murderer novel, it would immediately find an agent, become a bestseller, and land me a five-movie deal (lol). At the same time, I had friends who didn’t know what they wanted for dinner, let alone what they wanted to do for a career yet. And then there were the twelve-year-olds who were already achieving unimaginable things. I was so jealous of the occasional teen who got a book deal. I used to watch the kids on Disney Channel and wonder what it was like to have a full-blown career as a middle schooler. Outside of writing, I was a competitive swimmer, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the kids my age who qualified for the Olympics.

All this to say: I realized there is no universal twelve-year-old. Children mature at different rates. They have different life experiences and personalities that lead them to thinking and speaking in their own unique ways. I don’t actually think there is a wrong way to write a child, so long as you aren’t speaking down to them. Now: this post isn’t to encourage you to ignore editorial notes—feedback is essential to publishing, and my book wouldn’t be where it is today without all the wonderful eyes that offered critiques. But if you believe a bold and confident child protagonist is necessary for your story, go for it! If your book requires a messy and immature adult main character, don’t hold yourself back! People don’t fit into neat boxes so I don’t think we should force characters into them, either.

Character Art by @kidovna


Meet the author

Sabrina Kleckner is the author of THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, a middle grade contemporary novel about family and identity. She began writing at the age of twelve, and is grateful to not be debuting with the angsty assassin book she toiled over in her teens. When she is not writing, she can be found teaching ESL or gushing about her three cats to anyone who will listen. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @sabkleckner, or at https://www.sabrinakleckner.com/.

Where to buy the book: https://www.sabrinakleckner.com/books

About The Art of Running Away

Twelve-year-old Maisie is an artist. When she’s in front of her sketchbook or apprenticing at Glenna’s Portraits, the family-run art shop her grandmother started, the world makes sense. She doesn’t think about Calum, her brother who mysteriously left home and cut ties with her family six years ago, or her parents’ insistence that she “broaden her horizons” and try something new—something that isn’t art.

But when Glenna’s Portraits falls on hard times, Maisie’s plan to take over the shop when she’s older and become a lifelong artist starts to crumble. In desperation to make things right, Maisie runs away to London to reconnect with her adult brother, hoping he might be the key to saving the shop. But as Maisie learns about her family’s past from Calum, she starts to rethink everything she’s ever known. Maisie must decide not only if saving her family’s art shop is worth it, but if she can forgive her parents for the mistakes they’ve made. 

ISBN-13: 9781631635779
Publisher: North Star Editions/Jolly Fish Press
Publication date: 11/16/2021
Age Range: 8 – 14 Years

Book Review: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

Publisher’s description

From the acclaimed author of The Real Boy and The Lost Girl comes a wondrous and provocative fantasy about a kingdom beset by monsters, a mysterious school, and a girl caught in between them.

If no one notices Marya Lupu, is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread. 

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy—a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself—things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

Amanda’s thoughts

Listen. That tweet up there should tell you everything you need. Also, 100% of the book was interesting, and yet as I read I repeatedly shouted in my head, “IT JUST GOT INTERESTING!” Because it kept getting MORE and MORE interesting. Go order this book. Now.

Marya knows her place in life. As a girl, she’s seen as a helper, a caretaker, a disappointment, and a background character in her own life. Her golden boy brother, Luka, is potentially gifted as a sorcerer and Marya is just this annoyance, this threat to perfection, this problem. Thank goodness she has Madame Bandu, a neighbor who has her watch her boys. Marya can be a “wild girl” with them, and, bonus, Madame Bandu is teaching her how to read. She’s also teaching her to question everything. From Madame Bandu, Marya learns to question the stories you’re told, question who’s telling them, who they benefit. She teaches her to see coded secrets and truths in the tapestries that record history. Marya learns that reading and learning is the best way to keep away the monsters that plague their land.

But all that learning comes to a halt when Marya is sent to a reform school, where she will get a fresh start and learn how to be a lady. And maybe, if she’s really good, she will be allowed to go work on a sorcerer’s estate in some kind of helping role! At Dragomir, Marya meets other girls who were also exiled to this school and it’s clear that the way they are “troubled” has little to do with anything serious. The girls there are sullen, awkward, haughty, inquisitive, and smart. They are too much, they are inappropriate, they are girls that no one knows what to do with. So they will learn how to behave at Dragomir. They will be cast off, isolated, broken down. After all, girls are obviously either evil or weak, and they must be reformed. They can’t be running around, thinking thoughts and being willing to run headlong into monsters!

