Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova


After shunning Jaime, the school nerd, on her first day at a new middle school, Penelope Torres tries to blend in with her new friends in the art club, until the art club goes to war with the science club, of which Jaime is a member. – description from NoveList.

What an awesome middle grade graphic novel! The book has wide appeal and is diverse in many ways, including cultures, body types and abilities. Svetlana manages to cover common middle grade issues like: friendship (boys and girls can be friends too!), bullying, and teamwork with fantastic manga-like artwork. I loved the colourful over-exaggerated panels of Peppi. Hands-down my favourite image is Peppi’s face (page 22) when her teacher holds up her mermaid drawing. It really conveys her reaction!
I loved this book so much I chose it to be featured booktalk for my middle grade school visits. I will definitely be picking up the rest of the Berrybrook Middle School series (Brave and Crush). Be sure to also check out Chmakova’s drawing process included after the story. Readers learn how much effort and thought goes into designing and drawing the characters.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin


I (eye) adored this contemporary middle grade read about a girl with high functioning autism and her dog, Rain (Reign). Rose is in fifth grade, and obsessed with homonyms (words that are pronounced the same but are spelled differently), rules and numbers (especially prime ones).   Told from Rose’s point of view, readers learn the struggles of living with OCD and Aspergers in school and at home.  While Rose’s dad may want to do well, he lacks patience and understanding for raising a special needs daughter. So when Rose’s dad brings home a stray dog as a present, Rose is overjoyed and forms a special bond with the dog (Rain) immediately.  When Rain goes missing after a storm, her kind uncle Weldon helps in the search. Eventually Rain is found, but a search for Rain’s original owners must now begin.

It’s the relationships in this book that really tug at your heart. I wished that Rose’s grief stricken father would get some professional help, and to try to understand his daughter instead of spending his time at the bar. Luckily, Rose has a kind and thoughtful uncle and Rain to make life more bearable.  As a huge animal lover, I totally understand the special bond between a dog and child.  I know how difficult it would have been to be brave and ‘do the right thing’ by giving back Rain to her rightful owners.  Rose is one special fifth grader for sure. Her voice is authentic, and it is obvious Martin did quite a bit of research to pull it off flawlessly. The frustrations and reactions to Rose’s behaviour and outbursts can help children understand what life is like for someone with Autism. This in turn, may help readers stand up to bullying, and be more accepting of differences.

Overall, Rain Reign is a beautiful tale of love, loss, and hope.  The ending was perfect, with readers optimistic about Rose’s future.  As a total standout for the year, I would recommend this book to readers of all ages.

Review- The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander

A couple of months ago, I was given a box of unreleased proofs from a library supplier to read and review before buying for our library system. I immediately picked up the book ‘ The Fourth Stall’. I loved the cover and think it will be really visually appealing to boys. In fact, the entire book would be appealing to boys– the storyline, characters, language and humour. The Fourth Stall is definitely a title I would recommend to reluctant pre-teen readers ages 9-12 years old.

So what’s it about?

Sixth graders Mac and Vince are business savvy best friends who run a successful business from their school’s east wing boy’s bathroom– fourth stall. For years, they have used their connections to help schoolmates get everything from loans to protection from bullies. They face their biggest challenge when third-grader Fred claims that he is being threatened by the legendary dropout and crime boss Staples. After hiring their bully clan and strategically planning their take down, Mac and Vince also find themselves unexpectedly affected by deeper issues like class.   

What I liked:

–          I loved the description and traits of the bully clan–each bully is known for a specific strength. For example, Snapper’s signature move ‘is a bite so hard it would snap a man clean in half if her mouth were big enough’. Rylander also includes a new form of bully that is becoming increasingly popular in our technology driven world—‘Ibully’. Ibully is a cyberbully who hacks e-mail and Facebook accounts.

–          Rylander’s writing: smart, witty. Multiple issues are thrown into the novel, but it always seems to work!

–          Rylander’s ability to make the reader emphathize with a bully even though you’ve detested the character throughout the novel. In the end, we find out why he was the way he was (and although it doesn’t excuse his behaviour, we can sort of understand why).

What I didn’t like:

–          The amount of violence in the book. Sometimes I had to remind myself that Mac is in the sixth grade. It’s like the Sopranos for the younger set, and I’m not sure the extent of the violence was necessary.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Here is an original – a story that really gets how guys are pals.  It’s also a story about sixth grade wiseguys that is funny, mysterious, and true to the heart of what really matters when you are in middle school.  Do yourself a favor.  Read it.  Now.”  – Jon Scieszka (National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and NYT Best-Selling author of THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS and THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES)
Debut novelist Rylander mines a substantial amount of humor and heart from this combination hard-boiled crime novel and middle-grade character piece.”  – Publishers Weekly

Look for The Fourth Stall in February 2011!

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