Trex by Christyne Morrell

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Trex
Author: Christyne Morrell
Published August 30th, 2022 by Delacorte

Summary: This middle grade mystery follows the adventures of a boy with an experimental brain implant, and a reclusive girl training to be a spy, as they’re pitted against school bullies, their own parents, and an evil, brain-hacking corporation. Perfect for fans of Stranger Things.

Trex’s experimental brain implant saved his life–but it also made his life a lot harder. Now he shocks everything he touches. When his overprotective mother finally agrees to send him to a real school for sixth grade, Trex is determined to fit in.

He wasn’t counting on Mellie the Mouse. She lives in the creepiest house in Hopewell Hill, where she spends her time scowling, lurking, ignoring bullies, and training to be a spy. Mellie is convinced she saw lightning shoot from Trex’s fingertips, and she is Very Suspicious.

And she should be . . . but not of Trex. Someone mysterious is lurking in the shadows . . . someone who knows a dangerous secret.

About the Author: Christyne’s earliest completed work, written at age 7, told the story of Kermit the Frog meeting Miss Piggy’s parents for the first time. Kermit the Hog was a cautionary tale about pretending to be something you’re not. She still thinks it has potential.

Today, Christyne writes middle-grade novels across a number of genres. Whether they take place in quirky seaside towns or fantastical, faraway kingdoms, her stories all have one thing in common: clever kids accomplishing extraordinary things, like conquering a curse, overthrowing a king, or taking down an evil, brain-hacking corporation. Christyne believes that middle-grade books should challenge, intrigue, and inspire young readers – but above all, never underestimate them.

Christyne’s debut middle-grade novel, Kingdom of Secrets, came out in August 2021 from Delacorte Press. Her next novel, TREX, releases in August 2022. She is also the author of the poetry book, The Fool Catcher (2021), and the picture book, Abra, Cadabra & Bob (2019), and her poems and stories have appeared in HighlightsSpider, and The School Magazine.

When Christyne isn’t writing for kids, she’s busy raising one. She’s an attorney by day, who enjoys reading, baking, and watching House Hunters marathons. She lives with her husband, daughter, and hyperactive beagle in Decatur, Georgia.

Review: I LOVED Morrell’s first middle grade novel, Kingdom of Secrets, so when she reached out for me to read her newest, I jumped at the chance! What is so interesting is how one author can come up with two completely different types of stories–two sides of the speculative coin, if you will. But man, does she knock this one out of the park, too. It is a mind bender of a story that, through red herrings, multiple points of view, and limited narrators, keeps you on your toes all the way until the end! There is so much to delve into with this book, and it is super engaging on top of it all. Another stellar middle grade novel!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: There is so much in this book to use in classrooms: STEM, journaling/spying, and mental health representation! And Christyne Morrell has so many resources on her website to utilize with Trex:

