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Book Review: Starfish

Title: Starfish

Author: Lisa Fipps

Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021

“Mom, I absolutely know this is the best book I’ve ever read. Let’s read it sloooooow so it lasts longer.”

When your daughter loves a book this much, it’s pretty much mandatory that you interview her and capture the moment. What I wasn’t expecting was for Miss E to then write her own questions to interview me. And, um, well….they were better than my questions. See for yourself.

R: You’ve said this is your favorite book of all time. What makes it so special?

E: It makes you look at the world from a new perspective. You don’t ever really know what is happening at home with other people. 

R: You also said everyone, even adults, should read this book. What do you think would happen if that wish came true?

E: Everyone would be able to put themselves in the shoes of Ellie and others that might be different then they are. People would be kinder and realize just because someone is different than you are, doesn’t mean they should be treated differently. 

R: Lately, your favorite books have been novels in verse. Why do you keep coming back for more?

E: When I browse through certain books I think about how long it will take me to read them. But when I see a novel written in verse I think about how much I’m going to enjoy it, not how long it will take me to read it. 

R: If you could ask a character in Starfish a question, who would it be and what would you ask?

E: I would ask Ellie if her mother changed her ways after the last session with Doc. 

E: How do you think Catalina’s family helped Ellie?

R: Catalina’s family provided a second family for her. She was comfortable in her own skin and saw examples of unconditional love at their house. 

E: What was your favorite part in the book?

R: I loved it when Mrs. Boardman asked Ellie to share her favorite quote from the book she read. Ellie shared one from Song for a Whale: “The whale didn’t need to be fixed. He was the whale who sang his own song.” (p. 184). I think it’s a reminder to live life the way YOU want, not compare yourself to others and their expectations. 

E: How would you deal with Ellie’s mom if you were Ellie?

R: I think, with the help of Doc, Ellie handled her mom- perfectly by the end of the book. I’m not sure Ellie would have been able to do that if her dad hadn’t brought her to Doc. I’d like to think I could have been brave like her. Ellie is one of my new heroes. 

Have we convinced you yet to give this book a try? We certainly hope so! Let us know! And we’d love to read an interview of your own!

We Need Diverse Books

When it comes to youth literature, I think you would be hard pressed to find someone nowadays who would say it’s a bad thing to have more books featuring diversity and/or diverse characters. Just take a look at some of the major movements that are currently taking the publishing industry by storm. I’m sure many of you have heard of either #ownvoices or “We Need Diverse Books,” just two examples of recent literary movements. As the great educator Rudine Sims Bishop put it, books are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Not only do diverse books allow kids to see themselves reflected in the characters and stories they read, but they also serve as a window readers can look through to view life from a different perspective, or as a door for kids to use to step into experiences unlike those they’ve had and envision themselves in someone else’s shoes.

But it’s not enough to check an item off a list and confirm that a specific number or proportion of books meet certain “diverse” criteria, or even to try and assign specific qualities to define diversity. If we want our kids to become real readers, we need to work to get great books that they want to read into their hands. And this involves having a better understanding of the different ways diversity presents itself in books, especially those for younger readers.

 So you want get some books with diversity into your kids’ hands. FANTASTIC! But where do you start? Well, the most common type, and probably the kind of book that most people first think of when it comes to books with diverse characters, are often referred to as “issue books.” Typically found more in realistic fiction, these are stories where the character’s diversity plays a central role to the plot. For example, the graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft (the first graphic novel to ever win the Newberry Award btw!) is a story about Jordan, a 7th grader, as he starts his first year at a new prestigious school where he is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. Or Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, a story of the self-discovery and growth of a Black and transgender teen named Felix. Issue books also can take the form of historical fiction books, such as Ground Zero by Alan Gratz (reviewed earlier on this blog, be sure to check it out here!). There are many examples of issue books that can be found online and they are amazing ways for kids to learn about perspectives different from their own. They also hopefully provide a chance for kids to see themselves reflected in characters on the page. These stories can often be heavy and emotionally draining, though, and kids sometimes just want to read things that are fun and adventurous.

You probably don’t know me, but I am a huge fan of the science fiction and fantasy genres. My discovery of these speculative fiction genres at an early age understandably played an enormous role in turning me into the wild reader that I am today. But when it comes to the topics of diversity, these two genres have historically been pretty not-great. That may be an understatement as, for much of literary history, fantasy and sci-fi have often been exclusively written by and for white, cisgender, straight males. But in the last decade or two, that has been changing, and definitely for the better.

Authors are realizing that there aren’t any rules when it comes to building their fictional worlds, and that means they can have any type of character they want in these stories.

Can a boy attending wizarding school who needs to save his world from an evil power begin to fall in love with his best friend, who is also a boy? Absolutely (Carry On by Rainbow Rowell)! Can a Black girl who is next in line to be queen desperately wish to go off on a forbidden monster hunting adventure with her brother? Of course (A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying by Kelley Armstrong)!

