Tuesday, May 21, 2019

#MiddleGradeMay: Lalani of the Distant Sea

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly. Grades 5-8. Greenwillow, September 2019. 304 pages. Reviewed from digital galley provided by publisher. 

There are stories of extraordinary children who are chosen from birth to complete great quests and conquer evil villains. 
This is no such story. 

Sometimes, you are an ordinary child. 

Sometimes, you choose yourself

So begins Lalani's story. Lalani is about an ordinary a child as it gets. She's not especially smart or brave or hardworking. But times are getting desperate in her village. There's been no rain for weeks and weeks. The plants that they make into medicine are no longer growing, so the sick are dying. Lalani's father set off on a Sailing Day and never returned - just like all the sailors that leave their island - and her mother has just been been struck with mender's disease. 

There's no hero showing up to save them. But maybe all it takes is one girl, stubborn or foolish enough to start things in motion. Maybe all it takes is one girl who will never, ever give up. One ordinary girl with an extraordinary will: Lalani of the Distant Sea. 

My thoughts:

This is an extraordinary story. Based on Filipino folklore, this is a layered look at a community on the verge of something and a girl with nothing left to lose. When Lalani's father didn't come home, she got a stepfather and stepbrother who are domineering and demanding. "The sky was clear, but a storm had entered their house." When Lalani's mother takes ill, she's finally desperate to break the norm and start looking for extraordinary solutions to save her own family and the village. 

This story is set in a world of fantastic creatures, a menacing mountain that threatens the village's existence and a land of plenty that no one has ever reached (or returned from, anyway). Readers who are looking for a lush fantasy novel that's unlike anything they have read will want to pick up this book. 

It's dark. It's scary sometimes. It's rich and layered and feminist. This is a book to watch. 


Hand this to fans of The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin, 2016) by Kelly Barnhill for readers who like a rich fantasy story with a wholly original setting where you may not always know where it's going but things come together in a really satisfying way at the end. 

Hand this to fans of A Path Begins (The Thickety) (Katherine Tegen 2014( by J.A. White for readers who like a strong heroine in a dark fantasy novel with scary moments. 

Hand this to fans of Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond, 2011) for readers who love a strong everyday heroine who will stop at nothing to save her friends. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

#MiddleGradeMay: Other Words for Home

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. Grades 4-7. Balzer + Bray, 2019. 352 pages. Reviewed from galley provided by publisher.


Jude always dreamed of America, but her dream was nothing like what actually happened. She dreamed of becoming a famous movie star just like in the American movies she and her best friend watched from their seaside city in Syria. It was nothing like what actually happened - leaving her father and brother to travel to stay with family in Cincinnati as things grow more and more violent. Actually living in America is way different than the movies.

In America, Jude is "Middle Eastern". She gets looks from people and realizes that they assume that she has come from violence. She struggles to learn English and to make friends at her new school where her American cousin wants nothing to do with her. When she wants to try out for the school play, her cousin and her friends frown on it, assuming that someone with an accent will never get cast. Can this place ever feel like home? Will she ever be reunited with the other half of her family?

My thoughts:

There were so many details that struck me throughout this story - like the reaction that Jude gets when she starts wearing hijab. Strangers approach her to tell her that she doesn't have to cover herself in America, but Jude has never seen hijab as anything but a joyous symbol of growing up. And the moment when Jude realizes that everyone here assumes that her country is violent and wartorn, when in fact Syria was peaceful for most of her life and she believes it will be again. Reading this book as a white woman, it shone a light on a lot of assumptions that American make about Muslim people and Middle Eastern countries. Jude learns what it's like to see her country through the eyes of others and it's much different than how she views her own home.

And the verse is so beautifully crafted, there were so many passages that made me sit up and take notice. Jason Reynolds has a blurb on the back of the galley where he says this is a story that "peels back layers of culture and identity, fear and prejudice, exile and belonging" and that is the perfect way to explain why this story is so important.


Readers who rooted for the intrepid young heroine Ha in Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (HarperCollins, 2011), another novel in verse about a refugee girl coming to America, will root for Jude, too.

This is an older title, but another great novel in verse about the refugee experience is Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel & Friends, 2007). The way that Kek, a refugee from Sudan, experiences the overwhelming new world of America is similar to what Jude goes through. Both are lyrical portraits of the refugee experience.

And readers interested in contemporary stories of Muslim girls navigating middle school will also enjoy Amina's Voice by Hena Khan (Salaam Reads, 2017). Amina is a Pakistani-American girl and Jude is a Syrian immigrant, but both face prejudice and stereotyping as Muslim girls. Both also have a hidden talent for singing.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

#MiddleGradeMay: Because of the Rabbit

Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord. Grades 3-5. Scholastic, 2019. 192 pages. Reviewed from galley provided by publisher.  


