It’s September! The days are cooling down, kid-readers are back to school, and we’re officially easing into fall. That means a cozy new reading season filled with some wonderful middle grade books, including brand new titles launching this month from yours truly—authors Rebecca Caprara, Saadia Faruqi, Janae Marks, Mae Respicio, and Betsy Uhrig. We’re excited for our newest books to be out in the world connecting with readers… and equally excited to celebrate with a special Twitter Giveaway, where 1 lucky winner will receive each of our new fall books!
To enter, go to any of our handles; RT+ L the original giveaway tweet, and make sure to comment on one thing that you love about fall reading. For an extra entry, tag some reader friends. The deadline to enter this giveaway is September 12—1 randomly drawn U.S. winner will be announced.
In the meantime, we’d love to share more about our books! Here’s a glimpse into our fall releases:
Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win. Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge. With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?
Alex Manalo and his dad have just moved back to Sacramento to help out with their extended family’s struggling Filipino market. While Alex likes helping in the store, his true passion is making slime! He comes up with his own recipes and plays with ingredients, colors, and different bumpy or sparkly bits, which make his slime truly special. A new friend encourages Alex to sell his creations at school, which leads to a sell-off battle with a girl who previously had a slime-opoly. Winner gets bragging rights and the right to be the only slime game in town. But Alex’s dad thinks Alex should be focused more on “traditional” boy pastimes and less on slime. As the new soccer coach, Dad gets Alex to join the team. Even though he hates sports, Alex gives in. Alex is battling on multiple fronts–with his new friends at school, and with his dad at home. It will be a sticky race to the finish to see who oozes out on top.
Joy Taylor has always believed home is the house she lived in her entire life. But then her dad lost his job, and suddenly, home becomes a tiny apartment with thin walls, shared bedrooms, and a place for tense arguments between Mom and Dad. Hardest of all, Joy doesn’t have her music to escape through anymore. Without enough funds, her dreams of becoming a great pianist—and one day, a film score composer—have been put on hold. A friendly new neighbor her age lets Joy in on the complex’s best-kept secret: the Hideout, a cozy refuge that only the kids know about. And it’s in this little hideaway that Joy starts exchanging secret messages with another kid in the building who also seems to be struggling, until—abruptly, they stop writing back. What if they’re in trouble? Joy is determined to find out who this mystery writer is, fast, but between trying to raise funds for her music lessons, keeping on a brave face for her little sister, and worrying about her parents’ marriage, Joy isn’t sure how to keep her own head above water.
Twelve-year-old Collin has a plan to survive any worst-case scenario. Avalanche? No problem. Riptide? Stay calm. He’s 100% prepared for every disaster…except maybe his home life. Everyone called it a fluke when Collin’s mom died in a car accident. But twelve-year-old Collin wonders what might’ve happened if someone had been better prepared. So now he keeps a worst-case scenario handbook, outlining how to overcome everything from avalanches to riptides to a bad case of halitosis. It’s no wonder his hilarious and loyal best friends, Liam and Georgia, nickname him Worst-Case Collin. But there’s no chapter in Collin’s handbook about how to avoid bullies at school, or how to hide his dad’s troubling hoarding habits from everyone. When everything builds to a breaking point, Collin must figure out his own best-case scenario. Kirkus calls this contemporary middle grade novel-in-verse, “Poignant, timely, and altogether affecting.”
What if you got a glimpse into your future – and didn’t like what you saw? When Jason Sloan and a few other intrepid classmates join a mysterious club at the start of seventh grade, they have no idea that they’re about to get an alarming look five years into their future. Bad hair, inexplicable fashion choices, and depressing social situations are fully on display, forcing Jason and his friends to do whatever it takes to avoid their fates in this “funny and original story about friendship and the future” (Kirkus Reviews).
Kathie: Hi Sara, and welcome to MG Book Village. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to chat with you about PAX, JOURNEY HOME, which comes out on September 7th from Balzer & Bray. I loved reconnecting with Pax and Peter and discovering what’s happened in their lives since we last saw them. Can you tell our readers what to expect in this sequel?
