The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

I was saddened to learn that this fictional story of Ivan the gorilla was based on a true story.  I can only imagine the public outcry after learning of Ivan spending 27 years locked up in a mall, away from other primates.  In this story, Ivan narrates his own story of heartbreak, friendship and hope.  However, readers will also be introduced to other memorable animals, such as: Bob (dog), and Stella/Ruby (elephants).

The One and Only Ivan is a quick read, broken down by short chapters. I listened to the audiobook and wonder if reading the physical book would have been a better experience. Although the narrator did a great job at imagining Ivan’s voice (deep, strong), I found that the short chapter titles affected the flow of the story.ivan

This book has won many awards, including the prestigious 2013 Newbery.  I’m clearly late to the party, but so glad I finally read it. The topic of animals in captivity is not always an easy read-especially for children, but this one is done extremely well. Applegate has even written a book for the youngest of readers in picture book format.  Clearly, Ivan’s story is a crucial one to tell and will very likely inspire young animal advocates. His story will continue to reach audiences as The One and Only Ivan is currently in filming, and features the voices of Angelina Jolie and Bryan Cranston.

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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test–middle school!

Lucy’s grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!). Lucy’s not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy’s life has already been solved. Unless there’s been a miscalculation?

I read this book as an ARC from the publisher and I cannot wait until it hits our library shelves in May so I can start recommending it to kids.  Lucy and her savant brain navigate the challenges of middle school that almost all reade33004208rs can relate to: friendships, fitting in, and group projects. Her special mathematical ability (from being hit by lightning!), along with her OCD make Lucy stand out from other middle-school female protagonists.  Even though I’ve never been particularly fond of math, I enjoyed how math concepts and numbers were so integrated in the story. As an animal lover, the community improvement project was a fun addition and I too fell in love with the pup, Pi. Speaking of Pi, the book devotes a few pages to explaining the mathematical concepts featured for those interested in learning more.

You can count on (ha-ha) McAnulty for a quick yet memorable read. The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl continues to receive well deserved starred reviews and praise.  I can totally see teachers using this book in the classroom to generate discussions and encourage their own local service projects.

Ebb & Flow by Heather Smith

…poignant story, told in free verse, of eleven-year-old Jett. Last year, Jett and his mother had moved to a new town for a fresh start after his father went to jail. But Jett soon learned that fresh starts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. When he befriended a boy with a difficult home life, Jett found himself in a cycle of bad decisions that culminated in the betrayal of a friend – a shameful secret he still hasn’t forgiven himself for. Will a summer spent with his unconventional grandmother help Jett find his way to redemption?

ebbIt’s clear to see how Smith’s east coast roots have inspired this heartbreaking middle grade read.  It brought me back to my many visits to Nova Scotia and hunting for sea glass.

Told in poetic form, I read about Jett’s “rotten bad year” in one sitting. I admired how sparsely-worded pages were able to cover such a wide range of serious topics: bullying, incarceration, abuse, and more. There were so many beautiful passages that I had to restrain myself from dog-earring all the pages. As a librarian, I especially loved the passage:

I said,

I only read comics.

She said,

What’s a comic if it’s not a book?

Jett’s betrayal slowly unfolds and his courage and responsibility ultimately turn this sad story into one of forgiveness and hope. Ebb & Flow has such a powerful impact that it may take some readers some time to fully process the story.

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

When 11-year-old Calvin’s younger brother, Sammy, is diagnosed with cancer, Calvin is stricken with guilt for all the times he has ignored his brother.

I never intended to read back-to-back middle grade books dealing with a child’s serious and life-threatening diagnosis. This one was recommended by my colleague who is working her way through the 2018 Silver Birch nominees and believes this is the stand out winner.

I find books basedant on real-life personal experiences are always best. Clearly, the author’s background working in the pediatric oncology unit made the novel heartbreakingly realistic. The text was difficult to read at times, as it never hid the symptoms and effects of cancer (both on the individual and loved ones). Although medical terms were included, the author did a great job at explaining them in an easy to understand way.

Overall, this emotional book is more than just cancer and sadness. There’s family, friendship and hope. After all– “The only thing worse than dying is living without hope.”

Mustaches for Maddie by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown

Inspired by the true story. Maddie is a normal twelve-year-old, but when a CT scan reveals she has a brain tumor, it will take all her imagination, courage, and support from her friends and family to meet this new challenge.

I think School Library Journal summarized the book best with “…good read-alike for fans of R.J.Palacio’s Wonder.” However, unlike Wonder, Mustaches for Maddie is based on the true story of the authors’ daughter, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Information regarding the real Maddie’s story is included in the acknowledgements, author’s note, and letter from Maddie herself.  Like the fictional character, Maddie thinks mustaches are hilarious so you can actually send her a mustache photo using the hashtag #MustachesforMaddie.

I liked how the story included not just Maddie’smustache physical challenges but social as well.  It included family dynamics, and friendships.  The perspective of 12-year-old Maddie is completely believable- especially when she uses her imagination to make things an adventure.  She frequently uses mustaches for courage and humor to deal with life’s challenges.

Many readers will be able to relate and the heartwarming story serves as a reminder to be kind to everyone.  Most of us are battling some sort of issue, perhaps some more visible than others. To access a reader’s guide featuring discussion question and kindness/compassion activities visit http://www.mustachesformaddie.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Mustaches-for-Maddie-Readers-Guide_spreads.pdf

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

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All the year-end best lists are coming out and it was hard not to notice Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on many of them.  After a quick Google search, I came across an article by the Washington Post. The article revealed that Reynolds didn’t see his experiences reflected in required school reading, and in turn, didn’t read a book cover-to-cover until the age of 17.  Today, Reynolds is able to use the stories of his own upbringing to write real, raw stories that young people can connect to.

