Book Review: CLICK HERE TO START by Denis Markell

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Denis Markell incorporates a classic mystery with a spine-tingling twist into a breath-taking novel. Ted is a gaming geek who always has Caleb, his best friend, at his side. New girl Isabel is a sucker for romance. Together they must solve a mystery that is more than just clues and hints . . .

Read Denis Markell’s debut novel Click Here to Start to find out if they will end this crime-filled mystery.

IMG_0160My name is Quinn Samson, I’m in 5th grade, and I am 10 years old. Both of my teachers inspire me every day to be myself and be creative. My ELA and S.S. teacher, Mrs. Picone, is the one who encouraged me to write this. The reason I write reviews is so that I can share the powerful words of authors with everyone. Every time I write a review it makes me feel so good that I have helped others. In addition to reading, I play soccer and lacrosse. I also love to color and play with my brothers. My family is always so supportive with everything that I do.

Book Review: THE WITCH BOY by Molly Knox Ostertag

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Aster has a problem. He’s 13, the age at which he should know the animal into which he will shapeshift, a crucial part of growing up as a boy in his magical family. But Aster feels no connection to any animal, and doubts he will ever learn to shift. He’s far more interested in the potions and spells that his sister and female cousins are learning as they mature into full witches. But he’s always being chased away as he tries to eavesdrop on their lessons.

“This lesson isn’t for you,” his aunt tells him in the first pages of Molly Knox Ostertag’s graphic novel The Witch Boy. “These girls are learning secrets.”

Secrets of more than one kind abound in this book. Sensitive Aster isn’t the only family member who has known he’s a witch deep down inside: He’s heard the cautionary story of Mikasi, his matriarchal grandmother’s twin brother, who sought to become a witch and became a monster instead.

Teased by both his male and female cousins, Aster wanders away from his forest home to a nearby suburban neighborhood where he can practice mild magic without being observed. There he meets Charlie, a girl who broke her leg confronting her world’s gender roles when she challenged a group of boys to a daredevil bicycle move—and did it first.

Charlie quickly becomes not just Aster’s friend but his rock, giving him a safe place to talk about his feelings—and even to practice his burgeoning witch’s magic on her broken leg.

Tensions rise back in the forest as Aster’s shapeshifting cousins start disappearing—and when one returns in a horrible monstrous form, Aster is approached by the mysterious creature that had lured them all away. The creature says that it’s the only thing that can teach Aster how to shift, and if Aster agrees to learn, he’ll become more powerful than any other shifter. Aster has a choice: to take the creature’s help and become the shapeshifter his parents and whole family want him to be, or to use his witch’s abilities to try to rescue the other boys.

Ostertag neatly shifts story conventions as her sweet and sensitive male protagonist confronts gender stereotypes and restrictions. The story also hints at more than just a dichotomy of genders, late in the book introducing a character who is both a witch and shapeshifter. The illustrations are vivid and colorful, depicting the bright calm of Charlie’s world, the mystery and menace of Aster’s, and the nightmare landscape of the creature’s.

The Witch Boy is a powerful warning of the dangers—and hurt—that results when gender roles and expectations fail to recognize who people truly are. Highly recommended.

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All things medieval fascinate children’s author Diane Magras: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of medieval Scotland, where her stories are set. Her middle grade fantasy adventure The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (March 6, 2018, KD Books/Penguin Younger Readers) is her debut novel.

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Using Character-Specific Figurative Language to Enhance Voice

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The MG at Heart team is happy to share our first mid-month post! This month, we’re analyzing the delightful voice in our January pick, Anna Meriano’s Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Magic, and considering what other writers can learn from it.

It’s easy to tell when a story has a great voice, but it’s not so easy to say why that’s the case. When the voice is especially strong, readers are invited right into the mind and world of the character whose point of view we’re following. There’s something special and vibrant about the rhythm, word choice, and personality of the narrative. Something wonderful . . . but a bit difficult to pin down.

