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).”

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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.

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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.

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister’s sake – and her own.25903764

I received some advanced reading copies from Scholastic and immediately picked Ghosts first. I’d likely read anything by Telgemeier! While Ghosts was not my personal favourite of her works, fans won’t be disappointed. In this graphic novel, Cat’s family move to the Northern Coast in hopes that it will make life easier for Maya who suffers from cystic fibrosis. Like any teenager, she’s having a tough time with the move, and settling into a town seemingly obsessed with the afterlife, but her love for her sister shines through and takes priority. I loved their relationship, especially the heartfelt moments discussing Maya’s chronic illness. At one point, Maya asks “What happens when I die, Cat? Will you be afraid of my ghost, too? (pg. 175)”

Besides the inclusion of chronic illness, I really liked that the book introduced aspects of another culture. Readers will learn more about Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) and the colourful illustrations are a bonus! Look for Ghosts in September 2016.

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There’s no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again. Crenshaw is a cat. He’s large, he’s outspoken, and he’s imaginary. He has come back into Jackson’s life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?
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For a quick read, this book manages to cover heavy issues like poverty and homelessness. The impact on children is an important topic to include in juvenile fiction; however, the parents in this story really irritated me. Rather than seek out all the possible sources of help, they let pride stand in the way. In turn, the children developed major anxiety and their bellies growled of hunger. Jackson even turns to shoplifting to feed his hungry sister.

In addition to Jackson’s parents, I was also annoyed with Jackson’s imaginary friend, Crenshaw. Crenshaw the cat seems to appear when Jackson experiences anxiety. As shown in flashbacks, this anxiety stems from his family’s financial situation. Since I’ve never had an imaginary friend, I’m not really sure how Crenshaw helps Jackson. Crenshaw explains, “Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again (p. 222).” While this is a lovely thought, Crenshaw has little personality, and doesn’t provide Jackson with wise advice, or comic relief. He’s barely even in the book! Overall, Crenshaw was a bit of a disappointment, but I’ve been told Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan is better.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

Eleven years old. The beginning of everything!

For Maggie Mayfield, turning eleven means she’s one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. It’s time for her to pull herself up by her bootstraps (the family motto) and think about more than after school snacks and why her older sisters are too hot for their own good. Because something mysterious is going on with her cool dude Dad, whose legs have permanently fallen asleep, and Maggie is going to find out exactly what the problem is and fix it. After all, nothing’s impossible when you’re future president of the United States of America, fifth grade science fair champion, and a shareholder in Coca-Cola, right?

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This middle grade book is essentially a memoir of eleven-year-old, Maggie Mayfield’s year. It is a life changing year for this very intelligent protagonist; she discovers that her father is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While it does deal with a serious topic, the story is mostly upbeat. It also doesn’t hurt that Maggie’s quirky voice is so distinctively funny, that readers will be laughing along. Maggie also includes footnotes throughout the story for extra laughs!

Maggie’s family dynamics are also explored through her relationship with her older sisters, Layla and Tiffany. I thought their relationship was completely realistic. Although Maggie takes vitamins, reads the paper, and owns stock, there are still moments where she is naive and immature. She states, “I’d thought knowing where the sidewalk ended and where the red fern grew and where the wild things were would help me figure out LIFE (p.243).” However, she quickly learns that everyone in the family, must “pull up their bootstraps” to assist their dad.

Although the story is set in 1988, it feels very contemporary. I totally missed the old library stamp card on the front cover! Besides the few dated references, it’s ultimately a timeless story about growing up.

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He’s got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day. But in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from. So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier–even if it’s the last thing he ever does.

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Readers are introduced to the story with an author note explaining that the book was written in honor of a friend that passed away from cancer.  A nice gesture of course, but the book just didn’t do it for me.  This quick middle grade read is utterly depressing.  Basically, a suicidal boy diagnosed with cancer runs away from home to climb a mountain with his dog.  His best friend has a good idea of where he is and experiences an internal struggle of whether or not to spill the secret to his family and the police.  Oh, and his dog almost dies.