Fifth grader Emma (formerly homeschooled) is starting public school for the first time and Scared and Excited are in a race to see which will win out. Emma's number one goal in fifth grade is to make a best friend; she's been lonely in homeschool since her older brother decided to start public school, and she figures she'll find one the very first day.

But it's not as easy as she thought it would be. There are a lot of weird rules in public school, it takes way too long to get through each day (at home she was usually done with her lessons by lunchtime), and most of the kids seem to already have established friend groups. Each day, Emma longs to get home to the newest addition to her family: a pet rabbit that she and her game warden dad rescued and that Emma has named Monsieur Lapin in honor of the forest stories her Pepere used to tell her.

It turns out that Lapi might just be the key to making a new friend, but not the first friend Emma would have chosen. Jack, a kid who sits in her desk cluster and who has special needs, LOVES animals. Emma has a list of things she's looking for in a best friend: likes the things she likes, always chooses her side, accepts her for herself... and Jack ticks a lot of those boxes. But, while the other kids in class are mostly kind to Jack, no one hangs out with him outside of school. If Emma befriends Jack is she branding herself a weirdo? Can she find the strength to navigate school and stay true to herself?

My thoughts: 

This is the sweet, realistic story that we've come to expect from Cynthia Lord. Emma is a likeable character who is easy to root for, even when she's sometimes making questionable choices. I loved the strong sense of setting, a small community in the mountains of Maine and Emma's house on the lake and all the nature all around them.

And even though this is a gentle story, it packs a bit of a punch, as well. I found myself getting emotional towards the end as Emma tackles something that is really hard for her to do, even though it's the right thing to do. The characters really felt real to me and that makes sense since a lot of this story was inspired by elements of the author's life - she has an adult son with autism, her children were homeschooled and her daughter went from that to public school, and they even keep rabbits.


Young animal lovers will eat this book with a spoon. Hand it to readers who enjoyed A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold (Walden Pond, 2017), which also features a neurodiverse character obsessed with animals.

Readers who enjoyed the adventures of a former homeschooler starting middle school in graphic novel All's Fair in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (Dial, 2017) will also be interested in Emma's journey.

And readers who like school stories about unlikely friends like Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (Scholastic, 2016) will love reading about Emma's quest to make a friend.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Romance Project: Update #2

It's time for another update on my Romance Project! In 2019, I started a project to read more romance novels in order to become more familiar with this super popular and fast-growing genre. I posted my first update a couple of months ago and it's time to update you again with the titles I have been reading and enjoying. If you have suggestions for titles or authors I should read (particularly LGBT titles - I would love to read some in honor of Pride Month!), let me know in comments!

(Please note that although this IS #MiddleGradeMay, these are decidedly adult titles and NOT middle grade!)

A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (Avon, 2018).

My first Alyssa Cole for the Romance Project and it won't be the last! I really enjoyed this modern romance with a strong, STEM-focused female lead. When Naledi starts getting emails claiming that she's betrothed to the prince of an African country, she's sure she's getting scammed. Meanwhile, Prince Thabiso is trying to track down the woman he's been betrothed to since they were children since his parents are insisting that he marry soon. It's an enjoyable romp that includes epidemiology and a private plane, so yes, please.

Josh & Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren (Gallery, 2018).

This book has made me a huge Christina Lauren fan and I'm going to now seek out all their books. This modern romantic comedy stars Hazel - a wild and wacky 3rd grade teacher who knows she's a little much sometimes - and Josh - a focused physical therapist and brother to Hazel's best friend. Hazel and Josh know they're nothing alike and completely undateable, but when Josh catches his long-term girlfriend cheating on him and Hazel tries to cheer him up, they spark up a friendship. This is a fun and funny steamy romance with such loveable characters that I couldn't put it down. This would make a great beach or airplane read.

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean (Avon, 2010).

Now this is a historical romance that I really enjoyed with a feminist slant and a heroine with a true sense of agency. Having entered the "spinster years" of her late 20s, Lady Calpurnia has all but given up on marriage. When her little sister happily announces her engagement, Callie starts to wonder what her impeccable reputation is doing for her if she's never going to be married. So, at her brother's urging, Callie starts a list of activities she would do if she was not worried about her reputation. Activities that a lady would NEVER do. Things like shooting a gun, drinking whiskey, and fencing. And then Callie starts to check activities off the list. This book was recommended to me by romance readers for a more feminist historical romance and it definitely checked all the boxes!

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (Avon, 2018). 

