MG at Heart Book Club’s June Pick: THE SIMPLE ART OF FLYING, by Cory Leonardo

This month, the Middle Grade at Heart team is excited to feature Cory Leonardo’s funny, emotional, one-of-a-kind debut, The Simple Art of Flying!


Here’s a bit about the book:

Perfect for fans of The One and Only Ivan, this irresistible debut novel combines plucky humor and a whole lot of heart in a story about the true meaning of family.

Sometimes flying means keeping your feet on the ground…

Born in a dismal room in a pet store, Alastair the African grey parrot dreams of escape to bluer skies. He’d like nothing more than to fly away to a palm tree with his beloved sister, Aggie. But when Aggie is purchased by twelve-year-old Fritz, and Alastair is adopted by elderly dance-enthusiast and pie-baker Albertina Plopky, the future looks ready to crash-land.

In between anxiously plucking his feathers, eating a few books, and finding his own poetic voice, Alastair plots his way to a family reunion. But soon he’s forced to choose between the life he’s always dreamed of and admitting the truth: that sometimes, the bravest adventure is in letting go.

Kirkus Reviews called the novel “delightfully quirky,” and we couldn’t agree more. We hope you’ll join us this month in reading this fabulous book and getting to know Alastair, Fritz, Bertie, and a whole lot of other hilarious pets.

Our newsletter about the book will go out on June 17th and our Twitter chat will be June 25th at 8pm EST, with the hashtag #mgbookclub. And in the meantime, we have a special treat for you: a fun quiz inspired by the lovable animals in the novel.

Take this quiz to find out which kind of pet in The Simple Art of Flying is most like you, and Tweet us @mgatheart to let us know what result you get!

Writing for Young Readers

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One of the questions I often receive from muggles adults, is Why do I write for young readers. After I stare at them for an uncomfortably long moment, I begin to explain.

When I was a kid growing up in an Air Force family, we moved around a lot. I had to go to a different school in a new state every two years or so. Leaving behind your friends when you’re a kid can be wrenching. But the thing that always made me feel better when we got to a new school was visiting the library. There, I found librarians who were always ready to recommend a new book. Within their pages I discovered Narnia, Middle Earth, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and other fantastical people and places.

I like writing for this age group because it’s the time in a young reader’s life when the world is still full of wonder and possibility.

Maybe there is a secret world behind the wardrobe. Maybe…just maybe, I will get an invitation to a magical school in England. (I’m still waiting for my letter. But then I’d freak out because it would be delivered by an owl and I’m afraid of birds.)

When I was a kid, I read somewhere that JRR Tolkien used something he called sub-creation to create his world. He called it a secondary world, which your mind could actually enter. My brother and I, also a voracious reader, took this literally. We truly thought we could get to Middle Earth by sheer concentration.  We turned off the lights, tried to clear our minds, and hoped to soon be walking in the Shire, talking to Elves and hobbits, and having lunch with Wizards.

We didn’t make it to Middle Earth, but we did get to a place where our creative minds were ignited. We’d come out of these fugue states and write and draw and create our own language. Our parents actually had to insist we turn off the lights and go to sleep because we were reading too much.

I also tell the muggles…that every kid deserves to see themselves in a book.

This is important. We all deserve this, be it a brown boy, a Korean girl or a gay teen.

The writer Neil Gaiman calls fiction an empathy machine, and it makes us see and understand and connect with people who are different than we are.

So that’s why I like writing for young readers. Within their hearts, there’s still a possibility that there’s some kind of magic in the world, if you look hard enough.

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Ronald L. Smith is the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award–winning author of Hoodoo, The Mesmerist, Black Panther: The Young Prince, and The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland. You can find him online at and on Twitter at @RonSmithbooks.



The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away by Ronald L. Smith

In this delightfully creepy novel from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award winner Ronald L. Smith, twelve-year-old Simon thinks he was abducted by aliens. But is it real, or just his over-active imagination? Perfect for fans of Mary Downing Hahn and Louis Sachar.