  • STEM
    • Static Electricity: Trex’s brain implant gives him a persistent static electric charge, which has a significant impact on his daily life. Teachers and students can explore the causes of static electricity and consider the steps someone with Trex’s condition would have to take to avoid hurting themselves and others. There are tons of activities available online that demonstrate static electricity at work. Here are some of the best: 16 Fun Electricity Experiments and Activities For Kids.
    • Trex in Real Life: Could Trex’s static electricity problem exist in real life? In Australia, a man reportedly built up a charge of 30,000 volts and set fire to a carpet! (Report: Man Burns Carpet with Static Shock | AP News)
    • Dry Lightning: Dry Lightning is any lightning that occurs without rain nearby. It’s especially dangerous for Trex, but it poses a real risk to everyone. Dry Lightning is more likely than typical lightning to cause forest fires, especially in the western portion of the United States, where it occurs most frequently. (What is a Dry Thunderstorm? | Live Science)
  • Spies
    • Spy Museum: Did you know there’s an entire museum dedicated to spycraft? Future sleuths will have a blast at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Upon arrival, visitors receive a cover identity, an RFID-enabled badge, and a secret mission to complete. And for those who can’t make it to D.C., the Spy Museum offers a number of resources on their website, including podcasts, puzzles, and more. (Spy Resources | International Spy Museum)
    • Famous Female Spies: Mellie follows in the footsteps of a long line of female spies. From the Civil War to World War II, women have been covertly risking their lives on top secret missions in service to their country. Learn about some of history’s most famous and successful spies: 6 of History’s Most Notable Female Spies | HistoryHit.
    • Easter Egg Hunt: To kickstart your career as a future spy, I’ve included a major Easter egg (a hidden reference) within the text of Trex. If you’ve read my first book, Kingdom of Secrets, and have a keen eye, perhaps you spot the reference!
  • Mental Health
    • The Power of Introverts: Full of insightful research and powerful examples, Susan Cain’s Quiet makes the case that introverts as a group are undervalued in our society and that we should accept – even embrace – our introverted natures. The “Quiet Manifesto” on Susan’s website states, “The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.” And I wrote Trex for precisely that reason. There’s a version of Quiet for kids and a podcast for parents on Susan Cain’s website. (Home – Susan Cain)
    • Anxiety: One of the characters in Trex deals with anxiety – a sense of distress or fear when faced with uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or stressful situations. All of us experience some level of anxiety (on the first day of school, for example), but when it becomes debilitating or disruptive, it may require attention. Treatment for anxiety can range from simple tactics like breathing exercises to therapy and medication. If you’re experiencing anxiety, talk to a trusted adult or doctor, and check resources like Anxiety.org, Child Mind Institute, and CDC: Anxiety and depression in children.
    • Alphabetter: In the book, the characters play a game called “Alphabetter,” in which they take turns naming things that make them happy in alphabetical order. This is a simple and fun way for anyone to calm their stress and boost their mood!

Discussion Questions: 

Book Trailer:

Read This If You Love: Mysteries, Tesla’s Attic by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman, Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson, Masterminds by Gordon Korman

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**Thank you to the author for providing an e-galley for review!**

Guest Post: Classroom Uses for Stargazing by Jen Wang, The Party by Sergio Ruzzier, Twins by Varian Johnson, and When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

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One of the assignments during my Spring Children’s Literature course at UCF was creating a mini-teaching guide for the books we read for book clubs. We started with picture books for practice then students created them in their book clubs each week.

Today, I am happy to share the classroom uses and discussion questions found by my UCF Elementary Education students created for these graphic novels they read.

Stargazing
Author: Jen Wang
Published September 10th, 2019 by First Second

Summary: Christine is a young girl who plays the violin and is suggested by her parents to join the talent show. She then meets a girl, Moon, who is rumored to beat up other kids. Once she gets to know her, she finds out that she is actually a good person and they become great friends who decide on performing in the talent show together. The girls get closer but when Christine’s schedule gets busier, Moon finds a new friend in Madison, making Christine jealous to the point she leaves Moon’s journal open on the table for everyone to see. The girls start laughing at the drawings in the journal but when Moon encounters situations that upset her, she doesn’t know how to act and gets violent. After attacking a classmate, Moon passes out and it’s discovered she has a tumor in her brain that requires surgery. Christine avoids talking to Moon as she was the one that caused the fight and Moon gets surgery to remove her tumor. The girls make up afterwards and Christine bands together with their other classmates to perform at the talent show in tribute to Moon while the school hosts the night as a Fundraiser for Moon and her mother.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book would be useful in the classroom to help students learn the importance of accepting differences, treating others fairly and anger management. The book touches on topics such as stereotyping, homelessness, and bullying which can help students in the classroom.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How would you react if you were Christine and learned that your new friend has a brain tumor?
  • Have you ever had a vegetarian dish, if so what was it?
  • What are some other ways Moon could handle Angela reading her pictures to everyone at the birthday party?
  • In the book the characters participate in a talent show, if you were to participate one what would your talent be?
  • Why do you think Moon left during Chinese learning class, do you think she should’ve gone back to learn Chinese?
  • If one of your friends were feeling sad and alone like Moon was after her surgery, how would you comfort them?
  • Do you think that Moon was wrong in sharing her concert ticket with Madison after Christine said she didn’t want to go?
  • Do you believe it was right for Moon to attack Gabrielle for making fun of Vivian about her math puzzles.
  • Was Christine’s father right for getting mad at Christine for painting her nails and not telling her parents about it?

