Book Review: PARADISE ON FIRE, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Inspired by the real life Camp Fire in California in 2018, this middle grade survival story follows Addy, a young girl from the Bronx who’s headed to California to participate in a summer wilderness program. Haunted by her parents’ death when she was just four at the hands of a tragic apartment fire, Addy’s grandmother Bibi has enrolled her in this program to broaden her horizons and live up to her name (Aduago, which means daughter of an eagle).

Once she arrives, Addy surprisingly finds herself enjoying the outdoors and learns to camp, hike, rock climb, and most importantly, how to correctly start and put out campfires. Realizing Addy has a need to create maps to show escape routes, the camp’s owner, Leo, shows her how topographical maps work which helps her understand her new environment. As the summer days pass, Addy’s love and respect for the wilderness grows, and she learns to trust the other kids as they depend on each other for companionship and survival.

But when a wildfire approaches Wilderness Adventures, Addy is suddenly faced with the nightmare of her past. It’s up to her to her to lead her friends to safety, and she’ll need all the courage and knowledge she’s obtained to survive.

With flashback scenes to the fire that killed her parents and told in sections titled: 
Flying Blind
Flying Home and
Epilogue, this middle grade story will spark discussions surrounding global warming and environmentalism among its readers.

Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher from Elburn, Illinois, and a proud mom to two amazing daughters, ages 14 and 10 who has been married to a wonderful husband for 18 years. She’s a member of #bookexpedition, a group of teachers, librarians and authors who read and review ARCs and newly released middle grade books. She’s also happy to be part of the #classroombookaday community, and loves to learn alongside her students and fellow educators. She has been teaching for twenty-two years, and her passion is getting books into the hands of her students. You can find her on Twitter at @KReilley5.

Book Review: ACROSS THE DESERT, by Dusti Bowling

Twelve year old Jolene spends as much time as she can at the library watching a livestream of her favorite pilot, 12 year old “Addie Earhart.” Addie’s livestream, the Desert Aviator, shares her flights in an ultralight plane over the desert. Watching the livestreams keeps Jolene’s mind off what happening with her mom at home, who’s struggling with an addiction to narcotics.

During one of the livestreams, something goes terribly wrong, and Addie’s ultralight plummets to the desert floor as Jolene watches in horror. Knowing the Addie won’t survive long in the desert, Jolene decides to set out in hopes of saving Addie.

Told in both present time and past-tense messages, this is an incredible story of courage and friendship. I loved the way the author sprinkled in names and story snippets of real-life women adventurers, including Emma Gatewood, Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Valentina Tereshkova,  Lois Pryce, the Van Buren sisters, Bessie Stringfield, Sarah Marquis, Wanda Rutkiewicz and Ynez Mexia.

I can’t wait to share Jolene’s story with my middle grade classroom of readers.

Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher from Elburn, Illinois, and a proud mom to two amazing daughters, ages 14 and 10 who has been married to a wonderful husband for 18 years. She’s a member of #bookexpedition, a group of teachers, librarians and authors who read and review ARCs and newly released middle grade books. She’s also happy to be part of the #classroombookaday community, and loves to learn alongside her students and fellow educators. She has been teaching for twenty-two years, and her passion is getting books into the hands of her students. You can find her on Twitter at @KReilley5.

Interview with Katherine Battersby about CRANKY CHICKEN

Hi Katherine! Thanks so much for stopping by the Village to chat about your latest book — the early graphic novel, Cranky Chicken!

Before we get to Chicken and Speedy, would you care to introduce yourself to our site’s readers?

Thanks for having me! I am the author and illustrator of a whole bunch of quirky picture books, like Trouble and Perfect Pigeons and the Squish Rabbit series. I’m also a fan girl of comic books, ice cream, mischief, tea, and travel. I grew up by the beach in Australia but now live by the mountains in Canada. I can be found most days either making books, reading books, or sharing books with my little girl (and occasionally even my dog).

Okay: let’s get to the book! I’ve read elsewhere that you are not (or at least were not) a fan of chickens. I believe you are (or at least were) SCARED of them. How did you end up creating a book all about one? (And are you still scared of them?)

