Book Review: GIRLS GARAGE: HOW TO USE ANY TOOL, TACKLE ANY PROJECT, AND BUILD THE WORLD YOU WANT TO SEE, by Emily Pilloton

I could spend this whole review listing all the people to whom I would recommend Girls Garage: How to Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build the World You Want to See written by Emily Pilloton and illustrated by Kate Bingaman-Burt, because there are so many who would love this book. Pilloton is the founder of Girls Garage, which is a brick-and-mortar building in California where she helps girls “come together to do audacious, brave things as young builders.”  Since we cannot all be in California, Pilloton has gifted us with this book that is not only inspirational, but is also gives concrete steps for any girl who aspires to design and/or build. This informational book is arranged in a specific order to help the reader learn a few different things.

First there’s the “Safety and Gear” section, which is naturally where any girl will want to start reading. Then the bulk of the book, sections titled “Toolbox” and “Essential Skills” explore just about everything you need to know about the variety of materials one could use to build, including the different types of lumber (who knew there were three different types of manufactured wood?), and how to do many basic building skills, like painting a wall. The last section, called “Building Projects” is exactly that, a list of different projects, with all materials and step-by-step directions included. The best part? Sprinkled throughout the whole book are mini stories told about and by women who have been on this builder journey, that the reader can make connections to or be inspired by. 

Although one could, Girls Garage is not the type of book I imagine most girls will read from cover to cover, and I don’t think its meant to be that way.  However, the way that it is written, with Pilloton’s personal stories and advice throughout, I could see how one might read it cover to cover. Personally, I cannot say enough that I feel like this is an awesome reference guide that needs to be on many girls’ bookshelves, not just for when they want to put that frame on the wall, but for when they may need some inspiration to follow their dreams. As Pilloton says, “Our goal shouldn’t be to live without fear, but to acknowledge that fear is unavoidable and to act bravely in spite of those fears. Bravery is something you can practice, something you can choose.”

This book was released in June 2020, and I would like to thank the publisher for sharing an ARC for me to review!

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.

Double Book Review: WHAT LANE?, by Torrey Maldonado

Twelve-year-old Stephen can’t be pigeonholed into any one lane. He is more than the Black kid who hangs out with his white friends watching Into the Spiderverse or Stranger Things, the same kid who sometimes also hangs with his Black friends but never the two groups at the same time. He’s more than the biracial kid whose mom sees him as mixed while the rest of the world only sees him as Black. He’s more than someone’s son, adored by his parents while also being considered a threat or troublemaker in the eyes of those who accept the images and narratives that prevail in the media. Stephen can be wavy in any lane he chooses and when he finds his voice and the courage to stand up, the sky’s the limit.

Stephen is in middle school now and he is dealing with things that he has never experienced before. He’s starting to notice how he is being treated differently from his white friends. He asks his dad a very important question, “Dad, why is racist stuff happening to me all of a sudden? I mean, in elementary it wasn’t like this…” and his dad’s response is one I imagine can be heard in the homes of many families who are trying to have The Talk with their sons and daughters. He says, “…You are not a little boy anymore. People outside are starting to see you differently and a lot of white people see boys with your height and they don’t see your age. They see what they imagine or what the media teaches them to think about Black men – maybe that we’re threats or troublemakers.”

His dad shares advice with him that certainly echoes conversations we’ve had with our own son. He tells him that “We can’t do everything our white friends can. You have to think twice before you act once.” And much like Stephen, I think my son used to think that we were overreacting when we would say things like that to him. It breaks my heart that there are people who would look at my son whom I love, the twenty-year-old who still loves his momma, who is oftentimes still his goofy self while being every bit brilliant, as any sort of threat or someone to fear. I remember breaking down in tears over this very conversation in grad school in front of a room filled with white classmates. We watched so many videos that were meant to “school us on the struggle” and when I rose to speak, by the time I was finished, I wasn’t the only one with tear-filled eyes.

