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Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love. I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a teacher of 21, a mom of two, and enjoying the last few hours of our Winter Break here in Central New York. We’ve had ice storms then sun and lots of time to read.
This is episode #69 and today I’m discussing four excellent middle grade novels that deal with grief and loss. And I’m also sharing with you a conversation I had with Laura Shovan about her latest book Takedown.
Book Talk – Four Novels About Loss and Hope
In this segment, I share with you a selection of books centered around a theme and discuss three things to love about each book. I happened to read these four books back-to-back without realizing how profoundly connected they were. They have completely different plots and one is even sci/fi / speculative fiction – but each novel features a main character who is dealing with loss in one form or another. In two of the novels, that loss is the death of a parent. And in two of the novels, that loss includes a parent dealing with mental illness and trauma themselves. A loss of another – a loss of what was once considered normal life. The books this week are: The Science of Breakable Things, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, The Simple Art of Flying, and The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise.
The Science of Breakable Things
The first book I want to share with you and one that I hope makes its way into your collection is Tae Keller’s debut novel The Science of Breakable Things. The lead in this story is 7th grader Natalie who’s life has been turned upside down as she and her father are learning how to navigate her mother’s depression – the “situation” as her dad calls it that has her mom holed up in her bedroom and not able to cook, work, or keep up any of the routines and traditions that had kept their family together. At the beginning of the school year, Natalie’s science teacher has challenged them all to use the power of the scientific method to explore a question that intrigues you and study it with all your heart. Well – the question that tugs at Natalie’s heart? How can I inspire my mother to break out of her depression? And along the way Natalie teams up with Twig (her exuberant best friend) and Dari (their new serious lab partner) to enter an egg-drop contest hoping to use the prize money for a scheme to jumpstart her mother out of her depression. Here are three things to love about Tae Keller’s The Science of Breakable Things:
- How the story is laid out with the steps of the Scientific Method! Step One: Observe, Step Two: Question, Step Three: Investigative Research and so on. It’s a clever way to structure the story and have you predicting what those Results will be!
- The illustrations and footnotes! Oh am I such a sucker for a good footnote – especially funny ones and this novel has over fifty of these little gems!
- Natalie’s visits with her therapist, Dr. Doris – and Natalie’s resistance to falling for her “Therapist Tricks” and Natalie’s eventual shift to being more open with her. I think a lot of kids will be able relate to those begrudging trips to a counselor, and I hope some other children might see a glimpse into the help a therapist can offer.
There is so much more to this book than just those things – like Natalie’s relationship with her Korean grandmother and her growning interest in their shared culture and the break-down of her relationship with her friend Mikayala. Here is one of my favorite quotes – one that captures the blend of science and hope in this book. This is from a section right after Natalie, Twig, and Dari have been experimenting with magnets. “It’s funny how the cold magnets actually worked best. It’s like how perennial plants seem to die in the winter but really, they’re just waiting till everything is all right again. Maybe it’s not such a surprise that there’s strength in the cold. Maybe sometimes the strongest thing of all is knowing that one day you’ll be alright again, and waiting and waiting until you can come out into the sun.”
For kids who are waiting for those in their lives to come out into the sun, The Science of Breakable Things is a fabulous book to offer.
The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole
Our next book today is The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas – author of several picture books and the middle grade Confessions of an Imaginary Friend which I now must pick up immediately! The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is one of those books that I kept bumping into. I’d see it on display at the library, friends kept raving about it, it popped up on my “Related to Items You Viewed” on Amazon. It’s like it was stalking me. Like, in a nice, bookish way. The way where all the the forces of the universe seem to nudge you to read something. And well – the forces of the universe were right about this quirky, moving, wonderfully weird little book. It’s about eleven-year-old Stella Diaz whose father has recently died. Together they shared a love of science – and silly jokes. But remembering him after his death has become painful. In the first pages of the book, she decides to give NASA the only recording of her father’s laugh – to put on the Golden Record headed out on the Voyager spacecraft. Instead, a black hole follows her home and it becomes Stella’s pet – consuming everything it touches. And at first, Stella is happy to toss in those things that cause her annoyance (Brussel Sprouts) or cause her painful memories (like the recording of her father). And then the black hole devours her 5-year-old brother, Cosmo, and Stella has to venture inside that darkness to save him and confront all the other things she’d tossed inside. I loved this book – and here are three (of many!) reasons why:
- It’s hilarious! Like – Stella names the black hole “Larry” – short for “Singularity” and the scenes with the smelly classroom hamster Stinky Stu. And the Dog With No Name. And all the things that Larry gets up to when he gets loose in the neighborhood! Yes – this novel is about loss and grief and there are times when you’re probably going to cry. But to me, that edge between laughing and tears is a powerful place. And this book does it so well.
- The clever use of black and white pages – and Stella’s Captain Log documenting her journey in the black hole.
- Lines like this one: “It’s like the stars in our constellations that we made,” you said. “Even if one star dies far, far away, its light is still visible, and the constellation it helped to make remains. A thing can be gone and still be your guide.”
The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is charming, gorgeously written – and funnier than you’d ever think. If you have kids who like science, who like funny books, who are up for something unique – then this is a novel they’ll love. And if you have a child learning how to grapple with their black hole – this might be the book they need.
