Book Review: ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cover art by Nicole Neidhardt.

This story collection defies one of my usual Book Talk points during Reader Advisory when recommending a story collection.  I always tell readers that story collections:

  • have the unique quality of making a reader feel satisfied after reading just one of it’s stories; readers go through the whole story arc and rollercoaster of emotions in just a few pages
  • reading stories as they catch your eye, and not necessarily in order, won’t hinder the reading experience

AND

  • there are stories that you will love and possibly some you won’t–– I won’t have to mention this last talking point when I Book Talk Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, because I found something in each story that led me directly to think of my students. 

I listened to Ancestor Approved before the book release thanks to Libro.FM’s wonderful ALC Program for educators. By the time it was delivered to my doorstep I was ready to read it again with my eyes.  Very few books entangle me so that I need to reread immediately, but this story collection demanded it and here’s why:

  • Although each story stands on it’s own, author and editor, Cynthia Leitich Smith, together with SIXTEEN (16!) Native American authors weaved interconnections between many of the stories.  
  • No matter what difficulties life had thrown the main characters’ way before they came into their story in this anthology, here these children are treated with kindness, respect, and as precious family members
  • A diversity of family units are present, from a diversity of Native Nations, and as the plot of each story develops I learned something unique about each
  • The stories were fast paced and the young main characters offered a peek into the thinking and feelings behind their actions (tweens and teens are so hard to decipher!) 

What ANCESTOR APPROVED Intertribal Stories for Kids Gifts Middle Grade Readers

Editor and author Cynthia Leitich Smith together with the sixteen Native authors whose stories appear in this anthology, orchestrated a trail of crumbs that will have readers perking up at the mention of a certain Reservation dog who stars in his own story and yet seems to catch the attention of so many of the characters in the other stories, that I’m pretty sure readers will be looking for him everywhere in this book.  That Rez Dog isn’t the only character or vendor or dance that will pop up in multiple stories in this collection: readers should bring their detective skills because clues will abound, there will be a Windigo sighting to authenticate, and a crime to solve along with a certain famous Native girl detective!

All of the characters in each of the stories are on their way to participate as a dancer, a vendor, or a spectator in the annual Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is a common thread that ties all of the stories together and yet not all of them come from a Native Nation that has powwows as part of their cultural events.  The Mother Earth Powwow is an event that really happens annually which might inspire  readers to research and learn more about!  Heartdrum, the Native-focused imprint of Harper Collins which published the book, even created a map to facilitate visualizing how there are Native American Nations and Reservations all across the United States of America as they trace the characters’ voyage to Ann Arbor.

It is uncommon to find plots in middle grade novels where kids are seen by the adults in their family and community as individuals worthy of respect.  This respect was shown by action in this anthology: the adults in these stories not only validated by not only listening to what kids had to say but also by taking their feelings into consideration when it was time to act. Story after story middle grade readers will experience how kids are recognized for their value in helping their families succeed, and in some stories, even help some of their adult family members behave! Luksi’s story is a perfect example of this influence, he is sent to the powwow to dance but also to make sure that his uncle who was driving the bus to Ann Arbor, full of Elders from their Cherokee community, behaved!  Luksi could influence his uncle’s behavior because Luksi mattered. There are also stories that present how Native communities understand that young people will make grave mistakes and those mistakes should not define their future.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, many of the readers I serve have a grandparent, auntie, or uncle, who are instrumental in keeping their family’s every day run as smoothly as possible, these readers will find this valuable adult celebrated in many of the stories as well. 

Native American middle grade readers will revel in the new Native friends they will make through these stories, they will feel seen and their experiences validated as they read stories that feature the joy of honoring one’s Native Nation and culture.   They will feel they are not alone if they have experienced stereotyping and microaggressions like Dalton, Alan, and others share in their stories.  The difficult decision of choosing which Native Tribe to enroll in when a child’s parents are from different tribes,  or the unfair rejection by others for speaking their Native Nation’s language, like Joey in the story “Joey Looks at The Sky,” will offer Native American readers the comfort of seeing their own situations mirrored in these stories. Even more reflective will be the love of rituals, traditions, the feelings of community that events such as powwows provide and that the characters in these stories relish.   Readers from non-Native backgrounds will grow in empathy, shatter stereotypes, and find a little bit of themselves in many of the Native kids in these stories. 

Middle grade readers of all backgrounds will be able to relate to the Native kids in Ancestor Approved as they read stories that explore how shyness sometimes gets in the way of making friends, the joys and pains of having siblings, how being brave is doing something you love even if it terrifies you, and how losing a loved one requires allowing yourself to grieve in order to make peace with the loss but also to enjoy the memories of times spent together. 

