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!!
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.
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
**Thank you to the author and publisher for providing a copy for review!**
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.
- 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?
“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
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.
- 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?
“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
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.
- 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?
“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.
The Rock from the Sky
Author & Illustrator: Jon Klassen
Published: April 13, 2021 by Candlewick Press
Summary: Look up!
Turtle really likes standing in his favorite spot. He likes it so much that he asks his friend Armadillo to come over and stand in it, too. But now that Armadillo is standing in that spot, he has a bad feeling about it . . .
Here comes The Rock from the Sky, a meditation on the workings of friendship, fate, shared futuristic visions, and that funny feeling you get that there’s something off somewhere, but you just can’t put your finger on it.
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions:
Please view and enjoy the teachers’ guide I created for Candlewick Press for The Rock from the Sky:
You can also access the teaching guide here.
You can learn more about The Rock in the Sky on Candlewick’s page.
Blog Tour with Giveaway, Educators’ Guide, and Review: The House That Wasn’t There by Elana K. Arnold
The House That Wasn’t There
Author: Elana K. Arnold
Published March 30th, 2021 by Walden Pond Books
Summary: Alder has always lived in his cozy little house in Southern California. And for as long as he can remember, the old, reliable, comforting walnut tree has stood between his house and the one next door. That is, until a new family—with a particularly annoying girl his age—moves into the neighboring house and, without warning, cuts the tree down.
Oak doesn’t understand why her family had to move to Southern California. She has to attend a new school, find new friends, and live in a new house that isn’t even ready—her mother had to cut down a tree on their property line in order to make room for a second floor. And now a strange boy next door won’t stop staring at her, like she did something wrong moving here in the first place.
As Oak and Alder start school together, they can’t imagine ever becoming friends. But the two of them soon discover a series of connections between them—mysterious, possibly even magical puzzles they can’t put together.
At least not without each other’s help.
Award-winning author Elana K. Arnold returns with an unforgettable story of the strange, wondrous threads that run between all of us, whether we know they’re there or not.
About the Author: Elana K. Arnold is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets.
Praise for The House That Wasn’t There:
“In this luminous story full of mystery and magic, Elana K. Arnold weaves a shimmering tapestry about the lovely and surprising ways we’re connected to each other. Heart-healing, hopeful, and wonderfully inventive, this beautiful novel by a master storyteller is not to be missed.” —Katherine Applegate, Newbery Medal-winning author of The One and Only Ivan
“Told through alternating perspectives that offer clearly rendered details, this compassionate novel gives a unique twist to familiar situations—feeling lonely, adjusting to new environments, forging new bonds—while inviting readers to open their imaginations to all sorts of wonderful possibilities.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The author enriches her sparely told story with hints of magic, song lyrics, good choices that key sudden sea changes in several relationships, and the small background details that make settings and backstories seem real. A low-key marvel rich in surprises, small fuzzy creatures, and friendships old and new.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Review: I love what Elana K. Arnold can do with a story! She is brilliant when it comes to weaving in secondary stories that often have way more impact than the reader realizes and for building secondary characters that leave a lasting impression.
In The House That Wasn’t There, I was struck with this talent again as I followed Alder’s and Oak’s life as they collide suddenly at the beginning of 6th grade and how their school project, a walnut tree, a dead possum, and adopted kittens all intertwine to help tell their story. The reader at times will wonder why certain things are happening or why something is being mentioned and then BAM it is revealed. It is quite fun to read! And with a bit of magical realism thrown in just for fun, a seemingly “normal” story becomes an extraordinary one!
It was also quite interesting how Arnold set up the chapters, alternating between Alder and Oak but in 3rd person. It helped keep the POV clear while also showing the reader a bit more about each of the character’s lives.
And finally: A shout out to Beck for not being what was expected; Faith for having a name, being a part of the story instead of the background, and being wonderful; and Mr. Rivera for being an innovative teacher that promotes collaboration, cross-curricular activities, and outside of the box thinking!
