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Maximillian Villainous
Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
Illustrator: Lesley Breen Withrow
Publication Date: August 28th, 2018 by Running Press Kids

Summary: A humorous and important book about learning to follow your heart and proving that kindness can outweigh villainy any day.

Maximillian Villainous is a monster who doesn’t have the heart to be a villain. His famous family pulls pranks on the likes of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and Max spends his time undoing them. So when he brings home a bunny to be his sidekick, Max’s disapproving mother hatches a plan. She challenges Max and the bunny to become a devious duo; otherwise . . . the bunny hops. If they want to stay together, Max and the bunny have no choice but to go against their nature. They blunder into villainy with comical effect until Max discovers that embracing his good heart may just be the key to pulling off the most devious deed of all and winning his family’s acceptance.

Delightfully fun and irreverent, Maximillian Villainous is an empowering story about embracing one’s true self and finding acceptance. Up and coming illustrator Lesley Breen Withrow brings the characters to life with bold and colorful illustrations in a style reminiscent of Richard Scarry.

About the Creators: 

Margaret Greanias was inspired by her children’s love of the Despicable Me movies and all things Minion when writing Maximillian Villainous, her debut picture book. She lives with her husband, three children, and a fluffle of dust bunnies in the San Francisco Bay area.

Lesley Breen Withrow is the illustrator of several picture books, including You’re My Boo by Kate Dopirak and Bunny Bus by Ammi-Joan Paquette. Her artwork can also be seen on many products, including stationery collections and children’s games, toys, and apps. Lesley lives on beautiful Cape Cod with her family, a couple of crazy cats, and her daughters’ large and ever-growing collection of stuffed animals.

ReviewMaximillian’s story primarily focuses on someone being different than their family and how expectations set by others in the family may not fit what another person excels at. As a teacher, I wish I could read this book to so many people because I really struggle with parents and educators expect a kid to be a certain way because they know a sibling or a family member. That isn’t how it always works. I think this same theme could be used to talk about how expectations have to be differentiated in general, so I could actually see this story being used to talk to evaluators, leaders, etc. to talk about why Maximillian needed a change of assessment instead of the same as everyone else. Underlying, the message is that we can’t expect anyone to be anyway. Let them show you who they are and accept and love them as they are.

And all of these deep messages are within a funny story with fun illustrations about a monster who loves his bunny even though he is expected to be a villain.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Theme, theme, theme, theme!!! The author does a fabulous job writing a funny book that is just so perfect for talking about a lesson. The characterization of the Villainous family vs. Maximillian will allow for some fun compare/contrast and character trait activities as well. And this book definitely needs to join the empathy and community building read alouds–it will lead to some wonderful discussions and acceptance. Finally, I would love to see it used with teachers as a coaching tool to discuss the need to differentiate. Sometimes the directions we give need to be tweaked just a bit for certain kids, and we’ll get to see brilliance.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How is Maximmillian different than the rest of his family?
  • How does his family react to his differences?
  • What does Maximillian prove by the end of the book?
  • How did Maximillian manipulate the situation to show his worth?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that something was unfairly expected of you?
  • What is the message of Maximillian’s story?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Monsters vs. Kittens by Dani Jones, Normal Norman by Tara Lazar, Misunderstood Shark by Ame Dyckman

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**Thank you to Running Press for providing a copy for review!**

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Amal Unbound
Author: Aisha Saeed
Published May 8, 2018 by Nancy Paulsen Books

Goodreads Summary: Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when—as the eldest daughter—she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens—after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt.

Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal—especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal’s growing awareness of the Khans’ nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams.

Ricki’s Review: I read this book in one sitting. I’ve been thinking about it almost daily since I’ve read it. It’s an unforgettable story about a girl’s courage to survive. I don’t know her age, and although I suspect that the book is targeted by marketing teams for middle graders, it is quite simply a must-read for everyone. The book provides layers upon layers of themes and issues to consider. It made me think about privilege, freedom, education, and bravery, in particular. Amal is inspiring, and I greatly admire her courage in the face of adversity. When I was reviewing this book on GoodReads, I noticed that every one of my reader friends rated the book highly, and I am not surprised. Amal’s story is one that will stick with all readers. 

This is an important book. This is a book that will make your heart race. This is a book that I will read again and again.

Kellee’s Review: This story affected me much in the way that Sold, A Long Walk to Water, Rickshaw Girl, or Queen of Water did. As we fight for so many injustices here in America, there are unimaginable things happening to humans in other places around the world. Often somewhere like Pakistan seems so far away, but then you read a story like Amal’s and you see that the gap between you and her is not that big and we all just want happiness in our life. Amal’s strive for knowledge and willingness to help others are traits that make her unforgettable mostly when paired with the bravery she shows throughout this book. Amal’s story will truly help readers look through windows (and possibly mirrors) and have to face the privilege we do have and the injustice others face. 