Torrey Maldonado knocked it out the park with What Lane?! It is down-to-earth real and addresses racism candidly in under 200 pages. I can only imagine what this book is going to mean for every reader. For the young Black boys who will read it and see their experience between the pages. For the conversations it will spark in the classrooms that will read this book aloud with their students. For those who are or will soon become allies, as well as those whose eyes will be opened and how the removal of blinders will change lives. The publisher recommends this book for 5th grade and up but you know your learning community and may want to consider reading it to your 4th grade students as well. I look forward to adding a copy of this book to our collection when it releases this spring (May 2020). I will also be nominating this as a 2020-2021 Project LIT Book Club selection.

Christina Carter is an Elementary School Librarian (K-5), Wife to a Most Magnificent Husband, and Mother to 3 Beautiful teen and young adult Blessings, and yes, she loves to read! 

The 2019-2020 school year represents her 7th year serving as a school librarian (Library Media Specialist); spreading the love of reading, encouraging exploration and discovery through research, and engaging students in lessons that spark their creativity. When she think back to her childhood, these elements were what made the library a very special place for her. She believes it is a launchpad by which we get to discover and pursue our dreams. Every day that she opens a book, she opens up a world of possibility.

Christina is active on social media (mostly Twitter & her blog) and is a member of #BookExcursion, a group of educational leaders who read, review, and promote books through social media and in their communities with an express purpose of sharing their love of reading with the families they serve. You can find her on Twitter at @CeCeLibrarian.

. . .

Being a librarian gifts me the ability to build relationships with my elementary readers that span multiple years. I have come to expect with trepidation the abrupt transformation many 4th graders go through over the summer.  They come back to school as 5th graders, with a new outlook on decision making, one that I cannot comprehend. I’ve tried talking, walking them through their previous choices for as long as we’ve known each other, but it has been difficult for them to put into words what exactly is behind the choices they are currently making, leaving me without ideas on how to best stand by them.

Looking for answers, for understanding, I turn to books, I read stories about kids their age, I read diversely and widely and yet, had not gained much insight until I fell into Torrey Maldonado’s stories.  Maldonado’s latest book What Lane? has taken me the closest I have ever been to understanding my kids.  It’s hard to explain exactly what I glean, maybe I’m not meant to understand completely, maybe I’m not capable, but I feel a fleeting tickle in my brain, like I’m getting it, I’m understanding my boys and girls. Maybe, what Maldonado offers adult readers, who are invested in supporting their students through the middle grade age, is empathy, hope, a flutter of wings in our hearts that the kids we’ve known for so long, that we look at now and wonder where exactly the kid we knew has gone to, is that they are still there, figuring themselves out and needing us to believe that they will figure out what they need to keep of who they are, what they need to change and grow into, to make their lives as amazing as can be. 

What Lane? introduces to readers’ lives, Stephen, an 11- year-old biracial boy, his mom is white and his dad is African American.  Stephen has bought into the philosophy of Marshall Carter, his favorite basketball player, that believes that the world is his lane, there is no lane he cannot ride.  Stephen believes this about himself, there are no lane limitations for him, he can ride in any and all lanes. Middle grade readers will absolutely eat this up, after all they have adults in their lives that tell them things like “You can do whatever you put your mind to!”, “The sky is the limit!” “You can do anything! You can be anything!” but through Stephen’s journey they’ll explore how this is not life’s reality, especially if you are a black or brown child, a trans child, a differently abled child.  

Maldonado uses pop culture references (for example: Miles Morales Into the Spiderverse, Stranger Things, Harry Potter ) and preteen and neighborhood slang, to draw middle grade readers into Stephen’s world.  It’s one parallel to their own which sets up readers to see themselves in the situations Stephen and his friends and classmates are experiencing.  Stephen’s best friend, Dan, is white. They have a strong bond and an honest friendship, they care for each other, keep each other in check, and have a wider, diverse group of friends they interact with.  Stephen is at an age where he no longer looks like a little boy, and with this change, comes the realization that adults in his community no longer see him as the kid they’ve always known. Through different incidents, and the forced presence of Dan’s cousin, Chad, who has recently moved to their neighborhood and is determined to drive a wedge between Stephen and Dan, Stephen begins to realize that the world is not his lane, the world does not allow a black, brown, or biracial boy to ride every available lane.