Wow, you have done your research! Yes, I’m scared of chickens. Surely I’m not the only one who knows that ALL chickens are cranky chickens? They have beady little eyes and sharp beaks and you just can’t trust them (I have been chased by many chickens). But then I met this tiny girl during one of my author visits and she had the audacity to laugh at my fear. She said, “Chicken’s aren’t scary – they’re hilarious!” I couldn’t stop thinking about her. So I decided to spend more time drawing chickens to see if I could discover what she so loved about them. Cranky Chicken is what emerged. It turns out we’re both right: chickens are cranky AND hilarious.

As an illustrator, I strive for simplicity, and I was blown away by how economical and powerful your linework is. Both Chicken and Speedy are wonderfully expressive, yet so simply designed — I already know legions of kids are out there drawing Chicken and Speedy in their sketchbooks (and probably in the margins of their homework!). Can you share about the development of these characters?

Thank you! Whenever I design my characters, I always strive to make them as simple as I can. To use as few lines as possible. In part it’s because I like to leave lots of room in my art. Kids are incredibly clever and I want to leave space for them: space to think, space to imagine, space to put all the story pieces together themselves. Space to maybe even see themselves on the page. I also think emotion is the most important puzzle piece of any story and I love the challenge of trying to capture it with a single quizzical line or an arched brow. So much can be captured with so little.

It brings me great joy to think of kids drawing my characters, especially knowing their own personalities and quirks will shape the way they draw them. I used to obsessively draw Sandra Boynton characters as a kid. I can now see her influence in my work. There’s nothing quite so special as getting to become a small part of a child’s life through your stories.

When you’re creating a character such as Chicken, does the drawing come first, or the personality? Do they come together? Is it always the same, or is it different with every character/project?

As an author / illustrator, the process of writing and drawing for me are inextricably linked. It’s tricky to figure out which came first and I think that’s because they always happen together. I play with a character in my mind for many months (sometimes years) before I ever touch pen to paper. I watch them move, observe their quirks, see how they react and interact with the world — all in my mind. I watch them from every angle, refining their shapes and lines, so by the time I finally drew Chicken she pretty much came out the way she appears in the book: squat, unibrowed, and spectacularly cranky. But her softer curves do betray the fact that underneath that firm outer, she has a generous heart. So her form and her personality developed together, as I got to know her.

It’s a little bit different for each project, but typically I discover a character and follow them around my mind and then the page until I figure out who they are and what their story is. Some characters reveal themselves quite quickly. One rather elusive character I’ve been trying to figure out for over ten years. I’m glad Chicken didn’t make me wait that long!

I am a HUGE fan of cranky characters. Give me all the curmudgeons, crabs, and grumps — I think they are wonderfully fun to read about. Do you enjoy telling stories about Chicken? Why do you think it’s enjoyable to create and/or read about such ill-tempered individuals?

I love a good grump, too. Maybe we love cranky characters because they have permission to say and do things we don’t get to out in the world. Most of us have to be more polite, more thoughtful, more considered — and for good reason! But curmudgeons in literature can show the world exactly who they are and even be celebrated for it. Part of why Chicken so appealed to me as a character is that in stories we so rarely celebrate female grumps. I immediately fell for her — she was spectacularly grumpy and somehow more lovable for it, so I wanted to put her front and centre in a book that joys in all her cantankerous ways.

What made you choose to write about a pair of unlikely friends? And why did you choose to tell their stories in comics?

I tend to feel more like my characters find me, rather than that I create them. But I can see why I am particularly drawn to mismatched friendships. In many ways people are much more interesting when they bump up against others, especially those who are quite different to themselves. Chicken was intriguing on her own, but she only became real to me once she met Speedy worm. Suddenly I had a much more vivid sense of who she is and what she likes (and doesn’t!). The beautiful thing about friendships is they often challenge us to be more than we ever could have been on our own. In this way, Chicken and Speedy remind me a lot of me and my childhood best friend (we are still besties to this day!). We are so very different but our friendship is much richer for it.

