If You Meet the Devil, Don’t Shake Hands by Sylvia Whitman

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If You Meet the Devil, Don’t Shake Hands
Author: Sylvia Whitman
Published September 19th, 2023 by Fitzroy Books

Summary: Twelve-year-old Gavin Baker, son of a warrior, is a born worrier. With his father serving overseas, Gavin assumes that he’ s already imagined the worst that can happen— until he shakes hands with his best friend Javi’ s long-lost grandfather and finds himself trapped in the old magician’ s ailing body. Help! As the trickster takes over Gavin’ s life, fooling the girl of his dreams and even his own family, Gavin wonders if the imposter is a better version of Gavin than Gavin himself. He has to convince Javi that the real Gavin now has hairy knuckles and a love of Pablo Neruda’ s poetry. Then the boys can try some tricks of their own. But will the two friends be able to reverse the old devil’ s magic? Or will both of their families get their hearts broken?

About the Author: Sylvia Whitman, a writer and educator, has published articles, a picture book, and nonfiction & fiction children’s books. A folklore and mythology major in college, she has always liked proverbs, particularly this one: “A book is a garden carried in the pocket.” She lives with her husband and two kids in Arlington, Virginia. Visit her at SylviaWhitmanBooks.com.

Review: This twist on Freaky Friday looks at the heart of family trauma and perspective. It was fascinating to see how the switch into an unwelcome visitor led to a conclusion that I would not have guessed. Through the eyes of Javi’s returned abuelo, but with Gavin’s narrative, we learn the truth of the past and the present. Though the story focuses on Gavin and “El Diablo,” there are side stories that add heart to the story and flesh out the supporting character. Whitman does a wonderful job showing the reader both reasons for sympathy and anger while validating all of the emotions of all of the characters.

Tools for Navigation: This book will be perfect for middle school classroom and school libraries. Middle school readers are going to be enthralled by the concept of the book and want to figure out how it all shakes out.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why do you think El Diablo and Gavin switched places?
  • How did the switch affect both of them?
  • What do you think happens next, after the end of the book?
  • How do you think the story would have been different if Gavin and El Diablo hadn’t switched places?
  • Through the flashes of El Diablo’s memory coming through, what do you believe happened in the past? Do you think Javi’s abuelo is as devil-like as they’ve all assumed?
  • Do you agree with the tactics that Gavin uses to reach the conclusion of the book?
  • What do you believe the theme of the book is?

Flagged Passages: “El Diablo’s hand is still waiting for mine.

Should I tell him my last name? He’s Javi’s granddad, after all. Or should I make one up?

Say nothing. Smile. That’s Mom’s advice.

It’s rude if I don’t shake, though.

When we touch, Javi’s grandfather gives me a shock so strong I can hear the snap. Before I can pull back, he clamps his left hand over the shake, trapping me. His eyes bore right into mine.

“What are you good at”—he gulps a quick breath—“Gavin?”

I don’t know. My whole arm is tingling—no, stinging—like after it goes to sleep and then starts to wake up. I want to shake it out. I pull back slightly, but this guy is not relaxing his grip. He’s acting like a diablo, not an abuelo.

I’m about to yelp for help when El Diablo says, “Good with the girls?”

At that, both Javi and I snort.

“Science,” Javi says. “School.”

So is Javi. He’s good at everything.

“A smart one,” El Diablo says to me. “What else?”

I wait for Javi to speak up, but he doesn’t. Outside of class I’m not much of anything.

My dad is always telling me that I should take some risks—not stupid ones, like stealing a car or smoking dope, but expanding ones, like reading a book you’ve never heard of or tasting food you can’t pronounce. Right after Dad went downrange, I tried some borscht that a lady from the family support center gave us, but when Mom explained beets made it purple, I spit it back into the bowl and just ate rolls for supper.

Now the pins and needles are spreading across my collarbone and down my left arm. My blood is bubbling like soda fresh from the can. Isn’t this a symptom of a heart attack?

I yank my hand, but El Diablo holds tight. “Sports?” he asks.

