Warrior Princess: The Story of Khutulun by Sally Deng

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Warrior Princess: The Story of Khutulun
Author and Illustrator: Sally Deng
Published: August 23, 2022 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Summary: This picture book follows the life of the great-great granddaughter of Genghis Khan, a princess who could rule on the battlefield as well as—or better—than any soldier, and when faced with a potential marriage, learns that sometimes the best way to serve one’s community is to stay true to oneself.

Ricki’s Review: This creative nonfiction text shares what we know about the life of Khutulun, great-great granddaughter of Genghis Khan. She was a princess who had never been defeated in a wrestling match and was a force on the battlefield. When she is forced to marry, she agrees that she will only do so if a man can defeat her in a wrestling match. If they lose, they owe her family ten horses. I really, really enjoyed reading this story. I started reading it to two of my sons, and my third son creeped on over because he was listening and was hooked. It is captivating! The characters are well drawn and the pacing is perfect. 

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book would inspire students to research and learn more about Khutulun and Genghis Khan. Teachers might include other books that creatively imagine people of the past to talk about writers craft and agency in reimagining people of our past.

Discussion Questions: 

  • In what ways does Khutulun show strength?
  • What important decisions does she make in the text? Why does she make it?
  • What themes does this text teach you?

Flagged Spread:

Read This If You Love: Creative nonfiction, historical fiction, autobiographies, reading about historical figures

 

**Thank you, Macmillan for sending an advanced reading copy for an honest review!**

Guest Review: Why? by Nikolai Popov

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Guest Reviewer: Heather, UCF Elementary Education Student

Why?
Author & Illustrator: Nikolai Popov
Published 1996 by North-South Books

Summary: A frog sits peacefully in a meadow. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, he is attacked by an umbrella-wielding mouse in a confrontation that quickly turns into a full-scale war.

About the Author: Nikolai Popov is a well-known Russian visual artist and illustrator. He has won multiple gold medals and Grand Prix at international exhibitions of children’s book illustration. Popov has had personal exhibitions in many cities of the world, including Moscow, Tokyo, Rome and Venice. He is an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts.

Review: I found this book to be a beautiful way to describe the trials and tribulations of war without using words or realistic art depicting the violence war contributes to. It is a E-rated way to show that war is seemingly senseless and can be an endless cycle, where ultimately no one wins. I think on top of that, the artwork of watercolor and animals was really beautiful, and seemed very fairytale-like. I liked that the frog found a pretty flower and that the mouse is shown to be jealous even though he is surrounded by similar florals. I think this is a good way to show (not only a war aspect) but just a way to describe how we may not know what we have available to us because we are so focused on what others have instead. The fact that this book has no words and the story is completely implied by the images is also an important thing to note here because it can be up for debate as to what the actual goal of the story is – is it war? Or could it be selfishness, jealousy, or some could even think maybe the mouse doesn’t like frogs (micro-aggressions?). This availability for interpretation is a good way to get a multitude of ideas started without given any hints as to the authors key goals (if not getting author/book background information before reading).

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book would be supplemental in unison with history lessons revolving around a time-period of another war scenario, like WWI or WWII. It would be a good way to help students navigate how easily wars can start and how hard it is to find a real reason for violence when the outcome is unclear. This book would also be good to use when discussing the problem with bullying or isolating others, it would be a good way to give students an idea of why it is crucial to be kind and think of others because in the end, you end up asking WHY did we even do this in the first place? Students can learn about needless fighting and apply this mindset/theory to their own lives, from how they treat others, to family and school environments as well.

And the last page! Looking at it I get that “throat swelling” feeling right before you cry. Its a painful image. The flowers are gone, the animals are sad, everything is ruined – the worst part is, no one got to enjoy what an entire field had to offer.

Discussion Questions: 

  • On page 4, the mouse looks around after coming up from the ground, what do you think he is looking at?
  • On page 5, we see the mouse looking at the frog – what is he thinking?
  • On page 7, the frog looks upset, and on the next page, more frogs come into the picture – do you think the frog called for them? What if the frogs didn’t come?
  • What kind of weapons are the animals using? Why do you think the illustrator chose these items?
  • In the end, how do the frog and mouse appear to be feeling?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Concepts of peace, unity, discussing the issues with our world and problems with humanity

Recommended For: 

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Thank you, Heather, for your review!

Close-Up On War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam by Mary Cronk Farrell

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Close-Up On War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam
Author: Mary Cronk Farrell
Published March 22, 2022 by Amulet

GoodReads Summary: The incredible story of Catherine Leroy, one of the few woman photographers during the Vietnam War, told by an award-winning journalist and children’s author.

