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WE NEED MORE HEROES OF COLOR IN MIDDLE GRADE FANTASIES: A SOUTH ASIAN PERSPECTIVE, a guest post by Payal Doshi

As a kid, any free time I got, I devoured books. I read about kids who traveled to fantasy lands through a wardrobe, carried out investigations as amateur detectives, navigated the politics of school, had crushes and heartbreaks, and became heroes who saved realms with their magical powers. Oh, I loved these books! And yet, not one of them had characters who looked like me: a brown Indian girl.

India alone has a population of 1.3 billion people. Add in the diaspora which is spread across the world and that’s about another 18 million people. When there are so many of us, why do I rarely find South Asian kids on the cover of books especially those who are magic-wielding, realm-saving main characters?

Payal age 11-12

Thanks to initiatives for diverse books, the statistic is changing, and we are seeing more books with South Asian main characters (although there is a long way to go). However, a majority of the books being published center on stories of struggle. These stories delve into important subjects such as the immigrant experience, finding one’s identity in a foreign land, fitting in while sustaining microaggressions, tackling racism, learning the language, or escaping poverty and hardship for a better life. These stories are vital. These stories are needed. These stories open a door into a life many haven’t seen.

But these are not our only stories. The South Asian narrative is multifaceted with myriad, if not a countless, stories.

When I first began writing my debut novel, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, I wrote all 70,000 words of it with white characters who lived in the English countryside. I was an adult, nearly 24 years old when I wrote the first draft. Never having seen myself in ‘happy’, ‘joyful’, ‘adventurous’, or ‘magical’ stories as a kid, my subconscious led me to write about characters who I had read about umpteen number of times doing those exact things, except they looked nothing like me. The plot of my novel was not based on the immigrant experience or rooted in the challenges of living in poverty or war (in the case of historical fiction), so I assumed no one wanted to read a book about a girl like me from India, going on an adventure, discovering she had magic, and being the ‘chosen one’ to save her brother and a magical realm.

I didn’t think my Indian background was interesting enough to be the driving force of an exciting, heroic story. Since I had only ever read children’s books with white characters, it had trained my mind into thinking that those were the stories worth telling. That my own story, one that I hadn’t ever read about or seen portrayed, was not worth telling. Without my knowing it, this diminished my identity, my experiences, my uniqueness, and my self-worth.

When my writing teacher in India asked me with great disappointment why I hadn’t chosen to write about Indian kids (it was clearly not the first time she had come across a young Indian writer who had written about white characters), I felt deflated. I loved my life in India. I loved the food, the culture, the clothes, the deep sense of family, my years of schooling and university. I realized I should be proud of writing about my experiences and celebrating them with the world. If Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, and Nancy Drew can have incredible adventures, why can’t an Indian kid have them too? A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm.

Right then, I knew I wanted to change that. So, I wrote a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture with Indian kids going off on thrilling adventures and becoming heroes. It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself.

Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is a mission close to my heart. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and believe that their stories can be fun, fierce, and empowering too. Themes in children’s books about family, friendship, discovering your identity, the trials of growing up, dealing with complex emotions like grief, loss, death, as well as the exhilaration of escaping into fantasy lands and being a hero are themes every kid can relate to no matter the color of their skin, the location of their home, or their race and nationality.

My hope is for all types of narratives from underrepresented minorities to be brought to the forefront. Kids from marginalized backgrounds shouldn’t have to be typecast into having only one kind of story define their whole existence. We need to see kids from marginalized backgrounds in every avatar: from neurotypical, neurodiverse, queer, to disabled kids being portrayed as heroes, leaders, realm savers, popular kids, magic-wielding rebels with a cause, sci-fi explorers, and those who fall in love.

We, each, have our own hardships, struggles and insecurities but we also want to share joy, feel special, and be the ‘chosen ones’. Only by sharing varied narratives of marginalized groups will we create a world where people see each other without bias against the culture or the color of their skin.



So, let’s break stereotypes. Let’s broaden the perspectives of our young readers. Let’s unshackle our minds from the boxes we put others into without fully knowing their stories.

And until this revolutionary change comes, I’m going to write stories with flawed, fierce, and fabulous South Asian characters who go on adventures, solve mysteries, find love, be heroic, wield magic, and are unapologetically themselves.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Rachel Nadeau

Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing from The New School, New York. Having lived in India, the UK, and US, she noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR, her debut middle grade novel. Raised in Mumbai, India, she currently lives in Minneapolis, MN and can be found daydreaming about fantasy realms to send her characters off into. Learn more at www.payaldoshiauthor.com, @payaldoshiauthor on Instagram and @payaldwrites on Twitter.

About Rea and the Blood of the Nectar

It all begins on the night Rea turns twelve. After a big fight with her twin brother Rohan on their birthday, Rea’s life in the small village of Darjeeling, India, gets turned on its head. It’s four in the morning and Rohan is nowhere to be found. 

It hasn’t even been a day and Amma acts like Rohan’s gone forever. Her grandmother, too, is behaving strangely. Unwilling to give up on her brother, Rea and her friend Leela meet Mishti Daadi, a wrinkly old fortuneteller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling and secret quest. In the shade of night, they portal to an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There with the help of Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, Rea battles serpent-lilies and blood-sucking banshees, encounters a butterfly-faced woman and blue lizard-men, and learns that Rohan has been captured. Rea also discovers that she is a princess with magic. Only she has no idea how to use it.

Struggling with the truth her Amma has kept hidden from her, Rea must solve clues that lead to Rohan, find a way to rescue him, and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can she rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?

ISBN-13: 9781645437635
Publisher: Mango & Marigold Press
Publication date: 06/15/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Shh! We’re talking about a quiet book, a guest post by Tricia Springstubb

In The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, nothing too awful happens. There are some scary parts, including ominous vultures and a possibly haunted turret, but they’re not too scary, and to soothe your nerves there’s also a baby goat, and a thoughtful if troubled best friend. And while I want readers to fly through the pages, anxious to find out what happens next, I also hope they’ll feel as if someone they trust is sitting close, whispering, It’s going to be okay.

I myself am a scaredy-cat. No horror movies, no roller coasters, no casseroles where I can’t identify every ingredient, thank you very much. When I was growing up, in the innocent fifties and early sixties, pretty much every book I read had a guaranteed happy ending. There were no such categories as tween or young adult. Books that dealt with darker themes were reserved for adults, and for years I lived on a diet of Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins, and Nancy Drew. When Beth died in Little Women, it came as a tremendous shock.