The phrase ‘that’s the truth’ was so over-used, that it irritated the heck out of me.  Another repetitious section was Jessie’s (the best friend) struggle of whether to maintain her loyalty to Mark or save his life.

My thoughts on the book matched Mark’s viewpoint on dying: “I’d never felt more ready. I’d had enough of everything. I just wanted it all to be over (p.161).”

 

Slappy’s Tales of Horror (Goosebumps Graphix) by R.L. Stine

Four Goosebumps Graphix tales by master of horror R. L. Stine are adapted into full-color comics and feature a brand-new Slappy story by bestselling author, Dave Roman.

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I’ve always been a huge fan of the Goosebumps book and TV series, so I was super excited to receive this advanced reading copy from Scholastic.

The well-known ventriloquist dummy Slappy introduces the four stories and returns in between them to taunt the reader. They illustrators vary in their style, so it was an interesting approach to mesh them together in one book. The stories also range in ‘scariness’. I found the third story “Ghost Beach” was the most terrifying; specifically the ghost/skeleton image of the three cousins on page 120. I think fans of scary reads and R.L. Stine will eat up this graphic novel; especially as the release date of the Goosebumps film draws near. Pick up this quick, middle grade read on August 25, 2015.

Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf

In 1942, eleven-year-old Milada is taken from her home in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, along with other blond, blue-eyed children to a Lebensborn center in Poland. There she is trained to be a “proper German” for adoption by a German family, and all the while she struggles to remember her true identity.

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An older book, but an important story and one that shouldn’t be missed. I’ve read other historical fiction books detailing the holocaust, but this book stands out. It was interesting to read about Milada (later renamed Eva) being chosen to attend a special school because of her Aryan looks (blonde hair, blue eyes).

Although the book does offer a glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust, I think the author did a fantastic job at writing the story for the intended audience of middle graders. The content was handled sensitively yet does not shy away from some more disturbing aspects; like when Eva wonders what the horrible smell is, and is told by her adoptive sister “Prisoners, well, prisoners die. And there isn’t room to bury them. So the smokestacks—“ (p. 134). Understandably, Eva doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. But if readers want to find out more, historical facts are also included in the author’s note.

This book is recommended to readers with interest in historical fiction. That being said, I would not endorse the cover shown on Goodreads. It does not do a great job at ‘selling’ the book. I think the publisher quickly realized this too, as my edition has a more appealing cover.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

The author of the beloved One for the Murphys gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t fit in.   “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”   Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions.  She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.

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I listened to the audiobook.  On the upside, the narrator does a great job at creating unique voices for the full cast of characters. On the downside, clocking in at nearly six hours, the story totally ran longer than required.  I thought the story was resolved at disc three, but was surprised to learn there were still another two discs to go! As a story about dyslexia, I could see the length being frustrating for those with similar reading difficulties.

It is a charming, sweet story, but just didn’t touch me the way it has others. I’m sure teachers will eat this one up, as it’s set almost entirely in a school setting, and features the world’s most inspiring teacher, Mr. Daniels. He patiently works with Ally to improve her reading, and in turn, she begins to bloom and gain confidence.  I did like the emphasis on different learning styles, and appreciated the various problem solving techniques Mr.Daniels uses like chess, and brain games.

This is a book that reminds us of the power of words, and to embrace each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Overall, a feel- good middle grade story.

More reviews:

* “Unforgettable and uplifting. . . . Deals with the hardships of middle school in a funny, yet realistic and thoughtful manner. Ally has a great voice, she is an unforgettable, plucky protagonist that the reader roots for from page one. This novel is a must-have.”—School Library Connection, STARRED REVIEW *

“Filled with a delightful range of quirky characters and told with heart, the story also explores themes of family, friendship, and courage in its many forms. . . . It has something to offer for a wide-ranging audience. . . . Offering hope to those who struggle academically and demonstrating that a disability does not equal stupidity, this is as unique as its heroine.”—Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

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