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Because voice is an elusive concept, it can be a hard element for writers to work on. Some people even believe voice can’t be taught. But voice is all about specificity: the sense that we readers are getting a unique, fully-realized character’s account, and no other character would perceive or phrase things in quite the same way.

One thing writers can do to can enhance the voice in their stories is to figure out the specific lens through which the point-of-view character sees the world and then filter the character’s language choices through that lens. This is something Anna Meriano does masterfully in Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble.

The book is told from Leonora “Leo” Logroños’s point of view, and the third-person voice is absolutely charming, in part because of the way Anna Meriano uses character-specific figurative language to convey Leo’s thoughts and emotions.

If you’re reading the novel along with us, you know that Leo’s family owns a bakery and Leo desperately wants to help out as much as her older sisters do, especially after she discovers that her mother, sisters, and aunts are brujas who add magic to their recipes. Baking is an important part of Leo’s life, so it shapes the lens through which she sees the world. Here are some of the times when Anna Meriano uses baking-related figurative language to bring Leo’s voice to life:

“A plan started to rise like dough inside Leo.” (17)

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“Half worried from Caroline’s talk about secrets, half furious that she was being left out again, Leo felt her bad feelings swell like cake in an oven.” (21)

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“Mamá would be boiling-oil mad if she found out that Leo had left school without permission.” (22)

“Her brain felt like a stuffed empanada, with Mamá’s words oozing out the sides like guava jelly.” (24)

These examples work so well in part because the sentence structures are interesting and varied, and there are vivid verbs such as “ooze” and “swell.” But in addition, thanks to the baking language, these sentences help us get to know Leo and experience the world through her unique perspective. They convey emotions in an original way, without resorting to clichés. They are specifically and vibrantly Leo. “Boiling-oil mad” has so much more life and voice than just plain “mad.” And how brilliant and evocative is that empanada simile, which suggests the way Leo’s family’s culture shapes her worldview, as well?

If you’re joining us in reading Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble this month, see if you can spot more baking-related figurative language that enhances the strong voice, and please share other examples in the comments or on Twitter.

And if you’re writing something of your own or working with kids on their creative writing, you can ask this question: What passions, culture, and experiences shape the way your character sees the world, and how can these things impact the unique way the character might perceive and phrase things? We’d love to see examples of character-specific figurative language from your own work in the comments or on Twitter, as well!

Happy reading and writing, and make sure you’ve subscribed to the Middle Grade at Heart newsletter so you won’t miss this month’s edition, which goes out on January 29th and will include an author interview, an activity, a recipe, and other great content for Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble. And we look forward to chatting with you about the book on our Twitter book chat on February 6th!

The Cloak Of Feathers: Meet The Knockmealldown Festival Committee Junior Action (Cow-fetching) Sub-group

When I set out to write a children’s story about a festival, a small, local, usually disastrous village festival that is visited once every hundred years by the Good Folk from beyond the Isle Of Lisashee, I wanted to write it from the inside, from the point of view of people involved in the organizing, the arranging, the lifting and the carrying, all the thankless voluntary drudgery that goes in to creating small local events. This is tough for dedicated adults, it can be tougher still for reluctant kids. Nonetheless, you often find them there, in the background, running around as gofers and dogsbodies, some eager, some resentful some with no idea of what they’re supposed to be doing. They help set up the podiums, erect the marquees, arrange the chairs, look after the stalls, guide the traffic, fetch the cow.

The Knockmealldown Festival Committee Junior Action (Cow-fetching) Sub-group presents an unlikely trio.

Brian is the point of view protagonist. He’s what tends to get called a blow-in, a recent arrival to a community, having difficulty fitting in and finding his way, not always treated kindly by the locals. It’s especially difficult to be a young blow-in in a place like Knockmealldown, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, plagued by years of bad luck, whose beauty spots are now blighted and polluted. Most of the locals are a bit miserable and bad-tempered at the best of times. Worse still, Brian’s parents are the sort of can-do get-involved-give-something-back-with-enthusiasm-and-energy types that can get right up other people’s noses. Naturally, they drag Brian along with them whether he wants to go or not.