Yet little by little, I began to learn that reading was not just for escaping life–it could be for understanding life. One of the first books to help me see that was “A Girl of the Limberlost”, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Elnora has a mother who’s often cold and distant. Her own heart has been broken, and she visits her unhappiness on Elnora. I remember reading this book with a painful sense of wonder. I’d never seen a mother like mine in a book before. When her mother shows Elnora that she does, after all, love her deeply, my own heart swelled so that I thought it might actually be growing. And probably it was–that’s what seeing ourselves in a book, realizing we are not alone, does to us. Our hearts and minds expand. Being understood, we, in turn, can better understand others.

Thank goodness for the many brave, unflinching books young readers have today. I’m so so awed and moved, by novels like Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, Leslie Connor’s The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle, and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies. Books like these, which guide young readers through life’s darkest places and out into the light, were not around when I was growing up.

Yet much as I admire them, I’ll never write that kind of book. I think that, as writers, we discover what we can do, then do that thing as best we can. For me, that seems to be quiet books like The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, whose hero is timid, steadfast Loah Londonderry. While Loah is a homebody, her mother is an ornithologist who often goes off on distant expeditions. When Dr. Londonderry finds evidence that an Arctic bird believed to be extinct may still exist, she embarks on a perilous solo quest to save it. Loah is left alone with her elderly caretakers. When they fall ill, she finds herself truly alone, except for a troubled friend who wants help running away from home, and those ominous vultures.

Does her mother love her work more than she loves Loah? Can Loah be a friend to someone so different from her? Where does a homebody find the courage to do brave, undreamed of things?

Loah embarks on an expedition too. She doesn’t traverse the globe, like her mother or a migrating Arctic tern. Instead, like a Townsend solitaire, she sticks close to home. Yet for me, her expedition, a journey of the heart, is every bit as big and important.

A recurring theme of middle grade and young adult literature is becoming independent –learning to fly–while also craving security and safety–a nest. It’s a theme explored in countless ways, and in The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, I do it through the lens of the natural world. All living creatures depend on one another in ways large and small, a lesson Dr. Londonderry’s work has taught Loah. As she comes to feel her own quiet strength, she reaches out to help others, who in turn support her, setting up a human chain of inter-connectedness that echoes Nature’s own web.

The book’s title comes from naturalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who wrote, “I think that, if required on pain of death to instantly name the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird’s egg.”  A bird’s egg, with its sturdy yet porous shell, is perfectly engineered to protect the growing chick until the day that chick finds the egg too small and confining and begins pecking its way out. An egg is made to nurture and then to give way, and for me this is the perfect metaphor for childhood and growing up. Hatching isn’t easy for Loah, just as for so many kids. I hope readers see themselves in her struggles to find a place in the world. I hope they’ll be reassured that, even when they feel most alone, light and love are never far away.

We turn to books for different things. Some days we want to laugh, some days to weep, some days to shiver in horror and some days to be comforted. Linda Urban, Erin Entrada Kelly, Cynthia Lord, Renee Watson and Sarah Pennypacker are some of my favorite writers whose books can speak monumental truths in small-ish voices. I’m tucking The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe onto their shelf.  

Shh. These are quiet books. They have lots to share, though. Lean close and listen. 

Meet the author

Tricia is the author of many picture books, chapter books, and novels. The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection and has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Before becoming a full-time writer (hooray!), Tricia worked as a library associate in the children’s room of a public library. Librarians have always been her people! She lives in Cleveland, Ohio. 


Contact info: 

website: triciaspringstubb.com

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tricia.springstubb/

instagram: tricia_springstubb

twitter: @springstubb

About The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe

For fans of Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly and The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss, a novel about one unadventurous girl who discovers she is anything but.

Eleven-year-old Loah Londonderry is definitely a homebody. While her mother, a noted ornithologist, works to save the endangered birds of the shrinking Arctic tundra, Loah anxiously counts the days till her return home. But then, to Loah’s surprise and dismay, Dr. Londonderry decides to set off on a perilous solo quest to find the Loah bird, long believed extinct. Does her mother care more deeply about Loah the bird than Loah her daughter?

Things get worse yet when Loah’s elderly caretakers fall ill and she finds herself all alone except for her friend Ellis. Ellis has big problems of her own, but she believes in Loah. She’s certain Loah has strengths that are hidden yet wonderful, like the golden feather tucked away on her namesake bird’s wing. When Dr. Londonderry’s expedition goes terribly wrong, Loah needs to discover for herself whether she has the courage and heart to find help for her mother, lost at the top of the world. 

Beautifully written, The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is about expeditions big and small, about creatures who defy gravity and those of us who are bound by it.

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

ISBN-13: 9780823447572
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Book Review: How to Become a Planet by Nicole Melleby

Publisher’s description

For Pluto, summer has always started with a trip to the planetarium. It’s the launch to her favorite season, which also includes visits to the boardwalk arcade, working in her mom’s pizzeria, and her best friend Meredith’s birthday party. But this summer, none of that feels possible.
 
A month before the end of the school year, Pluto’s frightened mom broke down Pluto’s bedroom door. What came next were doctor’s appointments, a diagnosis of depression, and a big black hole that still sits on Pluto’s chest, making it too hard to do anything.
 
Pluto can’t explain to her mom why she can’t do the things she used to love. And it isn’t until Pluto’s dad threatens to make her move with him to the city—where he believes his money, in particular, could help—that Pluto becomes desperate enough to do whatever it takes to be the old Pluto again.
 
She develops a plan and a checklist: If she takes her medication, if she goes to the planetarium with her mom for her birthday, if she successfully finishes her summer school work with her tutor, if she goes to Meredith’s birthday party . . . if she does all the things that “normal” Pluto would do, she can stay with her mom in Jersey. But it takes a new therapist, a new tutor, and a new (and cute) friend with a checklist and plan of her own for Pluto to learn that there is no old and new Pluto. There’s just her.
 

Amanda’s thoughts

Yes, hi, I would like to climb inside this book and hug Pluto and Fallon. Is that something someone can arrange for me?

It’s the summer after 7th grade and, for Pluto, nothing is the same as it’s always been. She’s spent the past month in bed, not going to school, and acquired a new diagnosis: depression and anxiety. She’s just started meds and will start seeing a therapist soon, but for now, it’s still very new and very awful. Melleby absolutely nails conveying to the reader the mental and physical ways mental illness can affect a person and what the symptoms can look like. Pluto is exhausted. She has brain fog, she feels weighed down, and she just doesn’t feel like herself. She just wants to be herself again.

