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Book Review: Ground Zero

Title: Ground Zero

Author: Alan Gratz

Publisher: Scholastic, 2021

ISBN # 978-1-338-24575-2

This is just so much more than a book about the events that took place on September 11, 2001 in Manhattan, so don’t judge this book by it’s cover. Told in alternating first person, Brandon is a 4th grader living in Brooklyn who heads to the North Tower of the World Trade Center with his father on that fateful morning and Reshmina is a 4th grader living in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2019. In typical Alan Gratz style, the characters do connect, in perhaps a bit more predictable way than in my favorite Gratz novel, Refugee. 

I’ll admit, this is the first historical fiction book I’ve read of which the event took place when I was an adult. (I was a first year teacher, with a class of 32 confused 4th graders who were looking at their very confused 22-year old teacher for answers.) In Gratz’s extensive Author’s Note, he shared he was an 8th grade teacher on 9/11 and he was just recently able to process the event well enough to be able to write about it. I think this is an important aspect to share with kids. It might be challenging for parents and teachers to read this book with kids because of the memories associated with that September day. 

Perhaps the most important lesson from this book isn’t the in-depth history lesson on 9/11 it provides for elementary and middle grade readers, but the soul-searching and heart-wrenching day spent with Reshmina.As she processes the end of childhood with her twin brother (Alan Gratz, I see what you did there…twin towers in NYC, twin kids in Afghanistan) and provides an American soldier with an inside look into her world, the reader is left questioning America’s role in Afghanistan (or any country, for that matter). I have watched many fourth grade kids over the year come to terms with America’s past decisions. Reshmina’s character is perhaps one of the most important kids can encounter because she represents the consequences of America’s current diplomatic strategy. It would make for incredible discussion- at home, among peers, or in a classroom mock debate. 

After reading a particularly heavy chapter from Brandon’s perspective, as he attempts to escape the North Tower, Reshmina provides a different perspective, when she tells Taz, an American soldier,

“Lost your house and everything in it? Here’s 4,724 American dollars. Lose a goat? Our sincerest apologies, and here is 106 dollars. Lose a daughter? Here’s $1,143 dollars. Not as much for a son, of course, because girls are not worth as much in Afghanistan.” (p. 298)

Ground zero by alan gratz

Of note, clearly this book contains violence and harrowing images. Brandon watches bodies fall from skyscrapers. Reshmina and her family are caught in gun battles between the U.S. and Taliban fighters. You know your child- if this is too much, you may hold off. However, it is clear Gratz is not writing this book for guts and glory and I didn’t find the story lines to contain “extra” violence to hook the reader. These stories are perilous enough. 

This book has a 3.57/5 star review on Goodreads and a 5/5 star review on Amazon. I gave it a 4 star review. I thought there were two cringy (to quote my kids) moments, but I won’t reveal them in case they don’t bother you! 

Other books by Alan Gratz: 

Works Cited:

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero. Scholastic, 2021.

Gratz, Alan. Refugee. Scholastic, 2017.

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Book Review: Echo Mountain

Title: Echo Mountain

Author: Lauren Wolk

Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2020

ISBN #: 9780525555568

Ellie (age 12) and her family, like millions of other Americans during the Great Depression, have drastically reinvented themselves. Father has given up his business as a tailor, Mother is no longer a music teacher, and kids Esther, Ellie, and Sam are adapting to life on Echo Mountain in rural Maine. The new lifestyle demands tremendous work for survival and the family discovers some members are more suited for it than others. While Ellie navigates her growing up years, she is fiercely determined to help those around her- whether she knows them or not. She learns to trust her instincts, find ways to learn what she doesn’t know, and love home and family deeply along the way. 

This book is fast-paced and while long (356 pages), great for those that like shorter chapters that frequently end in a cliffhanger! Ideal for readers in 4th-7th grade. 

Dog lovers, rejoice! Not only is this novel perfect for middle grade fans of nature, survival, and the great outdoors, there are more than a few dogs ready to steal hearts at your fingertips. 