See, I told you that wouldn't be my last Alyssa Cole, and I enjoyed this one even more than the first Reluctant Royals book. This standalone sequel features Ledi's best friend Portia who is tired of being a fuck-up. When she gets the opportunity to apprentice at an armory in Scotland, she takes it and decides to debut the New Portia - no drinking, no men, just concentrating on her career and not letting anyone down. But she definitely didn’t bargain on a smokin’ silver fox of a boss and the instant connection they would feel... and she DEFINITELY didn't bargain for the fact that he would turn out to be the lost lost heir to a dukedom. 

Have suggestions for me? I'd love to hear what titles and authors you recommend! Particularly LGBT, but any suggestions welcome!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

#MiddleGradeMay: Pie in the Sky

Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai. Grades 3-7. Henry Holt, 2019. Digital galley provided by publisher.


Jingwen feels like he's just landed on Mars when his plane touches down in Australia. There's only one English word he's really mastered - BOOGER - because his annoying little brother is a giant booger. School is a torture chamber where he's forced to repeat the fifth grade and still doesn't understand anything because everything is taught in English. He has no friends and he's afraid to try to talk to anyone since he probably won't be able to respond to them anyway.

The only thing that gets Jingwen through the day is what his brother calls CAKE TIME! Every afternoon after school when Jingwen's mother goes to work, Jingwen and Yanghao buy groceries and bake a cake from the menu of his father's dream bakery, Pie in the Sky. The bakery was his father's dream and he didn't live long enough to see it through, so Jingwen bakes the fancy cakes they would have had on the menu as a way to feel good about himself and feel connected to his father.

Of course the boys are NOT ALLOWED to use the oven when they're home alone and they could get into big trouble, so they have to keep their baking an absolute secret AND they must eat the entire cake every night. How long 'til Yanghao blows their secret? How long 'til eating all that cake makes one of them blow chunks? How long 'til Jingwen's longing to feel at home stops being just "pie in the sky" - an impossible dream?

My thoughts:

This is a pitch-perfect story that explores how tough moving to a new place and learning a new language can be. Jingwen spends hours and hours on his homework even though he's repeating the fifth grade. He knows the answers if he can understand the questions, but understanding the questions is the tough part. Throughout the book, Jingwen talks about seashells - seashells that he collected and asked his mother to hold for him, even though it weighed down her pockets. They come to represent Jingwen's feelings of guilt over his father's death.

The cartoon illustrations add so much to the book - Remy Lai uses gibberish symbols to show how English sounds like an alien language to Jingwen. His frustration is compounded by how easily his younger brother is picking up the language. As we read, we begin to learn that it's not just a lack of practice that holds Jingwen back, but a refusal to accept his life in Australia and the fact that his father passed away and his feelings of guilt about his father's death.

And it's a story about brotherhood - Jingwen is the oldest and has to take care of his little brother, but he carries a lot of resentment. Yanghao is picking up the language more quickly and seems fearless about speaking it, not caring if he makes mistakes. Because Yanghao's more willing to try, he makes friends and succeeds in school where Jingwen lets his fear and embarrassment hold him back. It's hard to be the big brother caring for a younger brother who sometimes translates for you and can talk to the librarians to book a computer.

This is a book that's both salty and sweet, like the perfect salted caramel sauce.


The humor and graphic novel portions of this book make it a great read for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate, even though the subject matter carries more gravity than in those books.

New Kid by Jerry Craft is a full graphic novel and uses humor to explore a similar feeling of being a new kid and a kid who stands out from the other kids around you.

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman is another character-driven book for budding foodies about kids who love cooking but must keep their kitchen exploits a secret.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Ten Picture Books for Mother's Day

Mother's Day is coming up on Sunday, May 12 and if you're looking for some special books to share with loved ones or display in your library, I have ten great ones today.


Baby Goes to Market by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank (Candlewick, 2017). As Mama and Baby go through the market together, shopkeepers can't help but slip Baby treats, which Mama doesn't notice until her basket starts to get very heavy. This is a sweet, funny story with cute, colorful illustrations.

Bedtime for Mommy by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Bloomsbury, 2010). This silly story flips the bedtime narrative on its head as Mommy begs her little girl for five more minutes and daughter has to put her foot down and get Mommy to bed.


The Mommy Book / The Grandma Book by Todd Parr (Little, Brown, 2002 and 2006 respectively). I am a huge fan of Todd Parr's colorful art and silly, impactful stories. Both of these books show lots of different ways that moms and grandmas show love to the kids in their lives. 


Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Bigelow-Thompson, illustrated by Ebony Glen (Salaam Reads, 2018). This sweet book features a young Muslim girl playing dress-up with her mom's headscarves in all colors of the rainbow.

Soup Day by Melissa Iwai (Henry Holt, 2010). On a cold day, a mother and daughter go to the grocery and buy all the ingredients to make vegetable soup together. This is a great story to celebrate the everyday moments of kids doing something with their mothers.