Her new friend Fallon see’s Pluto’s list of goals for the summer (attend a birthday party, take her meds, etc) and offers to help her if Pluto will help Fallon with things on her list (cut her hair short, tell her mom she doesn’t want to wear dresses and that she maybe—sometimes—feels like a boy). It’s a rough time for Pluto to be making a new friend, as she can hardly get moving most days, but she also loves that Fallon ONLY knows this version of her, and not what she was like before her diagnosis. Pluto spends the summer working with a tutor, beginning therapy, visiting her father (and meeting his girlfriend, who has OCD), also having a terrible, terrible time trying to adjust to living with depression and anxiety. She pulls back from friends, lashes out at her mom, shuts down, rages, cries, fakes her way through things, and just feels crummy.

But.

But. There’s hope. She has the BEST supportive and loving mother. She has medication. She has a therapist. She’s getting caught up in school. She’s sort of seeing her old friends a little. And she’s realizing she gets butterflies whenever she’s around Fallon. She will be okay. Pluto learns to move beyond just wanting to be “fixed” to starting to understand that she’s still herself, no matter what is happening in her life. It’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to not be okay. And just like with the planet she’s named after, her definition may change but her properties are still the same. She’s still Pluto.

This is a lovely, compassionate, and gentle story that’s full of love, support, hope, and honesty. An absolutely necessary addition to all collections that serve this age group.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781643750361
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 05/25/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Book Review: Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas

Publisher’s description

A moving middle-grade debut for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong

Brian has always been anxious, whether at home, or in class, or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be “normal” again . . . Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team—even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize that he has a crush on him . . .
But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves—and each other.

Amanda’s thoughts

As you know, I get a lot of book mail here. I spend a lot of time sorting it, reading summaries, paging through to read a bit, and deciding what I want to read for potential review. I usually have a pile of “for sure read” among all my other piles, but sometimes those books sit for along time before I get to them, and then their summaries get buried under hundreds of others in my head. All of this is to say, this book has been in my “for sure read” for a while, but by the time I got to it, I didn’t remember much about why I’d pulled it. I’m so glad I DID pull it to read. It’s a really well done middle grade book about boys, friendship, families, emotions, vulnerability, trust, mistakes, coming out, and so much more. It also felt really fresh and unique, which is difficult for a book to achieve!

13-year-old Brian is quiet and anxious. He has social anxiety and, over the course of the story, also begins having panic attacks. He’s a really complicated and quietly funny kid who has some rough stuff going on at home. When we meet him, his dad has fled into hiding from the police and his mother attempts suicide with her stockpile of pills for mental health issues. She ends up in the hospital, which leaves Brian and his 9-year-old brother alone. They get put into foster care and Brian, who has been holding back so much, finally snaps. He punches his bully at school and takes off with his brother, running away and going on a small adventure while he processes what is happening in his life.

It’s from here, after these moments, that his life, while still immensely difficult and unfair, starts to be filled with love and support from all directions. One of his teachers takes in Brian and his brother, and her teenage son begins to bring Brian out of his shell as they bond over basketball, grief, loss, and more. Ezra, the other main character in this book (who also shares narration duties) has always been friendly with Brian, but makes a real effort to be there for him, standing up to the other kids who are being mean to Brian or talking trash about him, helping find him when he’s missing, and truly making Brian feel seen and supported. Ezra also has a crush on Brian and eventually confesses this to him and comes out to his friends and his sister.

The overwhelming message of this book is that it’s okay to be a mess and to cry. It’s okay to tell people you are going through hard things. It’s okay to rely on others to help you and support you. Themes of love, support, and acceptance are strong, as is the message that you are not your mistakes or bad choices. An emotional book full of heart.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781419751028
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

Fun Fiction can Sell STEM, a guest post by Susan McCormick

How to stimulate an interest in STEM and health-related fields? My middle schooler’s science class was waiting to be dazzled by the chicken wing dissection. As a doctor, writer, and mother classroom volunteer, I was certain this demonstration of the exciting connection between muscles and tendons and bones would lead to awe and wonder and a gush of queries about the wide world of science and scientific careers. I opened and closed the wing, placed it in their hands, showed them the thin strips of tissue coordinating all the action. Did I see sudden passion? Fascination? Jumping-over-the-desk enthusiasm? No.

They would definitely want to hear about my journey to becoming a doctor, then. And they did. They had polite questions and inciteful comments. But they never showed the same interest in chicken wings or medical school as they did about another topic they were studying. Mythology. Greek gods. Beasts with multiple heads. Fathers who swallowed their children whole. The kids learned it in humanities, but they already knew everything there was to know and then some. Why? Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief series. If there was an obvious career path involving mythology, it would be flooded.


The author with medical school books from the preclinical years.

Fiction offers a framework to package knowledge into an engaging read. Most information is interesting in its own right but enticing and engrossing when embedded in a story. Add adventure and suspense and humor and a kid who could be any of us, and it is no wonder why The Lightning Thief is such a success.

Was there such a fiction series about medicine? The human body? Ailments and health? The excitement of biology or chemistry or engineering or math? Excluding books that deal with video games, very few.

Who would have thought mythology could be so popular? A good story provides the bridge. Books can make science and medicine appealing, too. Cool. Popular. Kids know about scientists and white coats and laboratories. Boring stuff. Savvy kids even know about years of laboring at an experiment before it comes to fruition, if it ever does. Endless learning in medical school, then residency, then fellowship. Multiple botched rocket launches until one finally takes to the skies. Medication trials that look promising, only to close at the last minute due to side effects. Kids also need to know the flip side, the importance, the relevance, the satisfaction that comes from small successes and all those years.

The need for the objectivity and critical thinking that science provides has never been more glaring than today. The demand for future scientists, for inventors, for health-care workers is great. We children’s authors can embrace our role in the challenge. I set out to create a thrilling tale weaving in maladies much like The Lightning Thief weaves in mythology. In The Antidote, Alex Revelstoke discovers a family secret. He can see disease. And not just disease, but injury, illness, anything wrong with the body. He sees skin melt away to reveal the organs beneath, much to his shock and horror. He comes from a family of doctors with this extra gift, going back generations, helping, healing. But Revelstokes are locked in a centuries-old war with ancient evil itself, an entity called ILL, the creator and physical embodiment of disease. Alex is the last Revelstoke. Alex, plus a special dog and a mysterious girl, must battle ILL and his new super disease, worse than polio, worse than smallpox.


The author’s dog, Albert the Newfoundland, who was the inspiration for the dog in the story.