With 6 (!) starred-reviews (copied below from Amazon), this book will not disappoint and would make for a great family read aloud (or family read along via audiobook on a road trip). With a 4.36/5 star review on Goodreads and 4 out of 5 stars from us, we predict this book will become a classic. 

★ “Wolk’s poetic prose and enticing foreshadowing warrant savoring as they carry the reader through the narrative, which gracefully unfolds over brief, steadily paced chapters. Historical fiction at its finest.” –The Horn Book, starred review

★ “Complex and fiercely loving, Ellie is a girl any reader would be proud to have as a friend…. Woven with music, puppies, and healing, Wolk’s beautiful storytelling turns this historical tale of family and survival into a captivating saga.” –Booklist, starred review

★ “[A] magnificently related story of the wide arc of responsibility, acceptance, and, ultimately, connectedness…. A luscious, shivery delight.” –Kirkus, starred review

★ “[An] exquisitely layered historical…. A powerful, well-paced portrait of interconnectedness, work and learning, and strength in a time of crisis.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review

★ “In this complex, memorable novel, Wolk explores themes of social responsibility, modern versus traditional medicine, biological versus chosen family and more.” –BookPage, starred review

★ “Wolk again spins a fascinating historical fiction novel with strong female characters. Her short chapters are infused with adventure and mystery, frequently end on cliff-hangers, and include abundant dialogue that will propel readers through this novel they will find hard to put down.” –SLC, starred review 

Wolk, Lauren. Beyond the Bright Sea. Puffin Books, 2018.

Wolk, Lauren. Echo Mountain. Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2020. Wolk, Lauren.

Wolf Hollow. Puffin Books, 2018.

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Book Review: Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World

Title: Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World

Author: Jacqueline Davies

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021

ISBN #- 978-0-358-10631-9

Hop on over, Frog and Toad. Move to the side, Elephant and Piggie.  Fly to the next branch, friends from Owl Diaries. Make way for two new friends, Sydney & Taylor!

“Excuse me,” said Taylor. He was shy around strangers. “I hate to bother you, but well, I’m note quite sure how to do this.” 

“What are you trying to do?” asked one of the frogs. She was shiny, and green, with eyes the size of marbles. 

“Hunt!” said Taylor proudly. 

“Hunt what?” asked another frog. 

“Well…you,” said Taylor, who was a very honest hedgehog. 

The frogs began to laugh. One of them laughed so hard he fell off his rock. 

(p. 44-47)

Sydney, a brave(ish) skunk, and Taylor, a fun-loving hedgehog, decide to hit the road and see the whole wide world. Which means…leaving the burrow they live in in under Miss Nancy’s potting shed! They spend much of their lives feeling warm and content, but begin to develop a bit of an itch to explore the “wide, wide world” (as documented on the map in their burrow). 

The look of contentment, after a long day of exploring the whole wide world.

Reminiscent of Melanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel with all the page-turning qualities of Mo Willems’ beloved characters, this new series is sure to be a big hit with families, pre-schools, and primary grades in schools everywhere. 

For children ready to graduate to chapter books, readers will feel successful with the short chapters (3-5 pages) with large font. As early readers navigate the way the setting can influence the plot, encourage them to use the map found in the front.

Just for fun: 

  •  A “cut-away” is a graphic feature that shows a “slice” of an item not usually able to be seen. Make sure you point out the cut-away of Sydney & Taylor’s underground burrow before the first chapter! 
  • Miss Nancy is featured on several pages. What do you notice about how the illustrator drew her? I wonder if we’ll see her face in Sydney & Taylor Take a Flying Leap?
  • Make tuna fish sandwiches (a favorite of Sydney and Taylor) and enjoy a picnic in your own “wide, wide world.” 
  • As your child grows, so should his/her emotional vocabulary. Revisit each chapter and use specific words to describe the characters’ feelings. For example, in Chapter 3, the characters are overwhelmed, nervous, but also hopeful. 
  • Find more information (books, websites, pet stores) about hedgehogs. I love the illustration on p. 69 when Sydney curls up in a ball!
  • At 80 pages, your child can reread to practice reading with expression as the characters become more familiar. 
  • Skunks can have a bad reputation, but use Taylor as an excuse to learn more! We even have a skunk rescue near our house. She attends many local events and brings her skunks (even an albino one) with her for people to pet! 