What Stephen invites readers to explore is the possibility of not bottling up the visceral feelings he is experiencing as he notices that the world around him has decided he is a threat, he is up to no good, he is a troublemaker; as he feels the sting and fear prejudice and racial profiling  is causing. Stephen puts into words all that he is feeling and thinking as best he can, in conversations with his dad. His father offers clarity and also the harsh truth that people are now viewing him differently, not because he has changed, but because he looks more like a young man and less like a child.  Being brave in sharing what is happening is a path that helps Stephen deal with all of these feelings, find answers and also advise on how to cope with this new reality.  

Stephen’s absolute trust in his friend Dan leads him to point out how they are treated differently.  At first Dan doesn’t want to accept that because he is white his actions are always viewed as innocent, whereas Stephen’s exact actions are viewed as transgressions.  Maldonado offers middle grade readers a model of what a healthy friendship should feel like. Stephen and Dan are honest with each other, listen to each other, and because of this Dan finally admits that maybe he should notice things more.  Future incidents are met with Dan acting as an ally to Stephen and pointing out the injustice that adults are committing. This is a powerful model!

As the story progresses, Stephen encounters more racial profiling, peer pressure from Chad, and the realization that his motto What Lane?might not be one he can live by because of the color of his skin and the world we live in.  This is a painful realization but with it also comes the clarity, that there are lanes Stephen doesn’t ever want to ride, and trying to ride them only brings regret, such as trying to meet every dare Chad throws his way.  Maldonado doesn’t tie this realization up with a pretty bow, and frankly he might just undo some of the damage us well-meaning adults, have done by parroting ideas that equate to the What Lane? philosophy to our children, because it’s just not possible for anyone, even more so for children of color and marginalized communities.

One lane Stephen questions is if as a brown boy he should be so tight with a white boy.  This made my reader, educator, and mom heart worry, I’ve seen this issue come up in real life; if you’re Latinx, you should surround yourself with Latinx friends, if you are African American you should hang out with African American friends.  Painting our world with just one color is a dangerous proposition for any group, and Stephen faces this when Wes, a classmate who is also his friend and African American, points out they don’t spend much time together anymore and resents it. Wes wakes up Stephen to the Black Lives Matter movement, makes Stephen aware of lives lost to police brutality, such as young Trayvon Martin and others, and questions whether he should be spending so much time with Dan.  Stephen toys with choosing, should he choose to spend his time with Wes, who understands the prejudice and fears he is experiencing, or should he continue spending his time with Dan, who cannot completely empathize with him because he doesn’t suffer the racism Stephen is subjected to constantly. I won’t share how this evolves, but I will say, knowing Maldonado’s writing, my heart had nothing to worry about in the first place.   

What Lane?  is a story that all middle grade readers should have access to.  As with all books that explore the social justice issues & inequality that our children face today, adults  should provide scaffolding support and an open invitation to conversation without judgement about what readers need more information on. 

Torrey Maldonado’s What Lane? is a necessary story for everyone, not for certain “insert label here” readers. Living through Stephen and Dan’s relationship, what true friendship looks and acts like, is necessary.  Understanding the prejudice and profiling a child of color is subjected to and how reaching out to caring adults is an avenue worth exploring, is necessary. Understanding white privilege and what being an ally looks like, is necessary.  Understanding that the claim that you are “color blind” is an excuse to not take action against racism, is necessary. Understanding our world’s social justice issues, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the events that led to its need, is the first step to recognizing the injustice we are living in and how it is everyone’s responsibility to change, is necessary.  What Lane? is definitely a lane all our children should ride if we want them to grow up to be changemakers and socially responsible humans, and who doesn’t want that for their children and students?

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.

Book Review: CLEAN GETAWAY, by Nic Stone

Nic Stone is a New York Times Best Selling Author whose work I first experienced when I read her debut YA novel, Dear Martin in 2017. It became a book of my heart. One that I spoke of and shared widely because, for me, Justyce McAllister was just like my son and through its pages, Dear Martin echoed the cries of my heart for social justice and change. That’s what Nic does. She has a way of telling a story that pulls the reader in deep, to the point where they are fully engrossed as the journey unfolds; making the reader an intimate friend living out the experience alongside the characters.

