Monday, September 24, 2018

MARVELOUS MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY: THE THIRD MUSHROOM by Jennifer L. Holm

THE THIRD MUSHROOM by Jennifer L. Holm (Random House Children's, September 2018)

What It's About (from Penguin Random House Website):
Ellie’s grandpa Melvin is a world-renowned scientist . . . in the body of a fourteen-year-old boy. His feet stink, and he eats everything in the refrigerator–and Ellie is so happy to have him around. Grandpa may not exactly fit in at middle school, but he certainly keeps things interesting. When he and Ellie team up for the county science fair, no one realizes just how groundbreaking their experiment will be. The formula for eternal youth may be within their reach! And when Ellie’s cat, Jonas Salk, gets sick, the stakes become even higher. But is the key to eternal life really the key to happiness? Sometimes even the most careful experiments yield unexpected–and wonderful–results.

Opening Lines:
"Maybe because I'm an only child, but my parents have always been a little obsessed with my eating. They insist that I try everything on my plate. That I eat what they eat. No chicken tenders off the kids' menu for me. If they have calamari or chicken livers, that's what I have to eat, too."

My Thoughts:
Jennifer L. Holm is such a wonderful writer! Her range--from cowriting the Babymouse series with her brother Matthew, to the wonderful Turtle in Paradise--is tremendous. The Third Mushroom is yet another great addition to her bibliography.

I particularly liked the presentation of the main character, Ellie. It's a pitch perfect point of view--worrying about friendships, being confused about feelings of romance, and loving both science and animals. There's also some magical realism--Ellie's grandfather, also a scientist, who has transformed himself into a 14-year-old boy. (FYI, grandfatherly curmudgeonliness does not feel out of place coming out of the mouth of a 14-year-old.)

One of my pet peeves in middle grade, as any longtime reader of the blog will know, is the dead parent motif. Here, Ellie's parents are divorced, but she gets on well with her stepfather. Holm does a great job of creating parents who are important influences in their child's life, but allow the child (and themselves!) to have lives of their own.

Finally, I really liked all the science in the book, and learned a lot about all the scientists who are mentioned. (There is an appendix which goes into more detail. Did you know that the two scientists who discovered that yellow fever was carried by mosquitoes deliberately allowed an infected mosquito to bite them? They contracted the disease and one of them died.)

Verdict: Jennifer L. Holm's latest is yet another success. It would be a great book to read with 8-12 year olds who like books with heart and humor and are interested in science.

About The Author:
Jennifer L. Holm is a New York Times bestselling children’s author and the recipient of three Newbery Honors for her novels Our Only May Amelia, Penny From Heaven, and Turtle in Paradise. Jennifer collaborates with her brother, Matthew Holm, on two graphic novel series—the Eisner Award-winning Babymouse series and the bestselling Squish series. She lives in California with her husband and two children.  Website



Monday, September 10, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ARGOS by Ralph Hardy

ARGOS: The Story of Odysseus as Told by His Loyal Dog by Ralph Hardy (Harper 2016, paperback edition 2018)

Man, it's been a long time since I posted--and my absence hasn't gone unnoticed by the powers that be. Let me give you a bird's eye view (very topical, since there are a lot of birds in Argos) of what happened when the Don called me into his office earlier this month.

The Don: "Michale, Michale, where you been? I'm paying you the big bucks, and you haven't done any work since, when, June?"

MGM: "Sorry, boss. Things have just been a little busy on the home front..."

The Don: "What, you had another baby? Come on, time to stop with the progeny. You're not young any more."

MGM: "No, not a baby, but..."

The Don: "A dog? You got another dog? Don't you remember me telling you that one pooch was enough? You should get a bird of prey. I hear being a falconer is an impressive job." (Leans forward to pinch my cheek)

MGM: "No, not a dog either, boss. The truth is, the kids were off school, and we all decided to go to England..."

The Don: "England? What's in England? They don't make wine, they can't sing, and believe me, the pasta is terrible. You should have gone to Sicilia instead."

MGM: "Hey, speaking of dogs, look what came in the mail a while back." (Waves copy of Argos in front of his face). "It's about Odysseus' dog! Nice cover, eh? I'll get to my desk right away and review it."

MGM sprints for the door. The last words he hears are "It's Ulysses, not Odysseus. Next thing, you'll be telling me you prefer Zeus to Jupiter."

So, there you have it. We had a busy summer, but now school is back in session, and I can get back to reading and writing. Yay for September!

What It's About:
For twenty years, the great hero Odysseus struggles to return to Ithaka. After ten years beneath the walls of Troy, he begins the long journey back home. He defeats monsters. He outsmarts the Cyclops. He battles the gods. He struggles to survive and do whatever it takes to reunite with his family.


And what of that family—his devoted wife, Penelope; his young son, Telemachos; his dog, Argos? For those twenty years, they wait, unsure if they will ever see Odysseus again. But Argos has found a way to track his master. Any animal who sets foot or wing on Ithaka brings him news of Odysseus’s voyage—and hope that one day his master will return. Meanwhile, Argos watches over his master’s family and protects them from the dangers that surround a throne without its king.

