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The Beatryce Prophecy
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Sophie Blackall
Publishing September 28th, 2021 by Candlewick Press

Summary: From two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo and two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall comes a fantastical meditation on fate, love, and the power of words to spell the world.

We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home.

In a time of war, a mysterious child appears at the monastery of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. Gentle Brother Edik finds the girl, Beatryce, curled in a stall, wracked with fever, coated in dirt and blood, and holding fast to the ear of Answelica the goat. As the monk nurses Beatryce to health, he uncovers her dangerous secret, one that imperils them all–for the king of the land seeks just such a girl, and Brother Edik, who penned the prophecy himself, knows why.

And so it is that a girl with a head full of stories–powerful tales-within-the-tale of queens and kings, mermaids and wolves–ventures into a dark wood in search of the castle of one who wishes her dead. But Beatryce knows that, should she lose her way, those who love her–a wild-eyed monk, a man who had once been king, a boy with a terrible sword, and a goat with a head as hard as stone–will never give up searching for her, and to know this is to know everything. With its timeless themes, unforgettable cast, and magical medieval setting, Kate DiCamillo’s lyrical tale, paired with resonant black-and-white illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall, is a true collaboration between masters.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the teachers’ guide I created for Candlewick Press for The Beatryce Prophecy:

You can also access the teaching guide here.

You can learn more about The Beatryce Prophecy on Candlewick’s page.

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Violets are Blue
Author: Barbara Dee
Published: September 28, 2020 by Aladdin

Summary: 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?

Ricki’s Review: This book ripped me apart and put me back together. It is unflinchingly honest, and it is a book that so many middle grade kids need. The characterization is beautiful, and the book would make for a great study on the relationships between humans and a general study on humanity. No character in this book is perfect—all are flawed, and this reflects who we are as people. I stayed up late at night reading this book (when I should have been sleeping), and I cannot recommend it highly enough. We all deserve to reinvent ourselves, and this book gives us permission to do so.

Kellee’s Review: Barbara Dee is so wonderful at writing such relatable middle school books with characters that deal with the real issues that middle schoolers are dealing with today. This book is no different as we get to watch Wren deal with her own identity, dealing with divorce & remarriage, moving, finding new friends, and just learning how to be happy. All of this in addition to what Wren ends up needing to work through when it comes to her mom. Dee does a great job balancing all of these plot points while also building such full characters. All characters in the main characters in the book are well developed and are truly themselves–flaws and all!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book works beautiful to teach about characterization. Students might select a character to study in a group and then work individually to study a person in their own lives (personal or famous). This offers opportunities for rich discussions about imperfection and the flaws in all of us.

Discussion Questions:

  • How does Wren’s hobby with makeup reflect her life? How does it connect with the story?
  • How does Wren’s mother evolve in the story, and why do you think she makes specific decisions in the text?
  • Why do we keep secrets? How does secret-keeping impact others?
  • What did you learn from this story? What will you take with you?
  • How does Wren and her mom moving change the trajectory of the story?
  • Were there clues about Wren’s mom earlier in the book?
  • Why is it that people have such a hard time with girls and boys just being friends with each other?

Flagged Passage:

Chapter 2: Changes: “The day Dad left us, just a little over nine months ago, it all happened so fast. One gray Saturday morning in February, when we were still living in the house in Abingodon, I woke up to the sound of loud arguing in the kitchen. Yelling, actually, which happened a lot those days, followed by a car zooming out of our driveaway.”

Chapter 9: Nebula “[CatFX’s YouTube Channel] Here’s my secret message to you guys: fantasy is not the opposite of truth.”

Read This Book If You Loved: My Life in a Fish Tank by Barbara Dee; The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner; Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm; Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

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  RickiSigand
**Thank you to Casey at Media Masters Publicity for providing a copy for review!
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Stowaway
Author: John David Anderson
Published August 3rd, 2021 by Walden Pond Press

Summary: The beloved author of Posted and Ms. Bixby’s Last Day returns with the first book in a coming-of-age sci-fi duology about Leo, a kid trying to navigate the galaxy in order to save his family—and, possibly, the planet Earth.