This book has a 4.10/5 stars on Goodreads and 4.5 stars/5 on Amazon. 

★ “With a nod to The Wind in the Willows… Davies sends an odd-couple pair of animal burrow mates out to explore the “whole wide world.”—Booklist, STARRED review

Davies, Jacqueline. Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.

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Fighting Words, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: Fighting Words

Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020

ISBN#: 978-1-9848-1568-2

I don’t think I’ve ever naturally  categorized my thoughts about a book into a Top 10 list before, but Fighting Words, a 2021 Newbery Honor, lends itself to a list. 

Top 10 List of Things to Know About Fighting Words BEFORE Your Child Dives In

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

  1. Della, the 10-year old main character, is a nickname for Delicious. Her 16-year old’s sister’s name is Suki. Neither know where their names come from. Neither know who their fathers are. 
  2. Their mother is incarcerated for blowing up a motel room. Della and Suki were inside, while she was cooking meth in the bathroom. She is in a Kansas prison, while the girls live in Tennessee.
  3. The girls have just been placed with Francine, a foster care provider, following the arrest of Clifton, the man they have lived with since their mother was incarcerated. 
  4. Clifton is arrested for sexually molesting Della one time, after Suki takes a photo for evidence. 
  5. Clifton has been molesting Suki for years. 
  6. Suki attempts suicide with a knife and Della witnesses it. Suki spends weeks in a psychiatric hospital and improves. 
  7. Della likes to cuss. It allows her to release her anger. The cuss words are replaced with the word “snow.” For example, Della might call someone an asshole in real life, but in the book, she calls him a “snowman.” 
  8. This book also deals with consent in the school setting as well. Trevor, a classmate of Della’s, pinches girls in the back where their bras would be, should they be wearing one. As Della learns about consent in therapy, she teaches the girls in her class (and the staff at the school) that Trevor has no right to touch them without permission. 
  9. Suki and Della get tattoos (yes, real tattoos) to symbolize their journey of growth and healing. 
  10. The supporting characters in this book are genuine, authentic, and are the people that give hope for healing: Suki’s boss/Della’s basketball mentor at the Y, Maybelline (the deli worker), Teena (neighbor), therapist, and most importantly, Francine, the foster parent.  
  11. (A bonus!) It does have a realistic, yet positive, ending for these two sisters. 

Let me say that this book is extremely important. It will hopefully help those that have experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE, heal and learn. It may help others recognize the importance (and difficulty) of reporting abuse. It may be helpful to those living in foster homes. It may help others who have experienced or witnessed attempts at suicide and the aftermath it leaves behind. 

However, a parent or caregiver should be aware of the issues in this book. It would be best to read it together, and that’s IF you feel your child can handle it. While the recommendations for this book are for 10-14, I noticed on Goodreads that the recommendation in the U.K. is for 12 and up. While we know that there are many (too many) 10-year old Dellas in the world, this book is a LOT to handle for many middle grade readers, especially if read independently. 

Here, author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley shares her thoughts on why this book is appropriate for even 10-year olds.

“This is to remind me of the best day of my life.”

She looks down at me. For a wonder, she smiles back. “When was that?” she asks.

“Tomorrow,” I say.” (p. 259)

Fighting words, kimberly brubaker bradley (p. 259)

While I give this book a 5/5, something to note is the 4.73/5 rating on Goodreads. With 3,445 raters, that might be the highest rated book I’ve read in a long time. It has 7 starred reviews. Wowzas!