In Clean Getaway the reader gets to buckle up as a passenger aboard G’ma’s RV with her grandson William “Scoob-a-Doob” Lamar, as the two venture off on an impromptu road trip with a grip of money, a treasure box, and a whole lot of family secrets. They’re sort of off the grid and William’s Dad grows more worried by the hour but G’ma is on a mission, crossing multiple state lines to see it through to the end. Along the way, Scoob learns about the Green Book and how it was once used to help keep Black travelers safe. They visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, made a stop by Medgar Evers home in Jackson, Mississippi, and made it as far as Texas before anyone could ever catch up to them. It may not have entirely been the clean getaway that G’ma was hoping for, but it was a trip that William “Scoob-a-Doob” Lamar would never forget.

Nic Stone nails Middle Grade and I am grateful to Jason Reynolds for inspiring her to go for it. Clean Getaway is relatable, funny, and heart-warming. The relationship G’ma and Scoob shared made me smile. I also appreciated the historical nuggets that are peppered throughout for our students to glean from. The chapters are short and at only 223 pages, it is the perfect length. Some Middle Grade books can be incredibly long and while there are many students who do borrow lengthy books from our library, most of my students are inclined to pick up the shorter reads. And with the cover art and interior illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile, this is the sort of book that they will be compelled to pick up. I will quickly add this book to our collection for our students to enjoy.

Christina Carter is an Elementary School Librarian (K-5), Wife to a Most Magnificent Husband, and Mother to 3 Beautiful teen and young adult Blessings, and yes, she loves to read! 

The 2019-2020 school year represents her 7th year serving as a school librarian (Library Media Specialist); spreading the love of reading, encouraging exploration and discovery through research, and engaging students in lessons that spark their creativity. When she think back to her childhood, these elements were what made the library a very special place for her. She believes it is a launchpad by which we get to discover and pursue our dreams. Every day that she opens a book, she opens up a world of possibility.

Christina is active on social media (mostly Twitter & her blog) and is a member of #BookExcursion, a group of educational leaders who read, review, and promote books through social media and in their communities with an express purpose of sharing their love of reading with the families they serve. You can find her on Twitter at @CeCeLibrarian.

Book Review: A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST, by Joy McCullough

Sutton’s parents are divorced. She lives with her dad while her mom is in Antarctica, researching penguin migration. She’s a science-minded kid who’s dealing with programming issues, both with her mini-bot and in her own life. Luis lives with his mom, having lost his dad to cancer years ago. While his creative writing is fantasy driven (Star Wars and Harry Potter are favorites), he’s usually stuck in reality (indoors) due to his many allergies and an over-protective mom. They couldn’t be more different from each other, but their parents start dating and they have to navigate this new path neither expected to explore.

With themes of adaptation, possibilities, community, and finding home, my heart loves Sutton and Luis, and yours will too! My students will love that it’s told in dual perspectives with short (10 pages or less) chapters. It’s a must buy for your middle grade library. Publishes 4/14/20.

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

Book Review: GREEN LANTERN: LEGACY, by Minh Lê and Andie Tong

“Legacy.”  This word has the power to weigh down young and old. Often attached to legacy are the expectations of those before us that we knew and love, but that may have radically different views on life and what dreams and goals are worthy pursuits.  The responsibility of carrying on a legacy not chosen by us, or harder yet, to forge a new one, can be overwhelming.

Green Lantern: Legacy by Minh Lê, illustrated by Andie Tong,  discloses from the very title that Tai Pham’s story would not be just his own, it would be laden with expectations from the past.  Lê doesn’t let readers get fully comfortable, he barely allows us to enjoy Tai and his Ba Noi’s (Vietnamese for paternal grandmother) funny banter, when BAM!, in the characteristic action-packed-fast-paced style of superhero stories, an event of vandalism takes place that offers the reader two important keys to understanding Chi Dao, Tai’s Ba Noi: she doesn’t run from a fight, and she has superhuman abilities. The pace continues to move rapidly, with a few panels slowing down the action enough to let readers learn about Tai’s personality and history, catch their breath, before rolling back into action.