Twelve-year-old Simon is obsessed with aliens. The ones who take people and do experiments. When he’s too worried about them to sleep, he listens to the owls hoot outside. Owls that have the same eyes as aliens—dark and foreboding.

Then something strange happens on a camping trip, and Simon begins to suspect he’s been abducted. But is it real, or just the overactive imagination of a kid who loves fantasy and role-playing games and is the target of bullies and his father’s scorn?

Even readers who don’t believe in UFOs will relate to the universal kid feeling of not being taken seriously by adults that deepens this deliciously scary tale.


“I hugged this book last night because I love Simon so much.” —Erin Entrada Kelly, Newbery Award-winning author of Hello, Universe

“Smith (Hoodoo, 2015) continues to be one of the most distinct and impressive voices in middle-grade speculative fiction right now.”–Booklist

“An eerie and layered tale with a main character to which young readers will relate.”–School Library Journal

“CSK/Steptoe Award–winning author Smith (Hoodoo, rev. 9/15) crafts a tightly plotted novel full of suspense and compassion with a climax that will chill readers straight to the bone.”–The Horn Book Magazine

“A middle-grade X-Files primer.”–Kirkus

“The touching efficacy of this novel is in its showing rather than telling of a boy with the weight of multiple worlds—whether through the media or family or his own mind—placed squarely on his small shoulders.”–The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

The MG Book Village Gets a Makeover!

You might’ve noticed that the MG Book Village looks a little bit different today… That’s because we’ve gotten a makeover!

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been working with author/illustrator Gina Perry to give the Village a new look. We’re all big fans of Gina’s work, and we could not be any happier with the art that she created for the site. You’ll find that art above, on our banner, and also over on Twitter, on the @MG_BookBot’s profile. Gina created a few other images for us, but we’re holding off on sharing those and will be rolling them out for special projects and events in the future.

You can learn more about Gina and her work at her site and at the bottom of this post, and can hear more about her thoughts and inspiration behind her art for the Village directly below. We hope you are as excited about our new look as we are, and we’d love to hear what you think!

“After working on illustrations for a middle grade book last year, I was super excited for a chance to create a few illustrations for MG Book Village. Right now, there really is a book for everyone whether you are into sports, non-fiction, fantasy, comics, arts, nature, humor, video games, science, etc. I hope my panorama captures that variety and also the feeling that we are all connected. There isn’t one particular kid that looks like me at that age, but I definitely connect with several of them. I also included a boy with a cochlear implant as a nod to my big sister who just received hers last month. My daughter Piper gave me the idea to color-dip the hair of one girl. And many thanks to MG Book Village for this fun collaboration!” — Gina Perry

Screen Shot 2019-05-28 at 2.48.37 PM.pngGina Perry is the author/illustrator of SMALL, which was published in 2017. It was named a Bank Street Best Children’s Book in 2018. Her latest picture book, TOO MUCH! NOT ENOUGH!, was recently selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Canada for 2019. Gina also illustrated Dan Bar-el’s picture book IT’S GREAT BEING A DAD and the graphic novel sections of Sarah Scheerger’s middle grade novel OPERATION FROG EFFECT. Gina’s next book, NOW? NOT YET!, hits shelves June 4th. You can find her online at, on Twitter at @ginamarieperry, and on Instagram at @ginaperry_books.

Middle Grade at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: The Evocative Use of White Space in THE MOON WITHIN by Aida Salazar

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Our May book club pick for Middle Grade at Heart is Aida Salazar’s beautiful debut, The Moon Within. Here’s a bit about the book:

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

The Moon Within is a dazzling story told with the sensitivity, humor, and brilliant verse of debut talent Aida Salazar, and it received four starred reviews.

We’re so excited to feature this lovely, empowering book! The Moon Within is a novel in verse, which means the narrative is composed of free verse poems that join together to create scenes. Verse novelists can use all sorts of evocative poetic techniques. One technique that Aida Salazar employs is playing around with white space. Let’s take a look at a poem that makes especially effective use of white space.