From award-winning journalist and children’s book author Mary Cronk Farrell comes the inspiring and fascinating story of the woman who gave a human face to the Vietnam War. Close-Up on War tells the story of French-born Catherine Leroy, one of the war’s few woman photographers, who documented some of the fiercest fighting in the 20-year conflict. Although she had no formal photographic training and had never traveled more than a few hundred miles from Paris before, Leroy left home at age 21 to travel to Vietnam and document the faces of war. Despite being told that women didn’t belong in a “man’s world,” she was cool under fire, gravitated toward the thickest battles, went along on the soldiers’ slogs through the heat and mud of the jungle, crawled through rice paddies, and became the only official photojournalist to parachute into combat with American soldiers. Leroy took striking photos that gave America no choice but to look at the realities of war—showing what it did to people on both sides—from wounded soldiers to civilian casualties.

Later, Leroy was gravely wounded from shrapnel, but that didn’t keep her down more than a month. When captured by the North Vietnamese in 1968, she talked herself free after photographing her captors, scoring a cover story in Life magazine. A recipient of the George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious awards in journalism, Leroy was one of the most well-known photographers in the world during her time, and her legacy of bravery and compassion endures today.

Farrell interviewed people who knew Leroy, as well as military personnel and other journalists who covered the war. In addition to a preface by Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam War photographer Nick Ut and a foreword by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Peter Arnett, the book includes an author’s note, endnotes, bibliography, timeline, and index.

Review: Before I read this book, I didn’t know anything about Catherine Leroy. This book not only taught me about this strong woman, but it taught me about Vietnam. After finishing this book, I felt like I had a better awareness of the world (but particularly of Vietnam and the United States. At the age of 21, French photojournalist Catherine Leroy decided she wanted to document the Vietnam War. Camera in hand, she went after her goals and didn’t take no for an answer. It is very clear that the author is a journalist, and she presents Leroy’s story in a way that is very engaging and well-written. This book made me want to be a better human, and I recommend it highly.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This would be an excellent book to use in a history classroom (as well as English classrooms!). It would work really well in a book clubs unit related to Vietnam, heroines, and photojournalism. The photographs alone make this book a stellar addition to classrooms, and the writing is magnificent.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What resistance did Catherine face? How did she react?
  • How does the author integrate photographs to tell us about Catherine Leroy’s work?
  • Which photographs were particularly powerful for you, and why?
  • What are key moments in Catherine’s life that tell you more about who she is as a person?
  • What did you learn about Vietnam? About the United States?

Flagged Spread:

 

Read This If You Love: Photography, Nonfiction, Books about War, Books about Strong Women

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Mary at Abrams for providing a copy for review!**

Review and Giveaway!: Once Upon a Camel by Kathi Appelt

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Once Upon a Camel
Author: Kathi Appelt
Illustrator: Eric Rohmann
Published September 7th, 2021 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Summary: An old camel is out to save two baby kestrel chicks during a massive storm in the Texas desert.

Zada is a camel with a treasure trove of stories to tell. She’s won camel races for the royal Pasha of Smyrna, crossed treacherous oceans to new land, led army missions with her best camel friend by her side, and outsmarted a far too pompous mountain lion.

But those stories were from before. Now, Zada wanders the desert as the last camel in Texas. But she’s not alone. Two tiny kestrel chicks are nestled in the fluff of fur between her ears—kee-killy-keeing for their missing parents—and a dust storm the size of a mountain is taking Zada on one more grand adventure. And it could lead to this achy old camel’s most brilliant story yet.

About the Author: Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award Finalist, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award Finalist for The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Some of her award-winning books include Maybe a Fox (with Alison McGhee), Keeper, and Max Attacks to name just a few. She lives in College Station, Texas. To learn more, visit her website at kathiappelt.com.

Find Kathi Appelt on Facebook and Pinterest!

Richard, the camel, and Kathi Appelt taken at Texas Camel Corps. Photo credit: Doug Baum.

Review: Happy book birthday, Kathi & Once Upon a Camel! So honored to review this special book on your special day!

In all of Kathi Appelt’s books, what I have found that I adore the most is her ability to craft voice. She is brilliant. In this book, Zada the camel’s voice rings throughout with patience and determination. I was calmed by her stories of her upbringing as she works to keep the baby kestrels’ minds off of their parents. I think part of Appelt’s magic to craft voice is through her very specific word choice in all instances. Her descriptive words are so precise, and she is never deterred to use a word that may be challenging if it is the correct word. This leads to such lyrical prose–it is a pleasure to read!