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Fox & Chick: The Party and other stories
Author: Sergio Ruzzier
Published April 17th, 2018 by Chronicle Books

Summary: Fox and Chick don’t always agree. But Fox and Chick are always friends.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: A great activity to do with this book would be “post-ful thinking” where students put sticky notes on pages where they have a connection to while reading and jot a quick comment. These connections are shared when the group meets to identify issues for discussion. The sticky notes can also be used to revisit the book around a particular issue by marking pages relevant to the issue as a way to prepare for the discussion.

This book touched on more of the social-emotional aspects of life which is important for the age that the book is for.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Do you believe Chick’s question was properly stated in The Party?
  • Did Chick do as he said he would in The Party?
  • How would you reword Chick’s question in The Party?
  • How would you react if someone did something they didn’t mention before?
  • What time of day do you think the story Good Soup is?
  • Have you ever found yourself not being able to sit still like Chick?
  • What did you do to help yourself sit still in this situation?
  • Do you think Fox was correct when they didn’t paint Chick? What would you have done if your friend would not sit still?
  • What lessons can you take away from this book?
  • Have you ever made assumed something before you got to know someone like Chick did?

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Twins
Author: Varian Johnson
Illustrator: Shannon Wright
Published October 6th, 2020 by Graphix

Summary:Maureen and Francine Carter are twins and best friends. They participate in the same clubs, enjoy the same foods, and are partners on all their school projects. But just before the girls start sixth grade, Francine becomes Fran — a girl who wants to join the chorus, run for class president, and dress in fashionable outfits that set her apart from Maureen. A girl who seems happy to share only two classes with her sister!

Maureen and Francine are growing apart and there’s nothing Maureen can do to stop it. Are sisters really forever? Or will middle school change things for good?

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book would be useful in classrooms when trying to teach students about the importance of self-confidence, friendships and personal identity.

After reading the book, students can make a quick graphic or symbolic drawing reflecting how the story Twins made them feel/what they thought about the story and discuss their drawings.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How did Maureen and Francine find self-confidence?
  • How do Maureen and Francine change throughout the story?
  • What parts of the story do you see these changes?
  • How are Maureen and Francine alike?
  • How are Maureen and Francine different?
  • Why do you think Maureen ran for President instead of another position, such as Vice President or Treasurer?
  • Why do you think Maureen and Francine’s parents asked the twins to keep the election civil?
  • How do you think the parents feel about Maureen and Francine feuding with each other?
  • How does Maureen and Francine’s story influence how you see yourself? Do you know yourself?
  • Has the story of Maureen and Francine influenced how you view the concept of self confidence?

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When Stars Are Scattered
Author: Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed
Illustrator: Victoria Jamieson
Published April 14th, 2020 by Dial Books

Summary: Heartbreak and hope exist together in this remarkable graphic novel about growing up in a refugee camp, as told by a Somali refugee to the Newbery Honor-winning creator of Roller Girl.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.

Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: When Stars are Scattered is an impactful graphic novel that tells the story of the authors hardships throughout his childhood.  It places us into his shoes as he navigates his new life in a Kenyan refugee camp.  It was interesting to see our country from another persons point of view.  Throughout this book Omar and his brother had to face challenges not familiar to most his age.  They often went hungry, not knowing when or where the next meal would be coming from.  It was really great to see and show children that what we might take for granted is not available to others across the world.  In the book Omar had to decide if school was worth leaving his brother by himself everyday.  School wasn’t accessible to everyone in the camp, especially middle and high school.  It was a great accomplishment that Omar was accepted into middle school.  Omar also had to battle taking care of his brother by himself with the help of a neighbor.  Omar and his brother got separated from their mother shortly after fleeing their home.  Overall this book is a great example of what children across the world go through on a daily basis. 

