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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

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**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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Charming as a Verb
Author: Ben Philippe
Published October 13, 2020 by Balzer + Bray

Summary: Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.

There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.

Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .

This is a sharply funny and insightful novel about the countless hustles we have to keep from doing the hardest thing: being ourselves.

Review: This is one of the best examples of characterization that I’ve read in a book. I fell in love with so many characters (even minor ones!), which drew me into the story even more. Henri reminds me of some of my favorite students that I’ve had. He’s charming, driven, and likable. There’s a lot that happens in this book that I don’t want to spoil—but I should write that it teaches an incredibly powerful lesson. There’s one scene that made my stomach do flips, and I will think of that scene often. This would be a great text to use to explore concepts of ethics. It also offers a lot of insight about the college prep experiences for teens. I highly recommend this book to readers. It’s a powerful story and one that will stick with me.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How does the characterization of the text add to the story? Who were your favorite characters, and why?
  • Which minor characters really stand out to you? How does the author make them so noteworthy?
  • What did you learn from this book?
  • What does this book teach us about ethics? About humanity?

Flagged Passage: 

“There’s no use complaining about it and wishing the world was different. This isn’t how we change things for ourselves.”

Read this if You Loved: Love is a Revolution by Renée Watson; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; I Crawl Through It by A.S. King

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Love is a Revolution
Author: Renée Watson
Published February 2, 2021 by Bloomsbury

Summary: From New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Renée Watson comes a new YA–a love story about not only a romantic relationship but how a girl finds herself and falls in love with who she really is.

When Nala Robertson reluctantly agrees to attend an open mic night for her cousin-sister-friend Imani’s birthday, she finds herself falling in instant love with Tye Brown, the MC. He’s perfect, except . . . Tye is an activist and is spending the summer putting on events for the community when Nala would rather watch movies and try out the new seasonal flavors at the local creamery. In order to impress Tye, Nala tells a few tiny lies to have enough in common with him. As they spend more time together, sharing more of themselves, some of those lies get harder to keep up. As Nala falls deeper into keeping up her lies and into love, she’ll learn all the ways love is hard, and how self-love is revolutionary.

In Love Is a Revolution, plus size girls are beautiful and get the attention of the hot guys, the popular girl clique is not shallow but has strong convictions and substance, and the ultimate love story is not only about romance but about how to show radical love to the people in your life, including to yourself.

Ricki’s Review: There is so much to write about this book! First, I loved the way it elevated body positivity. The comments (implicit and explicit) about Nala’s size felt, at times, infuriating. I was so proud of the way she handled these comments. I also loved the idea that everyone doesn’t need to be a loud activist to be doing amazing work. Nala was keenly focused on her family, and the work that she did was important work. I admired her greatly. The book made me think a lot about my own convictions and what I value most. This is a book that belongs in all classrooms, and I recommend it highly. 

Discussion Questions: 

  • How is Nala different from the other characters in the book? What do we learn from her?
  • What does Tye value? What do we learn from him?
  • How is Nala and Tye’s relationship perceived?
  • How do different characters in this book perceive family? Which characters reflect your own values, and why?

Flagged Passage: 

I can’t stand when people don’t follow through. Make a plan, stick to it. Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

Read This If You Love: Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson; Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado

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Clap When You Land
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Published March 5, 2020 by HarperTeen

Summary: In a novel-in-verse that brims with grief and love, National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo writes about the devastation of loss, the difficulty of forgiveness, and the bittersweet bonds that shape our lives.

Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered.

And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

Ricki’s Review: I was so happy to see that this book won the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. It is one of the most beautifully written books that I have ever read. It made me laugh, it made me weep, and it filled me with so many emotions and so many wonderings. The book is beautifully lyrical, and the voices are so strong. There’s a scene in the book that simply took my breath away. If you haven’t read this book yet, I recommend you head out and purchase it now. It’s absolutely magnificent.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How do the two perspectives of the story work together? How did it enhance your reading of the story?
  • How does place function in the story?
  • Where is home for the characters?
  • How do the characters in the story grieve? What understandings did it offer about grief and loss?
  • How do the characters in this book show strength in many different ways?

Flagged Passage: 

“Can you be from a place
you have never been?

You can find the island stamped all over me,
but what would the island find if I was there?

Can you claim a home that does not know you,
much less claim you as its own?”

Read This If You Love: Books. Seriously, it would be very difficult not to see the beauty of this book. Elizabeth Acevedo is one of the greatest writers of our time.

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Watercress
Author: Andrea Wang
Illustrator: Jason Chin
Published: March 30, 2021 by Neal Porter Books

Summary: Gathering watercress by the side of the road brings a girl closer to her family’s Chinese Heritage.

Driving through Ohio in an old Pontiac, a young girl’s parents stop suddenly when they spot watercress growing wild in a ditch by the side of the road. Grabbing an old paper bag and some rusty scissors, the whole family wades into the muck to collect as much of the muddy, snail covered watercress as they can.

At first, she’s embarrassed. Why can’t her family get food from the grocery store? But when her mother shares a story of her family’s time in China, the girl learns to appreciate the fresh food they foraged. Together, they make a new memory of watercress.

Andrea Wang tells a moving autobiographical story of a child of immigrants discovering and connecting with her heritage, illustrated by award winning author and artist Jason Chin, working in an entirely new style, inspired by Chinese painting techniques. An author’s note in the back shares Andrea’s childhood experience with her parents.

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection!

Ricki’s Review: This book took my breath away. A girl’s family stops by the side of the road, and she is embarrassed as they fill paper bags with muddy watercress and eat it for dinner. Her mother shares a story of her childhood and talks about a brother who has passed on. I will be recommending this book over and over again. The story is stunningly written and captures painful memories that are passed intergenerationally. The author writes that it is “both an apology and a love letter” to her parents. I imagine the story would make her parents very proud. There is a bond between the family that reaches off the pages and pulls readers into the story. I highly recommend this book.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Teachers might use this book to ask students to share moments that they were embarrassed about a family or friend situation. They might then add layers to that story–what do these stories tell? How do these stories reveal layers of their lives?

Discussion Questions: 

  • How does the author write about emotion? What feelings does the narrator have, and how do these feelings change?
  • How are stories passed intergenerationally?
  • What does the narrator learn, and how does this knowledge change her?

Flagged Spread:

 

Read This If You Love: Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard; A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin; Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho

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**Thank you, Sara, from Holiday House and Pixel+Ink for sending a copy for review!**

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