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Derek is a local through and through. His parents own the local shop, and they’re a bit like Brian’s parents only more embedded in the life of the locality. They’re involved in everything from sports to tidy towns to local drama and, of course, in organising the doomed and benighted festival. Derek is a bit of a rebel, a tough-talking apparently mean-spirited bully, punished for a spate of bicycle thievery by being forced to help out on the festival committee. Mostly, though, Derek is kicking out against the constraints of life in a rather sad and misfortunate village, where every effort seems wasted and useless. It doesn’t help Junior Committee relations that one of the bicycles stolen and wrecked by Derek was Brian’s beloved Backahatchi 3000.

Helen is also a local, but from outside the village. Her parents are farmers and she is into horses and horseriding in a big way. Bright, energetic, well-meaning and full of innocent but heedless enthusiasm, she has decided that the festival desperately needs her help and input. On any normal festival committee, she’d be a delight and an asset. On the Knockmealldown Festival Committee, she’s regarded as something like an alien life form. Helen can be a bit of a know-all, but the fact is she does know a lot. Just as with Brian’s moroseness and Derek’s bullishness, Helen’s almost aggressive cheerfulness conceals someone a lot more thoughtful and sensible underneath, the sort of person you’re glad to have on your side when things get spectacularly, magically, weird and dangerous.

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These are my three kids, utterly unsympathetic and even resentful towards each other, forced together, first to help out at a small, creaky, cranky local summer festival where everything always goes wrong, and then, when suddenly the fairy ring on the Isle of Lisashee opens, to keep a Great Festival going to entertain some very bad-tempered Other Folk, and to rescue a Princess by performing four Feats. They have to put aside their differences, work together and maybe, just maybe, become friends.

Because that’s how it happens. You got roped in to something, a sports event or a Christmas concert, or a sponsored walk, and suddenly all these other kids are working with you and around you. You barely know them, or if you do, you’ve rarely spoken, or you simply don’t get on with them. Through all the effort, the practice, the rehearsal, the training, the long slog along the road, you come together in a shared experience. You rest in exhaustion or boredom on the grass under the sun, sitting on bales of hay, or waiting backstage in your costumes and make-up, and you find yourselves laughing and joking, warm and natural together in a way you would never have expected.

For me, that was always the real magic of those community efforts, those little festivals. You made friends. It didn’t matter who they were. You were all in it together. Maybe the friendship lasted, maybe it didn’t, but you never forgot the feeling. That’s the real heart of The Cloak Of Feathers, in all the chaos and the madness. Three unlikely kids making friends.

There is a fourth person helping them out, one of the Other Folk, a strange-looking creature called Fester, and maybe she can guide them through the strange rules and rituals of the Great Festival, and help them find the pieces of the Cloak of Feathers. And perhaps she’ll be their friend, too.

~*~

Nigel Quinlan is the author of The Cloak Of Feathers, just published by Orion Children’s. His first book for children was The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox. He lives in a small town in the middle of Ireland, and sometimes he likes to help out with the local festivals.  He tweets from @Nigellicus.

The Book Chief’s Favourite MG Lit from India

I was enchanted by the idea of the MG Book Village — a community of people from around the world who love middle grade books! What could be better?

In the last few months (even as the Village was getting built), I have got such wonderful recommendations from the Villagers — books I would otherwise have never known. So it is now my time to contribute a few recommendations. To add to the global feel of the village, I am sharing some of my favourite Indian MG books.