This book has a lot in it that can be unpacked and discussed within the classroom.  This book hits on war, disability representation, women’s rights, and perseverance.  Omar and his brother were faced with challenges they shouldn’t have been faced with at their age.  But they overcame them and eventually accomplished their goal.  You could open up a discussion within the classroom talking about the hard topics that might not get talked about anywhere else.  You could talk about war and how it happens around the world.  You could show how Omar’s brother had a disability but didn’t let it stop him from achieving his goals.  You could hit on how women are treated in other countries compared to our own.  Honestly I feel this book is a great book to just promote a safe space for open discussions.  Children might not have a safe space to discuss these types of things.

Social Studies tie-in: The students can use this graphic novels to study the region of this book, the conflicts that have taken place, and how others around the world live.

Math tie-in: The refugee camps that are mentioned in the graphic novel are very large have the students calculate how large these camps by adding together the size of the three. Have the students graph the number of refugees coming to the camp every year.

Art tie-in: Have students draw their own section of a graphic novel inspired by this book.

Economics tie-in: Throughout this book Omar and Jeri do their best to make money in order to buy new essentials such as clothing and food. Have the students analyze how the market in the refugee camp fluctuates and how Jeri and Omar made profits.

Astronomy/History tie-in: Students can learn about stars and how they have guided travelers of the past.

Social Emotional Learning tie-in: The book could teach students about responsibility, compassion and values. Students can relate to the message this story brings. Some kids can be going through a somewhat similar situation that you may not be aware of. It teaches students the importance of perseverance through difficult times. It allows for students to engage in discussions about social issues that are going on and how to be compassionate about them.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Who do you believe had the most influence on Omar’s life in the camp?
  • What is your first impression of Omar and Hassan?
  • Why do the boys think of Fatima as their foster mom? What is a foster parent?
  • Why was Omar hesitant to go to school?
  • Why was Maryam forced to quit school?
  • When Omar went to school why was there less girls then boys?  Was this normal?
  • Why was it so difficult for Omar to talk about his mom at the UN?
  • Why was Omar not going to school and when Salmen offered for him to go to school?
  • Write a diary entry from the perspective of Omar, describing thoughts and feelings about your day at school.
  • Omar realizes that he does have many people that love and support him, write about what you are grateful for, do you feel that love and support are things that mean the most in the world?
  • If you were Omar, would you have chosen the same path and attended school? Or stayed home to take care of Hassan? Explain
  • Throughout this graphic novel young girls and boys are treated differently within camp. Write about a time that you have seen someone be treated differently based on something they can’t control.
  • How were the schools within the refugee camp different from the schools in the United States?
  • Fatuma is considered a part of Omar and Hassan’s family despite not being related to them. Write about a person who is not related to you but who you love and consider a part of your family.
  • Which child in the story did you relate to and why?
  • Did this novel change your perspective of school? How so?
  • What is one lesson you learned from this book?
  • Have you ever read a story about a refugee before? Did it change your thoughts about what it means to be a refugee?
  • Who do you believe had the most influence on Omar’s life in the camp?
  • What do you want to be when you grow up?  What makes you want to do that?
  • What is your first impression of Omar and Hassan?
  • Why do the boys think of Fatuma as their ‘foster mum’? What is a foster parent?
  • Why did the author choose “Hooyo” to be the last words said in the story?

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Hope Wins: A Collection of Inspiring Stories for Young Readers edited by Rose Brock

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Hope Wins: A Collection of Inspiring Stories for Young Readers
Editor: Rose Brock
Published: May 10, 2022 by Philomel

Summary: In a collection of personal stories and essays, award-winning and bestselling artists from Matt de la Peña and Veera Hiranandani to Max Brallier and R.L. Stine write about how hope always wins, even in the darkest of times.

Where does hope live?
In your family?
In your community?
In your school?
In your heart?


From a family restaurant to a hot-dog shaped car, from an empty road on a moonlight night to a classroom holiday celebration, this anthology of personal stories from award-winning and bestselling authors, shows that hope can live everywhere, even–or especially–during the darkest of times.

No matter what happens: Hope wins.

Contributors include: Tom Angleberger, James Bird, Max Brallier, Julie Buxbaum, Pablo Cartaya, J.C. Cervantes, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Stuart Gibbs, Adam Gidwitz, Karina Yan Glaser, Veera Hiranandani, Hena Khan, Gordon Korman, Janae Marks, Sarah Mlynowski, Rex Ogle, James Ponti, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Ronald L.Smith, Christina Soontornvat, and R.L. Stine.