On top of the very important theme and amazing main character, the story of Amal Unbound is heartwarming as well as heartbreaking and heart wrenching. And there is a truly suspenseful part also! The story is definitely one that will keep kids reading while also doing all of what I said above.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Teachers could use this book as a read aloud, close reading/analysis, lit circle/book club, or classroom library text. It is rare that Kellee and I designate a book with all of these categories, but it’s a very adaptable text. It might be interesting for teachers to use this book as a whole-class read but using book groups. The groups could select a theme to study (e.g. education) and read other fiction and nonfiction related to the theme. This might allow for rich discussion across groups where they share their findings and teach each other.

Discussion Questions: 

  • In what ways did Amal show courage? Did you agree with all of her actions?
  • What is the role of education in this book?
  • Which characters stood out to you? What made them three-dimensional?
  • What is the role of family in the text?
  • What do you think the author’s purpose(s) might be?

We Flagged: “If everyone decided nothing could change, nothing ever would.”

Read This If You Loved: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed, Sold by Patricia McCormick, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, The Queen of Water by Laura Resau, Now is the Time for Running by Michael Williams, Diamonds in the Shadows by Caroline B. Cooney, Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples, So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba

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Daring Dreamers Club #1: Milla Takes Charge
Author: Erin Soderberg
Illustrator: Anoosha Syed
Published June 5th, 2018 by Random House

Summary: When you follow your dreams, the possibilities are endless!

Milla loves nothing more than imagining grand adventures in the great wide somewhere, just like Belle. She dreams of traveling the world and writing about her incredible discoveries. Unfortunately, there is nothing pretend about the fifth-grade overnight and Milla’s fear that her moms won’t let her go.

Enter Piper, Mariana, Zahra, and Ruby. Together with Milla, they form the Daring Dreamers Club and become best friends. But can they help Milla believe she’s ready for this real grand adventure?

Diverse, talented, and smart–these five girls found each other because they all had one thing in common: big dreams. Touching on everyday dramas and the ups and downs of friendship, this series will enchant all readers who are princesses at heart.

About the Creators: 

ERIN SODERBERG lives in Minneapolis, MN, with her husband, three adventure-loving kids, and a mischievous Goldendoodle named Wally. Before becoming an author, she was a children’s book editor and a cookie inventor and worked for Nickelodeon. She has written many books for young readers, including the Quirks and Puppy Pirates series. Visit her online at erinsoderberg.com.

ANOOSHA SYED is a Pakistani illustrator & character designer for animation. She received her BFA in illustration at Ceruleum: Ecole d’arts Visuels in Switzerland, and now lives in Canada. Visit her online at anooshasyed.com.

Praise: 

“Though core issues of identity, independence, and teamwork ground the novel, Disney Princess devotees will likely be the most charmed. —Publishers Weekly

“I cannot wait to “hear” the stories of all the other girls! Brava Erin SD for kicking off a new series for the younger MG set! Positive messages for kids! —Goodreads Praise

“Young readers will be able to relate to the story, there is a positive message, and the characters provide a model of friendship, showing how friends work together and support on another. Loved meeting these girls!” —Goodreads Praise

ReviewI know that at first this book may seem like a book that only Disney or Princess lovers would like, but it is so much more than that! So please do not judge this book by that idea! Instead you will find a story about girls who find a deep friendship within each other after being placed in a group at school together. With the guidance of an amazing educator, they look deep within themselves and join as a group while still celebrating their individuality.

Now, as someone who DOES love Disney and Disney princesses, I loved the angle that this book took! After the first assignment by their group teacher, the girls are asked to write about a princess who they connect with. Milla and her friends are using the strengths of the princesses as inspiration to build their own strengths. For example, Milla feels like her life is very sheltered, and she loves to write, so she finds inspiration in Belle. Ruby, who is athletic and prides herself in her strength, first struggles to connect with a princess but then she realizes that Mulan is a person that is very much who she would like to be. And each girl does her own reflection (written in her own words in a journal format).

This first book focuses on Milla, but we get to know all the girls through the inclusion of the journals and from Milla’s point of view. I assume that future books will also be in different points of view to allow readers to get to know more in depth each of the characters. I look forward to future books to see where Piper, Milla, Mariana, Ruby, Zahra and Ms. Bancroft go next!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I love Ms. Bancroft! And I think that how she had the girls introduce themselves and her first assignment that she gave the Daring Dreamers Club would be wonderful activities in a classroom:

  • “I’d love for each of you to introduce yourself and share one of your big dreams.”
  • “I want each of you to think of a princess you connect with or feel inspired by and explain why. Dig deep and really think about your answer.”

