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!

3 Spring Releases & a Conversation with Ann Braden and Saadia Faruqi, Books Between, Episode 49

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love.  I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a 5th grade teacher, a mom of two girls who are 8 and 11, and feeling extraordinarily lucky on this Mother’s Day to have my mom in my life. And having a mother who is and has always been such a staunch supporter of my reading life.  

This is Episode #49 and today I’m discussing three new middle grade releases, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with authors Ann Braden and Saadia Faruqi from the Lifelines Podcast.

Alright – announcements!  I hope you have been loving the May Middle Grade at Heart Book Club pick  Every Shiny Thing as much as I have.  Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen will on the podcast soon so if you have a question you want me to ask them, please let me know! In June we’ll be reading The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras and July’s pick is Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno.

And – I hope you’ve been as inspired as I have by the Educator Spotlight interviews at the MGBookVillage site. We have lots more coming, so keep an eye out!MGBookVillageEducatorsMonth

A quick reminder that the outline of today’s interview and a full transcript of all the other parts of this show can be found at – including links to every topic and book we mention. I know you are busy and I want to make it effortless for you to find things!


Book Talk – Three Fantastic Spring Releases

This week we are back to some book talks! And instead of having them fit a particular theme, I thought I’d simply share with you three really great recent releases from this past spring. They are Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein by Jennifer Roy & Ali Fadhil, Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes, and Rebound by Kwame Alexander.

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein

Our first featured middle grade novel this week is Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil. This historical fiction novel is set in 1991 in Basra, Iraq – just 25797017as the United States is launching Operation Desert Storm. And it’s based on the true story of Ali Fadhil’s life as an ordinary 11 year old boy who loves playing video games and watching American TV like the The Muppet Show. But then, the bombings come and life for Fadhil and his family is becoming more and more bleak.   Here are three things to know about Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein:

  1. The main character does NOT actually play Atari with Saddam Hussein. Although as an adult, he does become a translator who ended up working at his trial. In the novel, one way that Ali copes is to imagine that he is playing Pitfall as he travels through his war-torn streets and also because some of the Americans dubbed it “the video game war” because the night-vision green streaks of bombs across the dark sky looked to them like a video game.
  2. That this book gives a much-needed window into a time-period that is often overlooked in children’s literature. We are now getting a lot of great books about 9/11 but the era of the Gulf War is still lacking. And many of my students’ parents are veterans of those wars so knowing more about the perspectives of an Iraqi child going through those experiences is important. And humanizes a group of people that some wish to label as enemies.
  3. How many similarities students will discover between themselves and Ali. Despite being set halfway around the world in a country the United States was at war with, Ali’s family plays Monopoly while they hide out waiting for the bombs to pass. Ali plays soccer and video games and collects American Superman comics. His sister has a Barbie Dreamhouse! Probably the same one I did with the elevator you pulled up with a little string. And I think back to when I was a teenager watching this war live on CNN with Wolf Blitzer and Bernie Shaw and I never would have realized the kids on the other side of those bombs were so much like me.

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein is a great book for 5th graders through middle schoolers who are interested in the real impacts of war, Iraqi history, or just want a good historical fiction book. And it would make a great complement to the many World War II novel studies out there to add a more modern perspective.

Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring

A second great spring middle grade release is Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes. You might know her work from her two earlier novels –  Gaby, Lost and Found and Allie, First at Last. This novel is a mystery and centers around a missing ring belonging to the artist Frida Kahlo. The main character is 12 year old 32765905Paloma Marquez, who begrudgingly travels with her mom from their home in Kansas City to Mexico City for 4 weeks of the summer. (Her mom is a professor and has a fellowship there.) Although Paloma’s father was Mexican, she doesn’t speak Spanish, she worries about missing out on fun with her friends, and she just doesn’t want to go. But…. on her first night in Mexico, she attends a reception at Frida Kahlo’s home – Casa Azul – and receives the following note from a mysterious boy.  Here are three things to love about Angela Cervantes’ Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring:

  1. I love how Paloma is inspired in this book by her favorite mysterious series starring Lulu Pennywhistle. And as she gets further and further into the thick of things with brother and sister Gael and Lizzie –  midnight break-ins, and secret rooms, and strange fortune-tellers – Paloma is always referencing Lulu Pennywhistle to figure out how she should proceed.
  2. All the Frida Kahlo!! When I found out this book had to do with my favorite artist – I knew I had to read it. And I was so happy to discover that this book does her such justice. Frida Kahlo’s paintings illicit such a visceral reaction from students and once you tell them a little bit about her life – how she painted her pain and made it beautiful – they are enthralled by her. And yes, some notice the exaggerated eyebrows first and some find it funny. But I like how Paloma discussed that at on page 119.
  3. How this book is really all about identity and belonging. Paloma’s father was Mexican but died before she could have her own memories of him. And she feels as if she is searching for that connection while she is in Mexico City.  And as Paloma learns more about Frida, she discovers how complex her life was – sometimes feeling torn between being an international artist and wanting the roots of her native Mexican heritage.

Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring is a great book for kids who love art or travel, for kids who are intrigued by Mexican culture and the Spanish language – and for anyone who loves a great mystery!