“Della’s matter-of-fact narration manages to be as funny and charming as it is devastatingly sad. . . . This is a novel about trauma and the scars it leaves on bodies, minds and hearts. But more than that, it’s a book about resilience, strength and healing.” New York Times Book Review

Braden, Ann. The Benefits of Being an Octopus. Sky Pony, 2018Bradley,

Kimberly Brubaker. Fighting Words. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020

DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie. Candlewick, 2015. 

DiCamillo, Kate. Raymie Nightingale Trilogy. Candlewick, 2019.

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Book Review: A Wish in the Dark, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: A Wish in the Dark

Author: Christina Soontornvat

Publisher: Candlewick, 2020

ISBN#978-1-5362-0494-0

In Chattana, the Governor rules. After a devastating fire that destroyed the village, the Governor appeared, bringing with him a new way to create light and all was good again. However, power can illuminate divisions and further separate those that have from the have not. While the three main characters Pong, Somkit, and Nok first cross paths in a prison at age 10, it’s the return of their forces 4 years later (and the experiences they’ve had while apart) that allow Chattana to reconsider power and how to yield it. 

“You can’t run away from darkness,” Pong whispered. “It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” p. 324

This book has a bit something for every middle grade reader (recommended reading age is 8-12 or grades 3-7), which is why I think it makes for an ideal read aloud, either at home on the couch with the whole family or in a classroom full of students. Pong (male prison inmate, mother was arrested, but died at childbirth) and Nok (female, daughter of prison warden) take turns telling the story,  This would also be a high interest read for an older student reading below grade level. 

Try this checklist to see if it meets the criteria for YOUR readers!

  • Male and female characters who are brave, yet vulnerable, with a variety of skill sets
  • Fantasy setting (with connections to Thai culture), but with realistic elements of today’s society
  • Plot twists told through revealing of new information previously unknown to the characters that change their trajectory (and your opinion of them)
  • Social justice issues, specifically relating to power and poverty
  • Survival story
  • Rule followers
  • Rule breakers
  • Martial Arts
  • Orphans
  • Humor
  • Police chase
  • Elements of light vs. dark/good vs. evil
  • Buddhist monks
  • Issues surrounding homelessness and food insecurity
  • Wise sages everyone can learn from
  • Prison break
  • Kids with tattoos
  • Fans of Les Mis
  • Chapter books with wide margins, making for less text per page (can be less overwhelming for many middle grade readers, despite the length of 375 pages)

This was an easy 5/5 for me on Goodreads, where the book has a 4.43 star rating. It has a 4.7/5 rating on Amazon. And while readers give it high praises, clearly the American Library Association loved it when it was named a 2021 Newbery Honor.

“It’s a novel—a stand- alone, no less—that seems to have it all: a sympathetic hero, a colorful setting, humor, heart, philosophy, and an epic conflict that relates the complexity and humanity of social justice without heavy-handed storytelling. Soontornvat deftly blends it all together, salting the tale with a dash of magic that enhances the underlying emotions in this masterfully paced adventure. An important book that not only shines a light but also shows young readers how to shine their own. Luminous.”

Booklist, (starred review

Check out this book trailer from the publisher to further tempt your readers!

Soontornvat, Christina. A Wish in the Dark. Candlewick, 2020.

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Dr. Seuss, Racism in Children’s Books, and Cancel Culture: A Writer’s Perspective

I guess I’ve seen one too many short-sighted takes on the recent controversy about Dr. Seuss. It looks a lot like some of the worst aspects of human behavior in our technology-driven society: not reading the actual articles about a particular topic, reacting quickly without considering different perspectives, (especially from cultures and backgrounds other than your own), and not appreciating or trying to understand the nuance of a situation. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over social media, too: that Dr. Seuss is the latest victim of cancel culture run amok.

Please. Stop.

First of all, no one is cancelling Dr. Seuss. Given that my son was encouraged to dress up like Dr. Seuss just last week, and that so many of us can recite Green Eggs and Ham from memory, and that the Grinch remains one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time, I think Dr. Seuss is doing just fine. His grandkids aren’t wondering where their next meal is going to come from, of that I’m sure. But I bet the line at your local food pantry was long this morning. Let’s save our outrage for what really matters, ok?