“Your grandson’s the soccer star,” I say. Now let go of me.

Javi shakes his head.

“You are,” I insist. “You’ll make the team this year. They need another goalie.”

“Not if I don’t practice,” Javi says.

“Get your friend here to shoot on you,” El Diablo says.

“He won’t,” Javi says. That’s not true. I’m just careful. I read somewhere that soccer’s the fifth most dangerous sport, with 22.12 injuries per 100,000 participants.

“Before I came to this country, I played striker for El Brujos,” El Diablo says.

Given that he’s sitting down and practically panting, I find it hard to believe that he once covered a field. Javi’s always telling me that soccer requires incredible conditioning. He even found some story about soccer players living longer to convince me to try out with him for the Crossroads team. But he forgot to factor in sudden cardiac death, concussions, and dementia.

I expect El Diablo to start reminiscing, or making up stories, about his athletic career, which I can tolerate as long as he relaxes his grip on my hand. I need it for scratching since it feels as if approximately 250 ants have crawled under my shirt and are marching down into my pants. At six legs per ant, I have roughly 1500 roaming itchy spots.

“Would you mind…letting go?” I ask in my most polite desperate voice.

“You’re a smart boy, Gavin,” he says. “Smart is good. Wise is better.”

I try to signal SOS with my eyebrows, but Javi thinks I’m just puzzled by the comment.

“What’s the difference?” Javi asks.

“Smart knows facts,” El Diablo says. “Wise understands people.”

“Sir—my hand. I think maybe the circulation’s cut off,” I say. But it’s not just my hand; every nerve cell in my body is cut off and in flames.

Still gripping, El Diablo leans toward my ear and whispers, “You have something I want.” (Chapter 4)

Read This If You Love: Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, The Switch by Anthony Horowitz, Estranged by Ethan M. Aldridge

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

Review and Educators’ Guide!: The Witch of Woodland by Laurel Snyder

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The Witch of Woodland
Author: Laurel Snyder
Published: May 16th, 2023 by Walden Pond Press

Summary: Laurel Snyder, author of Orphan Island, returns with a story of one girl’s quest to answer the seemingly unanswerable questions about what makes us who we are.

Hi, whoever is reading this. I’m Zipporah Chava McConnell, but everyone calls me Zippy.

Things used to be simple—until a few weeks ago. Now my best friend, Bea, is acting funny; everyone at school thinks I’m weird; and my mom is making me start preparing for my bat mitzvah, even though we barely ever go to synagogue. In fact, the only thing that still seems to make sense is magic.

See, the thing is, I’m a witch. I’ve been casting spells since I was little. And even if no one else wants to believe in magic anymore, it’s always made sense to me, always felt true. But I was still shocked the day I found a strange red book at the library and somehow…I conjured something. A girl, actually. A beautiful girl with no memory, and wings like an angel. You probably don’t believe me, but I swear it’s the truth.

Miriam is like no one else I’ve ever met. She’s proof that magic is real. And, it’s hard to explain this part, but I just know that we’re connected. That means it’s up to me to help Miriam figure out what she is and where she came from. If I can do that, maybe everything else in my life will start to make sense too.

Anyway, it’s worth a try.

About the Author: Laurel Snyder is the beloved author of many picture books and novels for children, including the National Book Award nominee Orphan Island and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner Charlie & Mouse. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in writing for children and young adults program. Laurel lives in Atlanta with her family and can be found online at www.laurelsnyder.com.

Review: Zippy was so happy; her best friend Bea and her bonded over magic and everything has been Bea and Zippy since then and it has been wonderful. Then 7th grade begins and Bea is different and Zippy is not. This leads to Zippy feeling socially isolated and just so different than everyone else, a feeling that so many middle schoolers & those us of who went through middle school, will understand. This is the feeling that the book starts with–Zippy just wants someone who understands her again. This is the foundation for the rest of the book.