An issue that, try as we might, we have not been able to eliminate from our children’s lives, bullying, is also explored in many of the stories in this anthology but I would like to share how Native author Brian Young contributed to this topic in a unique way.  The author wrote two stories that appear back to back: “SENECAVAJO: Alan’s Story” and “Squash Blossom Bracelet: Kevin’s Story.” They are paired to expose readers to both sides of a bullying situation.  Mr. Young offers readers an exploration of the roots that motivate bullying, which may not be the ones readers assume,  but also offers a case study for how misunderstanding someone’s situation and not understanding someone’s personality can create animosity between two kids who, in these paired stories, end up helping each other even before becoming friends. I truly believe that this will capture the attention of so many middle grade readers, who in some form have experienced, witnessed, or participated in bullying. 

What ANCESTOR APPROVED Intertribal Stories for Kids Gifts Educators

As I aspire to become an Anti-Bias and Anti-Racist Educator learning about Native American Nations is one of my priorities. Feeling comfortable with the language I use and presenting historical facts from the perspective of Native American Nations,  as my students and I explore Native American history and present daily life respectfully is a must and reading ANCESTOR APPROVED increased my fluency.  It also provided ideas on how to convey throughout the year how Native American Nations are not a people of the past, but are very much part of our present.  Students should be exposed to the knowledge that Native American is not just one group of people but that there are over 500 Native Nations and Ancestor Approved Intertribal Stories for Kids offers representation of multiple tribes and even exposes readers to how some of the tribes interact with one another.  As you share these stories with your students and together you learn about the different Native Tribes these authors and their main characters are from, opportunities for authentic, student-centered research are sure to arise. 

All readers need diverse books to see themselves represented and valued, to accept as a gift the differences among us and to find the life issues and events that we all have in common.  I hope that you come to cherish the gifts that the sixteen Native American authors featured in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids have so generously given us by placing copies of this anthology in your home, classroom, and school libraries and that beyond that, you interact with these stories and characters.

. . .

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.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Alyssa Colman

Hi Alyssa! I want to thank you for taking some day to sit down with me today and talk about your upcoming debut novel, THE GILDED GIRL, coming out on April 6, 2021 with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Can you tell us a bit about the story, please?

Hi Kathie! Thanks for having me here! GILDED GIRL is a very loose retelling of A Little Princess set in a Gilded Age New York boarding school for magic.

In this alternate New York, the divide between the magical haves and have-nots is as black and white as the foyer tile at Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic. Twelve-year-old student Emma can afford the education that will teach her the secrets of kindling her magic, while the school’s servant girl, Izzy, is doomed to see her magic snuff out before her thirteenth birthday like the rest of the lower classes. When Emma loses her father and fortune in a tragic accident, she loses her access to magic as well. Though not natural allies, Emma and Izzy team up together to find a way to kindle their magic, despite the fiery danger that kindling presents. Oh yes, and there are talking cats that are secretly house dragons.

I have never actually read A Little Princess. Do you have special memories of reading it?

I have a very vivid memory of using the passage describing Sara Crewe’s transformation from star student to servant as a monologue for my theater class in seventh grade. The 1995 movie was also a staple at sleepovers growing up. I used to make believe I was Sara Crewe because, to me, she was the epitome of kindness and patience. It may sound silly, but it got me through a lot of boring and stressful situations as a child!

A caveat: The story has always had a special place in my heart but the original novel was written in the late 1890s and contains some of the colonialist opinions of that time. I remember having a lot of questions about that, so if you are planning to read the original with a child, I would recommend doing some research ahead of time and so you can help them unpack those attitudes and why they’re wrong.

What were the most important elements of A Little Princess that you wanted to preserve in this retelling?

In addition to some of the plot details, it was very important that I preserve Sara’s kindness and generosity in my Emma character. Her ability to stay strong in challenging situations is at the heart of the original story and I wanted to stay true to that. Initially, I tried to preserve the next-door neighbor plotline from the original, but I broke away from it when I realized that I didn’t want someone waiting to swoop in and help. When the kindling arrives, Emma and Izzy have to save their magic and themselves.  

Did having a basic structure of the story help with writing it, or did you find it challenging to follow the classic to a certain extent?

That’s a great question. I found the structure of the original novel challenging to use as a framework. To write A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett took a collection of her serialized short stories about a girls’ school and expanded them into a novel. Each chapter still feels like a short story and it doesn’t build in the same way that a modern novel does, so I frequently had to pull away from it. Also, while the original novel uses an omniscient voice to tell Sara’s story, my novel closely follows both Emma and Izzy.