Sara: The sequel takes place a year after the first book ended, and it’s been a busy time. Pax and Bristle are parents – this isn’t much of a spoiler if you’ve seen the gorgeous cover by Jon Klassen – and readers will spend time with the fox kits as they grow. Peter has spent the year at Vola’s where he’s learning to work with wood and building himself a cabin, but he’s had a new loss.
Kathie: There are five years between the publication of Pax and this new story. At what point did you start writing this second adventure, and what perspective did you get about your characters during that time?
Sara: For a couple of years after PAX came out, I was certain there would be no sequel. I had deliberately left PAX’s ending a bit ambiguous, and I was not surprised to hear from readers that they kept wondering what happened after that final scene. What did surprise me was that I would keep thinking about it! Mostly I worried: Poor Peter, carrying so much loss on his young shoulders, and Pax, making his way in the unfamiliar wild world. One day I was talking to my agent about the things I thought might happen in the following year, and as I was talking, we both realized I had another book.
Kathie: I really loved watching Peter and Pax reunite, and the trust that Pax has in Peter even when Peter struggles to believe he’s worthy of it. What do you enjoy about writing from the perspective of a fox?
Sara: All the fox scenes, even the ones that included danger, were a joy for me. To write from that viewpoint you need to stay in the moment and to pay attention to the natural environment at all times: Is there danger from the sky? Is there something to eat below the ground? In contrast to how I wrote Peter, I never had Pax worry about past mistakes or about how he might be judged. It was very freeing – maybe animals have something to teach us!
Kathie: Both Peter and Pax grew during their year apart, and developed new relationships. What influence do you think their time together had on their ability to connect with others?
Sara: First, it’s important to notice the differences: Peter spent the year closing himself off and convincing himself he had no need for family, while Pax did the exact opposite – he fit himself joyfully into his wild environment and welcomed a new family with boundless love. But both remembered their time together and neither grew bitter or distrustful. Pax remained a little more at ease around humans and Peter’s closeness with Pax left him more comfortable in wilderness.
Kathie: There’s a strong environmental theme in this story. What message would you like readers to take away from it?
Sara: Oh, boy. Yes, there is an environmental theme, but I hope I don’t come off as trying to send a message – that’s not the job of a story-teller. I think good books should raise questions, though, and let the readers consider those questions for themselves. PAX asked the questions “What are the real costs of war and who pays them?” PAX, JOURNEY HOME asks how can we heal after loss. One of the losses in the book was clean water – humans, animals and plants alike have been sickened by water contaminated during the war of the first book. In the sequel we see that the same organization, equipment and personel can be repurposed to clean up the water.
Kathie: What is your involvement in the illustration process? Do you collaborate with Jon Klassen or does your work occur separately?
Sara: I have almost no involvement at all, and that’s my universal position through all my books. Illustration is its own art form and I am not an expert, so I just stay out of the way and marvel at it afterward!
Kathie: Will we see more stories about Pax and Peter, or are you working on something new at the moment?
Sara: No, I am not worried about Peter and Pax anymore – they are both on good, healthy paths now – so I will not revisit them. And right now I am just finishing up a new novel – something lighter and funnier – that should come out early in 2023.
Kathie: Thank you so much for answering my questions today, Sara, and I can’t wait for young readers to be able to pick up your book.
Sara: Me too, Kathie! It takes so long to put a novel together, and involves so much of your heart, that it’s really hard to wait until publication…and now finally that’s going to happen! It was a joy to return to the world of the foxes, and I hope that’s how it feels to readers, too.
Sara Pennypacker is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Pax; its sequel Pax, Journey Home, the award-winning Clementine series and its spinoff series, Waylon; and the acclaimed novels Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Here in the Real World. She divides her time between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Florida. You can visit her online at www.sarapennypacker.com.
Full disclosure: poetry and I don’t see eye to eye. It has a lot to do with a certain poetry test I took as an eighth grader and bombed, but that is a story for another blog post. HOWEVER, Chris Baron’s middle grade novel in verse, The Magical Imperfect, was accessible for me, and even inspired me to create, in words and images, the feelings, thoughts, and wonderings provoked by Malia and Etan’s story. I was so inspired that I literally turned my copy of The Magical Imperfect into a scrapbook. Here’s proof!