Kids learn about polio and smallpox in school through FDR and through the devastation infections brought to American Indians. Kids have encountered disease. A grandma had a heart attack, an uncle had an ulcer, a friend has a food allergy. They hear about appendicitis and diabetes and sudden death in young athletes. These illnesses appear in The Antidote’s adventure, described and explained even as the action unfolds. I threw in hidden safety tips like how to do a Heimlich maneuver and when to use an AED, an Automated External Defibrillator. Young people can only gain by understanding more about the body, health, and medicine.

In no other time in recent history, not since the polio epidemic of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation, have the world’s children been directly, incredibly affected by disease, death, and the fear that accompanies it. The Antidote speaks to this, not with anything specifically about the current COVID-19 situation, but with the story winding through pandemics and infectious diseases of the past like plague, polio, smallpox, Spanish flu, measles, leprosy, etc. An added informative section at the end describes these diseases in further detail for curious readers. The COVID-19 pandemic is horrific, but not unique, and it helps knowing there have been times in history like this, and that science came through and the world prevailed.


The author heading out to give COVID-19 vaccines at a mass vaccination site

The events of 2020 have forced kids to experience disease firsthand, but also see firsthand the healers and scientists who are heroes and who have sparked a worldwide interest in science. Whole career fields were revealed to young people who knew nothing of them before. Frontline responders, EMTs, doctors, nurses, and technicians all helped diagnose and treat. Mechanical engineers designed negative pressure rooms in hospitals overnight and refitted schools and buildings with new airflow systems. Biomedical and other engineers rethought ventilators and oxygen saturation monitors. Research scientists, vaccine makers, and virologists discovered the virus, created the testing, produced the vaccines. Computer scientists developed programs to register people for vaccinations, then worked out the bugs and the crashes. Kids saw science save the world, and many will choose a career in science themselves.

Now is the time. Young people are interested in science. Children’s authors and books with engrossing STEM stories can encourage this interest. While steeped in science, though, at heart The Antidote is an adventure, with good vs. evil, and I want kids to enjoy the story. Enough to be part of the inspiration.

Meet the author

Susan McCormick is a writer and doctor who lives in Seattle. She graduated from Smith College and George Washington University School of Medicine and served as a doctor for nine years in the US Army before moving to the Pacific Northwest and civilian practice. In addition to The Antidote, a timely middle grade medical fantasy, she writes The Fog Ladies cozy murder mystery series. She also wrote Granny Can’t Remember Me, a lighthearted picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. She is married with two boys, neither of whom can see disease. She loves giant dogs and has had St. Bernards, a Mastiff, Earl, and two Newfoundlands, Edward and Albert. Unlike the dog in the book, they had no special powers, except the ability to shake drool onto the ceiling.

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About The Antidote

Twelve-year-old Alex Revelstoke is different. He can see disease. Also injury, illness, and anything else wrong with the body. This comes in handy when a classmate chokes on a hot dog or when the janitor suffers a heart attack unclogging a gooey science experiment gone awry. But Alex soon learns his new ability puts him and an unsuspecting world in peril. Throughout time, Revelstokes have waged a battle against ancient evil itself. A man, a being, an essence–the creator of disease. Alex has seen its darkness. He has felt its strength. He does not want to fight. But Alex is the last Revelstoke. The war has just begun.

ISBN-13: 9781509235667
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Publication date: 05/05/2021

Middle Grade

Sibling Stories, a conversation between Erin Soderberg Downing and Jacqueline West

Jacqueline West: Hello, Erin! I was so happy to get an early peek at THE GREAT PEACH EXPERIMENT. I loved the book, and I adored all three of the Peach kids: Lucy, Freddy, and Herb (who I wanted to hug every time he appeared on the page). Also, a family road trip in a food truck crammed with kids and books and pie and some pet mice was a lovely imaginary escape right now.  

Erin Soderberg Downing: Hi to you, Jacqueline! I’m super-excited to write this post with you, since I’ve always been a big fan of your stories (remember when my parent-kid book club read The Books of Elsewhere and got to meet with you to discuss the novel? That was a huge hit!). I’m so glad you loved Peaches – and from what you’ve told me, it sounds like it brought back some good memories from your childhood with your brothers. I also loved LONG LOST, and got totally sucked into the unique mystery and fascinating setting of your newest novel.

JW: It was funny—as I read, I found more and more ways that our newest books overlap. Obviously, they’re very different in tone and story, but they’ve both got sibling relationships at their core. Was that the seed of this story for you? Did it all begin with the Peach kids?  

ESD: Yes! This book—like all of my stories—started with an idea that was very character-based. Characters are the first thing I develop when I have a new idea, and then the plot comes later (sometimes much later). I almost always let my characters build each story for me, through their actions and personalities. When I set out to write GREAT PEACH EXPERIMENT, I knew I wanted to write a story about a family who suddenly become millionaires and spend their windfall on an epic and fun road trip—but it took me a while to dig out the emotional core and make it a book with humor and heart. Ultimately, WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS, MAKE PEACH PIE morphed into a story about a broken family who find their way back to wholeness during a challenging time, through forced togetherness and a shared family goal. When the book opens, the Peaches’ concept of “normal life” and the longstanding meaning of “home” have been shattered by the death of their mother, so it’s very much a story about searching for a new definition of what both “normal” and “home” really mean.

LONG LOST has a lot of similar themes—a family uprooted, figuring out how to live (reluctantly) in an uncomfortable new normal. Where did you first get the idea for this story? And I’m curious to know if you develop your ideas and plot first, or if—like me—you let your characters build things for you?

JW: I’m a bit of an oddball in that my books often sprout from a setting. (It worked that way with The Books of Elsewhere—the whole thing started with that strange, sprawling old house!) The seed of LONG LOST came from a crooked green street sign on a leafy rural road, which I glimpsed as my car streaked past. I don’t know what it was about that sign, but the big idea came to me in a flash: a small, insular New England town with a unique library, where a girl finds an unfinished mystery novel that she gradually figures out is set in the very same small town. The Crane sisters—clever, curious historian Fiona and her big sister Arden, the future Olympic figure skater—fell into place immediately afterward. And then I got to let my imagination roam while I created the library where so much of the story takes place. It’s a former mansion that has been bequeathed to the town by a deceased heiress, full of parquet floors and shadowy nooks and room after room crammed with books, and it’s basically the library of my dreams.

Speaking of book love—THE GREAT PEACH EXPERIMENT mentions lots of other great kids’ books. The Penderwicks is an important thread throughout the story, and the Peaches made me think of several other famous book families: the Vanderbeekers, the March sisters, Coyote Sunrise and her dad, the Darling children from PETER PAN. Are there certain family/sibling-focused books that had a big impact on you as a young reader—or as a grown-up writer?    