Since each of the girls’ answers are shared in the book, they would be a great thing to share as well.

In addition, this book is going to be LOVED by realistic fiction fans! I cannot wait to share it with my students.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Which of the five main characters do you connect with the most?
  • If you had to choose a princess you connect with, who would you choose?
  • Do you think Milla went about getting her moms to trust her correctly?
  • How does Ms. Bancroft inspire the girls? How is she different than the last music teacher?
  • What is one of your big dreams?

Flagged Passages: “Milla loved reading and writing just about anything, but there was nothing she enjoyed more than creating adventures for herself. In Milla’s stories, she was always a brave hero without fears or worries of any kind. One of the things Milla most loved about writing was that she was totally in charge and got to make all the decisions about what would happen on her adventures. The only limitation was her imagination, and her imagination was vast.” (p. 6)

Read This If You Love: Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski

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**Thank you to Sydney at Penguin Random House for providing a copy for review!**

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Hedgehog Needs a Hug
Author: Jen Betton
Published June 19, 2018 by Putnam

Goodreads Summary: Everyone needs hugs, even if they’re prickly.

When Hedgehog wakes up feeling down in the snout and droopy in the prickles, he knows a hug will make him feel better. But none of his friends are eager to wrap their arms around Hedgehog’s prickles, and he’s too smart to fall for Fox’s sly offer.

Then Hedgehog gets a surprise: Another animal in the forest is feeling exactly the same way.

Luckily, both are kind and brave enough for the perfect hug.

My Review: I adored this book. It’s about a hedgehog who wakes up and feels down. He really, really needs a hug, and the other animals are clearly avoiding him because he is prickly. The book doesn’t say this, so it was fun to ask my son why he thought they were avoiding him. Then he meets skunk, and skunk needs a hug (but of course, skunk is stinky). This is a great book to teach kids about some of the ways in which they might unintentionally hurt people. 

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This is a great text to talk about how we treat others. I’d love to pair it with texts like Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. Sometimes, we subtly hurt others without realizing it. A close analysis of the words and behaviors of characters in these two texts offers great potential for building classroom community and kindness.

Additionally, many of the defense quality of animals are addressed in the book which would make it a great elementary book to use cross-curricularly in science, reading, and community building.

Discussion Questions: How do the animals react to hedgehog? How does this make hedgehog feel?; What is hedgehog’s reaction to skunk? How are they similar and different?; How did the author use alliteration to make the rhythm of the text sing-songy?

We Flagged: 

Read This If You Loved: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson (Kellee’s Review | Ricki’s Review), My Friend Maggie by Hannah E. Harrison, Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea, Endgame by Nancy Garden, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher,  The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, Burn by Suzanne Phillips, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

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**Thank you to Penguin for sending us this book! I loved it.**

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Masterpiece Robot and the Ferocious Valerie Knick-Knack
Author: Frank Tra
Illustrator: Rebecca Evans
Published April 17th, 2018 by Tilbury House Publishers

Summary: Masterpiece Robot pays tribute to the power of a child’s vivid imagination, which can transform a suburban autumn backyard into a futuristic battleground and Laura’s lively siblings into unwitting but enthusiastic participants in a fight for a planet’s survival. We begin in Laura’s bedroom where she is struggling to find her way into the story she wants to write, and we end there with Laura putting the finishing touches on her triumphant tale.

When Laura―a.k.a. Masterpiece Robot―heads into the backyard with her little sister Molly―a.k.a. Sidekick―her active imagination places them instead on patrol around the perimeter of a dystopian city, guarding against super villains. Then older sister Amber―a.k.a. Valerie Knick-Knack―throws handfuls of fallen leaves at them, unknowingly initiating a battle for the ages.

This one is such a fun read, and one kids will definitely relate to! It also lets adults relive those childhood memories where ordinary things – such as a pile of leaves, or a large cardboard box – can turn extraordinary with just a bit of imagination. The transitions back and forth from suburbia to dystopia in this story within a story are deftly rendered with contrasting palettes. The rollicking interactions of the sibling heroes and villains make Masterpiece Robot pure fun to read.