There is also so much to learn throughout this story about stories: weather events (haboobs), animals of West Texas (kesterels, mountain lions, hawks, and more), and the history of camels. I found myself going on research tangents as I was introduced to different animals or different adventures that Zada goes on. It is no wonder that the Reading Group Guide is so extensive–there is so much to delve into!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation (Excerpt from the publisher provided Reading Group Guide): 

  • Explain to students that alliteration is a literary device in which initial consonant sounds of successive or closely related words are repeated. This book contains tons of alliteration. Some examples include “arches and arroyos,” “moving mountain,” “posh Pasha palace,” “Pasha’s princess turns a little pale,” and “best beloved babies.” Using game tiles with letters or small pieces of paper with letters written on them, allow each student to draw a letter and write five alliterative sentences using that letter. Each sentence must contain a subject, verb, and describing words. Once everyone has written their sentences, each person should share their best alliterative sentence with the class.
  • Zada has had a long life filled with experiences and relationships. Her story in the book moves in time as she shares memories while continuing present experiences. Ask students to create a time line for Zada. There are online resources such as Adobe (https://www.adobe.com/express/create/timeline) and TimeGraphics (https://time.graphics) to help with organization. They may also do this in a slideshow format. Have them include dates, locations, and important experiences.
  • Beulah licks Wims, and he is upset. He is described as being “incensed. Put out. Piqued.” Discuss with students how this alliterative and repetitive approach to communicating his feelings is an effective way to convey the strength of those feelings as well as a lyrical way to engage the reader. Ask students to choose one emotion and make a list of synonyms or short expressions that express that emotion. Next, ask them to express the emotion in as many ways as possible in short sentences. Finally, ask them to use their list and sentences to write a paragraph that first explains why their character is feeling that emotion and that then elaborates on how they are feeling in as many ways and with as much creative imagery as possible.
  • Like humans and all other members of the animal kingdom, camels and kestrels have been classified based on shared characteristics. Looking at the list below, you can see that camels, kestrels, and humans are classified together in their kingdom and phylum, but begin to diverge at class groups and fully diverge in orders. Ask students to review the table and have a class discussion about classification. Give students the opportunity to consult some sources, if necessary, to answer their questions.
    • Camels: Animalia (Kingdom) / Chordata (Phylum) / Mammalia (Class) / Artiodactyla
      (Order) / Camelidae (Family) / Camelus (Genus) / Dromedarius or Bactrianus (Species)
    • American Kestrels: Animalia (Kingdom) / Chordata (Phylum) / Aves (Class) / Falconiformes
      (Order) / Falconidae (Family) / Falco (Genus) / F. tinnunculus (Species)
    • Humans: Animalia (Kingdom) / Chordata (Phylum) / Mammalia (Class) / Primates (Order) / Hominidae (Family) / Homo (Genus) / Homo Sapiens (Species)
    • After review and discussion, ask students to write short answers to the following questions:
      • Why do we classify animals and other living things in this manner?
      • What characteristics do all living things have in common?
      • Do camels, kestrels, and humans have the same basic needs?
      • Do humans understand more about animals than animals know about humans?
      • Even though humans and camels are both mammals, do humans or camels have more in common with kestrels than they do with one another?

Discussion Questions (Excerpt from the publisher provided Reading Group Guide): 

  • The story’s action begins with Pard and Perlita telling Zada that a mountain is eating everything and is soon going to eat them. Zada cannot comprehend this. Why do you think that is? How do you handle things you don’t understand? In truth, the mountain is a great sand-and-dust storm coming their way. How does knowing this change your perspective of the situation? How does Zada react?
  • The author explains how a camel has adapted to the desert, and how American kestrels are built for flight. All animals have adaptations: evolved physical and behavioral traits that help their species survive and thrive. Can you think of any other examples of this? What about cultural adaptations? Are there ways in which groups or individuals adapt for their own safety, comfort, or survival?
  • As Zada tries to outrun the storm, she wishes she could fly. This is not the first time in her life she has wished this. Why do you think she has continued to yearn for this ability? Thinking about your life and the environment in which you live, what other animal adaptations would come in handy for you? Explain your answers.
  • As Zada worries about Pecos de Leon, she reflects on the fact that she and the mountain lion have “both traveled a lot of miles and traversed a lot of country. That was worth something.” How can having many experiences help you? Do you think it’s important to experience situations similar to and different from your own life? What might you learn from someone who has lived a long time and done many things? Explain your answers.
  • As Zada moves through the storm carrying the chicks, an enormous old tree comes down behind them. “The wind had yanked it up by its roots. A hundred years, that old tree had stood there, watching over the creek, keeping generations of bird families safe. Now it lay in a heap on its side.” How does the falling tree make Zada feel? How did it make you feel? Do you think generations of bird families will be able to find a new home?
  • As the storm spins Perlita and Pard around, they call out, “‘Keep them safe!’” This is described as the “universal prayer” of parents. What does it mean for something to be universal? Do you have knowledge, ideas, or habits that are universal?
  • Zada’s and Asiye’s motto is “En parlak yildiz ol.” This means “Become the brightest star.” What do they mean by this? How do you see them striving to do this throughout the story?