Flagged Passages: Preview the first two chapters from the publisher: READ A SAMPLE
Read This If You Love: A Girl, a Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon by Karen Romano Young, Brave in the Woods by Tracy Holczer, Quintessence by Jess Redman, Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor, This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews, The Trouble with Shooting Stars by Meg Cannistra
Don’t Miss the Other Stops on the Blog Tour!
**Thank you to Walden Pond Press for providing a copy for review and giveaway!**
Brave in the Woods
Author: Tracy Holczer
Published January 5th, 2021 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Summary: Critically acclaimed Tracy Holczer returns with a heartrending tale about a girl descended from the Grimm brothers who sets out to break what she thinks is a family curse.
Twelve-year-old Juni is convinced her family is cursed. Long ago, her ancestors, the Grimm Brothers, offended a witch who cursed them and their descendants to suffer through their beloved fairy tales over and over again—to be at the mercy of extreme luck, both good and bad. Juni fears any good luck allotted to her family she used up just by being born, so when she wakes up in the middle of the night with the horrible feeling like antlers are growing from her head, she knows something is wrong. The next day she learns her older brother Connor has gone missing during his tour in Afghanistan.
Her family begins grieving his loss in their own ways but Juni can’t help but believe that his disappearance means the family curse has struck again. Juni is convinced the only way to bring her brother home is to break the family curse and so she sets out on a quest to do just that.
From Charlotte Huck honoree Tracy Holczer comes a stunning new novel about the power of stories, the enormity of grief, and the brilliancy of hope.
About the Author: Tracy Holczer lives in Southern California with her husband, three daughters, and two rather fluffy dogs named Buster and Molly. She has a deep love for the mountains where she grew up, the lakes and rivers that crisscrossed her childhood, so she writes them into her stories. The Secret Hum of a Daisy was written in praise of both nature and family, and all that can be found there if you’re willing to hunt for treasure. Following her debut, Everything Else in the Universe was published, and Brave in the Woods is her third novel.
★ “This is a beautiful tale of love and grief, friendship and family, and of hope. . . Give this to readers who loved Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish and Kate Allen’s The Line Tender. . . Holczer’s use of humor, thoughtful imagery, and magical realism elements makes this a wholly unique blend of modern fairy tale, hero’s quest, and coming-of-age story. A suggested purchase for all middle grade collections.” —School Library Journal, starred review
“Holczer’s clear, gentle prose allows the emotional and descriptive elements of the text to shine in this multilayered road-trip story . . . A thoughtful exploration of grief, family lore, and human connection.” —Kirkus Reviews
“By turns heartbreaking and humorous, this is a story that hints at the possibility of magic while remaining rooted in real-world problems and relationships. There is love and hope amid the grief and confusion, just as the Grimm tales contain both wonders and horrors in their own right. A heartfelt lesson on the power of love and the tales we tell ourselves.” —Booklist
Review: Brave in the Woods is the story of grief, hope, true friendship, love, and truth. With Holczer’s brilliance of story telling, just about every emotion is felt while reading this novel as Juni goes through all of the emotions alongside us. And with just a dash of magical realism, the story has a magical feeling weaved throughout it from beginning to end.
Add to these emotions a road trip, fun and unique characters, a dog (and a ornery cat), and a quirky family history, and you have a must read middle grade novel for so many readers who need this story.
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Juni’s family legend says that they are related to the Grimm Brothers, so there are allusions to the Grimm fairy tales throughout the book. Use these to introduce and discuss allusions.
- Why do you think the author chose a stag throughout the novel?
- Why was it so important to Juni to get Elsie?
- Which of the characters who helped Juni along the way do you like the best? Why?
- How are Juni and Anya alike?
- How are each of the characters grieving differently?
- How does the author compare bees and asthma?
- How does the author use the setting like a character to drive the plot?
Flagged Passages: “Chapter 1: Velvet Bones
Juniper felt it when her brother disappeared.
She was certain of this.
Oddly, her lungs didn’t go all wonky the way they sometimes did when bad things happened. Like a hive of bees inside her chest, using up every bit of her breath with their buzzing and swarming.
That feeling would come later.”
Read This If You Love: The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart, Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor, Clean Getaway by Nic Stone, Other Tracy Holczer novels
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