No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

From beloved Governor General Literary Award–winning author Susin Nielsen comes a touching and funny middle-grade story about family, friendship and growing up when you’re one step away from homelessness.

37683441As I was preparing to do outreach at a temporary housing shelter, I came across the middle grade read by Susin Nielsen.  I was ecstatic because not only is she Canadian and a wonderful writer; it’s also hard to come by books that feature kids experiencing homelessness.

This story features 12 year old Felix, who is “between places” and living in a van with his mom. Readers learn how quickly circumstances can change and the lengths people go to survive.  Living in the van was supposed to be a temporary fix, but Felix’s mother falls into a “slump” and the months go by.  As a result, his realistic experiences like hiding his poverty, and using the school bathrooms to do cleansing wipe downs are heartbreaking.   Speaking about realistic experiences—I’m sure it does happen every now and again, but I could have did without the public sex act (masturbation) at the public library.  As a librarian, the public library already deals with enough misconceptions.  We want to encourage the public (especially low income individuals) to utilize the library’s resources and space- not scare them away.

Overall, an honest, important and sensitive read regarding homelessness and mental health.  Although the TV game show storyline does feel far-fetched, I’m glad Felix’s story ends on a hopeful note.

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Nightbooks by J.A. White

Imprisoned by Natacha, a witch, in a New York apartment, Alex must tell her a new scary story every night in order to stay alive.

This dark middle grade read is perfect for rnightbookseaders looking for that creep factor.  Just listen to these chapter titles: “A Pair of Red Eyes”, “What Grows with No Light”, and “The Other Prisoner”. Many times, Nightbooks has been compared to Grimm’s Fairytales and Neil Gaiman stories. I’d have to agree; it definitely reminded me of a Hansel and Gretel retelling. In this book, the main character Alex (a fan of all things scary) gets trapped in a witch’s magical apartment and must read chilling stories to stay alive. These short stories (in Alex’s handwriting) were a neat addition, and were totally frightening! I still think about the short story about Mr.Boots, a boot-wearing revengeful teddy bear that kidnaps a baby. In the end, I liked the message of being true to yourself, even if it does make you a bit of an outsider.

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.

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.

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

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).”

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.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

“Lockwood & Co. are hired to investigate Edmund Bickerstaff, a Victorian doctor who reportedly tried to communicate with the dead, while Lucy is distracted by urgent whispers coming from the skull in a ghost jar”–Provided by publisher.

skull

I’ve only read one book in between The Screaming Staircase (#1) and The Whispering Skull (#2) so this dark and creepy alternate world was easy to be welcomed back into. In this book, we fast forward six months and discover what the teenage ghost hunters of Lockwood and Co. have been up to. I enjoyed the inclusion of the whispering skull (glowing green head trapped in a jar —>) as it kept me guessing whether it was an ally or not. Only Lucy (because of her Talent) can hear the skull, but it taunts and teases Anthony, Lucy and George to no end! This is very amusing for the reader. Obviously, the title of the book hints of the skull’s importance in the book, but you’ll have to read The Whispering Skull to find out just how!

While I did enjoy The Whispering Skull, I wish Stroud would have included more info regarding The Problem. I thought the world building and background was super interesting in book #1, and that we’d learn more in book #2. I also found myself wanting more horror scenes as the first book. This one is more of a mystery/adventure, featuring a competition between ghost-hunting agencies to find stolen powerful and supernatural artefacts. Don’t get me wrong- there is ghost rats, talking skulls and plenty of creepy scenes to scare a brave reader! There is also a HUGE cliff-hanger that will likely unravel some of Lockwood’s past secrets. So, although The Whispering Skull did not engage me as much as The Screaming Staircase, I will likely continue on with book #3 The Hollow Boy.

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