ESD: I love that the Peaches make you think of Vanderbeekers, Coyote Sunrise, and the March sisters—those are three of my very favorites! Both Vanderbeekers and Coyote Sunrise had a huge impact on me while writing this novel, because both are great at getting readers to both laugh and cry—sometimes within the very same chapter. That’s the mark of a great book for me…one that can pull out all the feelings. I was a huge reader as a kid (and I still am as an adult!), so one of my favorite parts of writing this book was creating Lucy’s 7th Grade Summer Reading List. I loved building a list highlighting some of my favorite middle-grade books of all time.

As you mentioned, LONG LOST is (mostly) set in an amazing old library in an incredible small town and is obviously a love-letter to librarians and readers who love to get lost in a good book. So I’m curious to know what some of your favorite middle-grade books are, and if any had a particular impact on you when writing this story?

JW: I grew up in a house filled with a lot of classic children’s literature. I loved Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—all the historical novels featuring independent girls who wanted to become writers. The Hobbit, A.A. Milne’s books, Sherlock Holmes collections,and Alice in Wonderland were also formative works for me. I read so much Victorian British literature as a kid, I thought you had to be Victorian and British to write a book (and my earliest writing attempts show it). So the book-within-a-book parts of LONG LOST, where I get to write in the style of an old-fashioned novel, were deliriously fun to create. It was like stepping back into my ten-year-old self.

Of course, later, I discovered that there was a whole world outside of British children’s fiction, thank goodness. Some newer middle grade novels I’ve adored are Hanna Alkaf’s The Girl and the Ghost, Kaela Noel’s Coo, Ronald Smith’s Hoodoo, Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, and Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep—but these are all wildly different from LONG LOST, or from anything else I’ve done. If those books have had a particular impact on me, it’s just to make me strive to be a better writer.

And while we’re talking about influences: Your kid characters are so well drawn. With just a few details, you make each one distinct and believable (and loveable!). Are any of them inspired by your own family, or by your childhood? Do you have any special practices that help you get inside of younger characters?  

ESD: I’m an only child, and I’ve begun to realize that most of the books I write tend to be about larger families, in part because it’s something fun and different for me to explore in fiction. I never knew what it was like to grow up surrounded by chaos and sibling-arguments and empty cereal boxes (before I even got a single bowl). BUT now I have three kids of my own, so I’m surrounded by many of those things on a day-to-day basis. The three Peach kids were very much inspired by life with my own kids, a 15-year-old and 13-year-old twins. Lucy is a whole lot like my oldest daughter, who often points out that she’s much more mature than her 40-something-year-old oddball mom. Freddy was 100% inspired by my son Henry, who is totally a random fact guy, and actually got to draw all of Freddy’s sketchbook art that’s included in the book! And Herb reminds me a lot of my Ruby, who is super snuggly and caring and fun and loves to try to make other people smile and laugh when they’re feeling sad or stressed or worried.

But there’s also an element of me in each of these kids. Like Lucy, I love getting lost in a good book. Like Freddy, I get a big kick out of random facts and stopping to check out roadside attractions that can change the course of a whole road trip with one little detour off the main road. And like Herb, I love caring for—and holding close—all kinds of wonderful treasures (my two dogs and three kids, especially!).

Now I have a similar question for you, but it’s about all those great settings in your stories (it makes sense to me that this is the part of your novels that comes first for you…your sense of place is amazing!)—all of your settings are so detailed and easy to fall into while reading your books. Do you use real places to ground your settings in reality, or are all of your spooky houses, libraries, and strange and captivating small towns built primarily in your imagination?

JW: Oh, thank you so much. Like I mentioned, settings are hugely important to me. I love houses—I often even dream about houses—because each one feels like a box for potential lives, potential mysteries, potential stories, and in my fiction, I get to live in hundreds of them. The settings that I use in my books are sometimes inspired by specific places I’ve been or specific things I’ve seen, but then they grow and change drastically until they take on a life of their own. The small Massachusetts town in LONG LOST is fictional, but the ingredients for it came from my visits to places like Concord, Salem, and Rye, NH. And the library is one hundred percent my own concoction. I’ve heard about a few libraries here in the Midwest that are former private homes, but I’ve never gotten to visit any of them. Maybe someday… Hey, that could even be part of a family road trip!  

ESD: I love it! Maybe that should be the Peach family’s next adventure. Actually, I should tell you that the second book in this series is all about the Peach family turning their Great Aunt Lucinda’s old, falling-apart mansion into a working B&B…but perhaps I should rethink that and have them turn it into a library instead. (As you know, the sky’s the limit during revisions!)

Well, this has been so much fun. When we first started talking about writing this post, I know we were both worried about finding enough commonalities in our stories to create a shared post about two very different novels. But I think we’ve done it! It’s been great learning more about your process, and diving into your writing space to learn about some of your influences and inspiration for your novels. I can’t wait to see what sparks your next literary adventure.

JW: Likewise! And I love imagining the Peaches making themselves at home in a grand old mansion. I’ll be wishing them—and you!—all the best.

Meet the authors

Erin Soderberg Downing has written more than fifty books for kids, tweens, and young adults. Some of her most popular titles include the middle-grade novel Moon Shadow and two fun chapter book series: Puppy Pirates and The Quirks. The first book in her new series—The Great Peach Experiment: When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie—was chosen as a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Before becoming an author, Erin was a children’s book editor, a cookie inventor, and also worked for Nickelodeon. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, kids, and two fluffy dogs. More information can be found at www.erinsoderberg.comInstagram: ErinSoderbergDowningFacebook: ErinDowningBooksTwitter: @ErinDowning

Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT-bestselling middle grade series The Books of Elsewhere, the Schneider Family Honor Book The Collectors,the MG mystery Digging Up Danger, and the MG novel Long Lost, coming from Greenwillow/HarperCollins in May 2021, as well asthe YA novels Dreamers Often Lie and Last Things. An award-winning poet and occasional actress, Jacqueline lives with her family in Red Wing, Minnesota. 
Twitter: @JacquelineMWestInstagram: jacqueline.west.writes
www.jacquelinewest.com

About The Great Peach Experiment 1: When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie by Erin Soderberg Downing

Mix together a used food truck, a road trip that doesn’t exactly go as planned, and a lot of pie, and you have the recipe for this sweet middle grade series starter brimming with humor, heart, and a family you’ll fall in love with. Perfect for readers who gobbled down The Penderwicks and The Vanderbeeks of 141st Street.

Sweet summer has taken a rotten turn . . . 

After a tough year, Lucy, Freddy, and Herb Peach are ready for vacation. Lucy wants to read all of the books on the summer reading list. Freddy wants to work on his art projects (when he isn’t stuck in summer school). Herb wants to swim every day.