When scientists discover a rare and mysterious mineral buried in the Earth’s crust, they have no idea that it just happens to be the most valuable substance in the entire universe. It’s not long before aliens show up to our little corner of the galaxy offering a promise of protection, some fabulous new technology, and entry into their intergalactic coalition—all in exchange for this precious resource. A material so precious that other alien forces are willing to start a war over it. A war that soon makes its way to Earth.

Leo knows this all too well. His mother was killed in one such attack, and soon after, his father, a Coalition scientist, decides it would be best for them to leave Earth behind. It’s on this expedition that their ship is attacked, Leo’s father is kidnapped, and Leo and his brother are stranded in the middle of space. The only chance they have is for Leo to stow away on a strange ship of mercenary space pirates bound for who knows where and beg the captain to help him find his father.

But the road is dangerous, and pirates, of course, only look out for themselves. Leo must decide who to trust as he tries to stay alive and save his family, even as he comes to understand that there aren’t many people—human or alien—that he can count on in this brave new universe.

Praise: “The Mandalorian meets Guardians of the Galaxy in this fast-paced space adventure that will have readers turning the pages as they are pulled into a unique yet strangely familiar world that reflects our own. This series opener is an ideal pick for middle-grade sci-fi fans.” – Booklist, starred review 

“This novel not only provides an otherworldly adventure, but a sincere tale about dealing with loss, finding bravery, and navigating the complexity of war. VERDICT: A page-turning space adventure that deals with complex issues.” – School Library Journal

“Anderson spins a fast-paced tale of piracy among the stars. Featuring a winning cast of misfits who stumble into unexpected kinship, Anderson employs warm humor and pop culture references to ground the narrative against cosmic-level stakes and underlying commentary about exploitation and the cost of war.” – Publishers Weekly

“Leo’s narration aches with pathos but also provides moments of humor and finally ends on a cliffhanger. A heartfelt adventure.” – Kirkus

About the Author: John David Anderson is the author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including the New York Times Notable Book Ms. Bixby’s Last DayPostedGrantedOne Last Shot, and Stowaway. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wonderful wife, two frawesome kids, and clumsy cat, Smudge, in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can visit him online at www.johndavidanderson.org.

Review: There are very few authors that I have encountered that can write across genres and do it well. John David Anderson is one of those authors. I have read almost all of his books and they include fantasy, realistic fiction, and sci-fi, and all are so well done and so different than each other. Stowaway adds another awesome title to his works list.

Once again, Anderson is able to mix adventure, humor, and seriousness in a way that only he can to have the reader reflect on death, choices after loss, mental health, first impressions, and war while also making us laugh about snoring, clothing, descriptions of gyurt, and bad (GOOD!) puns.

And you will love the world-building in this one. Anderson did a great job of making the universe as vast and diverse as it is but not making it all so complicated that the reader cannot keep up with the planets and species.

But I think my favorite thing about this book is the characters. Each character is intriguing, has its own back story, and is so much more than you at first realize. And this is not just Leo’s character, it is all of the characters in the book. I love Baz and his crew, I love Leo and his family, and I love all of the aliens & humans that Leo meets along the way, good and bad! And I assume we’ll get to know even more in the 2nd book!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: On John David Anderson’s website, you can find writing prompts specifically for Stowaway: 

Hi All! John David Anderson here. If you’re like me, you like to ponder the really deep existential questions challenging humanity, such as, is there other intelligent life out there in the galaxy, and if so, are they friendly or do they want to eat us? And if they eat us, will they find us gamey or surprisingly moist and tender? What kinds of flavorings will they use? Have they heard of garlic?

Also if you are like me, you like to write down some of your thoughts when you are pondering what kind of meal you might make for our future alien overlords. So with that in mind I’ve penned a few writing prompts to get you started. You can use these to write a story, a novel, a poem, a list of things you should do to prepare for the impending invasion—whatever. The important thing is to use your imagination and have fun.

