Book Review: THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT, by Chris Baron

Full disclosure: poetry and I don’t see eye to eye.  It has a lot to do with a certain poetry test I took as an eighth grader and bombed, but that is a story for another blog post. HOWEVER, Chris Baron’s middle grade novel in verse, The Magical Imperfect, was accessible for me, and even inspired me to create, in words and images, the feelings, thoughts, and wonderings provoked by Malia and Etan’s story. I was so inspired that I literally turned my copy of The Magical Imperfect into a scrapbook. Here’s proof!   

Etan is a 12 year old that lives in a tight knit community.  He lives with his mom and dad and spends his free time in his grandfather’s jewelry repair shop.  When we meet Etan he is going through selective mutism, he is incapable of producing audible speech in certain situations and with certain people.  This stems from his mom’s current health condition, Etan and his dad took her to a behavioral health hospital, at her request. Etan wonders where his words went, wonders when his mom will come home, wonders why there seems to be a struggle between his dad and grandfather, wonders all this and more in silence. When he makes a delivery to  Malia, a 12 year old girl who is currently homeschooled to shield her from the cruelty of some of her  classmates that used her acute eczema, a skin condition that manifests as an itchy rash that can blister, scab and leave marks on the skin to call her “The Creature” and bully her.  Etan doesn’t think she looks like a creature, and in her company, he feels safe and speaks.

As you can imagine, Etan, his father and his grandfather, are all processing mom’s needs and decisions in different ways. Although I used my annotating acronym A.F.K. (Adults Failing Kids) for some of the actions of the  caring adults in Etan’s life, Chris Baron invests in making secondary characters as fully human as possible.  This caught my attention because for a while now, I have been thinking that if we, as adults, owned up to our own humanness and shared it early on with the children in our lives- that we don’t have it all figured out, we are not all-knowing, we hope we know best, but alas!, we get a lot of things wrong; then our kids would not be so disappointed, we wouldn’t lose bits of their trust, when life exposes us. Chris Baron gives readers this knowledge through Etan’s acknowledgement that the adults in his life, because of their humanness, do not have all the answers, are imperfect, and therefore disappointment at their shortcomings isn’t crushing. With this acknowledgement Etan finds the strength to assess his adults, the situation and what his gut tells him is the right path.  I hope that Mr. Baron, and other authors who write for our middle grade readers continue to expose this in characters that are as full as the ones in The Magical Imperfect. 

What The Magical Imperfect Gifts Middle Grade Readers

Readers will be able to internalize what Etan knows about adults and their humanness, as Etan shares his thinking, weighing the words and actions of his adults, their capacity, and what he feels to be right.  As an educator and parent committed to helping children develop critical thinking skills on things that matter, I am grateful for Etan’s awareness. Readers will also glean a flowchart of sorts, to guide them when they think about adults’ words and actions as they become aware of their adults’ vulnerability.

Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1989, the year the San Francisco Giants made it to the World Series and also the year of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that caused extensive damage, readers will be in constant anticipation of how these two events play out. Who will win the World Series? Are they finally reading about  THE BIG earthquake? These events not only provide a rush of excitement to the story, but also an opportunity for readers to witness how a community can live in harmony even when they are rooting for different outcomes (Etan and Malia’s town has a mix of dedicated Giants fans and A’s fans!), practice different religions (Etan’s family and some members of the community are Jewish as well as other faiths, but Judaism is showcased in the story), and how they come together without reservation when someone in their community is in need.   

The Magical Imperfect will accompany other middle grade novels that I hold dear, because they offer young readers a model of what friendship feels like, empathy that moves to action, interest in each other’s passions, high expectations and accountability, the need to ask for forgiveness and to forgive with equal urgency.  Etan and Malia also provides an opportunity for readers to behold a healthy friendship between kids of a different gender than self.  I work with 5th graders, and they cannot seem to separate friendship from “like-liking” at this age, it makes them miss out on finding true friendships, a lot.