Ricki’s and Kellee’s Review: We love that Rose Brock decided to take the idea of Hope Nation and create a version for younger readers because all ages need to hear stories from those they look up. This is especially true about stories that are filled with adversity and hope. Usually with anthologies from various authors, we find ourselves liking only some of the stories and finding that others are dragging; however, with this text, we found that each story fit purposefully in the book. And because of the purposeful choices, every reader will find something in the book to connect with and will learn a little bit of something from each story.

Although we liked all the stories, we did have some favorites:
-Pablo Cartaya speaks from the heart and definitely made us cry (and clap for the young lady who we know inspired one of Kellee’s favorite books, Each Tiny Spark);
-James Bird shows that there is hope even in the darkest of times and the power of a strong support system;
-J.C. Cervantes shared how a teacher changed everything even if the teacher nor the student realize it at the time;
-Adam Gidwitz writes about what so many of us have felt at one time or another, and we felt it deep in the gut;
-Christina Soontornvat shows what life can teach that school cannot;
-Stuart Gibbs tells the truth about adversity and absolute grief;
-Janae Marks speaks to how hopes and dreams can lead to different hopes and dreams, you just need patience;
-Gordon Korman speaks about that feeling of revision and the emotional roller coaster that come with it;
-Hena Khan speaks about what it means to feel different and to want to share a piece of ourselves with others;
-Sarah Mlynowski writes about the powerful bond of sisterhood and the feeling of being far from those we love; and
-James Ponti showed how even in middle school you can stand up for who you want to be, and the power of names and naming.

Although the diversity of stories and authors is vast and all readers will find something to connect with, we did wish there were a few more queer stories in the collection. With the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, we are particularly thinking about this topic. This could be supplemented by teachers with other essays beyond the collection.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: This book easily lends itself to a personal narrative unit or a college essay unit. Both of these are very prevalent in curricula, which makes this book a phenomenal fit. Ricki showed the first chapter to her neighbor who is writing her college essay, and it inspired a great discussion.

Discussion Questions:  

  • What is hope?
  • Where and how do we seek hope?
  • When have you found hope in your life?
  • Which stories resonated with you? Why?

Flagged: “The daily reminder of how our own lives can be turned upside down made me realize why it’s so important to hang on to hope. It’s not always an easy thing to do—sometimes, it feels downright impossible—but the thing I know is that difficult times in life come and go; with those experiences, we grow as people. The key is to find ways to motivate and inspire our spirits—stories of hope can do that” (n.p.)

Read This If You Love: Hope Nation edited by Rose Brock; The Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul series; Essay Collections; Anthologies; Middle Grade Authors

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All the Places We Call Home by Patrice Gopo, Illustrated by Jenin Mohammed

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All the Places We Call Home
Author: Patrice Gopo
Illustrator: Jenin Mohammed
Published June 14th, 2022 by Worthy Kids

Summary: Fall in love with this lyrically written and lushly illustrated exploration of identity and home that celebrates all the places and people who make us who we are.

“And where shall we go?” Mama asks as she tucks me in.

“South Africa. Where I was born.”

My answer summons Mama’s stories, stories that send us soaring back in time to when I was a baby. Out my window. Down my street. Across water. Across continents.

Where do you come from? Where does your family come from? For many children, the answers to these questions can transform a conversation into a journey around the globe.

In her first picture book, author Patrice Gopo illuminates how family stories help shape children, help form their identity, and help connect them with the broader world. Her lyrical language, paired with Jenin Mohammed’s richly textured artwork, creates a beautiful, stirring portrait of a child’s deep ties to cultures and communities beyond where she lays her head to sleep.

Ultimately, this story speaks a truth that all children need to hear: The places we come from are part of us, even if we can’t always be near them. All the Places We Call Home is a quiet triumph that encourages an awakening to our own stories and to the stories of those around us.