MAYIL WILL NOT BE QUIET, by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran
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This book is told in the form of diary entries of Mayil Ganesan or Mayilwriter as she calls herself. 12-year old Mayil is an aspiring writer who lives with her grandpa, parents and younger brother Thamarai in Chennai (the erstwhile Madras). The ‘diary’ is peppered with fun doodles and describes all the hallmarks of adolescence — old ‘best’ friends moving to new friends, crushes, inferior self-image, discussions about periods (aka chums!), curiosity about sex, and dawning realisation about adult problems like losing a job or suffering domestic abuse. Mayil thinks she is not pretty, and thinks that she is OK with it-  till a boy in school mocks her about how the boy she is ostensibly crushing on likes her friend Jyothy because “Jyothy is dumb, but she is pretty. You are not dumb, but you’d be much better looking without a face.” Then come the tears and self doubt . . . but not before she punches the boy in the face! But Mayil regains her balance and perspective after a frank (and amazingly sensible and sensitive) conversation with her Amma (mother). So much so, a few months later, when the same boy tells her he “likes” her, she replies with equanimity that she likes him just like she likes her other friends, and they actually become friends.

In Mayil’s journey of self-discovery, the supporting cast is fabulous, particularly her Amma and Thatha. Amma is sensible, frank, strict when required yet can be friends with her kids; while Thatha is young at heart and gently funny. I LOVED smart, sensible, and at times sassy Mayil, and I loved the book because it never ever sounds like it is written by two adults trying to write like an almost-teen.

OUR NANA WAS A NUTCASE, by Ranjit Lal
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This is the delightful story of a madcap family consisting of four siblings living with their Nana (grandpa) in the picturesque hill station of Mahaparbatpur. The kids’ parents are globe-trotting, jet-setting diplomats who leave the kids to be raised by their grandpa. Nana is a retired Army surgeon and nicknames his grandkids as General Gosling (17-year old Avantika), Major Duckling (14-year old Harshita) and Privates Dumpling and Dingaling (seven-year old twins Niharika and Nihal). Everything to do with the kids’ education is done wth military precision and thoroughness — but made into an entertaining adventure by Nana’s madcap sense of fun and his deep love for his grandchildren.

All is fun and laughter till Nana starts showing unmistakable signs of being ill — he loses his balance, finds it difficult to walk, forgets things and at times, even fails to recognise his grandkids. How can the kids look after him and foil their parents’ ominous plans- of putting Nana in a ‘home,’ and sending the kids to boarding school?

I loved loved LOVED the characters in this book- Ranjit Lal has etched them with such love, one can’t help loving them. But while all of them are absolutely real and delightful, the best of the lot is of course, Nana. Everyone who reads this book will want to have a grandfather like him!

ASHWATHY AND THE BOOT OF GOD, by Sowmya Rajendran
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Ashwathy is a 14-year old atheist living in a small town called Kuttipuram in Kerala. She is bright, curious, brave and proactive; fond of crime and mystery and always on the lookout for a case to solve. So its no wonder that God (who is female and lives in a photo inside an old discarded boot!) chooses her to solve a recent case of murder that has been incorrectly classified as ‘suicide’ by the local police. Apparently, God was on vacation “to visit my cousin in another universe” so she missed what really happened the night of the murder.

Ashwathy recruits her best friends Geeta and Malavika, and her pedantic plump classmate Radhakrishnan (RK) (who has a crush on her) to help her solve the case.  The four teens snoop around Kuttipuram, interrogating suspects and cross-checking facts till they crack the case . . . helped in places by God herself, of course!

I loved Ashwathy — her independence, her confidence and her go-getter attitude. And I thoroughly enjoyed Sowmya Rajendran’s idea of God. 🙂

HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES, by Salman Rushdie

This is one of my all-time favourite books, one that I would choose if I was allowed to read just five books my whole life. It is a crazily wonderful mix of fantasy, fairytale, allegory, humour and activism. Rushdie has reached dazzling, dizzying heights of imagination that leave you breathless with the wonder of it all. How did he do it? asks your bewildered brain. How could he think up such a world?