Readers who enjoy magic realism, stories that mostly happen in the real world but are spiced with magical, fantasy elements posed in an utterly believable premise, will find themselves suspending disbelief as Etan’s grandfather shares the magical contents of a mysterious box that traveled with him when he emigrated from Prague to Angel Island in the U.S., the equivalent of Ellis Island, with Etan.

Our kids consume an immense amount of messages about what beauty looks like, mostly portrayed by models who are unhealthily thin and have light smooth skin, that skews their views about their own beauty and that of others around them.  Reading The Magical Imperfect middle graders will come to know and care about Etan’s friend, Malia, who offers us a counterculture point of view to beauty.  Malia’s battle with acute eczema, juxtaposed with Malia’s singing voice,her generosity in sharing it, her magnetic personality, sense of style, her relationship and interaction with nature and her ability to really see her friend Etan, invites readers to redefine their views of beauty.

What The Magical Imperfect Gifts the Adults who Live with Middle Grade Readers

Remember my annotating acronym A.F.K. (Adults Failing Kids)?  Adults in Etan and Malia’s life are loving but they are also human.  Adult readers can reflect on the thoughts and feelings Etan goes through as the consequence of an adult offering him a well intentioned comment about making an effort to speak, that impacts him negatively.  Malia and Etan both give us insight on how hollow promises offer zero hope and that a vulnerable “I don’t know. I’m not sure if…” is best, because it’s genuine.  Etan also shares what an adult that really listens looks like, what they make a kid feel.  We should all remember this when our kids want our attention, it is a “heart” priority!

As adults we can open up a conversation about mental health and taking care of one’s own, with Etan’s mom.  Although the exact issue she is feeling is not disclosed, we learn that she is overwhelmed by feelings of sadness. She decides to reach out for help, although it is difficult to be away from Etan and his dad, and focus on healing and feeling healthy before continuing to fully be mom and wife.  Again, Chris Baron doesn’t only show the bright side of this decision, he also portrays how a family member’s illness affects the whole family, even as they are supportive and understand that there is no other path. This is a wonderful conversation to set, reinforce, or rebuild the foundation of our views on mental health— it is part of our general health care and that actively seeking to heal is vital.

What The Magical Imperfect Gifts Educators

An engaging story that offers the opportunity to explore poetry, figurative language, and writing in verse and serves as mentor poems on sports fandom, weather, family, bullying, music and many other topics will motivate students to try this form, and focus their writing as well.  The biggest hurdle to write in any form, for many kids and adults, is a blank page and the “you can write about anything at all” prompt. 

The Magical Imperfect offers a counterbalance to what middle grade readers are exposed to when exploring The Holocaust.   Through Etan and his grandfather, readers gain insight into Jewish folklore, holy artifacts, family heirlooms, rituals and customs as well as some of the practices when observing Jewish holidays.  This insight is intertwined with the plot, making for an exploration that does not become a distraction, but can lead to wonderings, encouraging research that will help our students better understand and honor the Jewish members of their community, as well as globally. In our present national climate, offering students a baseline to refer to when they hear or learn about anti-Semitic ideology or actions is much needed. Chris Baron offers us additional elements to add to what school curriculum exposes our kids to, making it possible for them to create a more complex and layered idea of Jewish people in our nation’s past and its present.  

Self-selected research is an experience we must include in our students’ learning and I believe that The Magical Imperfect will make this experience authentic for readers.  I know that I was extremely curious about many things (Jewish and Filipino food, what is a tzedakah) and stopped frequently to do a Google search, read articles, and look for pictures.  I’ll share a few research-worthy topics I found as I read:  

  • Have the San Francisco Giants ever won The World Series
  • MLB players mentioned by Etan and Jordan 
  • Earthquakes- in the U.S./World comparison 0of intensity, predictability, frequency, areas
  • Jewish sacred objects, rituals, food
  • Pulley Systems and their modern use (Buddy went up and down on a pulley system!)
  • Malia’s 80’s songs (artist, music, lyrics, stats)- why did she like these songs so much and why did the author choose them? 
  • The effects of sharing sports’ fandom in family connection

I hope you choose to share Malia and Etan’s story with the kids in your life and, if you are an educator, in your classroom.  Going back to school after a pandemic year will be a smoother experience if we emulate the community action and love we witness in The Magical Imperfect as we sort through our memories of what it means to coexist as a classroom family in a physical space.  As our kids grapple with the isolating effects of this past school year and ease back into sharing time and space with old and new friends, Etan and Malia’s friendship will help nurture healthy, supportive interactions, and although they might feel a little rusty on how it all goes, their empathy, kindness, and joy will be tickled and awoken by Chris Baron’s The Magical Imperfect.