Then their dad makes a big announcement: one of the inventions their mom came up with before she passed away has sold, and now they’re millionaires!

But Dad has bigger plans than blowing the cash on fun stuff or investing it. He’s bought a used food truck. The Peaches are going to spend the summer traveling the country selling pies. It will be the Great Peach Experiment—a summer of bonding while living out one of Mom’s dreams. Summer plans, sunk. And there’s one more issue Dad’s neglected: none of them knows how to bake. . . . 

A perfect blend of humor, heart, and family antics, When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie is a delectable treat to be gobbled down or savored slowly. (Slice of pie on the side, optional, but highly recommended.)

ISBN-13: 9781645950349
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Series: The Great Peach Experiment
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

About Long Lost by Jacqueline West

Once there were two sisters who did everything together. But only one of them disappeared.

New York Times–bestselling author Jacqueline West’s Long Lost is an atmospheric, eerie mystery brimming with suspense. Fans of Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces and Victoria Schwab’s City of Ghosts series will lose themselves in this mesmerizing and century-spanning tale.

Eleven-year-old Fiona has just read a book that doesn’t exist.

When Fiona’s family moves to a new town to be closer to her older sister’s figure skating club—and far from Fiona’s close-knit group of friends—nobody seems to notice Fiona’s unhappiness. Alone and out of place, Fiona ventures to the town’s library, a rambling mansion donated by a long-dead heiress. And there she finds a gripping mystery novel about a small town, family secrets, and a tragic disappearance.

Soon Fiona begins to notice strange similarities that blur the lines between the novel and her new town. With a little help from a few odd Lost Lake locals, Fiona uncovers the book’s strange history. Lost Lake is a town of restless spirits, and Fiona will learn that both help and danger come from unexpected places—maybe even from the sister she thinks doesn’t care about her anymore.

New York Times–bestselling and acclaimed author Jacqueline West weaves a heart-pounding, intense, and imaginative mystery that builds anticipation on every page, while centering on the strong and often tumultuous bond between sisters. Laced with suspense, Long Lost will fascinate readers of Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers and fans of ghost stories. 

ISBN-13: 9780062691750
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Why I Love to Write Middle-Grade Stories, a guest post by Ena Jones

Middle-grade stories hold a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s because I still relate so much to the child within me, and I understand that childhood can be a complex time. At least it was for me. So, as I create stories, I want to acknowledge hard stuff, but also have a good time, and that’s what I try to bring to my writing: A bit of seriousness, a lot of comfort, one or two big questions, a little outrageousness, definitely some fun, and mostly, entertainment from beginning to end, because—

Growing up is hard. Hard. And I remember that. In an instant, my mind can bring me back several decades, directly to a 3rd grade playground where a mob of girls pushed me toward a boy who said he liked me. I was so afraid. Or to my desk in a 6th grade classroom where I suddenly realized my hair wasn’t drying because I’d accidently soaked it in bath oil. The embarrassment!

Or, more tragically, when a 5th grader from our small city went missing, and then his body was found. It was so unreal that the world physically shifted underneath me. I knew him. My brother knew him. How? Why?

Or the time I was walking my early morning paper route—a car stopped and a man got out. He came toward me; the only thing more determined than his gait was the look in his eyes. What would have happened if my dog hadn’t come charging at him from out of nowhere?

And then, when a beloved relative did things he shouldn’t have, and when I finally told, the women who should have protected me, instead protected him and “the family.” “Just forget it,” they said.

Yeah, growing up is hard. And most kids hide their questions, their shames, their fears, not only from their peers, but from the many adults in their lives. That doesn’t happen by accident. They learn to do that.

For me, reading was my escape from the complicated world. It was a way to put myself in far off places, to observe other experiences, be they idealistic, fantastic, or horrible, from a distance. I remember reading a biography about young girl who lived through the Deerfield Massacre of 1704, and though many of her family members were killed during the attack on the village, she survived and went on to live a meaningful life. I read and reread the pages describing the surprise attack (which happened early in the morning while she and her family were sleeping) trying to understand it. Looking back, I think I was searching for hints about a path forward: How does one survive growing up? Getting to adulthood? How does one find or make a good life?

I think these are questions all children wonder about.

By the end of sixth grade I’d exhausted my local library’s children’s section, and I’d reread my treasured copy of LITTLE WOMEN until the binding was coming apart. So I moved on to adult books. We had an old hardcover copy of GONE WITH THE WIND at my house, and it swept me away. I read it at least 5 times by 8th grade graduation. I was fascinated by books I found in the library, like AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, by Theodore Dreiser, and IN COLD BLOOD, by Truman Capote. I kept asking myself, How can people be as horrible as the antagonists in those books? And how did ordinary people fight against antagonists, even the mild ones? Most kids don’t feel like they have the power to win against forces of evil, and I was no different. And really, aren’t we all still trying to figure out how to overcome those forces as adults?

I write for middle grade readers because I want to explore it all: The scary and difficult parts, yes, but also the love, the comfort, the funny, and the entertaining. Like the time my parents said “No!” to a pet goldfish, so I went down to the creek and collected at least a hundred minnows and put them in our only bathtub. That did not end well for me—or the minnows.

And today’s kids might be influenced mostly by social media, but when I was young, television commercials were what stuck in our minds. One day, after a big rain, I ushered my younger siblings out the door and we had a marvelous time sliding down the small hill in our swamped back yard. I can still see my mother’s shocked face after we tromped back inside covered head-to-toe with mud and I happily told her, “Don’t worry, Mom. Tide will get it out!”

Or the many times I chatted with my best friend as we sat on a concrete curb, knowing I needed to get home, but not wanting to leave in the middle of a vitally important conversation about our dreams, or school, or even that boy. The feeling of freedom, and also, how nice it was to be heard, and to listen to someone going through the same sorts of things I was.

I make maps of everything so I don’t get confused when I’m writing. Here’s a map of the basement in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO.

The idea for my current book, SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, came as I reached back to my 12-year-old self from the safety of my current life, and thought about common fears. Not just the fears of children, but the fears of adults. I thought about the times I was afraid, and what, specifically, I had been afraid of. I also thought of places I felt safe and protected, and the people who made me feel that way. This took me straight to my adult life and my husband’s grandmother’s home in Maryland. She had a lovely piece of property, plenty of family history, and, as for herself, she was not simply a “sweet little old lady,” but a whole person full of vim and an independent personality all her own. Mostly, she knew how to love. She showed this in how she treated her family, my husband, me, and our children, her great-grandchildren.