In this poem-scene, the main character, Celi, is at the movies with Iván, an older boy she likes. He begins to ask her a question and stops himself, and she wonders if he wanted to ask if she would be allowed to have a boyfriend. Then the thought that goes through Celi’s head is, “What would it be like to be his girlfriend?” But take a look at how that thought is set out on the page:


What occurs to you as you look at the shape of that thought?

Does it mimic the shape and feel of “tumbling like weeds?” Do you have to stop and linger on the words, spending extra time to puzzle out what they say? Does that extra time give the thought extra weight? Does the white space mirror Celi’s emotions in some way? Does anything else occur to you?

Which other poems throughout the novel use white space in striking ways? Be on the lookout as you read, and Tweet us @mgatheart to let us know what you find!

And if you’d like to learn more about how verse novelists can use white space and other poetic techniques, check out this fabulous, comprehensive post by verse novelist Cordelia Jensen.

Our newsletter about The Moon Within will go out on Monday, May 20th, and mark your calendars for our Twitter chat about the book: Tuesday, May 28th at 8pm EST, using the hashtag #mgbookclub!

STEM Tuesday Spin Off: The Science of Social Studies

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Today we continue the STEM Tuesday Spin-Off guest blogger addition to the MG Book Village blog. As you will recall, members of the STEM Tuesday group at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors will share a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) post that ties middle grade STEM books, resources, and the STEM Tuesday weekly posts to the familiar, everyday things in the life of middle graders.

We’ll look at the things in life we often take for granted. We’ll peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for the STEM principles involved and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. The common, everyday thing will be the hub of the post and the “spin-offs” will be the spokes making up our wheel of discovery.

The STEM Tuesday team has brought you lunchroom science and recess science, so continuing in our schoolyard science theme, I present–The science of Social Studies!


That’s right, we often talk about integrating science and math or science and technology. But there’s a lot of science in social studies. Let’s take a tour of some fun ways to look at STEM–social studies connections.

Maps and Map-making

Map-making is a STEM bonanza. Latitude and Longitude? Pure geometry. Mountains and Oceans and deserts? Geology. And making the maps themselves? Technology and engineering.

Check out National Geographic Education’s fun simulation of mapping Mars.

Read Soundings: The remarkable woman who mapped the ocean floor by Hali Felt  (Henry Holt, 2012).

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OR Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor 
by Robert Burleigh and Illustrated by Raúl Colón (Paula Wiseman Books)

Watch The Science of Everything Podcast to see how map projections alter our understanding of the world.




Scientific discoveries have impacted the trajectory of historical events, and historical realities affect how and when science is done. Several STEM Tuesday reading lists have looked at the history of science and technology.

Try the Women in Science History List or this botany list on #STEMTuesday  (you may be surprised how interwoven botany and world exploration are).

Want to learn about the importance of seeds and plants and how that relates to feeding the world’s population? Check out The Story of Seeds by Nancy Castaldo (HMH BFYR) Or take a look at The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth by Anita Silvey ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR)

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In  Castaldo’s book, learn how something as small as a seed can have a worldwide impact. Did you know there are top-secret seed vaults hidden throughout the world? And once a seed disappears, that’s it—it’s gone forever? This important book sheds a light on the impact one seed can have on the world.

Silvey’s book takes us on a great adventure as early plant hunters traveled around the world, facing challenges at every turn: tropical illnesses, extreme terrain, and dangerous animals to find and collect new and unusual specimens, no matter what the cost.


Geography is essentially geology with people on top. For a technology twist, try this National Geographic lesson on the geography of a pencil.


Check out Geology Lab for Kids by Garrett Romaine (Quarry Books)  for fun hands-on activities. Or The Rock and Gem Book: And Other Treasures of the Natural World by the Smithsonian.

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See how people’s water use can lead to sinkholes and check out satellite imagery of Florida on Google Maps–all of those circular lakes are old sinkholes!




Of course, conservation is deeply tied to government and laws. This STEM Tuesday list will give students a whole host of ideas for conservation, and what better way to engage them in the political process than with cool science?