Tai’s story can be considered an origins one. In the world of the Green Lanterns, there’s not just one individual charged with protecting the Earth and it’s innocents, but rather an army of Lanterns.  When one Lantern extinguishes, a successor takes their place, effectively beginning their story as a superhero. One of the pulls of Tai’s origin story is his age, he’s only thirteen when he has to step up to a responsibility that should have come later in life, making him a contemporary to his readership.  Lê develops Tai with nuance. If you’ve ever been around a 13 year old, or if you are a 13 year old, you will attest to how age appropriate Tai’s behavior, maturity, and playfulness are.

Superhero or not, Tai’s loss of his grandmother, a steady and strong presence in his daily life; well known and liked billionaire, Xander Griffin, taking an interest in Tai; and having his friends, Serena and Tommy, prove their loyalty by questioning his decisions, are all turning points in Tai’s already complicated Green-Lantern-legacy situation. Readers will find a mirror in Tai’s handling, and sometimes mishandling, of these events. Meaningful conversations about what “having your back” really means, and the possibility of readers redefining friendship and what it means to be a friend, will be made possible thanks to Lê’s care in showing rather than telling, through the interactions and actions of Tai and his friends, what healthy friendships look like.

As a reader, when Lê’s first installment of Green Lantern was close to culmination, I was caught up in the action, the battle, the outcome, reading as fast as it was unfolding, when Tai made me halt mid page turn, as he voices the realization of the gifts legacy brings. I had to shake my head to try and clear it. It felt like I had been driving over the speed limit and came to a sudden, immediate stop. Lê offers readers the opportunity to redefine the power of legacy, and I had no other option but to pause and let it sink in.  

For the past few years the word diversity has been flung so often in the world I live in (education) and the world I frequent (publishing) that it seems to echo indefinitely in the social media universe, in educator conferences and publishing marketing campaigns, but the TRUTH is in the numbers: in 2018 only 23% of Kid Lit books published included diverse characters.* I like to think that Lê’s legacy with Green Lantern, as well as with his picture book Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat, is forging a diverse book world where our children of color and marginalized communities witness that their stories, their culture, their diversity is valued because they frequently see themselves on the cover of books and in stories that are loved and shared by all. Lê’s Green Lantern offers diversity in so many forms. It’s a model for a true diversity trend that will be worthy of being read by all our children: 

  • #OwnVoices author and illustrator 
  • a superhero that is a person of color from a marginalized community 
  • set in a diverse neighborhood portrayed as a tight-knit community 
  • a storyline that pauses to include authentic customs and language of the character’s culture 
  • engaging, action packed story  

May you enjoy Green Lantern: Legacy, and may author Minh Lê continue to enrich our children’s lives with diverse stories.

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.

Book Review: FOREVER GLIMMER CREEK, by Stacy Hackney

The folks in Glimmer Creek know there’s something special about their small town. Every year, one lucky resident survives danger and is gifted with bits of magic that last a lifetime. There’s no explanation for these Miracles, but that doesn’t stop filmmaker Rosie from believing in them. 

Readers will immediately feel part of Glimmer Creek as Rosie decides to create a documentary about the Miracles with the help of her friends Henry & Cam. She plans to show her film at the town’s yearly festival, and while her plan may seem innocent, she’s secretly hoping to meet her father, an actor whom she’s never met, by inviting him to the premiere. 

Things I loved about this MG novel: 

•The cast of characters in this small town was spectacular. Their perspectives on the documentary were varied and could encourage a good debate with readers. 

•The complexity of friendship strengths & struggles between Rosie, Henry and Cam was relatable for middle grade readers. 

•Things between Rosie and her mom weren’t perfect. Though they’re each other’s #1 fan, both made mistakes that pushed open discussion that (eventually) strengthened their relationship. 

•There are recipes mentioned in the story that are included at the end of the book. I can’t wait to try them out! 

With themes of community, family, friendship, and perseverance, this is one I’ll preorder for my 4th and 5th grade readers. Publishes 4/7/20.

* Thanks to Stacy Hackney and Simon & Schuster for sharing an ARC with MG Book Village! 