This isn’t to say that people who love the original story won’t find easter eggs spread throughout. For example, I kept one of my favorite scenes in which the girls find their attic room transformed—though it happens in a very different way in my novel.

If you were a girl at Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic, which of the characters do you think you would have befriended?

I probably would have spent most of my time reading in the school library, so I think I would have become close friends with the school’s knowledgeable house dragon, Figgy Pudding. I also have a soft spot for the delightfully awkward Frances Slight. 

Did you have to do a lot of research to write a story with a historical setting, and if so, how did you go about doing that research?

Oh, yes. I love research and I read a huge stack of books about politics, architecture, education, and daily life in New York during The Gilded Age. I wanted to make the history feel as real as possible.

One of the things I found the most helpful was the “Ask a Librarian” resource on my local library website. The librarians were so knowledgeable and helped me find books and primary sources to answer my questions. When the libraries closed during the pandemic, they were able to help me track down electronic copies of the books and articles that I needed. The Tenement Museum in New York was also very helpful and I was fortunate to take a tour there in person while revising this book. They’re offering online tours at the moment which I’ve also taken and enjoyed.

Do you have another book on which you’re working right now?

I do! My second book, THE TARNISHED GARDEN, comes out April 5, 2022. It is a loose retelling of THE SECRET GARDEN (also by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and a companion novel to THE GILDED GIRL, set in the same magical New York and following a familiar character from the first book.

Ooh, I can’t wait to read it! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

They can visit my website at www.alyssacolman.com. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter @AlyssaBColman.

Thank you so much, Kathie! I appreciate the support that the MGBookVillage team gives to debut authors! It’s been lovely chatting with you today.

Thank you, Alyssa, and I sincerely hope The Gilded Girl finds many readers to enjoy it as I did.

Alyssa Colman is the author of THE GILDED GIRL (FSG BYFR, April 6, 2021). As a playwright, she was a winner of the 2013 ESPA new play competition at Primary Stages in New York and was a semi-finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference. She has participated as both a mentee and mentor in Author Mentor Match. Alyssa now lives in Los Angeles where she enjoys making messes in her kitchen and hiking with her family and their dog, Daisy. 

Interview with Angela Ahn re: Peter Lee’s Notes From The Field

Hi Angela! I’m so happy to be chatting with you about PETER LEE. As you know, I loved KRISTA KIM-BAP. Both of these stories are so family-oriented, with grandparents playing central roles. Would you say that family is very important to you? Do/Did you have a close-knit relationship with your grandparents?

Actually, I only met one of my grandparents once. My mother’s parents both died shortly after the Korean War, my dad’s father died before we immigrated to Canada. My grandmother visited us in Vancouver once when I was maybe 11 or 12 and I just remember being scared to death of her. She was this imposing figure and I remember not being able to understand a thing she said to me. She died a few years after that trip. I have wondered why I have included close grandparent relationships in my stories when I’ve never had them. Maybe a sense of longing? 

Peter has asthma and I loved seeing the representation, but also how he has to learn to make his illness work with his dreams. I feel like asthma and allergies are underrepresented in middle grade literature. Why inspired you to create a character with asthma? 

My daughter was great friends with a girl who had severe allergies. Her friend moved away a few years ago, but they were still in Vancouver while I was writing the early stages of this book. Her mom and I would stand around and talk about, you know mom things, and then I found out how many other health issues practically everybody in their family had. Asthma was one of the issues. But the way she talked about it and the way she overcame it, to eventually swim varsity level at university, was pretty amazing and inspiring. 

I also watched the younger son in the family. This kid with high energy and the desire to run around. And then I watched him sit down on a bench to try to catch his breath and I wondered how frustrating it must be for him to have the desire to do something like running around playing tag, and then having his body say, “Nope, not right now.” I tried to work all of that into the story. 

I just loved L.B. She’s my favorite! Throughout the story, despite being a gifted eight-year-old, she just wants to be a kid. Her parents, though, push her to do more than that. Were you worried about feeding the Asian “Tiger Mom” stereotype? Why did you want to show that aspect of their parenting?

I haven’t really ever talked about this before, but my son is gifted. He was tested by the school and district in  grade 3 and then by grade 5 moved to a district gifted class. So I actually know a lot about what a parent thinks when you have a kid with high ability. I’m living it. I am that Tiger Mom. 

However, I think that the mom in the story, just like me, has figured out that having potential is one thing, and having your child be happy is quite another thing. I approached that character, somewhat tongue in cheek, because she is so much like me. I think there’s one really crucial line in her motivation as a character–when she’s talking about forcing your kids to do things they don’t want to do as being the “very definition of being a good parent.” I think, well, for me anyway, the idea of pushing your kids to succeed and achieve is actually a way of showing love. 

I’ve actually thought a lot about this and why the idea of being a Tiger Mom is viewed as such a negative stereotype and I wonder if it’s because we never think about why the Moms are doing what they are doing. It’s actually really complicated, but one of the things nobody ever really talks about is the love and devotion that goes into being the kind of parent who will give up literally everything (financially, emotionally) so that they’re children have a chance to be something or to do something that the parent feels is in the best interest of the child. 

So while I am worried about people not seeing that there’s more to her than they might think, people are going to read characters how they want to read them, no matter how hard I try or what my original intent was, so I really can’t stress about it anymore than I have. 

Hammy is dealing with health changes, and everyone is understandably worried. I liked the realistic way the story “resolves” things. More middle grade books are tackling dementia and Alzheimer’s. Was a personal connection to that health condition for you?

No, there was no personal connection here. Just a situation that many, many families face. 

Peter loves dinosaurs and paleontology! Do you? How much research did you have to do for this aspect of the book?

Not a lot really. My kids were both really into dinosaurs for a long time, so I picked up a lot over the years. I did have to refresh my memory a bit by going through reference material to make sure I got some details right though. 

I like the way you write about Korean culture. I like that your second-generation Korean characters sometimes don’t know how to make Korean food. As someone who doesn’t speak her native language as fluently as I do English, I feel like I can relate to your characters. Why do you feel the need to reflect these realities honestly?

I am just writing what I know. It’s my reality. I really am not that knowledgeable about Korean cultural things. Having lived in Canada for over 40 years in a city with a relatively small Korean population, we just didn’t grow up doing a lot of overtly Korean things. When my sisters and I were younger, my dad tried to teach us Korean in our basement (I have nightmares about the textbook he bought us) but what he didn’t know was we didn’t even know the Korean alphabet. We all balked. Then he sent us to Korean school one weekend and, to my horror, the teacher was a WHITE guy. We never went back. 

Even for Korean holidays, my parents just didn’t make a big deal about maintaining a lot of traditions. I honestly did not even know Koreans celebrated Lunar New Year until recently, because we never did! I guess parents thought it was more important for us to try and fit in with our Canadian setting than try to hold onto the language and culture we had moved away from. But now, as an adult, I want to learn Korean, so I’m teaching myself and it’s very slow going. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn as a kid! 

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Honestly, I’m quite boring. As I mentioned, I am learning Korean. 18 months ago, I couldn’t even read Hangul and now I can phonetically stumble my way through words. This past year I have finally discovered BTS, not only as a music group, but as entertainment. I have watched every single episode of their variety show Run BTS (more than once) with the goal of one day not needing the English subtitles to watch. They are absolutely hilarious. 

Which wonderful middle grade books have you read recently?

I really enjoyed The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead, and A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat was my favorite book of 2020. 

Are you working on anything at the moment that you can share with us?

Yes, I am editing a book right now, but not ready to say too much about it yet. It’s different than what I’ve written before, so six rewrites later, I’m still working on it. I hope it’s finally coming together. 

Thank you so much for your time, Angela!

Thank you for asking me such great questions! 

  • Interview with Afoma Umesi and Angela Ahn

Angela Ahn was born in Seoul, but her family immigrated to Canada before she could walk. Armed with a BA, BEd, and MLIS, she worked for several years as a teacher and a librarian, but lately has been working from home, taking care of her two children. When she can, she writes novels for kids. She’s lived most of her life in Vancouver, B.C., with brief stints working in Hong Kong and Toronto. Although she likes to blame her parents for her atrocious Korean language skills, she will admit that she was a reluctant learner. Angela’s proud to say that her children are bookworms, and that every member of her family has a stack of novels by their bed. She’s grateful to be able to write books where her children can see faces, just like theirs, on the front covers. Angela’s first book, Krista Kim-Bap, was published in 2018 and her second book, Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field, is out now. 

Sneak Peek: Chapters 1 and 2 of THE BEST WORST SUMMER, by Elizabeth Eulberg

Every book I’ve ever written starts with a “what if…?” question. For The Great Shelby Holmes series it was a pretty simple lightning bolt. I was watching Sherlock and thought “What if Sherlock Holmes was a nine year old girl?” The spark for my latest novel, The Best Worst Summer (coming May 4th), took a little longer to come together. I happened to read two books back to back (The Muse by Jessie Burton and Honeymoon in Paris by Jojo Moyes) that took place in two different timelines: one in which a painting was being created and another where the painting was being looked at. What were the chances? I really liked the dual timelines so I thought, hmmm, could I do that with a middle grade novel? What would be the item that could tie the two timelines together? Then I remember as a kid my school was repaving the playground and we decided to do a time capsule. Time capsule!

Next up was what year would the time capsule be from? This was all going on in the spring of 2019, where it was the 30th anniversary of a lot of pivotal moments from my childhood, namely, the release of New Kids on the Block “Hangin’ Tough” album. So yep, that pretty much did it. I was going to have a kid in the present day discover a time capsule that was buried by someone in 1989. 

That’s the loooong “what if…” that started the story of Peyton who is having THE WORST summer ever thanks to moving to a small town where she doesn’t know anybody. She has nothing to do, until she uncovers a box buried in the backyard with random items in it, including a photo of two girls from 1989, a weird plastic thing she has no idea what it is (*cough* cassette tape *cough*), and a note that says, “I’m so sorry, please forgive me.” Back in 1989, Melissa and her best friend Jessica are having THE BEST summer ever. They have the entire summer to hang out and have fun…until one girl’s family secret starts to unravel. 

The Best Worst Summer is a story of friendships–one beginning, another ending. It’s also a mystery. And it has A LOT of fun references to a simpler time with less technology, but a lot more freedom. (Who remembers making mixtapes from the radio?) I’m so excited to share the first two chapters with Middle Grade Book Village. Happy Reading! And Hang Tough. (Oh-oh-ohhhh-oh-oh, hangin’ tough!)

. . .

Elizabeth Eulberg was born and raised in Wisconsin before moving to New York City to work in the publishing industry. While she got to work with amazing authors as a publicist, she also once had to play basketball dressed in a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume. Luckily life as a full-time author is just as exciting (and sometimes embarrassing) where she gets to research the best chocolate chip cookie in New York and how to pick a lock. She is the author of novels for teens and young readers, including internationally best-selling YA novels The Lonely Hearts Club and Better Off Friends, and the acclaimed Great Shelby Holmes middle-grade series. Her newest novel, The Best Worst Summer, is being released on May 4, 2021. Elizabeth now lives in London, where she spends her free time going on long walks around her favorite city in the world and eating all of the scones. ALL OF THEM.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Jenna Lehne

Hi Jenna, and welcome to Fast Forward Friday! Your debut middle grade book, BONE TREE, comes out on April 1st with Blue Bronco Books. Can you please tell us what it’s about?

Thank you for having me! BONE TREE is about two best friends, a too-early death, and the journey the two go on to keep their friendship alive. Throw in a spooky cemetery, a creeptastic ghost, and an adventure or two and you’ve got BONE TREE.

Your story will appeal to readers who enjoy creepy, ghostly, and magical reads. Did you enjoy these kinds of stories as a kid, and where did the inspiration from this story come from?

I can still remember the exact row that held the scary stories in my childhood library. I’d beeline it there every day and read the thoroughly broken in copy of SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. I was first on the reservation list for every new RL Stine and Christopher Pike book. 

The inspiration came from my late father-in-law’s passing. I remember sitting there wishing there was somewhere I could go to talk to him, even if it was just for a moment or two. I’ve always loved woods so the story just grew from there.

I loved the fast pace and short chapters that make this book accessible to a wide range of readers. Was that an intentional part of your writing process, or how the story unfolded as you wrote.

I write fairly bare bones and snappy, so short chapters come with the territory. For projects with older audiences it was always an issue, so this was the first time I could just let the story unfold at my pace without having to juice it up afterward.

Elsie has to learn how to deal with the loss of a loved one under unique circumstances. Can you tell us what you most admire about her?

I love how unyielding she is. No matter what issues come her way, she’s always facing them head on. She meets people along the way that help – we all need a bit of help now and again – and I love that she’s not too proud to accept it. She’s brave even when she doesn’t want to be. 

I loved the spooky idea of the bone tree. How did that element come to be?

I’ve always loved how old and just connected trees are to the earth. Some of them seem like they have their own souls. The idea for Mary to be buried under the tree happened first, and the magical elements of the curse spawned out from there. 

I think many of us are fascinated by the concept of life after death, and wish we could see loved ones again after they’re gone. If you could visit with one famous person who has died, who would it be, and what would you ask them?

Oh man – this is a hard one to narrow down! I have to go with Amelia Earhart. I’d just want to know what happened and if she was at peace. 

Are you working on another writing project at the moment?

I am in the middle of the most trying revision of my life. It’s a middle grade horror about a girl who hunts monsters, her missing father, and her little town with far too many secrets. 

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

You can find me on Twitter @jenna_lehne, IG with the same name, and www.jennalehne.com

I’m so glad we had some time to talk today, Jenna, and I wish you all the best with BONE TREE’s release in April.

Thank you so much for having me!!

Jenna Lehne is a tea-sipping, horror-loving mom of two boys, and a kitten named Lemons, in Calgary, Alberta. She’s a former Pitch Wars mentor, contributor on the blog MidnightSocietyTales.com, and her middle grade debut, BONE TREE, is out April 2021 from Blue Bronco Books.

Book Review: DESMOND COLE GHOST PATROL, by Andres Miedoso and Victor Rivas

Recent releases Escape from the Roller Ghoster and Beware the Werewolf are the eleventh and twelfth books in the Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol series, and there’s a good reason why there are so many of these books. They are great. Each book is about 120 pages, broken up into ten chapters, and packed full of Victor Rivas’s excellent illustrations. The books exist in that somewhat hard-to-define space between early readers and full-fledged Middle Grade novels, and therefore can appeal to a wide variety of readers. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that the books are an absolute blast. They are fast-paced, exciting, and loaded with both down-to-earth, relatable kid content and high-interest, out-of-this world frights. (Though, it should be said, the scary stuff isn’t too scary – it’s more likely to lead to giggles than nightmares.)

One of my favorite things about the series is how author Andres Miedoso named the narrator of the series Andres Miedoso. Andres (the narrator, not the author) is Desmond Cole’s best friend. This narrative device instantly invites readers into the boys’ world in a way that a differently named narrator could not, and continuously prompts readers to wonder, “Did all this wild, spooky stuff really happen?” What’s more, the device also encourages readers to consider what kinds of stories they might be able to narrate, whether or not they add a hefty dose of imaginary fun to their experiences.

These all-around awesome books are a great addition to any elementary classroom or school library. Their content and format guarantee broad appeal, and their accessibility ensures benefits for both thriving and emerging readers of different ages and grades.

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, Revenge of the EngiNerds, The EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity book Give This Book a Title. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming activity book Give This Book a Cover and the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

Book Review: THESE UNLUCKY STARS, by Gillian McDunn

Annie Logan has always felt like the odd one in her family since her mother left them. She’s convinced that she is unlucky; bad things always happen to her, and she doesn’t have a single friend. Her brother Ray and her dad are practical and seemingly happy-go-lucky. Things always seem to work out for Ray who’s a A student and all-round responsible kid. They live in a small mountain town where their father runs a hardware store that may not be doing as well as it used to.

Things take an interesting turn when Annie forms an unlikely friendship with a grumpy old woman named Gloria. Around the same time, the town is planning a parade to gain more publicity. Annie is frustrated that her float design ideas aren’t welcome by her dad, despite the fact that she’s the artist in the family. As Annie gets to know Gloria, and things start to shift within her own family as they prepare for the parade, Annie learns that life is what you make of it.

I adored this story. Annie’s rambunctious tone had me from the first page. She’s young and chubby, and trying to figure out who she is. My heart went out to her because I understand how it can be when your view of the world around you limits you. She is so convinced that she just has bad luck — or perhaps it’s easier to believe that instead of taking life by the horns. I liked watching her befriend Faith and I just thoroughly enjoyed being in Annie’s head.

Annie’s relationships in this book are complicated, whether with her dad, brother, Gloria, Faith, or the other boys in this story. Yet, it is heartwarming to see how fortunate she is to be surrounded by decent people who look out for her. In many ways, this book is an ode to living in a small town, how comforting it can be to be surrounded by people who love you and look out for you. I loved the way we learn about Annie’s mother, and the sensitive way the author portrays her situation — although not everyone with the same issues would react in the same way.

Finally, at the heart of this story is a child building a friendship (albeit, very reluctantly) with an elderly person. I love books with this narrative arc, and I enjoyed Gloria’s dry wit and all the wise words she tells Annie throughout the story. The writing in this book is poignant, insightful, and just a joy to read, especially for middle-grade literature.


Afoma Umesi is a freelance writer and editor with a voracious appetite for children’s literature. She blogs about books at Reading Middle Grade.

Cover Reveal for WELCOME TO DWEEB CLUB, by Betsy Uhrig

Hi Betsy, and welcome to MG Book Village. We’re happy to be part of the cover reveal for your upcoming book, Welcome to Dweeb Club, which releases September 28, 2021. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Thank you so much! Welcome to Dweeb Club is about a group of seventh-graders who join an oddly named school club and stumble on video files of themselves five years in the future – as seniors in high school. Which leads to some important questions. First, who sent the files and why? And second, what if they don’t like what they see in their futures?

Their efforts to figure all this out, and to avert what they see as some poor life choices ahead, lead to ill-considered experiments with the space-time continuum, uncomfortable encounters with local wildlife (and with one another), and a madcap chase across a high-tech campus. 

I love the idea for this story! I’d love to know the inspiration behind it?

This story rose from the ashes of a manuscript I had given up on. I was a little ways into a time-travel adventure set in the same (fictional) school as this one and featuring a character from this one, when I gave up on it because the time-travel contradictions were frying my brain. Then, in a final stroke of fate, I accidentally deleted the manuscript. Permanently. I started over with the time element curtailed so I could get a grip on it, and Dweeb Club was the result! My brain still ended up a little bit fried.   

I’m always curious to know how an author chooses a title for their book, and if the final title is their original one. Could you tell us more about that process for this book.

This title came about pretty late in the process, and it was actually the inspiration for some quite satisfying revisions to the text. The book was always named after the club in question, but that changed several times over the course of rewriting and editing. I like “Dweeb Club” because it’s a bit clunky to pronounce. Try saying it five times fast! 

Can you describe your main character, and what you like best about them?

Jason Sloan is the main character and, as club historian, the narrator of the book. He tends to categorize others with handy labels like “Stork Legs” and “Vegan Lunch,” which eventually lands him in trouble. I like Jason’s honesty, his willingness to be the punch line of his own jokes, and his ability to change course. He also has a way with skunks! 

What does an average writing session look like for you?

I tend to write in short spurts and then rest for long periods. It’s almost reptilian. I will usually open the document and edit what I wrote during the previous session – to get back into the flow of the story – then try to add a bit more. It’s a slow process of accretion, basically. 

OK, let’s talk about your cover. Who is the designer/illustrator? Did you have any input on it, and if so, what was the experience like for you?

Betsy: The illustrator is Lisa K. Weber, and the designer is Debra Sfetsios-Conover at Simon & Schuster, and they did an amazing job! I saw early sketches and made sure the kids looked like the ones in my head. It was very fun to see them come to life. I absolutely love how their shadows make the kids look bigger – like the older versions of themselves they see in the book. It’s so subtle and clever, and I never would have thought of it. 

Let’s show everyone what it looks like!

I LOVE how this captures a moment of anticipation, and the look on the skunk’s face! I think this will really appeal to young readers.

What do you hope young readers will take away from your story?

First, I hope readers will laugh at Jason and company’s adventures, especially their skunk encounters and their low-speed golf cart chase. But I also want readers to see that life is full of choices, big and small, that can send you off on new trajectories, and there are always ways to change course if you want to. Finally (and this would have been really helpful to me in junior high): your seventh-grade self is a work in progress and guaranteed to change over the next five years—and beyond. 

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

They can visit BetsyUhrig.com for more about me and my cats and my other book, Double the Danger and Zero Zucchini. They can also follow me on Twitter @BetsyUhrig. And there’s more about my books at https://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Betsy-Uhrig/168271742. 

Thank you for allowing us to be part of your cover reveal, Betsy, and all the best with your book’s release.

Thank you for hosting me! And thank you so much for all you do for the marvelous middle-grade community! 

Betsy Uhrig is the author of Double the Danger and Zero Zucchini and Welcome to Dweeb Club. She was born and raised in Greater Boston, where she lives with her family and even more books than you are picturing. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in English and has worked in publishing ever since. For more information about her, visit BetsyUhrig.com.

Interview with K.G. Campbell re: Zombie Problems

  • There is a Goodreads giveaway for The Zombie Stone going on until Friday, February 19th. You can follow this link to enter the contest.

Welcome to MG Book Village! It’s a pleasure to have a chance to chat with you today about your middle grade series, Zombie Problems. Can you please tell our readers a little bit more about your series?

Hi Kathie.  Thank you for welcoming me to your arena and giving me the opportunity to talk about my gruesome little yarn.  Zombie Problems is a three part series, a trilogy, with a single story arc.  Ostensibly, it’s a darkly funny and slightly gross, highly atmospheric, Southern Gothic about a twelve year-old boy with, well, zombie problems.  On a deeper level, at the heart of the story, lies childhood loneliness, and as it has progressed, perhaps even a universal loneliness that is part of the human condition.

The Zombie Stone was released on January 12, 2021

This series is your foray writing middle grade fiction. How did that process differ from writing picture books?

The vast majority of stories, long or short, are constructed on the same frame: catalyst, goal, conflict, resolution and so on.  So to that extent, there is not much difference.

A picture book however, generally has a single plot with a simple takeaway.  A novel is a rather more organic and untameable animal.  Now, I’m a serious “plotter” and Zombie Problems had a robust story arc with an ending before it was even started.  But even I found subplots emerging and character development evolving as the tale progressed.  So the biggest difference I guess, would be that with longer works, I’m more fluid and open to unexpected turns.

Why do you think zombies are such appealing characters for kids?

Well, the short answer is that they are gross and awesome!  A more considered explanation would be that during our development, around the age of 8-12, young humans become fascinated and entertained by all things macabre.  I suspect this has something to do with an increased understanding of, and coping with, our own mortality.  For some of us of course (like me!) that fascination never dies (pardon the pun).

If you were standing beside a young reader in a bookstore, trying to decide if they should purchase your book, what would you say to convince them?

Do you know what it’s like to hold someone’s eyeball in your hand?  No?  Well, you should definitely read this book to find out.

That’s a great answer! You are also a well known children’s illustrator. Were you involved in the covers of these books?

I was really thrilled to contract my first middle grade series and became a little giddy with a sense of autonomy, with the ability to construct an entire, fairly extensive, world of my very own.  As I have an illustrative background, I decided that this should be the most lavishly illustrated middle grade series ever!  So yes, not only did I craft the (wraparound) covers, but a full page illustration and spot for every single chapter and double page spreads for four of them.  It in fact took me longer to illustrate these books, than it did to write them.  Wearing both hats I fear, has slowed down production, but bringing my characters to life both in words and visuals has been a labor of love. I hope that shines through.

Can you share an interesting tidbit about your writing life or publishing journey with us?

As many of your readers no doubt know, with so much competition out there, it is not easy to get your foot in a publisher’s door as an author of kid lit.  After several attempts to do so myself, I very consciously turned to my artistic skills, educated myself in industry expectations and marketed myself as an illustrator.  As you can see, the strategy worked.  But even today, I consider myself a writer who happens to be able to draw, rather than an artist who happens to be able to write.

Where can people go to find out more information about you and your writing?

You can check out my work and bio in any of the following locations:

Website: www.kgcampbell.com.

Instagram: https://instagram.com/kgcampbellauthor?igshid=10i0moomm2k16 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/artbykgcampbell?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

Amazon Author Page: https://smile.amazon.com/K-G-Campbell/e/B00ATH76OW?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1612725876&sr=8-1

GoodReads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6588725.K_G_Campbell

Thank you again for joining us today, Keith, and best of luck with your series and the final book’s release.

Oh, there’s nothing that writers like more than to talk about themselves, so the pleasure was all mine.  Thank you for having me and for the good wishes.  August DuPont and his undead great, great aunt Claudette have been such a huge part of my life for three or four years, that I confess to becoming misty eyed a few weeks ago, when I finally wrote that terminal phrase “The End”.  I hope you and your readers find their misadventures as engaging as I have.

K.G. Campbell was born in Kenya but raised and educated in Scotland.  He graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a master’s degree in Art History.

He is the author and/or illustrator of numerous award-winning books, including Lester’s Dreadful SweatersThe Mermaid and the Shoe and Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses.  The Zombie Problems trilogy is his first work of middle grade fiction.

K.G. is currently a full-time author/illustrator and lives in California.

Book Review: ASTRONUTS (MISSION TWO: THE WATER PLANET), by Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg

Have you ever read a book from a series that wasn’t the first, and then immediately felt the need to go back and read the first one? That’s what happened to me after reading AstroNuts (Mission Two: The Water Planet) by Jon Scieszka. This is the second in this series that is all about the adventures of four superpowered animal astronauts who are on a mission to find a “just right” planet for humans to move to (since you know, we’re not doing a great job of taking care of the planet we’re actually on).

I felt like this book did an awesome job of being engaging for readers and educating them at the same time. Not only did I learn about why using the scientific method is important, but I also learned what happens when the oceans are not taken care of like they should be. All of this while enjoying the antics of the unsuspecting, scatterbrained AstroNuts. As the narrator tells us, “…the Water Planet…did turn out to be a good lesson on how to take care of a planet…and how to take care of your friends”.

When I first read this book, my son had just finished working on a project about the world’s water crisis in school, and I thought this book could’ve been perfectly paired with their unit, especially for those readers who were really into the topic. So in addition to being a great addition to any sort of Earth Day-type unit, I can easily see this series being enjoyed by all young readers in 3rd through 5th grades. AstroNuts (Mission Two: The Water Planet), by Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg was released in August of 2020. (And as as side note, I did go and find the e-book of book 1 of this series after I finished.)

Deana Metzke, in addition to being a wife and mother of two, spent many years as a Literacy Coach, and is now an Elementary Teacher Instructional Leader for Literacy and Social Studies for her school district. In addition to occasionally sharing her thoughts here at MG Book Village, you can read more of her thoughts about kid lit and trying to raise children who are readers at raisingreaders.site or follow her on Twitter @DMetzke. She is also a member of #bookexcursion.