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: BY THE LIGHT OF THE FIREFLIES, by Jenni L. Walsh

As a literacy educator who has a particular affection for 3rd-5th grades, one thing I’m always looking for is good historical fiction. Finding the time in an elementary school day to teach both Social Studies and Literacy adequately can be difficult at times, so any opportunity to integrate the two is something I’m looking out for. Using good, engaging historical fiction texts is one way I’ve found to integrate the two, and one of my latest reads is a perfect example.

The American Revolutionary War is one of those major historical events that can be difficult to find texts for that are appealing for kids, as well as at a level that upper elementary students can read independently.  However, author Jenni L. Walsh written a new engaging book, By The Light of the Fireflies, about a little known Revolutionary War heroine, that will be great for middle grade readers. 

Sybil Ludington is a young girl who lives in a world where society (and her mother) expect little more of her than to become a farmer’s wife. Luckily for Sybil, she also lives in a world where her father, a solider against the British, needs assistance from his smart, adventurous daughter.  This story of how she learns to decode messages, becomes a spy, and goes a run similar to Paul Revere’s (but maybe even better) is full of suspense and excitement. Sybil definitely becomes a character the reader is rooting for, and General George Washington, who makes an  appearance in the story, would agree. Walsh does a good job of engaging the reader while also helping them to understand the context of the time period of the American Revolution.

As mentioned in the author’s note at the end of the book, Sybil Ludington was a real person, although much of this story Walsh has written is fictionalized. However, there is enough truth in the story that I can see students becoming intrigued enough with Sybil that they will want to learn more about her, and even about the American Revolution, which makes By the Light of the Fireflies a historical fiction win-win in my book!

By The Light of the Fireflies by Jenni Walsh will be published on November 2, 2021. I would like to thank the author for providing me with an ARC of her book.

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.

Book Review: ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cover art by Nicole Neidhardt.

This story collection defies one of my usual Book Talk points during Reader Advisory when recommending a story collection.  I always tell readers that story collections:

  • have the unique quality of making a reader feel satisfied after reading just one of it’s stories; readers go through the whole story arc and rollercoaster of emotions in just a few pages
  • reading stories as they catch your eye, and not necessarily in order, won’t hinder the reading experience

AND

  • there are stories that you will love and possibly some you won’t–– I won’t have to mention this last talking point when I Book Talk Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, because I found something in each story that led me directly to think of my students. 

I listened to Ancestor Approved before the book release thanks to Libro.FM’s wonderful ALC Program for educators. By the time it was delivered to my doorstep I was ready to read it again with my eyes.  Very few books entangle me so that I need to reread immediately, but this story collection demanded it and here’s why:

  • Although each story stands on it’s own, author and editor, Cynthia Leitich Smith, together with SIXTEEN (16!) Native American authors weaved interconnections between many of the stories.  
  • No matter what difficulties life had thrown the main characters’ way before they came into their story in this anthology, here these children are treated with kindness, respect, and as precious family members
  • A diversity of family units are present, from a diversity of Native Nations, and as the plot of each story develops I learned something unique about each
  • The stories were fast paced and the young main characters offered a peek into the thinking and feelings behind their actions (tweens and teens are so hard to decipher!) 