Try Jennifer Swanson’s Geoengineering Earth’s Climate (21st Century Books) or Whale Quest: Working Together to Save Endangered Species by Karen Romano Young to see how decisions we make in our world affect the species that live within it.

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Finally, with the out sized role of the electoral college in the last few elections and the age of gerrymandering, apportionment has been a big civics issue. I have long been fascinated by the mathematics that shows that it is mathematically impossible to perfectly apportion representation. This activity illustrates why (it’s for a high school math or higher, but still, this topic is so cool!).

So check out these resources and go wild with the science of social studies!



download  Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a STEM Tuesday blogger, science author, and educator with 10+ books for children and teachers from National Geographic Kids, Capstone, and NSTA Press. Recent children’s books include Dog Science Unleashed: fun activities to do with your canine companion (a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize), Edible Science: Experiments you Can Eat (a Junior Library Guild Selection) and, as a co-author, Recycled Science (a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize).…

MG at Heart Book Club’s Writer’s Toolbox: What the First Chapters of The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora Have in Common

This month, the Middle Grade at Heart team is trying something new: our first ever book club double-feature, spotlighting The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden and Everlasting Nora by Marie Miranda Cruz!

We love how both of these authors explore the theme of poverty in such an authentic, unflinching way. We also love how they have both crafted brave, resilient main characters, and how their books depict difficult situations while offering lots of hope and empowerment for young readers.

These are the best kinds of window and mirror books. For readers who have never dealt with poverty, The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora will help them develop compassion and understanding. And those who have lived in poverty will feel seen and validated.

Both books have terrific first chapters that introduce readers to these two strong, memorable main charactersZoey and Nora. And an interesting parallel is that both first chapters reveal the characters’ relationships to school. Let’s take a closer look at how both books touch on the characters’ experiences with something very relatable: their education.

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In The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Zoey has a very rare, very short-lived moment of quiet in her mom’s boyfriend’s trailer, where she lives with her mom and younger siblings. She thinks she might have a chance to work on her debate packet and explains why that would be unusual:

I’m not a kid who does homework. And I definitely don’t do big projects, which usually require glitter and markers and poster board and all sorts of things. None of which I have. Plus, last year in sixth grade, when I actually turned in a poster project, Kaylee Vine announced to the whole class, “Everyone! Alert the authorities! Zoey Albro turned in a project. The world must be ending.” Then she made that ahgn ahgn ahgn sound like a fire drill, and did it every time she passed me in the hall for the whole next week.

But this project doesn’t need any glitter. And everyone else won’t have fancy poster boards with foam letters that make my flimsy piece of newsprint that the teacher gave me look like gray toilet paper. All I need is to know something—and I do.

And maybe, just maybe, if I do this—and if I can rock it—all the other kids will have their minds blown, and it’ll be completely satisfying to watch. “Who would have guessed,” they’ll say, “that Zoey knew so much cool stuff? I had no idea! I thought I knew who she was, but clearly I didn’t at all.” Maybe Kaylee Vine would even stop holding her nose and switching seats on the bus to get away from me.

This passage is powerful for a few reasons. First, it’s a bit surprising. From the first page, Zoey comes across as extremely smart, capable, and responsible. So that sentence, “I’m not a kid who does homework” will catch some readers off-guard. It might make readers pause and ask, “Wait a minute. Why not?” And then, immediately, Zoey’s narration reveals that there are often financial barriers to completing projectsbarriers some kids will recognize and other kids (and adults) might have to stop to consider for the first time.

The passage also establishes Zoey as a character we can’t help but root for. Zoey reveals some upsetting thingsKaylee Vine’s cruelty and the fact that other kids underestimate herbut she doesn’t pity herself. She has a fire inside her and remains determined and hopeful that she can make things better. That makes her very easy to love and cheer on.

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Now let’s turn to Everlasting Nora. On the first pages of the book, Nora reveals that she does not have a traditional home—instead, she and her mom, along with several other people, live in their families’ grave houses in a cemetery in the Philippines. The first paragraphs of the book are quite poignant, revealing Nora’s nostalgia for the kind of home she used to have. But despite Nora’s sorrows, she’s also very joyful. Her capacity for joy comes across when she spots a teacher who sometimes comes to the cemetery:

Up ahead, I saw Efren Pena and his pushcart classroom on the corner. He waved a book in the air when he saw me. A wide smile dimpled his cheek. He called out, “Nora, join us! We’re doing math today.”