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

Book Review: THE DRAGON THIEF, by Zetta Elliott

Kavita has a new pet named Mo. It’s a dragon and it breathes fire! She deftly acquired it recently from a witch’s apprentice who really should have been paying better attention to all three of the magical creatures in his charge. That apprentice was Jaxon, her brother Vik’s best friend. It was Jaxon’s job to deliver the dragons back to the realm of magic and when one went missing, he thought it might have been flying around Brooklyn, but it was actually with Kavita and she was desperately seeking a way to keep it out of sight. Hiding the dragon, however, was becoming more difficult by the minute. What once fit inside a mint tin had now grown to the size of a cat!

While Kavita receives some help from an unlikely hero, Jaxon and his friends go on a mission to locate a working gateway back to the realm of magic – but they have to do it without Ma. Oh, she’s around, but she appears to be under some sort of strange sleeping spell that she has yet to wake up from. This would be Jaxon’s chance to prove that Ma was right to choose him as her apprentice, but he had to do more than just believe in magic, he had to believe in himself. That’s what his grandfather would tell him. If he believed in himself, the possibilities would be endless.

The adventure continues in this second installment of what I hope might one day become a trilogy. The Dragon Thief picks up right where Dragons in a Bag left off-with a missing dragon! It is clear that Kavita has the dragon and the one person who can help her seems to have a rather unique interest in doing so. In the process, she grows so much closer to a family member who up until this point, she hadn’t really known too much about – unlocking a trove of family history. Kavita knew that her family was from India but she did not know that their roots could be traced to Africa too because of the enslavement of Africans from Zanzibar who were brought to the southernmost parts of India.

Zetta’s ability to go beyond entertainment to educate readers while unearthing hidden historical gems has made me a fan of her work. I would highly recommend both Dragons in a Bag and The Dragon Thief for middle grade readers (ages 8-12).

Christina Carter is an Elementary School Librarian (K-5), Wife to a Most Magnificent Husband, and Mother to 3 Beautiful teen and young adult Blessings, and yes, she loves to read! 

The 2019-2020 school year represents her 7th year serving as a school librarian (Library Media Specialist); spreading the love of reading, encouraging exploration and discovery through research, and engaging students in lessons that spark their creativity. When she think back to her childhood, these elements were what made the library a very special place for her. She believes it is a launchpad by which we get to discover and pursue our dreams. Every day that she opens a book, she opens up a world of possibility.

Christina is active on social media (mostly Twitter & her blog) and is a member of #BookExcursion, a group of educational leaders who read, review, and promote books through social media and in their communities with an express purpose of sharing their love of reading with the families they serve. You can find her on Twitter at @CeCeLibrarian.

Book Review: DRAGONS IN A BAG, by Zetta Elliott

Facing imminent eviction, Jaxon is left in the care of a woman who his mother calls Ma but who is until this day a stranger to him. The two become quickly familiar however when a mysterious package she receives from Madagascar begins to move on its own. Whatever’s inside is alive! You see, Ma’s line of work is unique. She’s charged with the care of some very special critters and she could use some help. What starts out as a day filled with uncertainty, turns out to be one that will change Jaxon’s life forever because what he first thought to be lizards, turned out to be dragons!

There’s magic in Brooklyn! Well, there used to be. Brooklyn has changed. Ma says she, “Used to know the name of everyone in my building – and they knew mine. Now I don’t know half the folks on my floor. They move in and act like strangers, not neighbors.” Brooklyn used to be home to all manner of creatures. They were safe there but Brooklyn lost its magic. Not everyone is of the mind that it needs to be restored though. Some think that magic has no place in our world, which is why Ma and Jaxon are on a mission to ensure safe transport of these dragons back to their realm. The problem is, one of the dragons has gone missing and it’s up to Jaxon to find it. He travels between dimensions, through time and space, meets magical beings, and unlocks some family secrets in the process. Will Jaxon be able to find the missing dragon? Or will it be loose in Brooklyn, disrupting the balance between the two realms?