One of the best ways to think about this popped up on my Twitter feed this week. It was originally posted by Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter. She tweeted back in January: “Some things being labeled as #CancelCulture are actually examples of #Accountability.” 

Second, I want us to base our understanding of this situation by learning the actual facts, because the truth starts to get really fuzzy when all you’re doing is scrolling memes on Facebook. 

Last year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises made a business decision to stop publishing and licensing six of Dr. Seuss’ books. Please read the full statement here if you have not already done so. His own family made this choice. No one forced them to do it. Key sentence from their statement: “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” You know what it reminds me of? When a particular car seat is recalled, whether it’s because the company realizes it no longer meets new safety standards or due to pressure externally about its quality. Stuff like this happens every day. Private companies are allowed to make business decisions that help them achieve their mission. 

So, FYI, in case it’s not clear, no one is going door-to-door in your neighborhood today confiscating your copy of Cat in the Hat. Librarians aren’t pulling Oh the Places You’ll Go off the shelves. You can still watch your Lorax DVD and no one is going to arrest you. Relax, America. Take a deep breath.

These are the six books that will no longer be published or licensed by Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

  • And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
  • If I Ran the Zoo
  • McElligot’s Pool
  • On Beyond Zebra!
  • Scrambled Eggs Super!
  • The Cat’s Quizzer

If you’ve actually looked at the illustrations in these books and read the words, I bet you cringed. I’ll admit, I wasn’t familiar with a few of these titles (trust me, there’s a reason these are not among his best selling books), and I audibly gasped at what I saw. I think the vast majority of people would really reconsider reading this material to children when they flip through them now. 

Ask yourself what you love about Dr. Seuss. Is it his rhyming? Check out Sandra Boynton, Connie Schofield-Morrison, Bill Martin Jr., or Julia Donaldson. Is it his eccentric characters or wild creativity? Check out Are We There Yet by Dan Santat, Tuesday by David Wiesner, or anything by Mo Willems. Spoiler alert: Dr. Seuss never had the monopoly on what makes a children’s book fun to read aloud and entertaining to kids. There are many wonderful alternatives out there that don’t come with a side of racism. 

And third (this is when I feel compelled to put my writer hat on), I’d like to encourage us all to be more thoughtful about what it means to honor someone’s legacy. So allow me to step on my soapbox for a moment.

Most of my professional writing is in the travel sector. There may come a day when my children, or my grandchildren, or their children, come across an old post or article I’ve written and think: YIKES. Perhaps I’ve reviewed a destination in an insensitive way. Maybe I’ve described a group of people I met on my travels using offensive language. Or it could be that the photos I’ve taken are now considered inappropriate when viewed through a modern lens. This very blog post that you’re reading right now might someday cause pain. I try very hard to be sensitive in the way that I write and the images I choose to include. But there are times when I will fall short or could do better.

So to my kids, if you’re reading: Delete the post. Take the article down. Pull the book off the Amazon listings. You have my full blessing. 

The legacy I want to leave you is one of critical thinking. Of respect for others, especially those who are marginalized. Of sensitivity. Of caring and compassion. Of a mindset based on the wise words of Maya Angelou, “when you know better, do better.” That’s the life lesson that I hope I have handed down to you, far more important than any words I could ever write. 

I would never want my writing to cause harm to others. I would never want my children or grandchildren to financially profit off of work that is racist, disrespectful, or unkind. So if there ever comes a day when this occurs, I hope you’ve learned something more from me than just where to place an Oxford comma. I hope that through my actions, I’ve demonstrated that when I’ve done something offensive, that I was quick to apologize. Unconditionally. And to try to right wrongs when it was in my control to do so, or to encourage those in power to do it. You have my full permission to do these things on my behalf. 

No one is perfect. I’m certainly not. I bet you recognize that you’re not. I’m sure you don’t expect perfection from your children. Well, guess what? Dr. Seuss wasn’t perfect, either. If his own family can accept that, can we please stop treating him like he was?