Meanwhile, the Dread is looming, but the sorcerer assigned to their school says it’s all under control. But Marya doesn’t believe him. She starts to wonder if he’s there to protect them or to monitor them. Also, how, exactly, do these “troubled” girls pose a threat? Are they in danger or are they the danger? Why does it seem like all of the men Marya meets are lying? What’s this school really about?

By the end of the story, we see the myriad ways men fail women, the way they are cowards and liars and manipulators. We see the truth, we see the lies, we see the control, the power, and the bravery. We also see that Anne Ursu is a master storyteller (which, of course, we already know) who knows just how to skewer the patriarchy and leave readers feeling inspired by the brave actions of her characters. I could not put this book down and when I did, I felt hopeful, which is an amazing feeling to experience for even two minutes these days. A smart story about control, rebellion, story itself, and the fearsome power of girls allowed to be themselves. A great book for girls who can’t follow the rules and, better yet, don’t want to.


Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062275127
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda’s thoughts

Barbara Dee is writing some of the best middle grade out there. Fact.

Here’s the problem that Wren’s mom is struggling with, the problem referenced up in the summary but not explicitly said: she’s addicted to opioids. And she’s Wren’s only parent around (her dad is in NY with his new wife and kids), so things are ROUGH for Wren. But you’d maybe never know that. She’s pretty self-sufficient, doesn’t really let on to others how bad her mom has gotten (and Wren doesn’t know what her mom is doing—she just knows she’s sleeping/out of it a lot, lying, missing work, and not really being on top of the whole “mom” thing), and she just kind of muddles along. Also, she is just a kid. She misses or misunderstands lots of signs that something serious may be happening with her mom, but she’s in 7th grade; it’s not her job to be monitoring her mother for drug use. Wren is busy with her own life, adjusting to her new school (and friends and classmates) and getting really into doing special effects makeup, including for the school play. And she’s adjusting to her new family situation, with her dad halfway across the country from her, with a new wife and baby twins. Wren’s mom doesn’t want her to “talk behind her back” to her dad, so Wren never expresses any concerns about what’s going on with her mom to her dad.

It’s not until things get REALLY bad for her mom that Wren really knows what’s going on. She’s been in survival mode for so long, just trying to keep everyone happy, not make problems, and pretend she’s always fine, that it feels like a LOT to suddenly have other people stepping in to help her and clarifying what’s happening.

While her mother’s opioid addiction is the most Important part of this story, there are many smaller important parts that also feel so significant to Wren. Negotiating new friends in middle school is almost always fraught with lots of peril, and Wren has ups and downs with her new classmates as she tries to figure out who’s nice, who seems fake, and who’s maybe just misunderstood. And her whole obsession with special effects makeup is pretty cool. She’s always watching tutorials and practicing on her friends and her mom. I loved this interest for her, given her very real need to be interested in wearing a mask, becoming someone else, changing your story, etc.

Like all of Dee’s others books, this one handles the more mundane and relatable just as seriously and skillfully as the heavy and specific. Both are shown as significant. For many middle schoolers, they have a lot going on in their home lives, a lot that they may be hiding. For Wren, we see her get through what she can alone, while feeling confused and not necessarily well cared for, but we also see her surrounded by support, love, and, eventually, help. A great read.


Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534469181
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

Knowing and Not Knowing, a guest post by Barbara Dee

Not long before I started writing Violets Are Blue, I was talking with my husband about his experience growing up with a family member struggling with addiction.

“Did you know?” I asked.

“I knew and I didn’t,” he told me.

That answer—I knew and I didn’t—has always stayed with me. Kids are perceptive and sensitive, especially when it comes to family. But that doesn’t mean they correctly process everything they’re seeing. And sometimes they simply don’t want to see, because the truth, especially about a parent, is too disturbing.

As I was writing Violets Are Blue, I kept coming back to this sentence—I knew but I didn’t—as a way both into the character of Wren, and also into the story I wanted to tell. When you get a sentence like this stuck in your head, it’s a kind of gift from the writing gods. Having the line “Maybe he just likes you” kept me focused on the story I wanted to tell for my MG #metoo book. The expression “halfway normal” kept me on track as I wrote about a kid returning to school after two years of cancer treatment.