In the case of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, I began as I usually do, with “What if…” questions. One of the questions I considered was about guardianship. What happens if a parent or guardian isn’t there to protect a child or children? Parents worry about it, and so do kids! Then I wondered, What if there were a not-so-wonderful relative lurking who would love nothing more than to swoop in and take control? An antagonist whose only thought was for themselves, not the children who needed care?

I began to work with that premise, using my husband’s grandmother as the inspiration for a guardian who would do anything she could to protect her family, even if she weren’t around to physically care for them herself. This turned out to be an important aspect of Rosie and Baker’s story (the children in SFBZ). They had to figure out a way to be their own heroes, but at the same time, their “Great-Grammy” was always there, supporting them, whispering to them, despite the fact that she was no longer alive.

As I was conceptualizing Great Grammy’s home, I wanted to include yard art. When I saw this photo of the “heavy metal” band on the Internet, I knew I had to find a place for it in the story.

Of course, once I decided Rosie and Baker would need to hide their great-grandmother’s body in the basement freezer, I began to laugh and shake my head. Not just because I thought it was funny—I mean, where else would they hide it?—but because, at the same time it was terrifying. That’s when I began to have doubts about writing this particular story.

Through the doubts and the struggles I kept writing. And there were many struggles. Along with the external plot—Rosie and Baker having to cope with Great-Grammy’s death, hiding her body, finding the lost will, and protecting themselves from their grandmother, Grim Hesper—there was also Rosie’s internal, or emotional, journey to consider. It probably should have been obvious, but sometimes, when I’m distracted by the external plot, that internal plot can be difficult to figure out. In SIX FEET BELOW ZERO it turned out to be the character of Great-Grammy who spoke up, telling Rosie (and me) exactly what Rosie needed to learn: “One of these days, Rosie, you’ll treasure what we have here the way I do.” Of course, Rosie flat out ignores this suggestion.

It took me a while to see this nugget of truth for what it was, the theme of the book and Rosie’s journey. She wanted a picture-perfect house, one without embarrassing yard art and shower contraptions. She needed to understand that she already had the perfect home, and to “treasure” it.

Sometimes, in life and in books, the answers in our stories aren’t as straightforward as we’d like them to be, or as satisfying. Which is probably the biggest reason I love writing middle-grade fiction. I’m always searching for the comfort of a good story and a mostly happy ending.

Aren’t we all?

Meet the author

Photo credit: McCardell Photography

Ena Jones is the author of the CLAYTON STONE series and SIX FEET BELOW ZERO. She enjoys long walks along the ocean, preparing fun dinners for friends and family, and sinking into the couch with a good book. She currently lives in North Carolina with her family.

Website: www.EnaJones.com

Twitter: @EnaJones

About Six Feet Below Zero

This is the entire book jacket for SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, illustrated by the talented Maeve Norton. I absolutely love the Post-it notes on the back cover!
Image courtesy of Holiday House.

A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.

Rosie and Baker are hiding something. Something big. Their great grandmother made them promise to pretend she’s alive until they find her missing will and get it in the right hands. The will protects the family house from their grandmother, Grim Hesper, who would sell it and ship Rosie and Baker off to separate boarding schools. They’ve already lost their parents and Great Grammy—they can’t lose each other, too.

The siblings kick it into high gear to locate the will, keep their neighbors from prying, and safeguard the house. Rosie has no time to cope with her grief as disasters pop up around every carefully planned corner. She can’t even bring herself to read her last-ever letter from Great Grammy. But the lies get bigger and bigger as Rosie and Baker try to convince everyone that their great grandmother is still around, and they’ll need more than a six-month supply of frozen noodle casserole and mountains of toilet paper once their wicked grandmother shows up!

This unexpectedly touching read reminds us that families are weird and wonderful, even when they’re missing their best parts. With humor, suspense, and a testament to loyalty, Ena Jones takes two brave kids on an unforgettable journey. Includes four recipes for Great Grammy’s survival treats.

ISBN-13: 9780823446223
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Tween’s Eye View on Middle Grade Graphic Novels: Twins, Allergic and Primer

Today Scout, also known as Thing 2, is here to share some brief reviews of some new graphic novels she has been reading. She’s 12 and has dyslexia, and graphic novels are her jam.

Twins by Varian Johnson

Publisher’s Book Description:

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

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

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

Scout’s Thoughts: One of the sisters makes the parents change their schedules so they aren’t in all the same classes together because they are tired of everyone mixing them up. It’s about trying to find your own place and space and identity. This book was cool and taught me not to be afraid to be myself. I read this book 3 times and really recommend it.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd

Publisher’s Book Description: A coming-of-age middle-grade graphic novel featuring a girl with severe allergies who just wants to find the perfect pet!

At home, Maggie is the odd one out. Her parents are preoccupied with getting ready for a new baby, and her younger brothers are twins and always in their own world. Maggie loves animals and thinks a new puppy to call her own is the answer, but when she goes to select one on her birthday, she breaks out in hives and rashes. She’s severely allergic to anything with fur!

Can Maggie outsmart her allergies and find the perfect pet? With illustrations by Michelle Mee Nutter, Megan Wagner Lloyd uses inspiration from her own experiences with allergies to tell a heartfelt story of family, friendship, and finding a place to belong. 

Scout’s Thoughts: This was a cute book that reminds us that everyone is different. You shouldn’t make fun of someone because they are allergic to something and you should take their allergies seriously because if you put something near them then they could have a really bad reaction. I read it twice because I liked it and it was a really good book. I am definitely going to be reading it again.

Primer by Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski

Publisher’s Book Description:

Primer introduces a brand-new superhero with a colorful array of superpowers to explore.

Ashley Rayburn is an upbeat girl with a decidedly downbeat past. Her father is a known criminal who once used Ashley to help him elude justice, and in his attempt to escape, a life was taken. He now sits in federal prison, but still casts a shadow over Ashley’s life. In the meantime, Ashley has bounced from foster home to foster home and represents a real challenge to the social workers who try to help her–not because she’s inherently bad, but because trouble always seems to find her.

Ashley’s latest set of presumably short-term foster parents are Kitch and Yuka Nolan. Like Ashley, Kitch happens to be an artist. Yuka, on the other hand, is a geneticist working for a very high-level tech company, one that’s contracted out to work for the government and the military. And it’s Yuka’s latest top secret project that has her very concerned. Developed for the military, it’s a set of body paints that, when applied to the wearer, grant them a wide range of special powers. Fearful that this invention will be misused, Yuka sneaks the set of paints home, substituting a dummy suitcase with an ordinary set of paints in their place.

