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!

MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, by Amanda Rawson Hill

Middle Grade at Heart’s October book club pick was the touching and magical THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC by our contributor and co-founder Amanda Rawson Hill.

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Believe. Give. Trust. Kate doesn’t really believe in magic. She hasn’t had much reason too since her dad left and her best friend started to drift away. But when Grammy moves in with Kate and her mom and starts telling Kate about the three rules of Everyday Magic, Kate’s willing to try anything to put things back to right.

“There’s a part of me that wants to believe in magic, especially if it has anything to do with Dad.”

Grammy and Kate share many moments together baking cookies, sharing memories of Kate’s dad, knitting, and, of course, talking about the three rules of Everyday Magic. Even as Grammy’s mental clarity fades, she shares so much with Kate about life, love, and magic in a series of bittersweet scenes:

“If you love someone you can always give them magic. And you always should. We never give up on people we love. I know better than most.”

But sometimes the magic doesn’t work exactly the way you’d planned. Sometimes it can’t stop relationships from shifting, diseases from changing the people we love, or bad things from happening. That’s when the third rule comes in and it’s the most important of all:

“You have to trust the magic. That means you can’t give it away expecting a certain outcome. You can’t put demands on it and say it only worked if everything goes how you wanted it to, or when you wanted it to. Magic has its own timeframe and its own ideas about what should happen. You can hope it will cause some event, but sometimes it will do something else entirely. That doesn’t mean it didn’t work.”

Kate’s world is forever changed by the events in THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC. And even though the magic she discovers isn’t able to put everything back the way it used to be, it does help her navigate her changing world with a little more grace and love.

That’s the beauty of this bittersweet, touching story, one that will support young readers who are struggling with the same issues Kate faces and give others a safe space to process their own complicated emotions.

To learn more about Amanda, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC here (https://mailchi.mp/b46a53e64e30/october-book-club-the-three-rules-of-everyday-magic-by-amanda-rawson-hill-a-giveaway).  

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The Middle Grade @ Heart book club pick for November is THE HOTEL BETWEEN by Sean Easley! Stay tuned for more posts about this awesome book and don’t forget to join us for our Twitter chat on THREE RULES OF EVERDAY MAGIC on November 6!

 

Book Review: ORPHAN ISLAND, by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder is one of the greatest books I have ever read. It is a good book for people who like mystery. The main character in the book is Jinny, and she lives with eight other orphans isolated from all other humans on a beautiful island. Every year a new orphan comes to the island and the oldest orphan leaves. For some reason, it has to be that way. As I read this book, there was a thought that went through my head: Will Jinny and the orphans survive or is the island doomed?

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My name is Siyona and I live in NJ. I love to play basketball and tennis. Reading is my favorite thing to do during my free time.

 

Book Review: THE RIGHT HOOK OF DEVIN VELMA, by Jake Burt

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The Right Hook of Devin Velma is an unforgettable and heartfelt story that shows the real meaning of friendship. Devin wants to pull a stunt that he thinks will go viral on the internet, and he needs Addison’s help, and Addison can’t turn him down. But whenever Addison is in the center of attention, he freezes up, so how could he possibly face being a viral sensation?

Jake Burt’s second novel is funny, exciting, and yet shows that everyone needs a good friend by their side.

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My name is Heather, I’m in 5th grade, and I am 11 years old. When I’m not at home reading, I like to ice skate and draw. I love books that are either fantasy or realistic fiction. Writing book reviews is a great way to share an author’s amazing book with other people!

Book Review: AMAL UNBOUND, by Aisha Saeed

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Wow. That was my reaction after I read Aisha Saeed’s amazing book, Amal Unbound. It’s a book, just screaming for all to read. Should you be able to follow your dreams? Should girls be permitted to be educated? Amal is a character maintaining helpful, caring, and daring qualities. She worked her way into everyone’s heart. Problems arise, and Amal will do anything for her family. Read a compelling, beautiful, and uplifting book where a girl can get her hands untied, with a little help from some friends and family along the way.

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I’m Ariana, an 11 year-old fifth grader, who loves to read. I really like mystery and fictional books. My favorite books of all time are part of the series The School For Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. I love to draw, and my favorite animal is a cat. I really like to give other kids good book recommendations!

Book Review: SPY SCHOOL, by Stuart Gibbs

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A CIA undercover school, Jr. agents, a math wiz, crushes, evil agencies, new friends, teamwork, and a boy with more talent than he knows—where would it even be possible to have all of this content?
Spy School, of course! But SHHH, that’s classified!

This book is action-packed from the point of view of a soon to be a CIA agent, Ben. But before he can be the agent of his dreams, he must go through spy school. But all of this information is highly classified. So where does all of his friends and family think he’s going? A science school with high security, so for all we know, he’s a nerd. But when a mole is at spy school targeting Ben, can he, with the help of friends, find out who it is, WITHOUT getting killed?

Ben is a rookie who looks up to a girl with extreme skills. One thing that is not classified, Ben has a huge crush on her from the start. And the BEST part is that this is book one in a series with still more books coming! So you don’t have to be upset to finish a book, you can just get the next one. Will Ben be able to save his friends and spy school? Or will he die in the process of doing it?

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My name is Allegra and I am in fifth grade. I love books and am happy when I am hooked on a good series. Some of my favorites are Harry Potter, The Land of Stories and Spy School. When I am not enjoying a good book, I play lacrosse or act. I also love to travel. I hope I can share the joy of reading with others so that they, too, can find a good book.