For Violets Are Blue, my challenge was to write a main character who was extremely observant about special effects makeup, and extremely close to her mom– and at the same time not getting the fact that her mom was struggling with an addiction to opioids. How can a character be able to detect the very subtle difference between two similar shades of purple eye shadow, and yet not be able to understand that the lock on her mom’s bedroom door is a red flag? Or that her mom’s frequent illnesses are suspicious? Or what it means that her mom is hoarding unmarked bottles of pills, or that money is missing from the house?

I had to make it plausible that Wren could see so well, and so much, and still not get what was going on with the beloved parent right in front of her. This was a difficult balance—but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was no different from the balance you always have to strike when you’re writing MG fiction from the main character’s point of view.

Middle-school-age narrators need to be perceptive and sensitive, but they’re not omniscient.  They see a lot, but they don’t see all—and even when they do see, they don’t always understand.

In My Life in the Fish Tank, Zinny witnesses her brother’s alarming behavior, but she understands it only in retrospect. In Maybe He Just Likes You, Mila senses that the boys’ behavior is out of line, but until she finds out about the scorecard, she doesn’t get why she’s being targeted. In Everything I Know About You, Tally has a close-up view of Ava’s behavior (in fact, she’s “spying” on her roommate, as a sort of game), but it takes her awhile to figure out the truth—that Ava has an eating disorder. 

I never want to write a book that condescends to the main character, or to the kid reader. So even though I’m writing about a twelve year old with imperfect information, or with the (age-approprate) inability to know what all that information means, I still need the main character to be bright, alert, sensitive, worthy of being the focus of the story. Because if the main character is merely unobservant and shallow, why would you want to be in her head for 300 pages?

I think of all my MG books as journeys, with the main character ultimately discovering that people are complex, nothing is simple, and ambiguity is okay. It’s a journey that often begins with that paradoxical state of knowing-and-not-knowing, and ends with acceptance and understanding. 

And—spoiler alert!—in Violets Are Blue, it also ends with forgiveness.

Meet the author

Barbara Dee is the author of twelve middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including Violets Are BlueMy Life in the Fish Tank, Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews, have been shortlisted for many state book awards, and have been named to best-of lists including the The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

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About Violets Are Blue

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

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

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

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

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

ISBN-13: 9781534469181
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

Book Review: The Insiders by Mark Oshiro

Publisher’s description

Three kids who don’t belong. A room that shouldn’t exist. A year that will change everything.

Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Meg Medina, this debut middle grade novel from award-winning author Mark Oshiro is a hopeful and heartfelt coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in.

San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.

Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of magic, friendship, and adventure.

Amanda’s thoughts

When I sat down to read this, I still had a long to-do list of tasks. But, oops, I sat there long enough to finish the entire book and all of a sudden it was time to make dinner. Don’t you love when you find a book that engrossing?

Héctor is not loving his new middle school in his new town. He misses San Francisco, his friends, and the school’s drama department. This school doesn’t even have drama! He lands on the radar of the school bully, who really starts to go after Héctor when Héctor says that he’s gay. It so wasn’t a thing at all at his old school, but now that his bully is antagonizing him even more because of this, he’s hesitant to come out to anyone else. He keeps trying to dodge the bully and his crew, eventually hiding out in a janitorial closet. But it’s no ordinary closet—it’s a secret portal/space that links him with two other students seeking refuge—Chinese and Black Juliana, who likes girls, and Filipino and white Sal, who uses they/them pronouns. Small note: Héctor lives in CA, Juliana in SC, and Sal in AZ. Yep, magic. The closet/Room (as they start to call it) seems to be a place that shows up to protect them and provide them with what they need. And the biggest need for all three? To feel like they belong, like they’re accepted, like they have their place in their schools. Together, the three are able to support and help each other. And in non-Room-related school stuff, Héctor begins to become friends with kids who befriended him right away. He goes from lonely, not feeling like he belongs, and wanting to just disappear to learning it’s okay to be himself, to trust new friends, and to ask for help.

Though all three Room kids face uncertainty, confusion, fear, and anxiety, they are all surrounded by support and love. Oshiro’s message is clear: nothing is better than being yourself. Not even a magical Room that appears just when you need it. A heartwarming and fun read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063008106
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years