About the Creators: 

Patrice Gopo is the child of Jamaican immigrants and was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. She is an award-winning essayist and the author of All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way (a Fall 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection). Her ties to Jamaica and other parts of the world sparked her early desire to travel to the cities and countries she traced on a globe. In time, as she began writing about her experiences, Patrice became interested in how places contribute to the people we become. Ultimately, she hopes her stories celebrate the beauty of living a multifaceted life. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina—a place she considers another home. All the Places We Call Home is her first picture book.

Winner of the SCBWI 2020 Summer Showcase Award, artist Jenin Mohammed moved into children’s illustration after working to gain entry into storyboarding for television. Just as her dream studio job appeared on the horizon, Jenin realized that her true love for story lay in children’s illustration. Her work uses dynamic shapes and perspective with a layering technique to create a tissue-paper-collage-meets-painterly look. Born and raised in Florida, Jenin grew up in an African American/Caribbean household, providing a personal connection to Patrice’s story.

Review and Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book is a beautiful look at family history and culture. It celebrates oral tradition through story and memories, a sense of belonging through place, and a look at one family’s story. The prose is lyrical and calming and the illustrations are vibrant and expressive–it will make a great read aloud for all and a deep dive book for classrooms!

This book would be a great mentor text for writing a family history or visiting the world through memories in another way. Students can connect with their families and friend through the places they call home and create their own pathway around the globe.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Where are your homes?
  • Why does learning about where someone is from help tell their story?
  • Even if not through family, how else could you “travel” the globe through memories?
  • Where would you like to visit if you could?
  • What tradition do you have at bedtime?
  • What do you think the author’s purpose of the story was?
  • Why does the young girl view America, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Jamaica all as her homes?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Bedtime stories, Multigenerational stories, Stories about family history

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**Thank you to Nicole Banholzer PR for providing copies for review!**

Inside Cat by Brendan Wenzel

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Inside Cat
Author: Brendan Wenzel
Published: October 12, 2021 by Chronicle Books

GoodReads Summary: Told in rhyming text, Inside Cat views the world through many windows, watching the birds, squirrels, and people go by—but when the door opens it discovers a whole new view.

Review: Brendan Wenzel regularly impresses me. I use his They All Saw a Cat to teach about perspective, and it reminds us of the value of picture books at all levels of class instruction. I was really excited to read Inside Cat because I knew it would be just as compelling—and it was! Inside Cat can see the world in so many ways. It travels around the house and sees so much. I don’t want to give a spoiler, but the last page of this book will make you gasp.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book should be paired with They All Saw a Cat to teach perspective. Both offer different angles to questions of perspective. I think it could also be used to teach about authorship (as in authority and authenticity). Teachers might ask students to think critically about what perspectives we do or do not hold.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does Inside Cat do?
  • What does Inside Cat see?
  • How do the images on the page work together?
  • What does the surprise ending teach you?

Read This If You Love: They All Saw the Cat by Brendan Wenzel, The Journey Trilogy by Aaron Becker

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**Thank you to Eva at Chronicle for providing a copy for review!**

Kingdom of Secrets by Christyne Morrell

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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!**

Secondhand Dogs by Carolyn Crimi

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Secondhand Dogs
Author: Carolyn Crimi
Illustrator: Melissa Manwill
Published July 6th, 2021 by Balzer + Bray

Summary: Miss Lottie’s home was for second chances.

When she adopted Gus, Roo, Tank, and Moon Pie, Miss Lottie rescued each member of the pack—including herself, her helper, Quinn, and her reclusive cat, Ghost—and turned them into a family. But when a new dog, Decker, arrives and tries to hoard Miss Lottie’s heart and home for himself, the pack’s future is threatened.

At first, Gus, the insecure pack leader, only notices little things, like tiny Moon Pie being kicked out of the bed and Ghost acting spooked (then again…Ghost is a cat). But things soon go from bad to worse as Decker’s presence causes disharmony in the group.

When Decker convinces Moon Pie to embark on an impossible journey, it’s up to Gus to gather his courage, rally his splintered pack, and bring Moon Pie home. And with coyotes and cars on the loose, the pack must push through obstacles and dangers to reunite with Moon Pie before he can get hurt—or nearly as bad, get his heart broken.