  • Imagine you are told that you have to leave Earth on a spaceship and you aren’t sure when you will return. All essentials such as clothes, food, toiletries, and medicine will be provided for you. Otherwise you are allowed to take one backpack with you. What do you put in your pack and why?
  • Imagine aliens show up at our doorstep tomorrow and bring with them all kind of advanced technology, the likes of which we’ve only dared to dream. What is one piece of technology or scientific advancement you would want the aliens to give us and why?
  • Imagine you and your sibling (or best friend) are both stricken by some terrible disease that only gives you days to live, but you are given one pill that you’re told might cure the disease. Would you take the pill yourself or give it to this other important person in your life (note: these are the only two available options. Don’t try to cut the pill in half or study it to determine its chemical compound in the hopes of recreating a duplicate)?
  • Describe the scariest possible alien you can imagine. Consider its appearance, temperament, technology, and desires. Give the alien a name. Now imagine it shows up at your doorstep.
  • Pick a necessity that we currently have plenty of (water, trees, daylight, rain, electricity) and imagine what the Earth would be like if what you chose suddenly disappeared. How would humans adjust to the sudden absence? What would it change about society and culture? What disastrous consequences could it lead to?

Discussion Questions: Here are some extra discussion questions I came up with:

  • How were the pirates different than what Leo, or you, assumed?
  • Why would Leo’s father make the choice that he made at the end of the book?
  • Although Baz wants to be a notorious, vicious pirate, I think he is much more than that. What words would you use to describe him as a character?
  • There are flashbacks throughout the book. Why did the author include these in the story?
  • Which side would you choose in the war? Is there a “right” side?
  • What do you think is going to happen in the next book?

Flagged Passages: Prologue “The explosion nearly threw them off their feet as the Beagle lurched sideways. The steel beams shuddered. Leo’s ears rang. The links blinked off, on , then off again, triggering the fluorescent yellow emergency lighting that ran along the floor. Leo put a hand on the wall to steady himself. His brother’s eyes shone like moons. “What was that?”

The question was answered with a second explosion, the ship quaking again. Every alarm screamed at once. Leo stumbled, falling into his brother’s ready arms. From down the corridor he could hear the crew of the Beagle shouting to one another, though it was impossible to hear anything over the ship’s wounded bleating until the captain’s voice echoed over the coms.

“Attention crew of the Beagle. We are under attack. Security personnel report to the bridge immediately. Engineering to the drive chamber.”

Leo looked at his brother, still holding him tight. “Did she just say we’re under attack?”

Gareth nodded, then looked sideways, startled by the sound of boot heels clomping down the hall.

Leo knew the sound. He’d learned to recognize the rhythm of his father’s footfalls. Like the sound of his brother’s snoring or his mother’s pensive sighs. Leo spied his father turning the corner, his eyes falling on him and Gareth, pressed together. Dr. Calvin Fender’s face softened, then hardened again. He spoke in a whirlwind. “What are you two doing out here? Didn’t you hear what Captain Saito said? You need to hide. Hurry!”

Their father pointed to the nearest door, leading to an empty bunk room barely half the size of the one the Fenders shared. He hustled Gareth and Leo into a corner, his white lab coat flapping on both sides like broken wings. Leo could tell he was scared–he could see it in his father’s eyes, even if he couldn’t hear it in his voice.

His father was seldom scared.”

Read This If You Love: Bloom by Kenneth Oppel, The Dark Side of Nowhere by Neal Shusterman, Children of Exile by Margaret Peterson Haddix, or if you are just a huge fan of John David Anderson

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Stop by the other Blog Tour Stops!

August 15, 2021 Nerdy Book Club
August 17, 2021 Writer’s Rumpus
August 23, 2021 A Library Mama
August 24, 2021 Unleashing Readers
August 26, 2021 Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

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**Thank you to Walden Pond Press for a copy for review!!**

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Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World 
Author: Uma Krishnaswami
Published August 17th, 2021 

Summary: Mahatma Gandhi and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. both shook, and changed, the world, in their quest for peace among all people, but what threads connected these great activists together in their shared goal of social revolution?