What ANCESTOR APPROVED Intertribal Stories for Kids Gifts Middle Grade Readers

Editor and author Cynthia Leitich Smith together with the sixteen Native authors whose stories appear in this anthology, orchestrated a trail of crumbs that will have readers perking up at the mention of a certain Reservation dog who stars in his own story and yet seems to catch the attention of so many of the characters in the other stories, that I’m pretty sure readers will be looking for him everywhere in this book.  That Rez Dog isn’t the only character or vendor or dance that will pop up in multiple stories in this collection: readers should bring their detective skills because clues will abound, there will be a Windigo sighting to authenticate, and a crime to solve along with a certain famous Native girl detective!

All of the characters in each of the stories are on their way to participate as a dancer, a vendor, or a spectator in the annual Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is a common thread that ties all of the stories together and yet not all of them come from a Native Nation that has powwows as part of their cultural events.  The Mother Earth Powwow is an event that really happens annually which might inspire  readers to research and learn more about!  Heartdrum, the Native-focused imprint of Harper Collins which published the book, even created a map to facilitate visualizing how there are Native American Nations and Reservations all across the United States of America as they trace the characters’ voyage to Ann Arbor.

It is uncommon to find plots in middle grade novels where kids are seen by the adults in their family and community as individuals worthy of respect.  This respect was shown by action in this anthology: the adults in these stories not only validated by not only listening to what kids had to say but also by taking their feelings into consideration when it was time to act. Story after story middle grade readers will experience how kids are recognized for their value in helping their families succeed, and in some stories, even help some of their adult family members behave! Luksi’s story is a perfect example of this influence, he is sent to the powwow to dance but also to make sure that his uncle who was driving the bus to Ann Arbor, full of Elders from their Cherokee community, behaved!  Luksi could influence his uncle’s behavior because Luksi mattered. There are also stories that present how Native communities understand that young people will make grave mistakes and those mistakes should not define their future.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, many of the readers I serve have a grandparent, auntie, or uncle, who are instrumental in keeping their family’s every day run as smoothly as possible, these readers will find this valuable adult celebrated in many of the stories as well. 

Native American middle grade readers will revel in the new Native friends they will make through these stories, they will feel seen and their experiences validated as they read stories that feature the joy of honoring one’s Native Nation and culture.   They will feel they are not alone if they have experienced stereotyping and microaggressions like Dalton, Alan, and others share in their stories.  The difficult decision of choosing which Native Tribe to enroll in when a child’s parents are from different tribes,  or the unfair rejection by others for speaking their Native Nation’s language, like Joey in the story “Joey Looks at The Sky,” will offer Native American readers the comfort of seeing their own situations mirrored in these stories. Even more reflective will be the love of rituals, traditions, the feelings of community that events such as powwows provide and that the characters in these stories relish.   Readers from non-Native backgrounds will grow in empathy, shatter stereotypes, and find a little bit of themselves in many of the Native kids in these stories. 

Middle grade readers of all backgrounds will be able to relate to the Native kids in Ancestor Approved as they read stories that explore how shyness sometimes gets in the way of making friends, the joys and pains of having siblings, how being brave is doing something you love even if it terrifies you, and how losing a loved one requires allowing yourself to grieve in order to make peace with the loss but also to enjoy the memories of times spent together. 

An issue that, try as we might, we have not been able to eliminate from our children’s lives, bullying, is also explored in many of the stories in this anthology but I would like to share how Native author Brian Young contributed to this topic in a unique way.  The author wrote two stories that appear back to back: “SENECAVAJO: Alan’s Story” and “Squash Blossom Bracelet: Kevin’s Story.” They are paired to expose readers to both sides of a bullying situation.  Mr. Young offers readers an exploration of the roots that motivate bullying, which may not be the ones readers assume,  but also offers a case study for how misunderstanding someone’s situation and not understanding someone’s personality can create animosity between two kids who, in these paired stories, end up helping each other even before becoming friends. I truly believe that this will capture the attention of so many middle grade readers, who in some form have experienced, witnessed, or participated in bullying. 