Opening Lines:
"Sometimes a new dog will ask me my lineage, for I look like no other hound on Ithaka, most of which are small and bred to shepherd livestock, if they are bred for any purpose at all. When I am asked, this is the story I tell, if the question is not put to me rudely, as often happens in this age."

My Thoughts:
As a young lad, I loved Greek and Roman mythology, and The Iliad and The Odyssey were some of my favorite tales. I love that Ralph Hardy made the choice to retell the Odyssey through the eyes of Odysseus' loyal dog, Argos--because I am also a huge dog fan!

As befits an epic, the tale is dense: Argos is noble as well as loyal, and this nobility is captured in his speech. While Odysseus' travails are reported to him mainly by birds, Argos undergoes his own Odyssey, keeping his territory safe from wolves, helping Odysseus' son Telemachos learn how to hunt boars, taking revenge on the hideous suitors, and falling in love himself.

SPOILER: In keeping with the Odyssey itself, Argos lives long enough to recognize his master, but dies before Odysseus can reveal himself and lay waste to the suitors. The tale is finished by one of Argos' children, Leander.

This would be a great read-aloud in a middle school classroom studying ancient civilizations. Having a dog as a narrator is a great way to open up the world of this epic classic for a modern reader.

About  the Author:
Ralph Hardy graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in English and received his MFA from Columbia College, Chicago. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife and children and a dog named Harvey, who is nothing like Argos. He is the author of THE CHEETAH DIARIES, LEFTY, and a number of short stories.


Monday, June 4, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: DASH by Kirby Larson

DASH by Kirby Larson (Scholastic, 2014)

This novel was in the 3rd-5th grade division in The Oregon Battle of the Books. My 5th grader and I enjoyed reading it together.

What It's About (from Kirby Larson's website):
Although Mitsi Kashino and her family are swept up in the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mitsi never expects to lose her home — or her beloved dog, Dash. But, as World War II rages and people of Japanese descent are forced into incarceration camps, Mitsi is separated from Dash, her classmates, and life as she knows it. The camp is a crowded and unfamiliar place, whose dusty floors, seemingly endless lines, and barbed wire fences begin to unravel the strong Kashino family ties. With the help of a friendly neighbor back home, Mitsi remains connected to Dash in spite of the hard times, holding on to the hope that the war will end soon and life will return to normal. Though they’ve lost their home, will the Kashino family also lose their sense of family? And will Mitsi and Dash ever be reunited?

Opening Lines:
"Mitsi Kashino packed her sketch pad, her binder, and her worry in her book bag. Dash sniffed the straps before flattening himself on top of it, muzzle resting on his front paws. He watched Mitsi with worried brown eyes. She ruffled the scruffy almond-colored fur on his head."

What I Loved:
Kirby Larson is a masterful writer, ast he first paragraph above shows. We immediately know that both the main character and the dog are worried, and we see that dog and girl have a wonderful bond. The paragraph which follows tells us that something has gone terribly wrong in Mitsi's world, but that she is hoping that things have righted themselves at school because time has passed.

Not so. Things are even worse.

The indignities suffered by Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor are a shameful chapter in American history. The fact that these events are seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl ramps up the injustice of it all. We feel for Mitsi as her friends turn against her, as the mean girl at school taunts her, and as she is forced to leave her precious dog behind as her family is sent to an internment camp. Larson has done some great research, and we get all the sights, sounds, (horrible) smells, tastes, and dust from camp life. Throughout, Mitsi shows tremendous resilience, and we get to enjoy the "correspondence" she and Dash have.

This is the sort of novel which leads to great conversations about what can happen if a society falls prey to fear of "the other." And who can fail to love a story about a girl and her dog? Not this Mafioso.

P.s. Has there ever been a cuter cover? Just look at those puppy dog eyes!


About the Author:
Kirby Larson is the acclaimed author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky, a young adult historical novel she wrote inspired by her great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. That book, and encouragement from her mentor, Karen Cushman, gave Kirby the confidence to embrace her passion for historical fiction; she has since written the Dogs of World War II series (Scholastic), which include Duke, Dash (recipient of the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Prize), Liberty and Code Word Courage. Kirby melded her passion for history and mystery in Audacity Jones to the Rescue, and Audacity Jones Steals the Show (nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award).

Kirby lives in Kenmore, Washington with her husband, Neil. When she’s not reading or writing, Kirby can be found beachcombing or bird watching with Winston the Wonder Dog.

Website   Facebook   Twitter

Monday, May 7, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: STICKY NOTES by Dianne Touchell

STICKY NOTES by Dianne Touchell (Delacorte Press, 2018)

The latest novel from Australian author, Dianne Touchell. In Australia the title was Forgetting Foster, published by Allen and Unwin in 2016.

What It's About (from Goodreads):
For fans of Counting by 7’s and Fish in a Tree, a touching story about the power of love and family in the face of a parent’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Foster Sumner is ten years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school, and the beach. Best of all, he likes listening to his dad’s stories.

But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. Dad would go out for milk and come back with cat food, when the cat had been dead for five years. But then the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.