A lawyer and activist, tiny of stature with giant ideas, in British-ruled India at the beginning of the 20th century.

A minister from Georgia with a thunderous voice and hopes for peace at the height of the civil rights movement in America.

Born more than a half-century apart, with seemingly little in common except one shared wish, both would go on to be icons of peaceful resistance and human decency. Both preached love for all human beings, regardless of race or religion. Both believed that freedom and justice were won by not one, but many. Both met their ends in the most unpeaceful of ways—assassination.

But what led them down the path of peace? How did their experiences parallel…and diverge? Threads of Peace keenly examines and celebrates these extraordinary activists’ lives, the threads that connect them, and the threads of peace they laid throughout the world, for us to pick up, and weave together.

Praise: “The book’s attractive design, lucid text, and carefully chosen details combine to create an inviting and original treatment of its subjects. History has been carefully intertwined with the present in this engaging and reflective book.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

About the Author: Uma Krishnaswami is the author of several books for children including Book Uncle and Me (International Literacy Association Social Justice Literature Award, USBBY Outstanding International Book) and Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Asian Pacific American Librarians Award, FOCAL Award). She was born in New Delhi, India, and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. To learn more, visit her website: umakrishnaswami.org.

Review: First, happy book birthday!!!!!! 🎉 

In the Author’s Note, Krishnaswami notes, “Then, in 2008, I read The End of Empires: African Americans and India by historian and African American studies professor Gerald Horne. It was an eye-opener. I was born in India and I’d lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, but in neither country had I ever learned this history.” As I’ve noted over and over again when I review nonfiction or historical fiction, it is only through brilliant books that I have learned true history as my history classes were so US-centered that we hardly learn anything other than basic history about the world and it is so white-washed that even when slavery or Civil Rights is covered, it very much focuses on the successes. It is because of this that I am so thankful that books like this exist and allow me to share the erased history with students. Because even with Martin Luther King Jr., who all are familiar with, there is so much of him and his journey and point of view that are erased in history books. 

Everything I learned about India’s history was from some books before I read this: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, I am Gandhi (both picture book & graphic novel) by Brad Meltzer, and A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. That was all of my prior knowledge, so I was taken aback by the breadth of India’s history that I was ignorant about. Krishnaswami did a brilliant job telling about Gandhi’s personal life while also teaching about Indian history. In the second half of the book, we switch to Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and the racial injustices happening in the United States. Again, the book focuses not only on King’s personal life but the history of the US at the time as well. I learned so much in this book. It made me think, reflect, get angry, cry, and have purpose for continuing with a focus on anti-racism. 

Uma Krishnaswami does a beautiful job using the imagery of threads figuratively throughout this book to tie Gandhi and King through their views on peace and nonviolence as well as Gandhi and King to the histories they helped shape. 

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation & Discussion Questions: There is so much to discuss in this book! I could see parts of it being used to supplement curriculum, I could see it being used AS the curriculum, I could see it being used as a resource for research, I could see it being an independent reading book for an interested student…. It has endless potential. 

  • Why would the author choose thread to be the figurative imagery in the book? 
  • Although Gandhi and King both were focused on equality and nonviolence, they differed in many ways also–how so? 
  • In both cases, Gandhi and King continued their work despite potentially putting their family in danger. Why would they do this? 
  • How was India’s reach for freedom similar to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States? 
  • Both Gandhi and King had assassination attempts multiple times in their life. They both did not want their attackers charged–why not? What does this tell you about them? 
  • In the end they were both assassinated, how did hatred, fear, and ignorance lead to both of their deaths? 
  • Both had such strong women as wives. How did both women help support their husband’s mission? 
  • Do you believe that Martin Luther King Jr. would have the same beliefs without Gandhi pathing the way? 

Flagged Passages: “Chapter 25: Spinning New Threads of Peace”

To spin thread on a spilling wheel like the one Gandhi designed when he was in jail, you bein with a roll of fluffy, carded cotton. In the Hindi language, this is called pooni. You attach the pooni to a length of thread looped around a small metal spindle. You hold the fluffy cotton loosely in one hand and draw it slowly, outward and upward, to arm’s length. With your other hand, you turn a flat wheel. A few turns clockwise, then a quarter turn counterclockwise, over and over, until the rhythm takes hold of you and you no longer have to link about it. 