Flagged Passages: “Chapter 1: Foothills, Chisos Mountains West Texas, 1910

“Incoming!”

Even in her sleep, Zada recognized that voice.

The old camel raised one eyelid. It was still dark. There was at least an hour left before dawn. She did not recall setting an early alarm bird.”

Book Trailer: 

Read This If You Love: Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison Mcghee, The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher, Orphaned by Eliot Schrefer, Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart, Granted by John David Anderson

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Barbara at Blue Slip Media for providing a copy for review and giveaway!**

Blog Tour with Review: Stowaway by John David Anderson

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Stowaway
Author: John David Anderson
Published August 3rd, 2021 by Walden Pond Press

Summary: The beloved author of Posted and Ms. Bixby’s Last Day returns with the first book in a coming-of-age sci-fi duology about Leo, a kid trying to navigate the galaxy in order to save his family—and, possibly, the planet Earth.

When scientists discover a rare and mysterious mineral buried in the Earth’s crust, they have no idea that it just happens to be the most valuable substance in the entire universe. It’s not long before aliens show up to our little corner of the galaxy offering a promise of protection, some fabulous new technology, and entry into their intergalactic coalition—all in exchange for this precious resource. A material so precious that other alien forces are willing to start a war over it. A war that soon makes its way to Earth.

Leo knows this all too well. His mother was killed in one such attack, and soon after, his father, a Coalition scientist, decides it would be best for them to leave Earth behind. It’s on this expedition that their ship is attacked, Leo’s father is kidnapped, and Leo and his brother are stranded in the middle of space. The only chance they have is for Leo to stow away on a strange ship of mercenary space pirates bound for who knows where and beg the captain to help him find his father.

But the road is dangerous, and pirates, of course, only look out for themselves. Leo must decide who to trust as he tries to stay alive and save his family, even as he comes to understand that there aren’t many people—human or alien—that he can count on in this brave new universe.

Praise: “The Mandalorian meets Guardians of the Galaxy in this fast-paced space adventure that will have readers turning the pages as they are pulled into a unique yet strangely familiar world that reflects our own. This series opener is an ideal pick for middle-grade sci-fi fans.” – Booklist, starred review 

“This novel not only provides an otherworldly adventure, but a sincere tale about dealing with loss, finding bravery, and navigating the complexity of war. VERDICT: A page-turning space adventure that deals with complex issues.” – School Library Journal

“Anderson spins a fast-paced tale of piracy among the stars. Featuring a winning cast of misfits who stumble into unexpected kinship, Anderson employs warm humor and pop culture references to ground the narrative against cosmic-level stakes and underlying commentary about exploitation and the cost of war.” – Publishers Weekly

“Leo’s narration aches with pathos but also provides moments of humor and finally ends on a cliffhanger. A heartfelt adventure.” – Kirkus

About the Author: John David Anderson is the author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including the New York Times Notable Book Ms. Bixby’s Last DayPostedGrantedOne Last Shot, and Stowaway. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wonderful wife, two frawesome kids, and clumsy cat, Smudge, in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can visit him online at www.johndavidanderson.org.

Review: There are very few authors that I have encountered that can write across genres and do it well. John David Anderson is one of those authors. I have read almost all of his books and they include fantasy, realistic fiction, and sci-fi, and all are so well done and so different than each other. Stowaway adds another awesome title to his works list.

Once again, Anderson is able to mix adventure, humor, and seriousness in a way that only he can to have the reader reflect on death, choices after loss, mental health, first impressions, and war while also making us laugh about snoring, clothing, descriptions of gyurt, and bad (GOOD!) puns.

And you will love the world-building in this one. Anderson did a great job of making the universe as vast and diverse as it is but not making it all so complicated that the reader cannot keep up with the planets and species.