The Simple Art of Flying
Another fantastic book that was just released this past week is The Simple Art of Flying by debut author Cory Leonardo. It’s about a young cherry-loving African Grey parrot, Alastair, who was born in the back room of a pet shop – along with his sister, Aggie. Alastair is…grumpy, suspicious, stubborn, and intensly loyal to his sister – and set on finding a way for them both to escape together to a land of blue skies and palm trees. But that dream gets a lot harder to pull off when each of them are adopted by two different people. Alastair ends up with an elderly but very active widow named Albertina Plopky who organizes “Polka with Pets” events and writes letters to her deceased husband. And Aggie is bought by 12-year-old-Fritz, an attentive, sweet, and serious boy who is dealing with his own loses. So here are three things to love about Cory Leonardo’s The Simple Art of Flying:
- How this story is told from three different points of view and in three different formats which helps us triangulate what’s happening. Alastair’s sections are in prose and in poetry. He likes to chew on books with poetry being his favorite so has taken to creating his own versions of famous poems he’s read. Bertie’s sections are letters to her husband, Everett. And Fritz’s parts are a medical log.
- Alastair’s poetry!!! And… the chapter with the goldfish was unexpected and…brilliant!
- Bertie’s letter to Fritz at the end of the book – all about cherries and life and what to do on those days when it feels like everything is the pits.
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise
Our final book this week is the latest from Dan Gemeinhart – who you may know from The Honest Truth, Good Dog, or Scar Island. His novels are perennial favorites in our class and guaranteed heart-tuggers – and The Remarkble Journey of Coyote Sunrise is, I think, my favorite of all. And that’s saying something – every one of his books are incredible! This story starts at a hot gas station where our main girl, called Coyote, walks in alone – and leaves with a watermelon slushie and a white and gray striped fluff of a kitten. A kitten she has to hide from her father – the man she only refers to as Rodeo. Five years ago Coyote’s mother and sisters were killed in an accident and since then she and her father have left behind their home, their memories (or any talk of them) and have been living in an old converted school bus traveling the country. And never ever looking back. But during Coyote’s weekly phone call to her grandmother back in Washington State, Coyote learns something that launches her on a secret mission to get the bus headed back home (without Rodeo realizing it!) so she can keep a promise. On her journey there are mishaps and new travelers joining them and more secrets revealed. There are so many reasons to love this book there’s no way to list them all, but here are three:
- Coyote. This girl has so much charm and love and generosity wrapped around a core of pain and hurt. She’s gentle with her father – even when he doesn’t deserve it. She names her cat Ivan from The One and Only Ivan. She reminds me a bit of Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gables books. You just want to ber her friend.
- Coyote’s friendship with Salvador – a boy who ends up on the bus with them with his mother. I love how they gently push each other in a better direction. And Coyote does something for Salvador that is one of the kindest, sweetest, gestures.
- Rodeo. Here’s how Coyote describes him. “That man is hopeless. He is wild and broken and beautiful and hanging on by a thread, but it’s a heckuva thread and he’s holding it tight with both hands and his heart.”
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise was a book that shredded my heart and then somehow stitched it back together stonger than before. I think it’s Gemeinhart’s best yet.
Laura Shovan – Interview Outline
Our special guest this week is Laura Shovan – author of the novel in verse The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and her most recent middle grade book – Takedown. This conversation actually took place last summer but due to some techinical difficulties on my end, it took me until now to bring it to you. But, it was worth the wait. Laura and I chat about the inspiration behind her novel, the world of girls’ wrestling, donuts, bullet journaling, among lots of other things. And don’t forget that when you are done reading the book and you want to hear Laura and I discuss the ending of Takedown, just wait until the end of the show after the credits and that bonus section will be waiting for you.
Take a listen…
Your new middle grade novel, Takedown, was just released this past June – can you tell us a bit about it?
I love books that immerse me in a subculture! Like Roller Girl, and the Irish dancing in Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish – I was so fascinated to learn about wrestling moves and the tournament process. I’ve heard you mention that your son wrestled and that close knowledge of the sport clearly comes through. When did you know you wanted to bring wrestling into a story and did you do any extra research to bring this story to life?
There were so many small moments in the book that highlight what a “boys’ club” the wrestling world is – all the trophies have boys at the top of them, all the refs at all the tournaments (including the girls wrestling tournament) are men – and even Mickey’s supportive coach uses gendered languages and calls the team “guys” and “boys.” At some point it occured to me… yes, this book is about wrestling, but maybe it might help kids see how male-focused other aspects of the world are?
One of the aspects that I really connect to was the Delgado family dynamics of Mickey and her older brothers Cody and Evan. And how their relationship with each other changed when the oldest, Evan, wasn’t around.
I’m coming to realize that dual perspective novels are some of my favorites. And you were masterful at those subtle time shifts to build that suspense! What was your process like to make Mickey’s voice distinct from Lev’s?
You deserve a donut for this amazing book! What’s your favorite?
So, as a fellow bullet journaler, did I see that you offer bullet journaling CLASSES?
Your Writing Life
How was writing Takedown different than writing The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary?
Your Reading Life
One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and librarians and parents inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books. Did you have a special teacher or librarian who helped foster your reading life as a child?
What were some of your most influential reads as a child?
What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?
Before you go – you posted a video of you calling your reps last year. I just want to say thank you for inspiring me to make those phone calls and to keep calling….
**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Laura and I discuss the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 52:38 mark.
Laura’s website – https://laurashovan.com
Laura on Twitter
BOOKS WE CHATTED ABOUT
A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevensen)
The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)
The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
The Warriors Series (Erin Hunter)
Howard Wallace: Sabotage Stage Left (Casey Lyall)
Drawn Together (Minh Lê and Dan Santat)
The Colors of the Rain (R.L.Toalson)
Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org. And, if you have an extra minute this week, reviews on iTunes or Stitcher are much appreciated.
Books Between is a proud member of the Lady Pod Squad and the Education Podcast Network. This network features podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit edupodcastnetwork.com
Talk with you soon! Bye!
Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.