It takes patience. It takes time. Each had has to learn to do its work without getting distracted. 

At first, the cotton drifts apart. The yarn is not twisted enough. This it’s twisted too tightly. It breaks. The spindle falls off its course. The cord that drives the spinning wheel slips from its grove. But slowly, slowly, if you keep at it, the thousands of fibers contained within a single handful of cotton begin to twist around one another, becoming one, united and strong enough to endure. The cotton springs to life, and a thread begins to form! Only inches of it, but it is real cotton thread. 

The threads of peace movements are like that. They continue to spin outward over and over, long after they have been created. 

In April 1968, after Dr. King’s assassination, the Chicago Sun-Times published this cartoon: 

Look at Gandhi, seated on the floor, his hand outstretched, making his point to an attentive Dr. King. You’d think they were old friends. There they are in this alternate reality, perhaps even in the artist’s imagined heaven, reminding us that the voices of peacemakers can resonate long after they are gone. 

Although they never met, Gandhi and King were kindred spirits. Gandhi was aware of racial injustice in the United States and hoped that Black American would create their own nonviolent movement. 

Martin Luther King Jr. read books by and about Gandhi. He knew people who had met Gandhi. Gandhi’s teaching supported King’s own beliefs that grew out of the love of family, of community, of Jesus. King integrated Gandhian methods and principles into the work of his life, much as he did with the Christian gospel.”

Read This If You Love: I am Gandhi (both picture book & graphic novel) by Brad Meltzer; A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel; Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson; Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Doreen Rappaport; Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You by Carole Boston Weatherford; Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Faye Duncan; March trilogy by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin; A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Ramée; The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

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**Thank you to Barbara at Blue Slip Media for providing a copy for review!**

 

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Long Distance
Author: Whitney Gardner
Published June 29th 2021 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

GoodReads Summary: From the creator of Fake Blood comes another exceptionally charming middle grade graphic novel about friendships both near and far, far away.

Vega’s summer vacation is not going well.

When her parents decide it’s time to pack up and leave her hometown of Portland, Oregon, behind for boring Seattle, Washington, Vega is more than upset—she’s downright miserable. Forced to leave her one and only best friend, Halley, behind, Vega is convinced she’ll never make another friend again.

To help her settle into her new life in Seattle, her parents send Vega off to summer camp to make new friends. Except Vega is determined to get her old life back. But when her cellphone unexpectedly calls it quits and things at camp start getting stranger and stranger, Vega has no choice but to team up with her bunkmates to figure out what’s going on!

Ricki’s Review: I read this book with my 7-year-old (he is not the target audience), and we really enjoyed it. The book has a very drastic twist towards the end of the book that will shock readers. The illustrations are wonderful, and the characters are quirky and fun, and I am glad that I read the book. It teaches about the layers of friendship, and the different ways in which we judge (and don’t judge) humans. Long Distance will offer teachers and students rich opportunities to discuss and consider how we think about others, and how we engage and participate in friendships.

Kellee’s Review: What a fun new graphic novel to add to my library! This book is going to have no trouble finding readers because it has a great mix of realistic (moving, friendship), information (all the science), and sci fi (you’ll see!). Because of these three factors, it is going to have a wide range of readers. The diversity of characters will help with the reach also: Vega is a girl of color, she has two fathers who are both people of color, and the twins at camp are characters of color also. Additionally to the diverse representation of identities, the characters area all quite different personality-wise, so every reader is going to find someone that they are rooting for or connect with. 

You’ll see below in the “Flagged Passages” that the illustrations are super colorful and eye catching, but not so busy that you lose focus. This is a huge benefit, specifically in middle school, because students love a color-filled graphic novel. 

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: As described above, the twist in this book drastically shifts the storyline. Teachers might ask students to rewrite the twist to shift the story’s ending in a different direction.