I am so here for this! Brooklyn may not be my borough but I grew up in Long Island and in either location, never in my childhood did I experience magic in the literary canon in a manner that included Black and Brown children as the main characters – as though fantasy was not a genre that we could have a prominent role in. Our stories aren’t all about the struggle y’all. Seriously. Magic is at the center of this story but much like what I’ve come to appreciate from Zetta’s writing in other books of hers that I’ve read, she also weaves in historical gems about supercontinents like Gondwana, for example, and current events like the impact of gentrification on the community. Zetta is an expert storyteller and is an author you need to add to your collection.

Dragons in a Bag is a middle grade book that is recommended for ages 8-12. It arrived in my recent book order for my K-5 library and I can’t wait to book talk it to my students. I first read it in the 2018-2019 school year and then re-read it this September (2019). I am thankful for the “you might also like” feature that our public library systems have. Dragons in a Bag popped up as a recommendation for me because the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was not available at the time. I read the summary and knew that it was a book that I needed to read. I have since also read Cin’s Mark (which I can’t wait to re-read) and The Dragon Thief, which is the much-anticipated sequel to Dragons in a Bag. I am also currently working on and writing my way through her book Find Your Voice: A Guide to Self-Expression. It’s a resource that I think would be helpful for students’ creative writing expression. Have you read any of her books?

Christina Carter is an Elementary School Librarian (K-5), Wife to a Most Magnificent Husband, and Mother to 3 Beautiful teen and young adult Blessings, and yes, she loves to read! 

The 2019-2020 school year represents her 7th year serving as a school librarian (Library Media Specialist); spreading the love of reading, encouraging exploration and discovery through research, and engaging students in lessons that spark their creativity. When she think back to her childhood, these elements were what made the library a very special place for her. She believes it is a launchpad by which we get to discover and pursue our dreams. Every day that she opens a book, she opens up a world of possibility.

Christina is active on social media (mostly Twitter & her blog) and is a member of #BookExcursion, a group of educational leaders who read, review, and promote books through social media and in their communities with an express purpose of sharing their love of reading with the families they serve. You can find her on Twitter at @CeCeLibrarian.

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.

MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: THE HOTEL BETWEEN, by Sean Easley

Middle Grade at Heart’s November book club pick was the magical adventure THE HOTEL BETWEEN by Sean Easley.

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THE HOTEL BETWEEN is one of those books that grabs you from the first page, where we meet our hero, Cam, from the hiding-place-come-prison of his middle school locker. But after the initial humor of Cam’s situation, we immediately get that there’s something much bigger afoot than the typical middle school hijinks.

“I throw my head back against the interior of the locker, tracing the page displaying my pencil sketch of a tree with a cramped, crooked finger. I can almost hear the leaves rustling, as they have been lately in my dreams. It’s the same tree that’s on the wooden coin hanging from my neck. Dad’s coin.” 

Because Cam and his twin sister, Cass, have been raised by their Oma–both of their parents are presumed dead. But Cam’s convinced his father is still alive. So when he meets Nico, a mysterious boy who holds a coin identical to the one Cam’s father gave him before he disappeared, he can’t let it go. He has to learn more.

The adventure that ensues introduces him to The Hotel Between, a hotel with magical doors that can transport hotel guests all over the world. One member of the hotel’s staff describes it as follows:

Those who stay within our walls may dive the deepest lagoons and climb the highest mountains in a single day. Here, one can enjoy arepas for breakfast in Venezuela, the most authentic Philly cheesesteak for lunch, and dine luxuriously on the Rhine for dinner.”

Cam and his new friends travel places like Russia, Hungary, and the Congo on a series of missions for the hotel. But when the hotel’s magic starts to malfunction, Cam realizes that something’s not right. And what he discovers might be even more important than finding his long-lost father.

Part fantasy adventure, part travelogue, part touching story of hope and family connection, THE HOTEL BETWEEN is sure to please readers aged 10+.

To learn more about Sean, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to THE HOTEL BETWEEN here (https://mailchi.mp/1233feee0568/november-newsletter-the-hotel-between?e=96af0d8aff).  

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Next month, Middle Grade @ Heart will feature a round-up of our favorite graphic novels. And don’t miss our #mgbookclub Twitter chat about THE HOTEL BETWEEN on December 4 at 8pm EST!