What ANCESTOR APPROVED Intertribal Stories for Kids Gifts Educators

As I aspire to become an Anti-Bias and Anti-Racist Educator learning about Native American Nations is one of my priorities. Feeling comfortable with the language I use and presenting historical facts from the perspective of Native American Nations,  as my students and I explore Native American history and present daily life respectfully is a must and reading ANCESTOR APPROVED increased my fluency.  It also provided ideas on how to convey throughout the year how Native American Nations are not a people of the past, but are very much part of our present.  Students should be exposed to the knowledge that Native American is not just one group of people but that there are over 500 Native Nations and Ancestor Approved Intertribal Stories for Kids offers representation of multiple tribes and even exposes readers to how some of the tribes interact with one another.  As you share these stories with your students and together you learn about the different Native Tribes these authors and their main characters are from, opportunities for authentic, student-centered research are sure to arise. 

All readers need diverse books to see themselves represented and valued, to accept as a gift the differences among us and to find the life issues and events that we all have in common.  I hope that you come to cherish the gifts that the sixteen Native American authors featured in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids have so generously given us by placing copies of this anthology in your home, classroom, and school libraries and that beyond that, you interact with these stories and characters.

. . .

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: ALONE, by Megan E. Freeman

A surreal yet eerily familiar scenario sets off this survival story that is by turns pulse-pounding and philosophical. Alone is a novel in verse, and the abundant blank space on the pages serves to emphasize the solitude of Maddie, the book’s protagonist. It’s also sure to keep kids feverishly flipping the pages – though the fine-tuned beauty of many passages will surely then get them slowing down, lingering over the language and the complex, powerful thoughts and emotions Maddie experiences, all of them expertly captured by author Megan E. Freeman.

Many people have compared Alone to Hatchet, Gary Paulsen’s classic survival story. And while that comparison is definitely apt, I think Alone can and will appeal to a different, and possibly broader, group of readers. Maddie is a down-to-earth girl who finds herself in an extraordinary situation. I can see countless readers relating to her, then rooting for her, and ultimately wanting to read her story again and again.

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, Revenge of the EngiNerds, The EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity book Give This Book a Title. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming activity book Give This Book a Cover and the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

Book Review: AMINA’S SONG, by Hena Khan

Amina’s Song is a companion novel to Hena Khan’s excellent Amina’s Voice (2017). Sometimes companion novels can feel like odd afterthoughts, addendums that might be welcome and enjoyable, but otherwise not really necessary. With Amina’s Song, this is not at all the case. The novel is just as powerful, important, and compelling as its predecessor. Just as she was in her first book, Amina is a wonderfully relatable, gloriously unique protagonist. However, Khan hasn’t just picked up right where she left her character at the end of the last book – Amina has grown since we left her, and continues to grow as Khan masterfully explores her complicated heart and mind.

One last thing to note about both of the Amina books is their length. Amina’s Voice is just under 200 pages – which is on the shorter side for contemporary, realistic Middle Grade novels. However, for many readers, that is something that made it especially attractive, and I believe that made the book accessible for a larger, broader audience. Amina’s Song is somewhat longer than Amina’s Voice – though still under 300 pages – but this works beautifully, as the readers who choose to continue reading Amina’s story will be pushed to complete a book that might be longer than they usually read, thereby building their confidence as readers. And there’s no way those who pick up this book won’t finish it. Khan is too gifted a storyteller. The taut plot and fine-tuned prose will keep kids reading until the end.

Note: While one certainly does not need to read Amina’s Voice in order to enjoy and get a lot out of Amina’s Song, the latter will be richer and more meaningful if readers are familiar with the former.

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, Revenge of the EngiNerds, The EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity book Give This Book a Title. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming activity book Give This Book a Cover and the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

Book Review: SHIRLEY CHISHOLM (YOU SHOULD MEET), by Laurie Calkhoven, illustrated by Shea O’Connor

Simon Spotlight’s You Should Meet series offer fantastic introductions to and explorations of a variety of important historical and contemporary individuals. While highly informative, they are also wonderfully inspirational. Lauren Calkhoven and Shea O’Connor’s Shirley Chisholm is a fabulous example of this.