A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager, illustrated by Mike Blanc (Vanita Books, 2011). In this story, a young boy at the beach meets a couple other kids and answers questions about his two mommies. I love the colorful illustrations and the matter of fact, reassuring presentation of a boy being raised by a same-sex couple.

Don't forget grandmas! Since my brother's daughters were born it's been a pleasure for me to find books that my mom can enjoy with her grandkids.


Grandma's Purse by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Knopf, 2018). If my niece loves anything about when grandma comes to visit, it's that grandma will let her go through her purse. I will never forget the day that 2-year-old S asked if she could put grandma's credit card in her piggy bank. If you have a similarly-minded grandchild, this may be the perfect book for you.

Grandma's Tiny House by Janay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Priscilla Burris (Charlesbridge, 2017). Grandma may have a tiny house, but that's not going to stop her from inviting the whole family (and I do mean the WHOLE family) over to share a special meal together. This is a book we love to use around Thanksgiving time, even though it is not a specified Thanksgiving story, because the theme of getting the family together for a meal works wonderfully for that time of year, too.

I Really Want to See You Grandma by Taro Gomi (Chronicle, 2018). In this story, grandchild and grandma get the same idea at the same time - it's time for a visit. But since they're both traveling to meet the other, they end up missing each other! Will they ever actually meet? This is a sweet, funny story to share and reinforce the idea that grandma is always up for a visit.

What other books featuring moms or grandmas do you love to break out this time of year?

Friday, May 3, 2019

#MiddleGradeMay: My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

Okay, I cheated and finished this one up in April so that I would have something to post right away for #MiddleGradeMay. 

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi (Dutton, August 2019). Grades 5-8. Galley provided by publisher.


Ebony Grace would much rather be spending the summer at home with her granddaddy, one of the first black engineers to integrate NASA and the inspiration for her obsession with all things space, especially Star Trek and Star Wars. INSTEAD, she's been sent to another planet - Harlem - to stay with her dad while her mom takes care of something having to do with her granddaddy (no one will tell her what). E-Grace uses her imagination location to turn her summer trip into a mission for the starship Uhura, but the other kids in her neighborhood do NOT want to play along. 

Even Bianca, the girl who lives in her daddy's building and who has spent many hours playing space missions with her on previous visits, has changed. No longer interested in visiting the junkyard and building rockets, Bianca is jumping double dutch and breakdancing with her crew - other girls on their block who have all named themselves after ice cream flavors. So how to survive a summer on an alien planet completely surrounded by strange beings with ways you don't understand? Use your imagination location, stay true to yourself, and don't forget the prime directive. 

My thoughts:

Ibi Zoboi's middle grade debut is a story about an oddball girl who doesn't fit in with the other kids - E-Grace doesn't understand the stuff they're interested in and she has no desire to compromise herself to get along. This makes for a hard summer, a lonely summer. E-Grace is facing a lot of challenges - not only with the other kids but also with her family. She's been shipped up to a different state to spend the summer with a father she doesn't know too well who doesn't actually have a lot of time to be with her. All in the interest of getting her out of the way of whatever is happening with her grandfather. She's out of the loop in a way that breaks her heart but that's not atypical for kids. When tough stuff happens, sometimes the kids are just gotten out of the way to try to make life easier for everyone. 

All this is to say that I didn't always like Ebony-Grace, but I think that's the point. She's one of those kids who is a little TOO MUCH sometimes. But I don't think I'll ever forget her and I was definitely rooting for her the whole time.


I would hand this to readers who identified with or rooted for Sunny by Jason Reynolds - Sunny and Ebony-Grace are both quirky characters who march to the beat of their own drummers and aren't willing to conform to what others might want for them. 

And I would hand this to readers who enjoyed the strong sense of setting and capable girl leads of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


It's May, which means it's time to DEARMG - Drop Everything And Read Middle Grade! This is a great month to catch up on that middle grade reading you've been meaning to do. Want to participate? Grab the graphic above for your blog posts or whatever else you want to use it for. Tweet or post on Instagram (or whatever other social media you use) what you're reading with our hashtag #MiddleGradeMay. And read, read, read!

Set your own goal for the month - Akoss is challenging everyone to read in a genre they don't normally read. I'm challenging myself to read ahead and tackle some of the galleys I've got burning a hole in my Kindle. You can take a peek at my Middle Grade May TBR pile here. Of course, as I put my list together I also grabbed a ton that I need to catch up on from earlier in the year, last year, etc.

I'll be reading and posting throughout the month and Tweeting, too. I would love to know what middle grade you have loved recently or what you're looking forward to!