The story is about a storyteller named Rashid who has the true Gift of the Gab — he can weave wonderful stories packed with action and humour and romance out of thin air. But he loses this gift when his wife, tired of his fanciful imaginings and lack of attention to the home, elopes with their neighbour. Haroun, Rashid’s son, discovers that Rashid was a longtime subscriber of the magic story water service from Kahani, Earth’s secret second moon, but now his subscription has been cancelled. So he flies to Kahani to restart Rashid’s subscription — on the back of a mechanical hoopoe bird called Butt, with a Water Genie called Iff. But once he reaches Gup City (the capital of Kahani, inhabited by talkative chatterboxes of all sizes, shapes and species, called Guppees) he discovers that the city is about to go to war with the deadly Khatam Shud. Power-hungry Khatam Shud (aka The End) is the enemy of speech and stories because in every story is a world that he cannot rule. Khatam Shud and his henchmen are creating and releasing poisonous anti-stories in the sea so that all stories in the world are destroyed.

Can the Guppees defeat Khatam Shud and end his reign of silence? Can the Sea of Stories be saved from the vile poison of hateful propaganda that Khatam Shud is spewing? Can Rashid’s gift of storytelling be restored? You have to read the book to know all this and more!

THE HIDDEN POOL, by Ruskin Bond
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This is Ruskin Bond’s first novel for children, published in 1966. Its a slim volume, and narrates the adventures of three teenage friends — Laurie, Anil and Kamal. Laurie is the son of a British engineer who is posted in India for a couple of years on a project. He makes friends with Anil, who lives with his parents in a small flat in the chaotic, colourful bazaar which is the heart of their small town in the Himalayan foothills. The third boy in their trio is Kamal, an orphan who was separated from his parents in the chaos of Partition (the division of India into India and Pakistan, a bloody time in the history of the subcontinent)

The three boys have a lot of fun together, be it snacking on chaat in the bazaar, going for long bicycle rides into the forest bordering their town or listening to ghost stories told by Anil’s mother. But the best times they have are at the hidden pool that Laurie discovers in the forest — they dive from the high rocks surrounding the pool, swim to their hearts’ content and wrestle each other on the muddy banks.

On one such day, when they are drying themselves after a swim, Kamal suggests going on a hike to the Pindari glacier, a 55-mile hike. Surprisingly, the boys’ parents let them go off alone, and what follows is the experience of a lifetime. The book describes the boys’ hike along scenic mountain trails, an almost-encounter with a bear, the scary stories narrated by the watchmen at the ‘dak’ bungalows where they camp at night, and their final ascent onto the icy glacier.

The simple, yet evocative descriptions make you want to drop everything and take off for the hills! And that is the magic of Ruskin Bond’s writing — it is simple and unpretentious, yet arouses a deep wanderlust. You can hear the rain dripping from the sal and deodar trees, see the mist curling down from the mountain tops, feel the cool breeze on your face and smell the sappy, jungly smell of the forest. I cannot think of a better writer who can make children fall in love with nature and make them want to protect it.

Urja Ketkar (aka The Book Chief ) loves reading and reviewing kids’ books, and runs a Readers Club for the kids in her neighbourhood. She is always on the lookout for the next great read! You can find her on Twitter at @SpeakToTheChief.

A Touch of Salt: Not-So-Bland Issues in Funny Books

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As I write The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters and The Infamous Ratsos series, I try to make each story as funny and surprising and engaging as possible. But I have another, less overt goal in mind: I’m hoping to start a conversation about gender roles.

I always try to present the unexpected in my writing. A greedy fish who eats his friends, and eventually falls prey to an even bigger, toothier bully. A boy who’s so obsessed with cars, he turns into one. A parent with terrible table manners, who learns a thing or two from his children. When it came to creating the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, I imagined two protagonists who were not the usual intrepid, precocious kids, but were instead boring, feckless homebodies.

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And when I had to decide just what unintentional adventure Jaundice and Kale would face in that first story, my mind immediately went to pirates. But pirates had (and have) been done to death. What would be an unexpected way to present them? That’s when my feminist spirit took over, as it so often does. Of course, they would have to be female pirates — a crew of truly nasty women who, as it turns out, are even more ruthless than their male counterparts.