The book also has a great SEL opportunity to look at how to make friends, using George as a great example of how not to. 

The text could also be used for prediction as the reader is as ignorant about the facts of the camp as Vega is but there are clues to something odd going on. As you read, students can look at the clues and try to make guesses about what the truth about the camp is. 

Also, the book has many cross overs with science! If you look at the “Flagged Passages” below, you’ll see that Vega is gifted a star chart by her friend and the author uses the opportunity to talk about what a star chart is. This happens a handful of times within the book with topics including astronomy, geology, and electrical engineering. In addition to the sidebars with info, there is science strewn throughout the narrative! 

Finally, Simon & Schuster has created “Drawn to Reading: A S&S Guide to Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom” which might assist you in utilizing this book with students. 

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does Vega learn about friendship?
  • Which camper was most interesting for you? What did you find interesting about them?
  • Many of the characters have different hobbies. What are your hobbies, and how do they compare with those of the characters in the book?
  • How did the author tie science into this science fiction graphic novel? 
  • How does Vega’s interest in stars and space help her discover the truth about the camp? 
  • If you had been in Vega’s position, would you have stayed with George? 
  • How did Halley figure out where Vega was? 
  • What scientific information that was shared in the book would you like to learn more about? 
  • Do you think we are alone in this universe? 

Flagged Passage: 

Read This If You Loved: Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence, HiLo series by Judd Winick, Katie the Catsitter by Colleen A.F. Venable, Real Friends series by Shannon Hale, Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner

Recommended For:
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RickiSigand

**Thank you, Audrey, at Simon & Schuster, for providing copies for review!**

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Kingdom of Secrets
Author: Christyne Morrell
Expected Publication August 3rd, 2021 by Delacorte Press

Summary: Prismena’s father is the hot air balloonist in the peaceful kingdom of Oren. She assists him by mending torn balloons, but she yearns to build and fly the complicated machines herself. One day, a waif named Abi steals Prissy’s only remaining memento of her deceased mother – a silk scarf – and promises to return it only if Prissy smuggles a mysterious box onto one of her father’s flights. Since balloon travel is strictly regulated in Oren, that single act of rebellion results in her father’s arrest and kicks off a spiraling series of events that will yank Prissy out of her predictable life.

Along the way to free her father from jail, she’ll get caught up in a bar fight, nabbed by a sadistic schoolmistress, tossed into a home for unwanted children, schooled in the art of stealing, and thrust into the center of a brewing rebellion. On her journey through Oren – with its glitzy neighborhoods and its seedy underbelly – Prismena will uncover secrets that change the way she views her family, her kingdom, herself, and even her beloved hot air balloons. She’ll have to break a few rules – and even forge metal – to save the people she loves, but she may also get a chance to soar.

About the Author: Christyne Morrell is a children’s book author and attorney. She lives in Decatur, Georgia with her husband, daughter, and hyperactive beagle. Christyne has been writing poems and stories since she could hold a pencil, but KINGDOM OF SECRETS (Delacorte 2021) is her debut middle-grade novel. 

Christyne is also the author of the picture book Abra, Cadabra & Bob (Clear Fork Publishing 2019), and her work has appeared in Highlights, Spider, and The School Magazine. She can be found online at christynewrites.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @ChristyneWrites. Christyne is represented by Danielle Chiotti at Upstart Crow Literary.

Review: When I started reading this book, it caught me right away because Abi comes out of nowhere, blackmails Prissy, then her dad gets arrested, and really I truly had no idea what was going on! Since the book is in Prissy’s point of view it gives the reader the suspense and disbelief that Prismena has as the story begins. This makes you want to just keep reading to figure everything out.

Then, add in a second story about a mysterious young lady named Wren from the past that will crash land into the main story in a very unexpected way–it just sucks the reader in more!

In addition to the plot, I found the characters intriguing and very well crafted. The development of Prismena is definitely the highlight as she learns how to be on her own and have her own thoughts, but even the secondary characters had stories that Morrell found time to tell in the book. I do wish I knew more about Abi’s life, but maybe that will come in another book!