About the Author & Illustrator: 

A child of Vietnamese immigrants, FRANK TRA proudly calls Wichita, Kansas home. Frank attended the University of Kansas to wrestle and write comic books. While there, he also earned a Doctorate in Pharmacy. He has been a cancer pharmacist for the last ten years. Frank’s writing credits include two graphic novels and several comic books. Masterpiece Robot is his first children’s book. Dr. Tra resides in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, Katy, and their six children: Amber, Laura, Roman, Molly, Tommy, and Isaac. He spends his spare time writing, fishing, and coaching his high school wrestling team.

REBECCA EVANS worked for nine years as an artist and designer before returning to her first love: children’s book illustrations and writing. Her children’s books include Someday I’ll Fly; Friends in Fur Coats; The Good Things; The Shopkeeper’s Bear; Naughty Nan; Amhale in South Africa; Vivienne in France; Mei Ling in China; Marcela in Argentina; Tiffany in New York; and Tatiana in Russia. She lives in Maryland with her husband and four young children, shares her love of literature and art regularly at elementary schools, teaches art at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, and works from her home studio whenever time permits. Rebecca’s boundless imagination enjoys free rein at www.rebeccaevans.net.

ReviewI love this book! I love the story, I love the spread of imaginative play, and I love the humor! It is so smart how the author and illustrator told both stories: the literal and the imaginative, and both stories are developed and fun to read together AND separately. This made for a quite complex book which is also really appealing to kids (and parents/teachers). I’m also a big fan of the artwork in the book. The illustrator did an amazing job changing the style just a bit for the imaginative and the reality but also kept her signature style in both. The illustrations definitely added to the narrative making this book a must get. I also loved that this is a sci-fi picture book because not many exist.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: There are a few different ways I envision this book being used in a classroom. First, I would like to say that it’s best would be in a read aloud with a conversation around the reality versus imaginative. There is also some great word choices and vocabulary throughout. Lastly, the reality has very little narrative, so students could write the story of what is actually happening. The discussion questions shared below will also lead to some great activities and discussions.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What character in real life was the imaginative characters?
  • Compare and contrast the reality and imaginative story.
  • How did the illustrator change her style for reality versus sci fi?
  • Think of a chore that you do at home. What could you imagine you were doing when you are doing your chore?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Zathura by Chris Van Allsburg, Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, Going Places by Paul and Peter Reynolds, Weslandia by Paul Fleishman, and other books that promote imagination and creativity

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A Possibility of Whales
Author: Karen Rivers
Published March 13th, 2018 by Algonquin Young Readers

Summary: The story of a girl who—thanks to her friends, her famous single dad, and an unexpected encounter with a whale—learns the true meaning of family.

Twelve-year-old Natalia Rose Baleine Gallagher loves possibilities: the possibility that she’ll see whales on the beach near her new home, the possibility that the trans­gender boy she just met will become her new best friend, the possibility that the paparazzi hounding her celebrity father won’t force them to move again. Most of all, Nat dreams of the possibility that her faraway mother misses her, loves her, and is just waiting for Nat to find her.

But how can Nat find her mother if she doesn’t even know who she is? She abandoned Nat as a baby, and Nat’s dad refuses to talk about it. Nat knows she shouldn’t need a mom, but she still feels like something is missing, and her questions lead her on a journey of self-discovery that will change her life forever.

About the Author: Karen Rivers’s books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usu­ally be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, and two birds. Find her online at karenrivers.com and on Twitter: @karenrivers.

Praise: 

“A remarkable novel . . . Nat’s witty and vulnerable voice drives the novel, from her wry observations about contemporary celebrity culture to the thoughtful collection of untranslatable words that help define her world. The chapters that center Harry’s perspective are just as strong, emphasizing his desire to be seen and understood, not as an abstract exemplar of a transgender child but as an individual. The novel avoids offering simple solutions for questions of identity and adolescence, instead reveling in life’s nuance and complexity. Perfect for fans of Raymie Nightingale and Counting by Sevens, Rivers’s latest work brings an improbable combination of elements together in an unforgettable story that is quirky and wise.” —School Library Journal

“Charming and sweet as it explores personal identity, life changes, love, and, of course, whales . . . Nat’s story of self-discovery is sure to inspire anyone searching for their place in the world.” —Foreword Reviews

“A worthwhile addition to library collections.” —Booklist

ReviewI am a big fan of novels that switch points of view as I feel like it gives another perspective into the story that is being told, and with this story, I am so very happy that we get to hear from Nat AND Harry. There needs to be coming-of-age stories for all types of kids, and Nat and Harry will be someone that kids that may not have someone to connect to in other books will immediately find some kids that they’ll see themselves in. And Harry’s story is one that needed to be told in a middle grade book and hadn’t yet been in a book that I’ve read, and is one that many of my students have asked for. I am so glad that Harry exists for my middle schoolers! And Nat is a special young lady whose coming-of-age story is one that middle schoolers need as well–a look at family, growing up, friendship, school, and WHALES!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The best home for Whales will be in the right kids’ hands. This book will be perfect for all libraries, classroom and school, as well as for the right lit circle or book club.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does Nat’s acceptance of Harry right away show you about Nat’s character?
  • How has Nat’s father’s career and her lack of mother affected her life?
  • Why was the name lion perfect for the paparazzi who followed Nat and her father?
  • What do the whales symbolize in the story?
  • How did the two points of view help shape a more thorough story?
  • What was the author’s purpose of including Bird in the story? What role did she play in Nat’s life?