While some educators, librarians, and parents may, based on their format and design, deem the You Should Meet books “too young” for a Middle Grade audience, I think they are, in fact, perfect for them. The short chapters and abundant (and beautiful!) illustrations make these books accessible to younger and emerging readers, and offer older and more confident readers an opportunity to quickly explore a figure and/or subject that, if they so choose, they can then dive into more deeply.

The You Should Meet books also have excellent back matter, explaining sometimes dense, difficult subjects in a clear, succinct manner. Shirley Chisholm features a section about the three branches of the United States’ government, plus information about voting. For all of these reasons and more, this volume of the You Should Meet series belongs in elementary and even middle school classrooms and libraries. Every child should know the story of Shirley Chisholm, and this book shares that story in a wonderful, accessible way.

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerdsRevenge of the EngiNerdsThe EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity book Give This Book a Title. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming activity book Give This Book a Cover and the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

Book Review: MALCOLM AND ME, by Robin Farmer

Wow, Roberta is a 13 year old who is going through a lot during her last year of middle school! During her 8th grade year, she has a love/hate relationship with a number of important people in her life, including both her parents, her teacher Sister Elizabeth, and even with God himself.

At her Catholic school, although the number of Black students is growing, she is still a part of the minority, so when she questions some things about history out loud to Sister Elizabeth, she clashes with her teacher in a way that has Roberta wondering how’s she going to make it through the rest of the school year.  Then she also has to deal with the rift growing between her parents and her own relationship with each of them. Luckily, Roberta is finishing reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and is able to find parallels between Malcolm’s growth and her own. Plus, she always has the power of the pen to help her make sense of her thoughts and feelings. Readers who love to write poetry or in a journal or diary will be able to identify with Roberta as she uses her writing to help find her voice and to help her guide her decisions. She grows a lot as an individual throughout 8th grade, and comes to realize that although everything does not go exactly the way she wants, she can figure out how to adjust and still find happiness.

Personally, I feel like there are not a lot of historical fiction MG books that take place post-civil rights movement with Black characters front and center.  So the setting alone, including a small peek into Watergate, I think will help to fill in a gap in history for young readers. There are great descriptions of Roberta’s afro and her outfits that help to transport you back to the ’70s. And although there were times that Roberta’s behavior was frustrating to me, an adult, I can totally see how middle/high school students would identify with her and her choices. So for young readers who are also writers (this story is based on some experiences Farmer actually had), who are struggling to fit in, who are into Black History, or who are struggling with parental relationships at home, this may be the book for them.

Malcolm and Me by Robin Farmer was released in November of 2020, so it can be found wherever books are sold. Thank you to the publisher for giving MG Book Village a copy for 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.

Book Review: ICK! DELIGHTFULLY DISGUSTING ANIMAL DINNERS, DWELLINGS, AND DEFENSES, by Melissa Stewart

Looking for one of those books that makes readers say, “Ewww!”, “Oh my goodness!”, “That’s gross!” out loud or makes them slam the book shut, only to open it again to continue reading? Ick! is the book for those readers. This is the perfect book for those kids who love to learn about animals, especially what they eat, where they live, and how they defend themselves.

Now there are some animals you know are going to be included in this book, like spiders, rats, and snakes, and even with some new information, they are still just as gross as you expect them to be. However, the interesting thing about this book is that you will be surprised at some of the other animals that are highlighted, ones that readers may even admire or think are nice and cuddly.

And as expected from a National Geographic book, the photographs are awesome. They are vibrant, up close and personal, and usually include the thing that qualifies the animal as icky. Which is why there’ll be some strong reactions from readers as they read this book.

As far as the text goes, there’s not an overwhelming amount of text for kid readers who don’t want to be overwhelmed with a lot of specific vocabulary to wade through. Stewart does an excellent job of getting straight to the point explaining why the animal has earned its distinction and then gives a couple of other interesting facts for the reader to enjoy.

This is definitely one that students will love to pick up, put back down in disgust, and then pick it right up again. My kids (aged 9 and 11) and I love these kinds of books, so reading this was a no-brainer for us, and we were not disappointed!

Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses by Melissa Stewart was released in June 2020.

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.

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.