A heartwarming—and heart-tugging—middle grade novel about love, loyalty, and what to means to be part of a family, featuring a motley pack of rescue dogs—from author Carolyn Crimi, with adorable illustrations by Melissa Manwill. Perfect for fans of A Dog’s Life and Because of Winn-Dixie.

Praise: “Pervading themes of bullying, leadership, loyalty, and family—among humans and canines alike—raise important issues while the comic-style illustrations feature character cameos and highlight key scenes. A sensitive, satisfying, and intriguing canine tale” –Kirkus Reviews

About the Author: Carolyn Crimi received her MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College in 2000. She has published over 15 books, including Dear Tabby, Don’t Need Friends, Boris and Bella, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, Where’s My Mummy?, and I Am the Boss of this Chair. Her book, There Might Be Lobsters, won The Golden Kite Award in 2018 for Best Picture Book Text, and her middle grade debut, Weird Little Robots, was named a BEA Book Buzz pick. Carolyn has received over thirty state awards and award nominations and was given The Prairie State Award in 2012 for her body of work. You can visit Carolyn at carolyncrimi.com.

Facebook: Carolyn Crimi
Twitter: @crims10

Review: First, I must say: kids are going to love this book. Seriously. Go pick it up for the kid(s) in your life.

I always go hesitantly into dog books because, as I am sure it is with all of you, the emotions when it comes to animal books are on high alert! And please know that your emotions are going to be going on a roller coaster of emotions in this one! 

The first emotion you are going to feel is love. As soon as you hear Gus’s voice, you know that he is a dog you can trust. Then as you meet each of the pack, they automatically go into your heart. Crimi does an amazing job telling the current narrative while also flashing back to show the dogs’ (and Miss Lottie’s, Quinn’s, and Ghost the cat’s) past. This allows you to jump into the story while also learning about how the pack gets together.

The next emotion you are going to feel is anger. Decker is a challenger to the pack. The way he manipulates and bullies, specifically Moon Pie, is devastating. It is true manipulation. You will definitely feel anger. Also, you learn more about Quinn’s life which will definitely make you feel angry.

Then comes the feelings of suspense, sadness, happiness, pride, and more! I can’t get more into the story because I don’t want to spoil! It is a good ride, I promise!

Teachers’ Tools for Instruction: First, this book is going to make an awesome read aloud!! Great topics and themes will lead to wonderful conversations.

But I think a huge asset for this book in the classroom is the different point of views that the author tackles. It is a wonderful mentor text for looking at voice. Each dog, cat, and person, although in 3rd person, had a different distinct tone and voice. It would be a great activity to have your students write a story from a certain POV then rewrite it from a different. Then they can even change 1st person to 3rd or vice versa. 

There is also a publisher-provided curriculum guide that is an awesome resource:

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why did the pack lie to Moon Pie and was it okay?
  • Why was Dexter the way he was?
  • Why did Roo originally side with Dexter?
  • Each of the dogs had a special skill: What would your special skill be?
  • What are some times during the book that shows you Quinn is special?
  • How does Quinn finally stand up to his brother?
  • What does Gus’s choice about what he did with the coyote tell you about him?
  • Why is the book titled Secondhand Dogs?
  • What is the differences between Dexter and Gus as the pack leader?
  • What does Miss Lottie’s choice about what she did with Dexter tell you about her?
  • How did the ending make you rethink Dexter’s character?
  • Who do you think was the hero of the book?

Flagged Passages: Gus: The new dog walked calmly next to Miss Lottie. His ears and his tail were both up. Alert, but not alarmed.

He wasn’t nervous. Not like the other dogs had been when they first approached the pack.

He was sizing them up, Gus decided. Gus didn’t know what to think about that. Usually new dogs pulled back a bit, or wiggled a little too much, or stood their ground and barked.

Not this dog.

Gus sniffed the air again. The scent that wafted off the new dog was bright and cold, like the metal water bowl in Miss Lottie’s kitchen.

Gus had always hated that bowl.” (Chapter 2)

Read a sample: https://preview.aer.io/Secondhand_Dogs-Mzk3MzU1?social=0&retail=0&emailcap=0

Read This If You Love: The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate, Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart, Granted by John David Anderson

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