Laurel Snyder’s middle grade writing always enchants me, and Witch of Woodland is no different. Her characters in Witch are so easy to connect with (including her parents, who I love are included in such a realistic way), the magic she includes is captivating and unique, and her stories are unlike anyone else’s. What got me the most about this book, though, is Zippy. Zippy is special. She is a walking contradiction, just like many early teens are: she is strong and weak, confident and insecure, magical and human, quiet and loud, angry and optimistic… she is all of this and more, and none of that changes, though she evolves and grows in a way that she is just a better version of her same self. Zippy makes this book, everything else just supports her.

I want to note with this review that I am not Jewish, so I did not comment on the religious aspects of the book as I do not have the prior knowledge to do so. However, I did learn a lot about Jewish religion and faith through this book.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the publisher-shared Educators’ Guide :

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

Lizzy and the Cloud by The Fan Brothers

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Lizzy and the Cloud
Creators: Terry Fan & Eric Fan
Publishing May 3rd, 2022 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Summary: The tale of a young girl who cares for her pet cloud as it grows.

It’s a little out of fashion to buy a pet cloud, but Lizzy doesn’t mind. She’s not looking for a big one or a fancy one, just one that’s right for her. And she finds it in Milo.

Soon, she’s taking Milo out on walks with her family, watering Milo right on schedule, and seeing Milo grow and grow. But what happens when her pet cloud gets too big for Lizzy to handle?

About the Creators: 

Terry Fan received his formal art training at Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Canada. His work is a blend of traditional and contemporary techniques, using ink or graphite mixed with digital. He spends his days (and nights) creating magical paintings, portraits, and prints. Terry is the cocreator of The Night Gardener, It Fell from the Sky, and Lizzy and the Cloud. Born in Illinois, he now lives in Toronto. Visit him online TheFanBrothers.com.

Eric Fan is an artist and writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. Born in Hawaii and raised in Toronto, he attended the Ontario College of Art and Design, where he studied illustration, sculpture, and film. He has a passion for vintage bikes, clockwork contraptions, and impossible dreams. Eric is the cocreator of The Night GardenerIt Fell from the Sky, and Lizzy and the Cloud. Visit him online TheFanBrothers.com.

Review: With the Fan Brothers, readers have come to expect poetic words and illustrations, and they do not disappoint with Lizzy’s story. Just like my favorite Fan Brothers’ book, The Barnabus Project, I found myself falling in love with the characters because their personality jumps off the pages. Although the words are sparse, they are specifically chosen and when teamed up with the beautiful illustrations, the story has so much more depth than you may realize at first glance. For example, I think the ending of this book is something that could be used to talk about so many tough subjects, and it is done in a respectful, positive, and approachable manner. Another winning picture book from the Fan Brothers!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I see this text being used interdisciplinary in reading, science, and art. It will make a wonderful read aloud! The story and illustrations work beautifully together and there are some great discussion questions that can be used with the book. I’d then use the book in science to discuss the science of clouds–Milo will be a great cloud example! Finally, students could draw their own cloud balloons! You can even through in some SEL talking about tantrums and letting go.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does it tell you about Lizzy that she didn’t care what was popular?
  • Why do you think Lizzy wanted an ordinary cloud and not one of the animals?
  • What do you think would be the biggest problem would be if you had your own cloud?
  • How did Lizzy and Milo work together to make their friendship work?
  • How did Milo change? Why?
  • Why did Lizzy have to make the choice she did at the end of the book?
  • What theme do you believe the authors were trying to convey with the ending?
  • Do you think Milo changed Lizzy? How so?
  • How did the illustrators use color and shading to convey mood?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Books by The Fan Brothers, Matthew Forsythe, Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Brian Floca, Liz Wong

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**Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy for review!!**

Blog Tour with Giveaway, Educators’ Guide, and Review: The House That Wasn’t There by Elana K. Arnold

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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!

Educators’ Guide: 

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 YoungBrave in the Woods by Tracy HolczerQuintessence by Jess Redman, Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor, This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews, The Trouble with Shooting Stars by Meg Cannistra

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Don’t Miss the Other Stops on the Blog Tour!