Flagged Passages: 

Nat: “On her fourth day at the new place, Natalia Rose Baleine Gallagher walked down the long, lumpy trail to the beach that lay at the bottom of the slope.

The ‘Baleine’ was silent, was what she told people when they asked , which was pretty much only when she was registering at a new school or had to show her passport. Baleine was the French word for ‘whale.’ Nat loved the fact that it was there, hiding inside her perfectly normal name. She pictured the whale swimming past the Natalia Rose on her passport, surfacing when no one was looking to take a long huffing breath of air before disappearing again, under the Gallagher.

‘Baleine’ was the heart of her name. (When Nat had to do an ‘All About Me’ poster in first grade, she drew a whale where most kids put a heart.)

‘Baleine was also a secret between Nat and her mother, who named her.

Her mother, who named her, and then left.” (p. 3-4)

Harry: “Harry scratched his ear again, so hard it was probably bleeding. It was just a coincidence that it was the same ear that got hurt the year before when a group of boys in his class decided it would be funny to beat him up.

They beat him up because they hated him for knowing who he was.

That is, they beat him up because even though some dumb doctor said he was a girl when he was born, he was really a boy.

The boys who beat him up were not the kind of kids who understood things like that.

No one in that town was.

Maybe no one anywhere was.” (p. 43)

Read This If You Love: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson; All Summer Long by Hope Larson; Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky; I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Baratz-LogstedTwo Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick; Calli Be Gold by Michele Weber Hurwitz; Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamilloStealing Our Way Home by Cecelia Galante; The Real Us by Tommy Greenwald

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Alone Together
Author: Sarah J. Donovan
Published: May 1, 2018 by Seela Books

Summary: Sadie Carter’s life is a mess, as wavy and tangled as her unruly hair. At 15, she is barely surviving the chaos of her large Catholic family. When one sister becomes pregnant and another is thrown out, her unemployed dad hides his depression, and her mom hides a secret. Sadie, the peacekeeper and rule-follower, has had enough. The empty refrigerator, years of hand-me-downs, and all the secrets have to stop. She longs for something more and plans her escape.

However, getting arrested was not her plan. Falling in love was not her plan. With the help of three mysterious strangers—a cop, a teacher, and a cute boy—maybe Sadie will find the strength to defy the rules and do the unexpected.

Told in verse, Sarah J. Donovan’s debut Alone Together has secrets, romance, struggle, sin, and redemption, all before Sadie blows out her 16 candles. It’s a courageously honest look at growing up in a big family.

Review: Sarah’s writing shows that she has a firm grasp on adolescence. The book is a beautiful book in verse. I found myself thinking about the characters long after I had closed the text. Sadie lives in a Catholic household, and she is struggling emotionally. She is the only one of the eleven people in her family to sit at the breakfast table, and one of the few siblings who hasn’t left the family altogether. She is the peacemaker and is sick of the empty fridge and bad choices that others seem to make for her. I think that Sadie has a life that many young people will relate to. She is left wondering about the ways in which people exist alone together. This is a great read, and I will be using it (in part and in whole) in my classes.

Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: The title of this book is quite inspiring. Students might be asked to reflect on all of the ways that we are “alone together” in this world. Teachers can offer space and place for students to critically analyze whether we are alone together or whether we are something else. I’d love to hear students’ thoughts about this.

Discussion Questions: 

  • In this text, what is the role of family? In our world, what role does family play? How are we tied and not tied to our families?
  • How does Sadie’s family impact her life?
  • How does Sadie grow within the timeframe of the book? What does she learn?
  • Which verse resonated with you? How does it connect (or not connect) with your life?

Flagged Passage: 

“The only one of eleven

who sets the table every morning

with cereal bowls and spoons,

who matches mounds of socks

without complaint or disdain,

who obeys every stand, kneel, sing in mass

without sneaking out after communion” (6).

Read This If You Love: Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas; Stop Pretending by Sonia Sones; The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

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