I waved back a him. A surge of excitement filled me. […] Working on math would be fun. Papa had always said I was good with numbers.”

Like Zoey, Nora is not defeated; she has a great deal of passion and truly wants to learn. But also like Zoey, Nora has many responsibilities and worries that get in the way of her schooling. In fact, she isn’t able to go to school at all. After Nora sees Efren Pena, she decides she can join the math lesson for a bit. She thinks to herself, “Yes, it would be nice to sit a while and pretend I was back in school.” This is such a powerful line. Nora matter-of-factly shares that school work is a relaxing break from the type of work she usually has to do. Readers who manage challenging circumstances at home will likely relate to this sentiment. Meanwhile, others who haven’t felt this way will understand a lot about Nora’s life from the fact that she considers schoolwork a break. Readers also get to see how determined Nora is when she reflects on her desire to be back in school:

I missed going to a real school. I missed the smell of chalk. Most of all, I missed my best friend. If I saved enough money I could buy a couple of secondhand uniforms, some notebooks, and pencils. I would go back to school next year. I’d have to repeat sixth grade, but that was okay.

For some readers, school might be something they take for granted or even dislike, but school is something Nora longs for. Readers who think of school as an obligation will be very moved by Nora’s desire to have the opportunity to go back. And we see here in this passage that, like Zoey, Nora is resilient and full of hope that she can make things bettertraits that make her an endearing and admirable character.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that both books address the protagonists’ complicated relationships with education in the first chapter. But even if it is, we can learn a lot from the way Ann Braden and Marie Miranda Cruz do this. They both use something that almost all readers have experience with as a touchstone to reveal a lot about where their characters are coming from. This choice helps some readers quickly identify with Zoey and Nora, and it helps others to understand and feel compassion for them.

What other parallels can you spot between these two books? We hope you’ll join us this month to read The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora…or to read one of them, if you’ve already read the other. Our newsletter will go out on Monday, April 22nd, and our #mgbookclub Twitter chat will be at 8pm EST on Tuesday, April 30th. We hope you can discuss these books and their similarities and differences with us then!

MG at Heart Book Club’s April Picks: Marie Miranda Cruz’s EVERLASTING NORA and Ann Braden’s THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS

This month, we’re trying something brand-new at Middle Grade @ Heart: a double feature! We’ll be spotlighting BOTH Marie Miranda Cruz’s EVERLASTING NORA and Ann Braden’s THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS. Each one focuses on different experiences of poverty—one in the United States, one in the Philippines—and we think they will make for an interesting comparison and contrast!

We will have a variety of content about both books, and we hope that if you’ve already read one, this will give you a chance to track down the other and focus on that.

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Information on EVERLASTING NORA:

An uplifting young reader debut about perseverance against all odds, Marie Miranda Cruz’s debut Everlasting Nora follows the story of a young girl living in the real-life shantytown inside the Philippines’ Manila North Cemetery.

After a family tragedy results in the loss of both father and home, 12-year-old Nora lives with her mother in Manila’s North Cemetery, which is the largest shantytown of its kind in the Philippines today.

When her mother disappears mysteriously one day, Nora is left alone.

With help from her best friend Jojo and the support of his kindhearted grandmother, Nora embarks on a journey riddled with danger in order to find her mom. Along the way she also rediscovers the compassion of the human spirit, the resilience of her community, and everlasting hope in the most unexpected places.

“Heartwarming!”―#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Melissa de la Cruz

“A story of friendship and unrelenting hope.”―Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly



An NPR Best Book of 2018!

Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.

Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.

At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.

Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.

Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?

This moving debut novel explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate through the eyes of one girl, living on the edges of society, trying to find her way forward.

Our newsletter will go out on April 22nd, and our Twitter chat will be April 30th!