This brings me to the second type of diverse storytelling, “incidental diversity.” Incidental diversity is when you have diversity in the cast of characters, but it is something that is only mentioned or secondary to the main, overarching plot. There are many realistic-fiction books that fall into this category, like the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series by Jenny Han, a high school romance story about a girl who is Korean-American. You can also see why this is a special place for sci-fi and fantasy to really shine! So if you have kids who love escaping into adventures, I’ve got some great recommendations for you at the end of this post.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!! Not only can sci-fi and fantasy stories have great diverse characters, but they can also have diverse settings as well. Ever notice how a lot of fantasy stories are set in medieval, European-type settings (Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, basically every popular fantasy world…)? Well, there are actually a lot of books that are set outside of that stereotype and use other cultures and histories to provide framework for the fictional worldbuilding. The first story I read with a world like that is called Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, which is a YA fantasy story set in a middle-eastern inspired fantasy world. I couldn’t believe how much of a breath of fresh air the setting was and how much of an impact a seemingly small shift like that had on a story. And it’s not limited to the fantasy genre—Warcross by Marie Lu is a YA high-tech sci-fi story that takes place in futuristic Japan. It’s pretty neat what authors have been able to come up when they harness the full potential of the fantasy and sci-fi genres!

All of this is to say that diverse books are amazing.

And while there are many fantastic diverse books out there that are educational and conscience-expanding, we also want kids to read things that they devour and that will foster a passion for reading to last them well beyond their childhood.

I’m here to say that you can have the best of both worlds, and if your kids love sci-fi and fantasy as much as I did growing up, there are lots of incredible options out there, and many more to be published in the coming years. I want you, as parents, grandparents, and caregivers, to know that there is the perfect book out there for your kids—ones they can fall in love with, ones with characters who look or act or feel like them, and even ones that can take them on adventures, all while also providing literary diversity. If you or your kids ever feel stuck in finding a book, don’t hesitate to reach out to your school or local public librarian for some recommendations! Learning how to help people find the right books has been one of the most fulfilling and exciting parts of my library school education, and I am sure there are lots of librarians out there like me. You can also reach out to me directly, and I would be more than happy to help you out as well! I’ll leave my contact info in the bio below (I can even help you, as adults, find your next great read if you are interested).

Here are some recommendations for the best books I have read over the last couple years which fall into my favorite genres of sci-fi and fantasy and have components of diversity to them:

Middle Grade

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat – A retelling of the Les Mis story, but set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world. Pong is an escaped prisoner who must decide whether his own freedom is worth fighting for the equality of the people in his corrupt city.

A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying by Kelley Armstrong – Rowan is next in line to be queen, but all she wants to do is to trade places with her twin brother, Rhydd, who is the next in line to be the Royal Monster Hunter. When Rowan sets off on an expressly forbidden monster hunt on her own, she sets off a chain of events that shakes the very foundation of their kingdom.

­Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier – A historical-fantasy story about an orphaned Jewish girl who is raised as a child chimney sweep. When a mysterious creature rescues her from her dangerous job, Nan realizes she might just be able to change her corner of the world for the better with the help of her new friend and “monster”.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill – Luna has been raised by a witch named Xan her whole life, but when she suddenly gains magical powers as she approaches her 13th birthday, the local village feels threatened by their existence. In order to protect the world she loves, Luna must figure out who she is and her connection to the villagers before it’s too late.

Young Adult

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn – 16-year-old Bree stumbles into a secret order founded by the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur while taking early college courses on UNC campus. As she fights to keep her own unique magical abilities hidden from them, she must also fight the systemic racism that is ingrained in the roots of both UNC and this top secret order.

Strange the Dreamer ­by Laini Taylor – Set in a middle-eastern inspired fantasy world, orphan and junior librarian Lazlo has been obsessed with the mythical lost city of Weep ever since he was little. When he discovers that it is far more real than anyone could have imagined, he jumps at the chance of a lifetime to not only visit, but to help rescue the city from catastrophe.

The Beast Player by Uehashi Nahoko – Set in an ancient Japanese inspired fantasy world, Elin escapes to a mountain town when her mother is sentenced to death when the magical creatures she cares for a mysteriously killed. As Ellin grows up, she realizes that her love and special connection to the magical beasts of the kingdom is so unique that she is soon thrust into the center of a hostile political spotlight and only she can prevent or send the kingdom into war. 

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – Simon Snow is in his final year at Watford magical school, and he has to simultaneously grapple with his complicated feelings about his roommate, Baz, while also saving his universe from ruin by a magical entity called the Insidious Humdrum.

Warcross by Marie Lu – Centered around a futuristic Tokyo, Emika tries to make a quick buck by illegally hacking into the opening game of the World Championship of Warcross, a virtual reality platform and game. When she gets caught, she is shocked to be contacted by the creator of Warcross, and is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to use her skills as a hacker to help spy from the inside of the Warcross tournament as a player, launching her into a world of fame and fortune she has only ever dreamed of.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland – Set in alternate reality Civil-War Era America, Jane is training to be an Attendant, a personal body guard of wealthy white people, protecting them from the zombies that have started rising from the dead two years after the start of the Civil War. It’s the best position a Black girl like Jane can ever hope to achieve, but when she uncovers a conspiracy threatening to wipe out all of humanity, she has to fight for her life against some powerful enemies, the undead being the least of her

About the Author: Zach Reynolds is an almost-librarian and is set to graduate with his master’s degree in library and information science in May. With specializations in both youth and adult services, he is planning to work for a public library in the greater-Indianapolis area in the near future. He currently lives with his wife, Rachel, and his mini-dachshund, Brownie, just north of Indianapolis, and shockingly spends much of his free-time reading books for people of all ages. If you have any questions, or want any book recommendations, you can contact him by email at or follow him on GoodReads at

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.

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.

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.

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


  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.

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

Title: A Wish in the Dark

Author: Christina Soontornvat

Publisher: Candlewick, 2020


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.

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.



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.

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. 

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. 

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.” — (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., Best Books of 2020: