Book Review: SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS, by Renée Watson

Rarely have I encountered a book crafted to offer a story that engages middle grade readers, offers sage wisdom for adults who wish to empower these readers, and also lays out a flexible, yet easy to implement, plan for project based learning that can be experienced in the classroom or at home.  Renée Watson’s Some Places More Than Others offers it all.

Amara’s story – what it accomplishes for middle grade readers

2019 has taken me on many middle grade realistic fiction journeys.  These journeys have been insightful, candid, painful, funny and representative of many of the lives of the children I serve.  When I read any children’s book I wait for it to whisper to me, which of my readers needs this particular story first, I am always searching for  connections. So many stories unavoidably lead me to see my children as the face of the characters I journey with.  

Over the past few months I have been left with a burning question: how many children in the situations I read in MG lit suffer uncertainty, fear, loneliness, because they avoid expressing their feelings, asking questions, bringing to the attention of others how their words or actions are affecting them?  The burning question was growing in intensity, book after book, making me wonder if it’s the nature of relationships or if there was perhaps a way to offer kids a seed of hope, an alternate model that showed them what braving communication could do to improve their lives.

I had just begun the journey with Amara, a 12 year old girl who is a “sneakerhead”, a reader, a beloved daughter, who is about to have a baby sister, and knows very little about her extended family, when the opportunity to attend a presentation of Some Places More Than Others author Renée Watson at the Irving Public LIbrary in Irving, TX,  arose. 

The night of the presentation I had only read up to chapter five but I had learned that Amara’s lack of a relationship with her extended family seemed to be due to geographical distance; Amara lives with her parents in Oregon, and many of her family members live in Harlem, NY.  Although Amara and I had just begun our journey, and the premise, trying to convince her parents to let her celebrate her birthday by accompanying her dad on a business trip to New York and stay in Harlem with her dad’s family to get to know them better, had me excited, details began to emerge about her family life and history that brought the question that many of the stories I had read this year had left unanswered. Amara had questions about the coincidence that her father and her Grandpa Earl had stopped speaking to each other 12 years ago, at about the same time she was born.  Amara had so many concerns about her new baby sister and if she would be more like the daughter her mother wanted Amara to be. The questions multiply and the need to know about her family’s past intensifies when at school Amara is assigned “The Suitcase Project”, which requires learning about her history and roots.

During the author’s presentation attendants were invited to ask questions and I’m sure you can guess which question immediately sprung into my consciousness.

I couldn’t help it, I had to ask.  I shared that I wasn’t even sure it was a fully formed question but I was in need of knowing why, why do so many young characters stop themselves from asking the questions that are causing them pain and discomfort, why do they avoid voicing their concerns because from the reader’s omniscient standpoint it seemed that so much heartache could be avoided.  Ms. Watson was amazing at understanding my muddled question and shared that maybe for young people it’s not only fear of the answer, but fear of causing pain, especially to a loved one that makes them hold back. She also shared that through Amara she hoped to give readers a look at what asking those questions might lead to and that she crafted Amara’s journey to “learn her family’s secrets with the end result of bringing the family together.”  What Ms. Watson shared that night gave me a jolt of hope and a need to finish reading Amara’s journey and who it might whisper I need to share it with next.

Amara’s Family- Interactions that Empower

Some Places More Than Others offers readers a window to look through and experience what the possibility of not keeping it all inside, how asking those questions that are causing fear, pain or loneliness might turn out to be the best decision they make.  Amara shares with us the anxiety of causing pain or learning an unexpected truth, through asking difficult questions or retellings of past family events, but she also shows us how the need to know gives her courage. Readers get to experience what asking those difficult questions and sharing her thoughts, brings to her life and the lives of her family.  

Adults who read Amara’s story will find actionable ideas to lead discussions that empower children from marginalized communities to reconsider the motivation of those who came before them. Those who fought for civil rights and social justice not just for themselves or the world and life they were leading at the time of their fight, but for the children that would be standing in the here and now.

The Suitcase Project – Exploring Identity, Social Emotional Learning and Research

Amara’s humanities teacher, Mr. Rosen, invites his students to go on a journey to “explore your past, present, and future.”  This project is the catalyst that not only changes Amara’s parents’ determined “no” to going to New York for her birthday into a yes, but also the vehicle that helps heal years of pain, gives Amara a wider perspective of her place in the journey and struggle for civil rights and equality of African American and Afro-Latin leaders, and uncovers family secrets that are part of her history.  

As I read about the Suitcase Project and learned what Amara decided should be part of hers, I hoped for more detail about this assignment, but of course that would slow down the action of the story.  Thanks to Ms. Watson’s generosity, questions, writing prompts and artifact ideas to help any educator or parent confidently embark their children on this journey are included at the end of the book.

Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson is a story that middle grade readers and adults can enjoy on their own, but it can be experienced fully and more deeply when shared as a family, as a community, to grow closer and stronger individually and as a unit.

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.

Introducing…Fast Forward Friday

We are very excited to tell you about something new at MGBookVillage! It’s called Fast Forward Friday, and it’s a biweekly feature where we’ll jump forward in time and showcase some of the new MG debut books set to be released in the upcoming year. We believe it’s important to support authors at any stage of their publishing careers, and this is a great way to introduce you to some new authors with whom you might not be familiar.

We welcome any author with a traditionally published * MG debut coming out in 2020 to reach out to us by email at mgbookvillage@gmail.com so we can coordinate a post for Fast Forward Friday. We hope to feature interviews, guest posts, cover reveals, etc., so our readers have a chance to see which MG titles they need to keep on their radar for 2020. We will use the #FastForwardFriday hashtag for these posts so you can always check back to see what you missed.

We look forward to sharing some great new authors with you very soon!

* Update: Due to limited resources, we are only able to guarantee this opportunity to traditionally published authors at this time, though all authors are welcome to email us about this opportunity.

Book Review: CRASH-TEST DUMMIES, by Jennifer Swanson

Save the Crash-test Dummies is a deep dive into the history of the design of safety features in automobiles. It’s a middle grade engineering book—but what does that mean about who you should hand it to?

Who exactly is Save the Crash-test Dummies for?

  1. The kid who only wants to read facts. This middle grade nonfiction is stuffed with facts—about how different kinds of brakes work, about how airbags work, about how GPS works, about why automobile side mirrors are curved. Any fact fanatic will sink into this book, feeling right at home.
  2. The kid who loves pictures. This book respects a middle grader’s sensibilities and never pretends to be a picture book, but it is richly illustrated. There’s only one spread without multiple illustrations. There are photographs—many of them historic—diagrams, and humorous illustrations.
  3. The kid who is a reluctant reader. The page design of this book is great for the reluctant reader. Because the book is so lavishly illustrated, each page has a manageable amount of text, which is made even easier to dig into by lots of catchy captions.
  4. The kid who is an activist-in-training. This book digs into important social issues. Why have crash test dummies been modeled after adult males and what does that mean for the safety of all the rest of us who ride in cars? When should humans be test subjects and when should they not? What issues do we need to settle as a society before we let self-driving cars loose on the road? This book will give kids plenty of information to debate all these topics.
  5. The kid who loves history. Did you know one of the early automobile bumpers was modeled after a cow-catcher? Or that one car manufacturer made water-filled bumpers. Text and photographs take kids on a fascinating tour into various automobile design experiments. As one of those history-loving kids, I found myself grabbing passers-by as I read to share fantastic historic photos.
  6. The kid who loves sparkling voice in books. Sure, this book deals with Newton’s laws of motion and the engineering process, but it is anything but dry. The language is vibrant, accessible, and full of humor. It would make a great mentor text for classes working on expository essays.
  7. Most of all..this is a book for anyone who rides in cars. You’ll never again think the same way about buckling up.

Annette Bay Pimentel is the author of Girl Running (Nancy Paulsen: 2018), Mountain Chef (Charlesbridge: 2016), and the upcoming All the Way to the Top (Sourcebooks: 2020). She writes nonfiction picture books in Moscow, Idaho.

A Different Kind of Hero by A.B. Greenfield

Children’s writers and illustrators love putting cats and dogs in books. Bears, birds, mice, and hamsters do pretty well, too. Insects… not so much, especially outside of picture books. And that’s a shame, because insects are the unsung heroes of our world, and they could use some good press.

Nearly half of insect species are declining now, and many of them are in so much trouble that they could disappear before the end of the century. Saving them is going to be a crucial 21st-century job, so it’s vital that we help kids to see insects as interesting and likable—and not just something to be squished. Our stories can help with that.

Luckily, the insects who do get starring roles in middle-grade fiction are memorable. Here are some of my favorites:

Marvin, the artistic beetle in Elise Broach’s Masterpiece

No one ever expected Marvin to be an artist… especially not his family, who live under a sink in a New York apartment. But when 11-year-old James discovers Marvin’s talent, the two strike up a wonderful friendship and foil an art theft.

Baxter, the clever rhinocerous beetle in M G. Leonard’s Beetle Boy.

Baxter is the standout beetle (among many) in this book. Brave and determined, he becomes friends with a young boy named Darkus Cuttle. Together they work to defeat the evil Lucretia Cutter, who has nefarious plans for beetle-kind.

Chester, the musical genius in George Selden’s Tucker’s Countryside

Chester is most famous for his role in The Cricket in Times Square, but when I was growing up, my favorite Chester book was this one. I still love how Chester, Tucker Mouse, Harry Cat, and the girl Ellen work to save Chester’s endangered meadow and the creatures who live there.

With the Ra the Mighty mystery series, I’m delighted to be adding my own insect hero to the list: Khepri, a scarab beetle in Ancient Egypt, who is the Sherlock Holmes of the ancient world. Khepri’s partner in (solving) crime is his best buddy, Ra the Mighty, Pharaoh’s Cat

“Three cheers for the Great Detectives!” Khepri likes to say. To which I would add, “Three cheers for insects, too!”

A. B. Greenfield is the award-winning writer of Ra the Mighty, a funny mystery illustrated by Sarah Horne. It was a 2019 Edgar Award finalist. Ra and Khepri’s next mystery, The Great Tomb Robbery, comes out in October and is a Junior Library Guild Selection. You can visit Amy at http://www.amybutlergreenfield.com.

Interview: Carolyn Crimi

Hello, Carolyn! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new book, WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS. Before we get to the new book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure! I’m a pug lover, a Halloween freak, and Lucille Ball’s biggest fan. I’m also a picture book author with her first novel for children coming out this year!

WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS is an illustrated chapter book, but you have already published several picture books. Have you always written longer form stories, or does WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS represent a creative departure for you?

I have many, many first drafts of novels in my files, but the thought of revising them felt way too daunting. Then, suddenly, I decided to change that. I had always wanted to publish a novel for kids and decided that I would put in the necessary work with Weird Little Robots. It was simply time to do what I set out to do when I started writing back in 1989.

Revision has always been difficult for me. But by watching the members of my amazing writer’s group make HUGE changes in their own work I’ve learned that starting all over doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer. Actually, I think the best writers are the ones who are the most open to revision. In order for me to improve my writing I had to be more flexible about my first drafts. That took a lot of time to learn.

Was your process for crafting this longer work at all different from your picture book-writing process? Were there any surprising similarities or differences?

It’s a very different process for me. Partly because it takes so darn long to write a novel! You really have to love your subject matter.  When I’m writing novels I’m living inside them. I’m thinking about them all the time. I’m always looking for something to add to make them more authentic and unique. The journey with a picture book is shorter and therefore less intense.

A big challenge for me is writing action scenes. In picture books, especially the ones written today that are primarily dialogue, the action is often accomplished through the illustrations. A page turn can take you from one scene to the next without having to create a seamless transition. In my novels I have often stressed about things like, how the heck am I going to get my character down the stairs, out the door, and into the car? What do I put in? What do I leave out? I’m still learning!

Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

I have heard that fifth grade is “the apex of childhood,” and that’s what I love about this age. I love their elaborate fantasy world, and how their games are so involved. I also love how important play is to them, and how intense they are when they participate. On the one hand, it’s all fun and games. On the other hand, it’s deadly serious.

All right – let’s get to the new book. Can you tell us what WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS is about?

Weird Little Robots is about a lonely eleven-year-old girl who creates miniature robots out of the odd objects she finds on her daily walks. When the robots magically come to life, she thinks her dreams have come true, but her problems have only just begun!

The story’s main character, Penny Rose, does her creating in a shed. I’m curious to know why you chose to give her this little backyard laboratory/studio/sanctuary, as opposed to having her build her robots in, say, her bedroom?

Interesting that you should mention that! I wrote a draft in which her laboratory was up in the attic, but it was too limiting. I had to throw out eighty pages and start again. Having a separate structure away from the main house gave my characters more autonomy.

More importantly, broken-down sheds fascinate me!  I’ve always been curious about who once owned them and what they did in them. I love the possibility that lies within them.

I loved the way both Penny Rose and Lark were collectors of weird little objects, things that other people might pass over as “junk.” They cherish these odds and ends, and because of this, are careful, respectful observers of the world around them. Were you at all like them as a child?

Definitely! I vividly remember one incident from my childhood that illustrates this point. It was Christmas, and I had gotten some new toys. I certainly liked the new toys, but by the end of the day I was back to playing with my handmade “spy kit” which consisted of strange little thingamabobs I had found around the house. I was addicted to the show Get Smart and loved pretending I was a spy with a shoe-phone.

It’d be a shame to talk about this book without talking about the wonderful illustrations by Corinna Luyken. What was working with Corinna like? Did any of her art have an impact on your storytelling?

Corinna has been a dream! I love the way the illustrations have turned out!

But the process of working with her was similar to working with illustrators on picture books. As with picture books, we didn’t really work as a team. My editor chose Corinna after she bought the book, and the art director worked with her on her illustrations.

While I was writing it I didn’t even know if it would be published, much less illustrated, so I didn’t have Corinna’s illustrations to inspire me.

But after reading the manuscript she did have an interesting comment, which lead to a much better story. The robots in the book used to be all male except for one. She felt that Penny Rose would create female robots, and of course she was right!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS?

I would be so very happy if children formed their own Secret Science Societies in which they explored the magic of science!

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS to their classroom libraries?

First of all, thank you for purchasing my book! I realize there are a lot of great books on the shelves, and I’m very grateful you chose mine.

As far as using it in the classroom, I would think most kids would have a blast making their own weird little robot metropolises. I had so much fun writing about roboTown, and I’d love it if kids decided to make their own.

When can readers get their hands on WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

The book will be out October 1st.  I have a few events scheduled at this point, but I’ll probably have more as I get closer to the publication date:

Evanston Library, September 15th

Harbor Springs Book Festival, September 26th through September 29th

Anderson’s Bookshop (Downers Grove location), October 17th

The Book Stall, Winnetka, November 2nd

57th Street Bookstore, Chicago, November 9th

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

They can go to my website, www.carolyncrimi.com.

3rd Annual #MGBooktober

Happy October! We’re happy to kick off our third annual #MGBooktober along with Annaliese Avery. You’ll find the daily prompts listed below. Please share with us your book choices for each day on Twitter, and don’t forget to use the #MGBooktober hashtag so we can all follow the responses. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and sharing great MG suggestions this month.

Book Reviews: New Novels from Hena Khan, Kate Messner, and Cindy Baldwin

More to the Story by Hena Khan

Jamella is a seventh grader who has a passion for writing. Someday she wants to be an award winning journalist, like her late grandfather, and she’s working toward that goal as the features editor of her school newspaper. 

When she learns that her father has to go overseas for six months for work, she and her three sisters and mom are heartbroken. Jam decides to write an amazing article that will make her dad super proud, but does so at the cost of a new friendship with a boy named Ali. On top of that, her family is shocked to receive news about her younger sister’s health. 

Not only is this an important story about family, friendships and hope, but the journalism piece that focuses on the microaggressions that today’s students face is important and powerful.  Highly recommend this middle grade novel and I’ve bought a copy for my 5th grade students. 

Chirp by Kate Messner

The summer after seventh grade, Mia and her family move from Boston back to Vermont to be closer to her grandmother who suffered a stroke a few months back. Gram is recovering nicely but is concerned that someone is trying to sabotage her cricket farm business, and Mia promises her to help any way she can. 

Mia’s mom has also told her that she must participate in two summer activities (one for her body and one for her brain). Mia chooses a Launch Camp (Maker space for kids) to help promote her Gram’s cricket business. She also picks a Warrior Camp so she can get stronger after last year’s gymnastics season ending injury when she fell off the balance beam and broke her arm. Later, the reader comes to learn that the broken arm was not the sole reason for Mia’s depart from gymnastics. 

This Middle Grade mystery has so much to offer readers. Friendships among strong girls, the science of entomophagy, the strength of family, and the courage of one girl to stand up and find her voice. Highly recommend for middle grade libraries. Preorder now. Publishes 2/4/20.

Beginners Welcome by Cindy Baldwin

Annie Lee misses her daddy. It’s been eighty-three days since he suddenly passed away, but the apartment where she and her mama live is full of his presence. The smell of his aftershave and hairs in the  bathroom sink and the CD player and TV turning on by themselves to play his favorite song & show are all constant reminders of the emptiness she and her mama feel. 

With her mama working full-time. Annie Lee needs something (and someone) to help her with the loneliness that surrounds her. But she’s afraid of letting down her invisibility cloak and letting others get close to her again. 

At her new school she meets Mitch, tough and confident despite being new, too. Annie Lee also meets Ray, an older pianist who plays at the local mall and gives her lessons. 

When something happens to Ray, Annie Lee must make a choice that may cost her her new friendship. 

With themes of hope, healing, and the strength of a community, this novel will be a middle grade reader favorite.  Publishes 2/11/20. Be sure to preorder!

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.