As for why comics, would you believe I’ve always wanted to make a comic book? I grew up reading comic books and graphic novels and I never grew out of them. But I do remember realising at some point in my youth that all the comics I had access to were made by men. It was (and is) a somewhat more male dominated industry and I think in ways, at least subconsciously, I felt that world wasn’t for me. I’d published ten picture books before my agent asked me if I’d ever considered making a graphic novel and the question opened up a door insider me I didn’t even know was there. It was immediately clear I desperately wanted to make one! Then I just had to wait for the right idea to come along. As soon as I met Chicken, I knew she was it. She had the perfect comic energy to pull off a longer book and provided so many opportunities for physical humour and quirk and even a dose of heart. I had so much fun making this book. I hope I get to make many more.

All right, here’s the question everyone is wondering: are you more Chicken, or more Speedy?

I remember vividly back when I first discovered that, ultimately, … all my characters are me. Or parts of me. I was horrified. I recall thinking: do all readers of my books know this? I felt like everyone could SEE me. The secret inside parts of me. Now this fact just makes me laugh! So I am here to comfortably admit: I am Cranky Chicken. We are both introverts who need time to process the world. When confronted with new things, we frown (thinking takes a lot of energy). Anxious chicken brains are good at anticipating what can go wrong, so we see the flaws in every plan. Luckily, just like Chicken, I have plenty of upbeat Worms around me who make me laugh and help me see the more playful parts of life. To be honest, I have plenty in common with Worm, too. I smile. A lot. And I am very, very silly.

Please, please, PLEASE tell me there are more Cranky Chicken books on the way…

Yes! Your enthusiasm is delightful. I have already finished the second book, which comes out June 2022. AND I am writing the third book as we speak, which will be out in 2023. These characters are always getting up to mischief in my mind, often when I’m trying to do other things. I have reams of notes about their misadventures, so I would be happy to make many, many books about them.

Katherine is a fan girl of ice cream, tea, travel and all things papery. She is also the critically acclaimed author and illustrator of ten picture books, including Little Wing and the popular Squish Rabbit series, which have been published around the world. Her books have had glowing reviews in The New York Times, received starred Kirkus reviews and have been shortlisted for numerous awards. She is regularly booked to speak in schools, libraries and at festivals and she is a passionate advocate for literacy and the arts.

In another life, Katherine worked as a paediatric occupational therapist, specialising as a children’s counselor. She has also studied graphic design and loves typography, fabric and vintage teacups.

Katherine grew up by the beach in Australia and now lives in Canada with her poet husband, their book obsessed baby and a rather ridiculous dog.

Interview with Donna Barba Higuera about THE LAST CUENTISTA

Kathie: Hi Donna, thank you so much for joining me at MG Book Village today to talk about your new book, The Last Cuentista, which was released yesterday by Levine Querido. Can you tell us a little bit about it, please?

Donna: This book is about a girl named Petra Peña who is leaving for a new planet with her scientist parents as a comet approaches threatening to destroy Earth. Petra wants nothing more than to be a storyteller like her grandmother. Just her luck, the one upside to the journey that will take hundreds of years, will be a download of information. Petra hopes she can possess all of Earth’s folklore, mythology, and stories in her mind by the time they arrive to the new planet. But along the way a sinister collective of those monitoring the passengers begins to “purge” adults and erase the memories of the remaining children in hopes of starting over with none of Earth’s past mistakes or history to hinder their new plan.

But during this 370-year journey, when all the other children are reprogrammed, Petra’s defective download makes her alone the hidden bringer of Earth’s now forbidden stories and her grandmother’s Mexican folklore to a changing humanity.

Kathie: This book is based on the Mexican folklore that your grandmother shared with you. Why do you think oral storytelling is so important and leaves such a strong impression on children?’

Donna: In the oral tradition of storytelling, these tales are normally told to us by someone we trust. A teacher, a parent, a grandparent…so there is an added layer of trust compared to what we may read in a book. The storyteller can impart parts of their own personality or life experience, so it has the element of something more personal.

I think of my own experience as a child and how important sensory detail is. I could see my grandmother’s facial expressions. She could add a layer of tension with a quick jump. She could add sadness or humor to her tales with one look. That was something I couldn’t always get with the written word. She might give me a cup of hot chocolate with cinnamon beforehand. I could taste and smell the story. To this day, I add cinnamon to coffee and hot chocolate and feel like I’m back by a fire and my grandmother’s knees crack as she settles in to tell me a story. I sense those feelings of humor, fear, tension and love I had in those moments.

Kathie: I really loved Petra’s loyalty, and the way she cared about those around her. What quality do you most admire in her and why?

Donna: Well, there are two, but because they intertwine in a way, can I count them as one? The first quality is her tenacity. There was a point in the book where I tried to imagine what I would have done if I’d been in Petra’s situation at that age. I would have crawled up into a ball and quit. But Petra feels so strongly about the stories she carries with her and her purpose that she doesn’t give up. But even when helping others poses roadblocks to her end goal, she still carries a layer of nurturing she’s learned from her parents and grandmother that she transfers to the other children.

Kathie: This book could fuel many fantastic discussions! I had so many questions running through my mind, like if we could start over as humans, how could we make things different, and how we can value art AND science as we move into the future? What do you hope a young reader will take away from your book?

Donna: I suppose I hope young readers take away concepts to ponder. I don’t know the answers to all the questions this book raises. But it isn’t meant to give the answers. I hope young readers will take away issues to contemplate and will have discussions with others. Maybe they will consider those topics together and make the world better place, one in which we work to be more appreciative of the arts and sciences.

Kathie: I’d love to know what items you would take with you if you were relocating to Sagan?

Donna: Well, I just moved. And this is no joke. Three quarters of the boxes were books. If relocating to Sagan, this would certainly not be an option. My obsession with books is partially what gave me the idea for that part of Petra’s story. I asked myself what I valued most. What would I take with me if I were leaving for another planet and could take very little? The concept of being able to download all the books and stories of Earth into my mind felt like the most priceless item I could imagine.

But one physical item? I’d take my dad’s old tobacco-infused pipe. Anyone who’s had a father who smoked a pipe will understand.

Kathie: Can you share an interesting tidbit about how this story changed over the course of editing?

Donna: This book started as a short story from a writing prompt. “Take a traditional fairy tale and make it sci-fi. I think I had a one-thousand-word limit. I used Princess and the Pea, and created a character who’d been placed in cryo for hundreds of years, but never slept. When she was removed, the world, people and culture had all disappeared, and she was not valued for the things she once was. The concept was both fascinating and horrifying. I wanted to develop it into a novel.

The first draft of The Last Cuentista was mainly plot-based. In rewrites and revisions, the character came to life. She shared my love of story, folklore and mythology. I decided if Petra was a girl like me, then she would surely bring the tales she loved most. Those told to her that she loved on Earth. At first, I didn’t go into detail with the stories. They were just ghostly versions of the original. My editor at Levine Querido, Nick Thomas, asked me to expand on these stories, and let Petra tell them the way she would in that moment. He was so right. Once we made those changes, the stories sprung to life with Petra as the storyteller.

Kathie: Is there any chance of a sequel to this book? I would love to know what happens next for Petra and her friends.

Donna: I hope so. I think of Petra and the other children all the time.

I had to know what happens to her in her life, so I recently wrote (just for myself) the end of her story. It was the most fulfilling ending to a story I’ve ever written. I read it to my husband and we both cried. Perhaps one day it will make it into a book.

But I’m also thinking of others in Petra’s universe. What happened to those left behind on Earth? Did anyone survive? If so, what is Earth like now? So perhaps I will write that next.

Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Donna: On my website or www.donnabarbahiguera.comThey can also find me on Twitter @dbhiguera & Instagram @donnabarbahiguera

Kathie: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me today, Donna, and all the best on your book’s release.

Donna: Kathie, thank you! You’ve asked some amazing questions that allowed me to ponder things about my book I hadn’t yet considered.

And thank you for helping to welcome The Last Cuentista and Petra into the world.

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration. 

Donna’s Young Adult and Middle Grade books feature characters drawn into creepy, situations, melding history, folklore, and or her own life experience into reinvented storylines. She still dreams in Spanglish.
Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs. Donna’s backyard is a haunted 19th century logging camp. (The haunted part may or may not be true—she makes stuff up.) She is a Critique-Group-Coordinator for SCBWI-Western Washington and teaches “The Hero’s Journey for Young Authors” to future writers.

Follow Donna on Twitter at @dbhiguera.

The Last Cuentista is available now to purchase, and you can find it at your closest independent bookstore here:

Interview with Karen Pokras about THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER

Kathie: Hi Karen, and welcome to MG Book Village! I’d love to know more about your upcoming middle grade book, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER which is scheduled for release in November with Lerner/Kar-Ben. Can you please tell our readers about it?