March 28 Nerdy Book Club @nerdybookclub
March 29 YAYOMG @yayomgofficial
March 30 Unleashing Readers @UnleashReaders
March 31 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read
April 2 Maria’s Mélange @mariaselke
April 7 Bluestocking Thinking @BlueSockGirl
April 10 A Library Mama @librarymama
April 12 Storymamas @storymamas

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

Brave in the Woods by Tracy Holczer

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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.

Praise: 

★ “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 Journalstarred 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.

Discussion Questions: 

  • 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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Educators’ Guide for A Girl, a Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon by Karen Romano Young, Illustrated by Jessixa Bagley

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A Girl, a Racoon, and the Midnight Moon
Author: Karen Romano Young
Illustrator: Jessixa Bagley
Published: January 7th, 2020 by Chronicle Books

Summary: In a slightly fantastical New York City, one very special library branch has been designated for possible closure. Bookish, socially awkward Pearl, the daughter of the librarian, can’t imagine a world without the library—its books, its community of oddballs, its hominess. When the head of their Edna St. Vincent Millay statue goes missing, closure is closer than ever. But Pearl is determined to save the library. And with a ragtag neighborhood library crew—including a constantly tap-dancing girl who might just be her first friend, an older boy she has a crush on, and a pack of raccoons who can read and write—she just might be able to.

With an eclectic cast of richly drawn characters, a hint of just-around-the-corner magic, footnotes, sidebars, and Jessixa Bagley’s classic illustrations throughout, this warm-hearted, visually magnificent tale of reading and believing from beloved author Karen Romano Young tells of a world where what you want to believe can come true.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the official educators’ guide for A Girl, a Racoon, and the Midnight Moon (created by me!):

You can also access the teaching guide here.

You can learn more about A Girl, a Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon here.

Recommended For: 

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The Blue Giant by Katie Cottle

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The Blue Giant
Author & Illustrator: Katie Cottle
Published May 26th, 2020 by Pavilion Books Ltd.

Summary: A poignant and timely picture book introducing children to the issue of ocean pollution, with ideas to help the world become a better, cleaner place.

Coral and her mom are enjoying a break at the seaside. Until a creature emerges from the waves! It’s a giant. A blue giant. It is made of water, fish, and sea plants and has a stirring plea to help clean up the ocean.

Coral and her mom agree to help, donning their scuba-diving outfits and setting off to sea. But they can’t do it alone…can they?

This stunning follow-up to Katie Cottle’s debut picture book The Green Giant is another entertaining and beautiful eco-tale from the 2017 winner of the Batsford Prize. It introduces children to the issues of pollution, waste management, and the oceans, with suggestions of lifestyle changes to help clean up our seas.

About the Author: Katie Cottle is an illustrator and printmaker living and working in Bristol, U.K. Her work is often informed by the marks and colors created through traditional lithography. She also works digitally, using an iPad, and occasionally paints with gouache. The Blue Giant is her second book, following on from The Green Giant.

Review: Katie Cottle has caught onto something big with the format of this and her Green Giant book: it truly brings our environment to life and shows the harm that we are doing to it. The anthropomorphism of the ocean makes it even easier to connect to it as an entity as it shows how we are hurting it, and it shows what Meera DOES to try to reverse the effects we’ve caused.

In addition to the theme and story, I also really liked the illustrations. The author’s use of line is used expertly to show movement, and I loved all of the colors to really bring the story to life.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book is perfect for any discussion of water pollution and the environment. It shows a problem, a potential soultion, and hope for the future. It also specifically talks about single-use plastics which may be a new topic for many students.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What is something you can do to help the ocean?
  • What does Meera do to help the ocean?
  • How does our actions effect the ocean?
  • What is an animal that is effected by our pollution?
  • What is a single-use plastic that you use that you could replace?
  • What was the author’s purpose in writing this book?
  • Why did the author give the ocean a voice in the book?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Learning about the environment

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**Thank you to Media Master Publicity for providing a copy for review!**