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Book Review: Maybe: A Story About the Endless Potential Inside All of Us

Title: Maybe: A Story About the Endless Possibilities Inside Us

Author: Kobi Yamada, Illustrated by Gabriella Barouch

Publisher: Compendium, 2019

ISBN#- 978-1-946873-75-0

I’m going to say it. This is the most beautiful picture book I have ever read. And let’s just say, I’ve read many. The words by Kobi Yamada are uplifting and empowering. He encourages the reader to think about potential as both a wonder and something attainable. I immediately ordered a few of these to give away for graduation gifts.

After finishing, review the book together and look for examples of thread, leaves, the pig, and other repeated elements. Why do you think illustrator made these choices?

But it’s the art by Gabriella Barouch that really knocked my socks (and my shoes, for that matter) right off. I wanted to stare at every little detail. I immediately reread it and noticed more. Copied images and my words just can’t do them justice. It’s as though she’s captured every thread of every being. Speaking of thread, look for the way thread is represented throughout the book as well. I missed a few of these details the first time I read it. In an interview with The Children’s Book Review, I learned that Barouch had turned down 50 other illustration proposals before accepting Yamada’s request. Believe it or not, this is her debut picture book! 

The adorable pig seen in the illustrations is also available for purchase. I found myself wondering about the significance of the pig (and several items found throughout, housed in glass jars), but it all comes together beautifully in the end! Younger readers may need help understanding the significance of the last two pages. 

While the recommended reading age is 4-8, or preschool through 2nd grade, I can’t imagine anyone not appreciating this book. In fact, many teachers and librarians read Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss at the end of the year and this would make a wonderful replacement for those looking to make a change. 

I was surprised to see that this book has not appeared to have won any awards or have starred reviews. It has a 4.69/5 rating on Goodreads (extremely high!) and 92% of Amazon readers gave it a 5/5. 

Reading author and illustrator dedications is something I never skip, and often come back to after I finish reading. Even Yamada’s dedication on the title page (found in the back) is worth noting:

Dear Shale and Ever, 

The quality of your life will mirror the quality of the questions you ask yourself.

Love, 

Dad

Use this is a great conversation starter with your own children. Maybe their thoughts just might surprise you.

Works Cited: 

Schulze, Bianca. “Kobi Yamada and Gabriella Barouch Discuss Maybe.” The Children’s Book Review, Sept. 25, 2019. https://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/2019/09/kobi-yamada-and-gabriella-barouch-discuss-maybe

Seuss, Dr. Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Random House Books for Young Readers, 1990. 

Yamada, Kobi. Maybe: A Story About the Endless Potential In All of Us. Compendium, 2019. 

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Book Review: Four Dead Queens, a YA Triple Threat!

Title: Four Dead Queens

Author: Astrid Scholte

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2019

ISBN#- 978-0-525-51392-6

While I don’t pretend to read a lot of YA (books designated as appropriate for “young adults,” typically for ages 12 and up) this book is a legit triple threat and had me hooked until the last page. I was, in fact, so hooked, that I had checked out both the physical book from the library and downloaded the audiobook on my Libby app so I could read before bed and while doing household tasks! 

Fantasy! Murder! Mystery! Oh my! 

FANTASY: Set in Quadara, a land divided into four separate areas, ruled by four separate queens, Quadara had been ruled predictably for the last 400 years. Each land had its own specialties (agriculture/trade/technology/arts) and centered around the palace, locked in the middle. I love when fantasy books include maps and other “insider” information before the book begins, so I was thrilled with the detailed map and rules and well-known expressions from each of the quadrants. I’ve always felt inclusion of details like these help set the reader up for success, especially those on the younger end. 

MURDER- Yep, the title gives this one away. The reader even knows about the murders and how they are completed early on. What makes it so good? 