Etan is a 12 year old that lives in a tight knit community. He lives with his mom and dad and spends his free time in his grandfather’s jewelry repair shop. When we meet Etan he is going through selective mutism, he is incapable of producing audible speech in certain situations and with certain people. This stems from his mom’s current health condition, Etan and his dad took her to a behavioral health hospital, at her request. Etan wonders where his words went, wonders when his mom will come home, wonders why there seems to be a struggle between his dad and grandfather, wonders all this and more in silence. When he makes a delivery to Malia, a 12 year old girl who is currently homeschooled to shield her from the cruelty of some of her classmates that used her acute eczema, a skin condition that manifests as an itchy rash that can blister, scab and leave marks on the skin to call her “The Creature” and bully her. Etan doesn’t think she looks like a creature, and in her company, he feels safe and speaks.
As you can imagine, Etan, his father and his grandfather, are all processing mom’s needs and decisions in different ways. Although I used my annotating acronym A.F.K. (Adults Failing Kids) for some of the actions of the caring adults in Etan’s life, Chris Baron invests in making secondary characters as fully human as possible. This caught my attention because for a while now, I have been thinking that if we, as adults, owned up to our own humanness and shared it early on with the children in our lives- that we don’t have it all figured out, we are not all-knowing, we hope we know best, but alas!, we get a lot of things wrong; then our kids would not be so disappointed, we wouldn’t lose bits of their trust, when life exposes us. Chris Baron gives readers this knowledge through Etan’s acknowledgement that the adults in his life, because of their humanness, do not have all the answers, are imperfect, and therefore disappointment at their shortcomings isn’t crushing. With this acknowledgement Etan finds the strength to assess his adults, the situation and what his gut tells him is the right path. I hope that Mr. Baron, and other authors who write for our middle grade readers continue to expose this in characters that are as full as the ones in The Magical Imperfect.
What The Magical Imperfect Gifts Middle Grade Readers
Readers will be able to internalize what Etan knows about adults and their humanness, as Etan shares his thinking, weighing the words and actions of his adults, their capacity, and what he feels to be right. As an educator and parent committed to helping children develop critical thinking skills on things that matter, I am grateful for Etan’s awareness. Readers will also glean a flowchart of sorts, to guide them when they think about adults’ words and actions as they become aware of their adults’ vulnerability.
Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1989, the year the San Francisco Giants made it to the World Series and also the year of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that caused extensive damage, readers will be in constant anticipation of how these two events play out. Who will win the World Series? Are they finally reading about THE BIG earthquake? These events not only provide a rush of excitement to the story, but also an opportunity for readers to witness how a community can live in harmony even when they are rooting for different outcomes (Etan and Malia’s town has a mix of dedicated Giants fans and A’s fans!), practice different religions (Etan’s family and some members of the community are Jewish as well as other faiths, but Judaism is showcased in the story), and how they come together without reservation when someone in their community is in need.
The Magical Imperfect will accompany other middle grade novels that I hold dear, because they offer young readers a model of what friendship feels like, empathy that moves to action, interest in each other’s passions, high expectations and accountability, the need to ask for forgiveness and to forgive with equal urgency. Etan and Malia also provides an opportunity for readers to behold a healthy friendship between kids of a different gender than self. I work with 5th graders, and they cannot seem to separate friendship from “like-liking” at this age, it makes them miss out on finding true friendships, a lot.
Readers who enjoy magic realism, stories that mostly happen in the real world but are spiced with magical, fantasy elements posed in an utterly believable premise, will find themselves suspending disbelief as Etan’s grandfather shares the magical contents of a mysterious box that traveled with him when he emigrated from Prague to Angel Island in the U.S., the equivalent of Ellis Island, with Etan.