From here, signals get crossed. Ashley comes home from school one day with her new friend Luke and, thinking that the Nolans have purchased a surprise gift for her upcoming birthday, finds the set of paints. Being an artist, Ashley naturally assumes these are for her. It isn’t long before she realizes that she’s stumbled upon something much bigger and a lot more dangerous. Although she uses her newly discovered powers for good, it’s not long before the military becomes wise to what happened to their secret weapon. And this spells big trouble not only for Ashley, but for her newfound family and friends as well.

Scout’s Thoughts: This was a really interesting book about a young girl in foster care who uses paints to become a super hero. The paint gives her super powers like invisibility and speed. There are 38 powers all together. This book was good. It was very inspiring. I also read this one twice and will most definitely be reading it again.

Book Review: Reckless, Glorious, Girl by Ellen Hagan

Publisher’s description

The co-author of Watch Us Rise pens a novel in verse about all the good and bad that comes with middle school, growing up girl, and the strength of family that gets you through it.

Beatrice Miller may have a granny’s name (her granny’s, to be more specific), but she adores her Mamaw and her mom, who give her every bit of wisdom and love they have. But the summer before seventh grade, Bea wants more than she has, aches for what she can’t have, and wonders what the future will bring. 

This novel in verse follows Beatrice through the ups and downs of friendships, puberty, and identity as she asks: Who am I? Who will I become? And will my outside ever match the way I feel on the inside?

A gorgeous, inter-generational story of Southern women and a girl’s path blossoming into her sense of self, Reckless, Glorious, Girl explores the important questions we all ask as we race toward growing up.

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, how I hope middle schoolers pick up this book. Beatrice is asking the biggest question: who am I? Having recently survived parenting a human through middle school, I am convinced that, in general, there is no worse age, no worse time, no worse everything than middle school. What a hard age. Hagan deftly captures how complicated this age is, and how all-consuming the questions of identity and fitting in can be.

I loved this book for a lot of reasons, and one of the biggest is Beatrice’s relationship with her grandma (Mamaw) and her mom. It’s loving and inspiring and accepting even when it’s challenging and frustrating and disappointing. With her Mamaw, she has a wonderful role model for embracing eccentricity and being yourself, whoever that is. She encourages Beatrice not to observe life from the sidelines, but to get right in there and live life.

Beatrice longs to show people more of who she really is, the parts that no one ever sees, her multitudes and complexities. She’s feeling a pull between her old self and the new self she maybe wants to be. She knows she sometimes mimics who she’s with, that she changes depending on who she’s around and the expectations. She’s worried about shaving, bras, periods, dating, kissing, and popularity. She wants to be noticed, to be really seen, to be liked by a boy. She does and feels all these things in the company of two totally accepting and unique best friends, friends who let her grow and change and make mistakes. Listen, for middle school? that’s a great depiction of friendship.

The message to be yourself, to be free, to not let others define you, and to not hide yourself away comes across loud and clear as we watch Beatrice fumble her way through early adolescence. This novel in verse will speak to many who so totally and completely relate to how Beatrice is feeling. She’s yet another middle grade character I want to give a hug and say, I know this is hard, but you will be okay. Thankfully, she has wonderful people in her life to do this. A beautifully written book with an empowering message.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547604609
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 11 Years

Balance in the Time of Productivity Culture: Jen Petro-Roy and Life in the Balance

When I was writing LIFE IN THE BALANCE, I thought a lot about goals. Writing this book—getting a book deal for this book—was a goal of mine. Before I was first published, I had worked for years, writing manuscript after manuscript, trying to improve my writing and find a story that would connect with readers.

I achieved that goal. With the publication of LIFE IN THE BALANCE, I’ll have achieved the goal of seeing another book on the bookshelves (in normal times when we’re able to go bookstores, that is). But regardless of how cool that accomplishment is, I want to always make sure that publication isn’t always the goal—that validation isn’t the only thing that brings me joy and fulfillment.

This can be hard. In a culture like ours, when everything is commodified and ranked and everyone is so focused on productivity and staying busy, it can be hard to do something purely for the joy of it. For the feeling of losing yourself in a passion, of doing something with no hope of reward.

Those kind of loves are worth savoring and cherishing. They’re also the ones that are sometimes discouraged by the people around us, the ones who are more focused on “getting things done.”

In Life in the Balance, Veronica has been obsessed with softball her entire life. She’s part of a softball family, after all—her mom was the star of her college team and her grandmother played, too. Plus, Veronica is good. Really good. Good enough to definitely make the local travel team, now that she’s old enough to try out.

Softball is also the thing that Veronica has always shared with her mom. It’s what makes them “them.” It’s part of her and part of her family legacy.

But then it turns out that her mother has something else going on—an addiction to alcohol that’s been affecting their family, too. An admission that she needs to go to rehab.

And Veronica soon finds out that she may not be as passionate about softball as she’s always been. So happens when you don’t want to achieve in the area you’re good at? When you don’t necessarily want to “get the things done” that have been the goals all along?

Life in the Balance is a story of what happens when our family members “disappoint” us, and why that disappointment may not be an actual, well…disappointment…at all. Why being vulnerable is important and how sometimes, passion may find us in the places we don’t expect them at all.

It’s about the pressures that life presents us with and how trying to achieve those “goals” that society expects–how trying to be who you’ve always been—may not necessarily be the path you want to take with your life.

It’s about love—between a mother and a daughter, an old love and a new, and for balance above all.

It’s about how reaching for balance and admitting we don’t have to do it all—or sometimes, even something–is sometimes the best choice we can make.

Meet the author

Jen Petro-Roy writes “honest books with heart,” about kids who are strong, determined, unsure, struggling to fit in, bubbly, shy, and everything in between. She is the author of P.S. I MISS YOU, GOOD ENOUGH, YOU ARE ENOUGH, and LIFE IN THE BALANCE (out February 2021), all from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends. LIFE IN THE BALANCE has received a starred review from School Library Journal and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.

When she isn’t writing, Jen can be found reading, playing board games, belting out songs in the car to embarrass her two daughters, and working as an eating disorder awareness advocate.

Website: http://www.jenpetroroy.com

Twitter: @jpetroroy

Instagram: @jpetroroy

About LIFE IN THE BALANCE

Veronica struggles to balance softball, friends, and family turmoil in this new honest and heartfelt middle grade novel by Jen Petro-Roy, Life in the Balance.

Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. She’s practically been playing the game since she was a baby. She should have this tryout on lock.

Except right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team.

Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.

Is her mom the only one learning balance, or can Veronica find a way to discover what she really wants to do with her life?

ISBN-13: 9781250619730
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 02/16/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years