MYSTERY- You guess it, it’s the mystery! The reader is given full access to the perspectives of all four queens and additional main characters, Keralie (a 17-year old Torian who makes her way by thievery), Mackiel (a slightly older Torian who runs the black market trade in Toria), and Varin (a 17-year old Eonist messenger). Woven throughout the mystery of the murders: the unveiling of secrets behind the four queens, Keralie, Mackiel, and Varin. The reader is left to decide if these secrets contribute to the murders and whether or not they can be stopped in time. 

“Sometimes failure is the beginning of success.” ~Varin

 Four Dead Queens is fast-paced, action-packed, and has just the right amount of twists and turns to keep the pages turning. Just when I thought the adventures were becoming predictable, the plot, built upon a combination of the reader’s knowledge of the inner-workings and rules of Quadara and the characters from both outside and inside the golden-domed palace. 

For parents wondering about age-appropriateness, there are definitely elements of romance (kissing and mention of nudity). There are a handful of swear words as well. Lesbian relationships are also present. I recommend this read for 8th grade and up.

I rarely ever read a book and hope for a movie. However, this might be an exception. Although this is a debut novel for Astrid Scholte, it’s clear she has spent her life devoted to the art of fantasy. She’s worked for Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney! The book reads like the kind of movie you leave the theater feeling happy you spent the money to watch. 

I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Other reviews include: 

“A fierce, darkly compelling protagonist…and readers will want to double back to get a better look at the various turns of the enticingly twisting timeline.” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“The story takes unexpected turns, has complicated characters who develop over time, and ends unpredictably …. A recommended addition to young adult fantasy/dystopian collections.” School Library Journal

Penguin released this trailer to build excitement. Feel free to dangle it in front a potential reluctant reader. 🙂

Works Cited:

Adeyemi, Tomi. (2018) Legacy of Orishi. Henry Holt and Company. 

Collins, Suzanne. (2008) The Hunger Games Trilogy. Scholastic. 

Scholte, Astrid. (2019) Four Dead Queens. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Voels, Sarah.  (2019) “Four Dead Queens.” School Library Journal. 

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Book Review: We Dream of Space, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: We Dream of Space

Author: Erin Entrada Kelly

Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 2020

ISBN#: 978-0-06-274730-3

Chances are, if you’re around my age (early 40’s), you’ll have a memory etched in your mind like I have: the image of the Challenger exploding shortly after take-off. You might even remember where you were when you saw it. I was in my  living room, home on a snow day. I remember my mother being speechless. I remember having lots of questions. I remember being sad. 

Naturally, picking up any Newbery Honor title is of interest to us, but We Dream of Space was of particular interest, as it follows three siblings in the month or so leading up to the Challenger launch in 1986. Once I got over the fact it had a “historical fiction” label on the side of the book (My childhood is now considered “historical!”), I immediately started LOVING all of the 80’s pop culture references, from the banana clip Ms. Salonga, the science teacher wears, to Tab soda to Dr. J. to Rocky. 

The Nelson-Thomas family dynamic is simple for readers to understand on the surface, but the beauty of the book resides in the slow reveal of how an emotionally distant family creates adolescents who have to dig really deep in order to navigate life. The parents argue all the time and barely interact with their children. The siblings, 7th grade twins Bird (female) and Fitch (male), plus older brother Cash (retained for poor grades, also a 7th grader) also barely interact with each other. Each revolves in their own orbit, until the Challenger explosion creates an opportunity for them to realize none of them will be able to reach their potential without the support of each other. 

Bird- a sensible, smart, self-doubting, but hopeful future astronaut
Fitch- arcade-loving, temper flaring, Choose Your Own Adventure-reading, competitive brother
Cash- down-on-his-luck basketball player, who is striking out with the ladies and his studies brother

Structurally, the book takes turns telling the story from the perspective of the three kids. I think this format works REALLY well for kids that are reluctant to read books with primary characters of the opposite sex since male and females tell the story. The book is long,  nearly 400 pages, although the font seems slightly larger than usual and the short chapters told from alternating viewpoints make for a faster-than-expected experience. 