Last up this week is Kwame Alexander’s Rebound – the much-awaited prequel to the much-loved and much-awarded, novel-in-verse The Crossover. This book is all about Josh & Jordan’s father – Chuck “Da Man” Bell. But – this is an origin story. So when we first meet him, he is just Charlie – an 80’s kid reeling from a family tragedy and trying to find 41bpl0Wp5jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_his way forward and trying to find his smile again. When home becomes tense, he is involuntarily shipped off to his grandparent’s house for the summer where he starts to find that path forward. Let me read you the first page….   Here are three things I loved about Kwame Alexander’s Rebound:

  1. The illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile. While The Crossover had black-out poems throughout the book, Rebound includes these awesome two-page spreads of these mini graphic-novel type sketches of Charlie’s basketball daydreams and wishes and memories. So so cool. And a great hook for kids who love the graphic novel format.
  2. The 80s vibe of this book!  Now, you all know I am sucker for 70s and 80s nostalgia! And this book took me back to skating parties and trying for that high score on the Pac Man machine at the rec center where ALL your friends gathered after school. But also – some things haven’t changed – like Black Panther and the Fantastic Four, the importance the right brand of shoes (and not those knockoffs your mom gets you), Strawberry Pop-Tarts, and your folks not letting you watch THAT video on MTV.
  3. Discovering all the little references and plot threads that will appear later in The Crossover. How Charlie becomes Chuck, the origins of his Basketball Rules, where his love of jazz came from – and boy it was NOT there at first! And… the little hidden surprises revealed toward the end about who some of the characters end up being in the later book. And I know there’s a ton more that I haven’t figured out yet – so for that reason alone, definitely a rich book to read with a friend or with a book club to mine and discuss all those little details.

Rebound is a must-get for your classroom or library. And fans of The Crossover are going to absolutely relish this prequel. It’s a book you finish and want to immediately talk to your friends about. It’s not necessary to have read The Crossover first, but I think it’s a better and more enjoyable reading experience to read them in the order they were published. So The Crossover, the Rebound, and then go read Crossover again!

Ann Braden & Saadia Faruqi – Interview Outline

Our special guests this week are Ann Braden and Saadia Faruqi. Ann is the author of the upcoming middle grade novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus and founder of GunSenseVT.  Saadia is an interfaith activist and author of a new early chapter book series called Meet Yasmin. Ann and Saadia recently teamed up to launch a podcast – Lifelines: Books That Bridge the Divide. I have been loving their show and am so happy to be bring you this conversation. We chat about why they started a new kidlit podcast, their novels, how they make time for reading with their kids, and some secrets for the perfect French Toast.

Take a listen…



Can you take a moment to tell us about yourself?Lifelines-Books-that-Bridge-the-Divide-A-Pocast-black-text

I was so excited to see your new podcast, Lifelines, pop up in my Twitter feed a few weeks ago!  How did you two connect with each other and then how did the podcast start?

What is your collaboration process like to produce the show?

I know when I first started podcasting, it took a while to get into a groove… what mistakes have you made along the way?  And what are some plans you have for the future of the podcast?

So Ann – your pictures of your baby posed with the stuffed animals is adorable!

So Saadia, I started following you on Instagram and realized that you and I share a love of French Toast. What is your secret for the perfect French Toast?

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You both have children’s books coming out this year! Can you tell us about them and when they’ll be available?


What were some of your favorite or most influential reads as a child?

I’ve realized that something we all have in common is that we have young children. I’m wondering – how do you foster that love of reading in your family? And how do you make reading a priority when family life can be so busy?

What have you read lately that you’ve loved?


Ann Braden’s website –

Saadia Faruqi’s website –

Ann on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram

Saadia on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)

Fifteen (Beverly Cleary)

Frog and Toad (Arnold Lobel)

The High King Series (Lloyd Alexander)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)

Homecoming (Cynthia Voigt)

The Famous Five (Enid Blyton)

Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene)

Hardy Boys (Franklin W. Dixon)

William Shakespeare

I Survived Series (Lauren Tarshis)

Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate)

Wishtree (Katherine Applegate)

Orbiting Jupiter (Gary D. Schmidt)

Okay For Now (Gary D. Schmidt)


Alright, that wraps up our show this week!

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This network EPN_badgefeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.



Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide

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If you listened to yesterday’s episode of Books Between, then you’ve already heard about Lifelines, the exciting new children’s book podcast hosted by Ann Braden and Saadia Faruqi.


What can you expect to hear on episodes of Linelines? Here’s an answer from Ann and Saadia themselves:

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Guiding the creation of the content you’ll hear on Lifelines is a set of beliefs about the power of fiction, the necessity of diversity, and the importance of amplifying the voices of minority groups:

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The first two episodes of Lifelines are already live. The first episode, “Supporting Students in Poverty,” features Ann’s conversation with elementary school librarian Eileen Parks as well as Saadia’s recurring “Books You’ve Never Heard Of” segment, in which she recommends books about kids struggling with poverty.

The second episode, “Fighting Prejudice With Words,” features Ann’s conversation with Kiran Waqar, a high school senior and a member of the slam poetry group “Muslim Girls Making Change,” and Saadia’s book recommendations about South East Asia and refugee issues.

You can learn more about the podcast, find links to subscribe, and listen to the two episodes mentioned above here.

And if you’re an educator or librarian who has ideas about great ways to use books to bridge cultural divides, don’t hesitate to reach out to Ann and/or Saadia. They want to hear from you, and are open to all ideas about what should be included on future episodes. For those of you who have LOTS of ideas, they’d love to set up an interview. Their goal is to have all voices at the table. Contact them via this form at Ann’s website, or on Twitter at @annbradenbooks and @SaadiaFaruqi.