In Long Way Down, fifteen-year-old Will is set out to avenge his brother’s death. During the 60 second ride down his apartment’s elevator, seven ghosts from Will’s past make him reconsider “the rules” – don’t cry, don’t snitch, get revenge.

I liked that the ending was open to interpretation. I’m left wondering about Will’s decision and if the cycle of violence was broken. An engaging, quick and necessary read.

 

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Red is an oak tree who is many rings old. Red is the neighborhood “wishtree”–people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them to Red’s branches. Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red’s hollows, this “wishtree” watches over the neighborhood.

You might say Red has seen it all. Until a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, and Red’s experiences as a wishtree are more important than ever.

wishtree

I’m baaaaaaaack!

Although I’ve managed to read a few books in the past year (mostly parenting ones), it was this heartwarming and special middle grade read that has inspired me to return to book blogging.

This important story is narrated by an old oak tree named Red.  Throughout the years, Red has watched as many different families have moved in and out of the neighbourhood, but is suddenly puzzled when a Muslim family is treated unkindly.  Saddened by the intolerance, Red the optimist, aims to make the wish of the young Muslim girl come true.

With short chapters (51!), simple sentences, and drawings throughout, this book would keep the attention of even the most reluctant of readers.  Without a doubt, this book would also make an excellent read aloud for parents and teachers.  I’ve already recommended it to many colleagues!

In addition to the message of friendship and inclusion, it offers cool facts (who knew a bunch of hummingbirds are called a charm?), a funny sidekick (Bongo the crow), new vocabulary and wise insight.

If you don’t have a neighbourhood wishtree, visit the author’s website to make a virtual wish and check out the gallery of wishes.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him:1. He has his own suitcase filled with his own important, secret things.2. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.3. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers of Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him–not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.Bud, Not Buddy is full of laugh-out-loud humor and wonderful characters, hitting the high notes of jazz and sounding the deeper tones of the Great Depression.

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This 2000 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King award-winning book has been sitting on my to-read list for a while. Set during the depression and the historical backdrop of the jazz age, 10 year old orphan Bud has few possessions and little identity. However, Bud is intelligent, resourceful and determined to find his father. Through his journey, complex issues like homelessness and poverty are included. I liked how Bud uses his humour and his lists “Rules and Things for Having a Funnier Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself” to guide his way.

Through Bud’s story, Curtis did a fantastic job at teaching history to juvenile readers. I enjoyed reading the afterword, in which Curtis explains his family connection to the depression, and encourages young readers to listen to family members because “By keeping their stories alive you make them, and yourself, immortal (p.243).”

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan

Wicked stepmothers, traitorous brothers, cunning foxes, lonely princesses: There is no mistaking the world of the Brothers Grimm and the beloved fairy tales that have captured generations of readers. Now internationally acclaimed artist Shaun Tan shows us the beautiful, terrifying, amusing, and downright peculiar heart of these tales as never before seen.

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Even if you’re not a big fan of Shaun Tan or fairytales/folktales, the visually interesting front cover will instantly peak your interest and urge you to pick up the book. Lucky for me, I was in for a treat; beginning with a forward by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman highlights the importance of stories; both written and verbal. He writes, “They (Tan’s sculptures) do not look like moments of stories: instead, they feel like stories themselves.” I couldn’t agree more! Tan selected 75 short extracts of Brothers Grimm folktales/fairytales (some more well-known than others) and paired them with some strange and creepy sculptures. For those lesser-known tales, there is an index in the back that includes a brief summaries on the tales (of course, not a substitute for the full tales!) I had never heard of the Twelve Brothers, and did further research immediately after reading about it. There were plenty more I also enjoyed being introduced to. However, my favourite sculptures were: The Moon, The Riddle and the Frog King.

Overall, I was totally captivated by Tan’s original interpretation of the stories in sculpture form. Pick up The Singing Bones in October 2016.

When Friendship Followed me Home by Paul Griffin

A boy’s chance encounter with a scruffy dog leads to an unforgettable friendship in this deeply moving story about life, loss, and the meaning of family Ben Coffin has never felt like he fits in. A former foster kid, he keeps his head down at school to avoid bullies and spends his afternoons reading sci-fi books at the library. But that all changes when he finds a scruffy abandoned dog named Flip and befriends the librarian’s daughter, Halley. For the first time, Ben starts to feel like he belongs in his own life. Then, everything changes, and suddenly, Ben is more alone than ever. But with a little help from Halley’s magician father, Ben discovers his place in the world and learns to see his own magic through others’ eyes.

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As a huge dog lover, I knew I had to read this middle grade book. I just didn’t expect the story to be so heartbreaking AND heartwarming at the same time. There are some serious issues like abandonment, illness, and grief that could be emotional for some younger readers (heck, even I got teary eyed!) Regardless, the tone remains quite optimistic throughout. As a librarian, I loved all the public library, and librarian references, especially when former foster child Ben declares, “I think if there’s a heaven it’ll be my own private library. I walked along row after row of books and dragged my fingertips over their spines. In the twilight I felt the magic in them.” Books can be used to help individuals cope with certain emotional (and other) problems, and it’s clear that both the characters Ben and Halley use books/reading/writing as a form of bibliotherapy as they write their own sci-fi story together. The dog, Flip is an extra bonus and helps cheer up all those that meet him. Overall, a wonderful story about friendship and the true meaning of home.

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