The author, Erin Entrada Kelly is no stranger to the awards spotlight. Her novel Hello, Universe won the Newbery Medal in 2018. We Dream of Space is a 2020 Newbery Honor book as well as a Goodreads Choice 2020 Nominee. It has many, many starred reviews. Kelly includes several pages of additional research at the end on the Challenger and the astronauts that perished that will be of interest to many kids. 

We Dream of Space offers an exceptional portrayal of the endless ways in which parental dysfunction affects every member of a family. It’s also a celebration of the need for optimism, compassion and teamwork in the face of disasters both individual and communal.” — BookPage.com (starred review)

The suggested ages for this book are 8-12, or grades 3-7, but may be a good pick for older readers who are reading below grade level. Despite the Nelson Thomas kids being in 7th grade, they are very independent and mature. 

For kids that are interested in more information about the Challenger, I recommend these titles: 

Kelly, Erin Entrada. We Dream of Space. Greenwillow Books, 2020.

BookPage.com, Best Books of 2020: https://bookpage.com/features/25734-best-books-2020-middle-grade#.YDmhhmhKhPY

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Book Review: Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu

Title: Eventown

Author: Corey Ann Haydu

Publisher: Katherine Teegan Books, 2019

ISBN#: 978-0062689818

Middle grade fantasy comes in a variety of make believe; from talking cats hiding in bathtubs to space invaders from galaxies far, far away. However, in Eventown, the magic is lurking under the surface in just about everything, even if new resident twins Elodee and Naomi don’t quite know it yet. 

When the book begins, it’s clear that Elodee and Naomi, along with their parents, have been under stress for the last half-year, although readers don’t find out why until much, much later. Choosing a “fresh start” over more of the same, they leave most of their possessions, including many favorites, behind as they return to Eventown, a place they once visited before. In Eventown, everything seems better and well, perfect. Elodee’s recipes are near flawless and Naomi rarely needs to practice gymnastics in order to produce a perfect routine (which just so happens to be the same routine as all her teammates). The weather is always sunny, teachers are always kind, and the ice cream…well, it never melts. 

After Elodee’s sharing session at the Welcoming Center is interrupted, odd things begin happening. The rose bush they brought from Juniper doesn’t look like all the other rose bushes in town. Weeds begin appearing. And then…it begins to rain. 

Elodee, along with new sidekick Veena, make a risky decision to get to the bottom of not just this mystery, but a few other nagging issues that result in quite the discovery. Things aren’t what they appear to be in Eventown. 

While I greatly enjoyed the mystery lurking underneath this story, the book also serves as a vehicle in tackling some big topics, like mental illness, suicide, and grief. Concepts about identity and embracing your imperfections also heavily define this book. However, my favorite theme in this book is simple: love.

“Love, in the way we take care of each other when we’re hurting. Love, in a town covered in vines and thorns and roses and color. Love, strongest in the worst, scariest, most painful moments. Love, even better when the sky is gray and your heart is breaking.” (p. 324)

While the Lively family is portrayed as white, they become friends with an Indian family. Another secondary character has two moms. 

Although Amazon lists this book as being well-suited for kids 8-12 or grades 3-7, I think parents of kids on the younger end of this spectrum should be advised of the heavy-hitting topics. It would make a great book to read together. On the flip side, I think this book could be of high interest to lower readers in the upper grades. 

This title earned 3 starred reviews (Publishers’ Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews), but perhaps the best review of this book comes from another esteemed middle grade author, Rebecca Stead: 

“A wonderful and inventive story about being a kid in an imperfect world—beautiful, mysterious, and deeply satisfying.”

Rebecca Stead

I gave this book a 5 star review on Goodreads.

Read-alikes for this book could include Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson-Haddix. While this book would be considered historical fiction and not fantasy, the element of “things aren’t as they appear to be” is the same, a very good way to hook kids into finishing the book.

Another fantasy title that deals with grief, love, and identity, albeit in a different way, would be Newbery winner When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller. You can see our review on it here. 

Do your kids like a preview or book trailer before they commit? Try this one!

Haydu, Corey Ann. Eventown. Katherine Teegan, 2019.

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