But I think my favorite thing about this book is the characters. Each character is intriguing, has its own back story, and is so much more than you at first realize. And this is not just Leo’s character, it is all of the characters in the book. I love Baz and his crew, I love Leo and his family, and I love all of the aliens & humans that Leo meets along the way, good and bad! And I assume we’ll get to know even more in the 2nd book!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: On John David Anderson’s website, you can find writing prompts specifically for Stowaway: 

Hi All! John David Anderson here. If you’re like me, you like to ponder the really deep existential questions challenging humanity, such as, is there other intelligent life out there in the galaxy, and if so, are they friendly or do they want to eat us? And if they eat us, will they find us gamey or surprisingly moist and tender? What kinds of flavorings will they use? Have they heard of garlic?

Also if you are like me, you like to write down some of your thoughts when you are pondering what kind of meal you might make for our future alien overlords. So with that in mind I’ve penned a few writing prompts to get you started. You can use these to write a story, a novel, a poem, a list of things you should do to prepare for the impending invasion—whatever. The important thing is to use your imagination and have fun.

  • Imagine you are told that you have to leave Earth on a spaceship and you aren’t sure when you will return. All essentials such as clothes, food, toiletries, and medicine will be provided for you. Otherwise you are allowed to take one backpack with you. What do you put in your pack and why?
  • Imagine aliens show up at our doorstep tomorrow and bring with them all kind of advanced technology, the likes of which we’ve only dared to dream. What is one piece of technology or scientific advancement you would want the aliens to give us and why?
  • Imagine you and your sibling (or best friend) are both stricken by some terrible disease that only gives you days to live, but you are given one pill that you’re told might cure the disease. Would you take the pill yourself or give it to this other important person in your life (note: these are the only two available options. Don’t try to cut the pill in half or study it to determine its chemical compound in the hopes of recreating a duplicate)?
  • Describe the scariest possible alien you can imagine. Consider its appearance, temperament, technology, and desires. Give the alien a name. Now imagine it shows up at your doorstep.
  • Pick a necessity that we currently have plenty of (water, trees, daylight, rain, electricity) and imagine what the Earth would be like if what you chose suddenly disappeared. How would humans adjust to the sudden absence? What would it change about society and culture? What disastrous consequences could it lead to?

Discussion Questions: Here are some extra discussion questions I came up with:

  • How were the pirates different than what Leo, or you, assumed?
  • Why would Leo’s father make the choice that he made at the end of the book?
  • Although Baz wants to be a notorious, vicious pirate, I think he is much more than that. What words would you use to describe him as a character?
  • There are flashbacks throughout the book. Why did the author include these in the story?
  • Which side would you choose in the war? Is there a “right” side?
  • What do you think is going to happen in the next book?

Flagged Passages: Prologue “The explosion nearly threw them off their feet as the Beagle lurched sideways. The steel beams shuddered. Leo’s ears rang. The links blinked off, on , then off again, triggering the fluorescent yellow emergency lighting that ran along the floor. Leo put a hand on the wall to steady himself. His brother’s eyes shone like moons. “What was that?”

The question was answered with a second explosion, the ship quaking again. Every alarm screamed at once. Leo stumbled, falling into his brother’s ready arms. From down the corridor he could hear the crew of the Beagle shouting to one another, though it was impossible to hear anything over the ship’s wounded bleating until the captain’s voice echoed over the coms.

“Attention crew of the Beagle. We are under attack. Security personnel report to the bridge immediately. Engineering to the drive chamber.”

Leo looked at his brother, still holding him tight. “Did she just say we’re under attack?”

Gareth nodded, then looked sideways, startled by the sound of boot heels clomping down the hall.

Leo knew the sound. He’d learned to recognize the rhythm of his father’s footfalls. Like the sound of his brother’s snoring or his mother’s pensive sighs. Leo spied his father turning the corner, his eyes falling on him and Gareth, pressed together. Dr. Calvin Fender’s face softened, then hardened again. He spoke in a whirlwind. “What are you two doing out here? Didn’t you hear what Captain Saito said? You need to hide. Hurry!”

Their father pointed to the nearest door, leading to an empty bunk room barely half the size of the one the Fenders shared. He hustled Gareth and Leo into a corner, his white lab coat flapping on both sides like broken wings. Leo could tell he was scared–he could see it in his father’s eyes, even if he couldn’t hear it in his voice.

His father was seldom scared.”

Read This If You Love: Bloom by Kenneth Oppel, The Dark Side of Nowhere by Neal Shusterman, Children of Exile by Margaret Peterson Haddix, or if you are just a huge fan of John David Anderson

Recommended For: 

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Stop by the other Blog Tour Stops!

August 15, 2021 Nerdy Book Club
August 17, 2021 Writer’s Rumpus
August 23, 2021 A Library Mama
August 24, 2021 Unleashing Readers
August 26, 2021 Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

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**Thank you to Walden Pond Press for 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!**

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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