I also think the book is timely as it looks at government corruption and propaganda based in fear of others and loss of power. Because of Prismena’s ignorance, we get to experience the realizations as she does, so this allows for good discussions about these topics without bringing up current events.

I am pretty picky about high fantasy, but this one is one of my recent favorites, and I cannot wait to share it with my students!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The author’s website has a plethora of extra information to bring great discussions about this book to your classroom or book club!

First, there is an interview with balloonists which goes more into the science of the balloons, how Prissy’s valves would work, and other fun balloon anecdotes.

Second, she has Kingdom of Secret themed activities that are engineering, robotics, and science focused! These include making their own Dress Fit for a Queen, Rubber Band Flying Machine, Hot Air Balloon, and Mini-Catapult.

Finally, she has a section on “Fun Facts and Further Research” that looks at balloon history and fashion.

(And side note: I love a good map of a high fantasy setting, and the author gives us a very detailed and beautiful map of Oren.)

Discussion Questions: The Kingdom of Secrets Book Club Discussion Guide is available now and includes discussion questions such as:

  • At the beginning of A Blood Red Smile, a little girl treats Prissy like a celebrity because she’s the “balloonist’s daughter.” Later, Marybeth does the same. Why do you think that is?
  • Mr. Dudley is arrested for having “contraband,” including rubber. It may seem silly to you that something as common as rubber would be considered dangerous. Why do you think King Michael feels that rubber and other simple inventions are threatening?
  • When they first meet, Prissy and Abi don’t get along. Why not? What are some of their differences? What do they have in common? What changes over the course of the book that leads to them becoming friends?

Note: Some of the discussion questions in the complete guide are spoilers!!

Book Trailer:

Flagged Passages: Chapter 1. The Stranger and the Scarf

Abigail Smeade arrived like a black eye: sudden, fierce, and blossoming under my skin. When I met her, I was sitting in the shade of an old oak tree, minding my own business. I’d just removed a burlap sack from a hollow in the tree’s trunk and poured its contents out in the grass–scraps of metal, twisted brackets, and a few strips of a stretchy material called rubber. Most people would’ve described those things as junk fit for the bin, but I knew better. Pieced together just right, that “junk” would become more than the sum of its parts. And figuring out which way was just right happened to be one of my favorite pastimes.

But Father didn’t like me tinkering with the odds and ends I gathered (and sometimes even pinched from his workshop). It wasn’t proper, he said, and making something nobody had ever seen before might get a person looked at twice, which was the last thing we wanted. That’s why I kept my collection stashed inside an oak tree in the middle of Fletcher’s field. Nobody but Mr. Fletcher and me ever wandered into that field anymore, if you didn’t count the sheep.

At the bottom of the bundle, rolled up tight, was a scarf, a single piece of fabric more precious than all the rest of it put together. I unfurled it across my knees, and the silk shone and rippled like running water. It was cool to the touch, but the pattern–in shades of blue and yellow and purple–made me think of places drenched in sun. The kind of faraway places Mother liked to visit when she was flying hot-air balloons. In fact, the scarf had been a souvenir from one of her trips. She’d had a weakness for beautiful, unnecessary things. She’d filled the house with them once.

“Peanut brittle?”

Startled, I crumpled the scarf and crammed it back into the sack. Then I whipped my head left and right, hunting for the owner of that voice. It wasn’t until I looked up that I spotted her, sitting on a branch of the tree and kicking her legs like she was lounging on a swing. She peered down at me with shrewd, glittering brown eyes. Without prompting, she extended a half-eaten shard of candy through the leaves. It glistened with a semicircle of saliva where she’d taken the last bite.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“Your loss.” She wedged the peanut brittle into the far reaches of her mouth and cracked off a piece. It rattled against her teeth as she spoke. “What’s that?” She pointed down at one of my projects, something I was still trying to get just right. A small flying machine I’d made using those strips of rubber Mr. Dudley had given me.