Our kids consume an immense amount of messages about what beauty looks like, mostly portrayed by models who are unhealthily thin and have light smooth skin, that skews their views about their own beauty and that of others around them. Reading The Magical Imperfect middle graders will come to know and care about Etan’s friend, Malia, who offers us a counterculture point of view to beauty. Malia’s battle with acute eczema, juxtaposed with Malia’s singing voice,her generosity in sharing it, her magnetic personality, sense of style, her relationship and interaction with nature and her ability to really see her friend Etan, invites readers to redefine their views of beauty.
What The Magical Imperfect Gifts the Adults who Live with Middle Grade Readers
Remember my annotating acronym A.F.K. (Adults Failing Kids)? Adults in Etan and Malia’s life are loving but they are also human. Adult readers can reflect on the thoughts and feelings Etan goes through as the consequence of an adult offering him a well intentioned comment about making an effort to speak, that impacts him negatively. Malia and Etan both give us insight on how hollow promises offer zero hope and that a vulnerable “I don’t know. I’m not sure if…” is best, because it’s genuine. Etan also shares what an adult that really listens looks like, what they make a kid feel. We should all remember this when our kids want our attention, it is a “heart” priority!
As adults we can open up a conversation about mental health and taking care of one’s own, with Etan’s mom. Although the exact issue she is feeling is not disclosed, we learn that she is overwhelmed by feelings of sadness. She decides to reach out for help, although it is difficult to be away from Etan and his dad, and focus on healing and feeling healthy before continuing to fully be mom and wife. Again, Chris Baron doesn’t only show the bright side of this decision, he also portrays how a family member’s illness affects the whole family, even as they are supportive and understand that there is no other path. This is a wonderful conversation to set, reinforce, or rebuild the foundation of our views on mental health— it is part of our general health care and that actively seeking to heal is vital.
What The Magical Imperfect Gifts Educators
An engaging story that offers the opportunity to explore poetry, figurative language, and writing in verse and serves as mentor poems on sports fandom, weather, family, bullying, music and many other topics will motivate students to try this form, and focus their writing as well. The biggest hurdle to write in any form, for many kids and adults, is a blank page and the “you can write about anything at all” prompt.
The Magical Imperfect offers a counterbalance to what middle grade readers are exposed to when exploring The Holocaust. Through Etan and his grandfather, readers gain insight into Jewish folklore, holy artifacts, family heirlooms, rituals and customs as well as some of the practices when observing Jewish holidays. This insight is intertwined with the plot, making for an exploration that does not become a distraction, but can lead to wonderings, encouraging research that will help our students better understand and honor the Jewish members of their community, as well as globally. In our present national climate, offering students a baseline to refer to when they hear or learn about anti-Semitic ideology or actions is much needed. Chris Baron offers us additional elements to add to what school curriculum exposes our kids to, making it possible for them to create a more complex and layered idea of Jewish people in our nation’s past and its present.
Self-selected research is an experience we must include in our students’ learning and I believe that The Magical Imperfect will make this experience authentic for readers. I know that I was extremely curious about many things (Jewish and Filipino food, what is a tzedakah) and stopped frequently to do a Google search, read articles, and look for pictures. I’ll share a few research-worthy topics I found as I read:
Have the San Francisco Giants ever won The World Series
MLB players mentioned by Etan and Jordan
Earthquakes- in the U.S./World comparison 0of intensity, predictability, frequency, areas
Jewish sacred objects, rituals, food
Pulley Systems and their modern use (Buddy went up and down on a pulley system!)
Malia’s 80’s songs (artist, music, lyrics, stats)- why did she like these songs so much and why did the author choose them?
The effects of sharing sports’ fandom in family connection
I hope you choose to share Malia and Etan’s story with the kids in your life and, if you are an educator, in your classroom. Going back to school after a pandemic year will be a smoother experience if we emulate the community action and love we witness in The Magical Imperfect as we sort through our memories of what it means to coexist as a classroom family in a physical space. As our kids grapple with the isolating effects of this past school year and ease back into sharing time and space with old and new friends, Etan and Malia’s friendship will help nurture healthy, supportive interactions, and although they might feel a little rusty on how it all goes, their empathy, kindness, and joy will be tickled and awoken by Chris Baron’s The Magical Imperfect.
Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX. After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.