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As I developed that first Bland Sisters book into a series, I decided that the subsequent stories would continue to subvert adventure tropes and traditional gender roles. In THE UNCANNY EXPRESS, Jaundice and Kale encounter Magique, a female magician who strives for greatness, despite being raised to believe that women aren’t suited for magic. I’ve already finished the third and final (??) story, and while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say the sky’s the limit — or is it? — for the Bland Sisters and the formidable heroine they encounter.

Shortly after I wrote THE JOLLY REGINA, I created THE INFAMOUS RATSOS. Again, I wanted to do something unexpected, so I decided to write about two boys who think they need to be tough all the time, but who are actually kind and helpful and generous at heart (inspired by my own grandfather and his brother and their childhood shenanigans). In the subsequent stories in the series, I’m including other characteristics of toxic masculinity: the compulsion to mask one’s fears, to deny emotion, affection, and personal connection, to refuse help. Now that I have a son, I’m more aware of the constraints society places on both genders (and the strict views of gender we employ in general), and I hope to do all I can to upend those traditions.

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Of course, the challenge — and I do love a challenge — of blending humor with more serious issues is to employ a light enough hand, to give the story an extra layer of interest and meaning without compromising what makes it a fun read. In culinary terms, it’s like adding just the right touch of salt to something sweet, and thereby enriching the overall flavor. It’s my hope that readers will enjoy the Bland Sisters and the Infamous Ratsos (and my other books!) for the entertainments they are, but find themselves savoring them — and ideally, wanting to talk about them — long after they reach the final pages.

IMG_0258-1Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and NO SLURPING, NO BURPING! A Tale of Table Manners, illustrated by Lorelay Bové; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill.  Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.

Review: JUST LIKE JACKIE by Lindsey Stoddard

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You can call her Robinson, you can call her Rob (or even Robbie), but do NOT call her Robin. Alex learns the hard way that Robinson is fed up with him teasing her about her name, and the fact she doesn’t look like her African-American grandfather who raises her. When her short fuse leads to blows a second time, Robinson is sent to her counselor to help her deal with her anger issues, but a family tree project results in Robinson and Alex being put in the same counselling group for students that have challenges completing their tree. Robinson has no one on her tree except Grandpa. She doesn’t know her mom’s name, or how she died, and Grandpa won’t discuss it with her. Grandpa’s memory is getting tired, though, and he often has trouble remembering how to perform simple tasks. Robinson is determined to be his right hand so he can rest his brain, just like Harold is his left hand at his car repair shop. She helps him fix cars. She talks to customers so they won’t hear his words get mixed up. She turns on the signals in the truck so he knows which direction to turn. Robinson is afraid if she doesn’t take care of Grandpa, and get the information she wants about her mom very soon, that he may forget it altogether. As it becomes harder and harder to keep Grandpa’s memory issues a secret, Robinson learns that families are not just made up of the people to whom you’re related.

I can tell you already that this will be on my list of favorite MG reads for 2018. I love books that touch my heart, and watching Robinson try so hard to protect and care for Grandpa as his memory deteriorates from Alzheimer’s is heartbreakingly beautiful. There are too few MG books that focus on intergenerational relationships, like the special bond between a grandparent and grandchild, and this book does that so well. There are a number of supportive and encouraging adults who try to guide Robinson, and although she resists their help, their presence in the story is welcome. Her best friend, Derek, is a delightful, devoted young man, and Robinson’s instinct to protect him at all costs makes me wish everyone could know that kind of friendship. Despite the inevitable outcome of things to come for Robinson and Grandpa, the book ends on a hopeful note for Robinson, and I loved the powerful community there to support her.

This is a wonderful debut novel that I hope will find its way into all middle grade classroom and libraries this year, and I look forward to reading Lindsey’s next MG release, Right as Rain, in early 2019.

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Kathie is a children’s public librarian in Manitoba, Canada, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is a member of the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Awards (MYRCA) Committee, and co-moderator at MG Book Village. She is passionate about sharing her love for middle grade literature. You can follow her on Instagram (@the_neverending_stack) and Twitter (@kmcmac74).