“Excuse me . . . who are you?” I asked. She looked about my age–long-limbed and gangly, with light brown skin. Her hair had been pulled into a ponytail that erupted at the back of her head in a burst of copper corkscrews. She wore several layers of clothes–an apple-green vest, a striped jacket two sizes too small, and two gauzy skirts that looked like petticoats that had been dyed pink and cut short. Her scuffed boots kicked at the air over my head.

“Abigail Smeade, at your service,” she said. “You can call me Abi.” She smiled with a mouth full of crowded, crooked teeth, each one shoving its way to the front. She stretched her arm down to me again, this time offering her long, tapered fingers for a handshake. As though it were completely normal to meet someone while perched in a tree. I unpretzeled my legs and stood on tiptoes to give her hand a single uninspired shake.

“I’m Prismena,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“Same as you,” she said. “Trespassing.”

(Read more of this excerpt at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/652736/kingdom-of-secrets-by-christyne-morrell/)

Read This If You Love: The Land of Stories books by Chris Colfer, The Trouble with Shooting Stars by Meg Cannistra, A Tear in the Ocean by H.M. Bouwman, and other middle grade fantasy books

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**Thank you to the author and publisher for providing a copy for review!**

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Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston
Author: Alicia D. Williams
Illustrator: Jacqueline Alcántara
Published January 12th, 2021 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Summary: A picture book that shines the light on Zora Neale Hurston, the writer and storycatcher extraordinaire who changed the face of American literature.

Zora was a girl who hankered for tales like bees for honey. Now, her mama always told her that if she wanted something, “to jump at de sun”, because even though you might not land quite that high, at least you’d get off the ground. So Zora jumped from place to place, from the porch of the general store where she listened to folktales, to Howard University, to Harlem. And everywhere she jumped, she shined sunlight on the tales most people hadn’t been bothered to listen to until Zora. The tales no one had written down until Zora. Tales on a whole culture of literature overlooked…until Zora. Until Zora jumped.

About the Creators:

Alicia D. Williams is the author of Genesis Begins Again, which received a Newbery and Kirkus Prize honors, was a William C. Morris Award finalist, and for which she won the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award for New Talent. A graduate of the MFA program at Hamline University, and an oral storyteller in the African American tradition, she is also a teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jacqueline Alcántara is the illustrator of the critically acclaimed The Field and Freedom Soup. Her favorite days are spent drawing, painting, writing, and walking her dog. In 2016, she was awarded the inaugural We Need Diverse Books Illustrator mentorship. Find out more at JacquelineAlcantara.com.

Praise: 

*”A lively, joyfully rendered portrait of a literary legend.” – Publisher Weekly, starred review

* “Williams’ narration is a readaloud dream….it will be a joyful guide for folklore enthusiasts” – BCCB, starred review

* “This introduction to an American icon feels just right.” – Kirkus Reviews, starred review

* “A welcome addition to any picture book biography collection.” – School Library Journal, starred review

Review: Zora Neale Hurston has a special place in my heart as Eatonville is right around the corner, and I love the opportunity to be so close to Zora’s home, be inspired by her story, and learn from her. If you are ever here, stop by the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts!

Alicia D. Williams does a beautiful job capturing the spirit of Zora and showing how truly special she was as a person and story teller. And I loved learning new things about her that I hadn’t known before (like that she graduated from high school at 28 and that she may have been lost to white-washed history if not for Alice Walker). And Alicia’s words mixed with the colorful and active illustrations of Alcántara, Zora is brought to life through the pages of this book.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The publisher provided Curriculum Guide is the best resource for using this book in your classroom:

Discussion Questions: 

  • How are the end pages representative of Zora?
  • How were Zora’s stories important to American literature?
  • Why did the author call Zora a “storycatcher?”
  • How did the author integrate fictional characters and stories within her nonfiction biography of Zora Neale Hurston?
  • Why was some of Zora’s storytelling looked down upon?
  • What does the figurative phrase “reach/jump to the sun” mean?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Zora Neale Hurston, Picture book biographies

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**Thank you to Simon & Schuster for a copy of the book to review!**

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