Karen: Hi Kathie, and thanks so much for having me here!

The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler is about 11-year-old Danny, the only Jewish boy in his town in 1978.  When a local child goes missing, Danny’s convinced it’s connected to an old Bermuda Triangle theory involving UFOs. With his two best friends and their Spacetron telescope, Danny heads to his backyard to investigate. But hunting for extra-terrestrials is complicated, and it doesn’t help that his friend Nicholas’s mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with a Jewish boy. Equipped with his super-secret spy notebook, Danny sets out to fight both the aliens and the growing antisemitism in the town, in hopes of mending his divided community.

Kathie: I remember being fascinated by the Bermuda Triangle when I was a kid. Was it something you wondered about as a child, or did your interest in the topic come later?

Karen: Definitely as a kid! I remember spending a lot of time wondering about it. When I started brainstorming for this story and thinking of my own memories about growing up in the 1970s, my curiosity about the Bermuda Triangle was something that really stood out. There are a handful of scenes in this story that are pulled straight from my childhood, which made this book both fun and at times, cringe-worthy to write.

Kathie: Anti-Semitism was also a very real issue in the late 1970s (as it is today). Was there a reason you chose to tell this story during this period of history, and what do you hope your characters communicate about this topic?

Karen:  When I sat down to write this new story, I knew I wanted to set it in the late 1970s so I could tap into my own memories of being a middle grade child during this time period. While I’m not sure I set out originally to write about antisemitism, recent acts in my community as well as throughout the country, combined with memories I’d tucked away, quickly weaved their way into the pages. My hope is that my characters inspire conversations that continue long after the story ends, and that kids (and adults) recognize that antisemitism still exists, and that we still have so much work to do.

Kathie: Can you tell me about your main character, and what do you admire most about them?

Karen: Is it admirable to say Danny will do just about anything for a slice of chocolate cake? Danny is both typical and atypical. He is awkward and gullible. He is a loyal friend. He is curious. He is thoughtful. He can be quick to judge others. He is determined and ambitious when he wants to be. He has strong opinions and is often not sure when/how/if to filter them. He is (sometimes) willing to admit when he’s wrong. He loves Star Wars (and chocolate cake.) He’s not sure about girls and piano lessons. What I admire most about him though, is the way he listens.

Kathie: What would you most like young readers to know about your book?

Karen: While I know that antisemitism is a heavy topic, The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler also has light and funny moments. FYI, hunting aliens is tricky! So is trying to avoid your hairy-handed piano teacher. And did you know there are purple vegetables? You may learn a thing or two about cooking. (Hint: I include one of my grandmother’s recipes at the end of the story.) 

I also hope young readers come away from this story with the knowledge that their voice matters, and that we (as adults) are listening.

Kathie: What’s one thing you’ve learned about yourself as a writer during your publishing journey?

Karen: There’s been so much! I started writing later in life and with a background in law and finance, I had to learn everything outside of writing professional emails about taxes. Creatively, I have really learned how to slow down and be more patient with my process, taking some time off in between drafts and revisions. Every writer is different of course, but for me, I’ve found that taking this time helps me understand my characters and story better. Next up is patience everywhere else in the journey.

Kathie: Are you working on another writing project at the moment?

Karen: Yes! I have two middle grade projects in the works. One, about a science-loving girl who’s moved into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, is on submission, and the other, about ballet, is in revisions. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these soon!

Kathie: Where can you readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Karen: ​​Visit my website where you can learn about my books, sign up for my newsletter, and read blog posts.

I’m also on social media … my preferred platform these days is

Instagram: @karenpokras_author  

I can also be found on:


Twitter: @karentoz

Kathie: Thanks so much for taking some time to answer my questions today, Karen, and I hope you have a great response to your book.

Karen:  Thank you so much for having me, Kathie!

Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Always an avid reader, Karen found her passion for writing later in life and now runs all of her stories past the furry ears of her two feline editorial assistants before anyone else. A numbers geek at heart, she enjoys a good spreadsheet almost as much as she loves storytelling. A native of Connecticut, Karen is the proud mom to three brilliant children who still provide an endless stream of great book material.  She lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. ​