A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten, as well as the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s and the strong families behind those who suffer from it.

Opening Lines:
"Foster smelled it first. A bitter smell like microwave popcorn popped too long. Except Dad wasn't making popcorn. dad was making bacon sandwiches."

What I Liked About It:
First off, I thought the writing was luminous, at times almost poetic. On every page, there's a fantastic phrase--just the right verb, or pinpoint adjective. Just opening the pages at random I find "Foster would run out back and climb that jacaranda... and sometimes he'd see his dad watching out the kitchen window, his stare rasping just like his walk." (What a lovely and descriptive word rasping is for a stare.)

This is a tough book. Tough subject matter--early onset Alzheimer's in a parent--and tough, unflinching characterizations. It had a fairy tale quality to it, and not just because Foster loves stories with dragons and princesses. Every character has a dark side--Touchell is most definitely not a writer given to sentimentality. She's thrown curve balls at almost everyone: Foster's mom is disfigured from an accident, and struggling just to make it with a spouse who is barely there mentally. Foster's aunt is a complicated character. She provides some balm for Foster, but just as often antagonizes her sister-in-law. Foster himself is angry and petulant at this terrible turn of events, and yet he perversely enjoys the interest of his classmates when he tells them of the "crazy" things his dad has done.

As such, it is difficult to know quite who this book's ideal reader is. Despite the character's young age (seven in the Australian edition, ten in the American), I think it would be a book better savored by older teens or adults. For writers, Touchell's sentences are worth studying, a reminder of the power of a well-chosen word. It makes me think of that quote by Mark Twain: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

About the Author (from Goodreads):
Dianne Touchell is a middle child who feared Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy — and any other stranger who threatened to break into the house at night.


She has worked, amongst other things, as a nightclub singer, a fish and chip shop counter girl, and a bookseller. Dianne would rather talk to her dog than answer the phone.


Dianne's other novels are Creepy and Maud and A Small Madness. I liked her writing so much I have the other books on order!


Monday, April 30, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: RIDERS OF THE REALM:ACROSS THE DARK WATER by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Once again, I'm over at my group blog, Project Mayhem, with a review of this first book in Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's Riders of the Realm series. The Don would be delighted if you went and visited us over there today!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Over at Project Mayhem for a Book Trailer Reveal for RIDERS OF THE REALM


I'm very excited to be writing on Project Mayhem (my middle grade group blog) about Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's new series, RIDERS OF THE REALM. Jennifer's Guardian Herd series was a smash hit, and I'm sure her legions of fans will be very excited for new adventures of the Pegasi.

Head on over to Project Mayhem. If you leave a comment there, you will be entered in the drawing for a signed copy of the new novel. Ciao!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE POPE'S CAT by Jon M. Sweeney

THE POPE'S CAT by Jon M. Sweeney; illustrated by Roy DeLeon (Paraclete Press; 2018)

Full disclosure: the illustrator, Roy DeLeon, is a former colleague of my wife's. He's a delightful man, and a fantastic artist. It was a delight to see his illustrations in this marvelous book.

What It's About (from Amazon):
This is the story of a stray born on the Via della Conciliazione in Rome, how she’s adopted by the Pope, and then “rules” the Vatican from museum to floorboard! First in a new series.

No one has a closer view of what’s happening in the world’s tiniest nation, Vatican City, than Margaret, the Pope’s new cat. But she wasn’t always Margaret, and she wasn’t always the Pope’s cat. She started out as a stray on the streets of Rome, and there are those in the Vatican who wish she’d never been allowed inside.


This fun, adorable new character will appeal to all kids!  Here is a cat who does what she likes regardless of what others, even someone like the Pope, expects of her—even when the Queen of England comes on a state visit!

Opening Lines:
"People walk by Maria's Roma Gelato stand every day without noticing the cat sitting on the cobblestones. Actually, she isn't so much sitting as she is lounging in the shade provided by Maria's trash cans. But the people are too busy."

My Thoughts:
This is more chapter book than middle grade, weighing in at 62 pages. It's a very sweet story about an animal-loving Pope (the front matter claims that 'no historical Pope or Holy Father, past or present, is intended'--but it's difficult not to think of the current Pope as the model.) The plot is simple: during his early morning walk, when the Pope has the Vatican to himself, he comes across a stray cat. He scoops her up, smuggles her into his apartment in the Vatican, and names her Margaret.

Mischievous Margaret sneaks out of the apartment and heads straight for the state dinner with the Queen of England!

The promotional material focuses on a Catholic audience, but I think this story could be savored by those of all faiths as well as none. As a teaching tool, it could lead to discussion of the nature of the papacy, of Rome, and of life in the Vatican, introducing such fixtures as the Swiss Guards. But it is also a simple tale of a man's loves for animals, and for taking in the strays of the world--who are labeled by no less than the mayor of Rome as a "menace to good society," and are targeted and rounded up. Knowing how the real Pope Francis feels about the plight of the world's refugees, it was impossible not to make this larger connection.

The illustrator, Roy DeLeon, is a family friend--and it was delightful to hear of his work on this book, and to have a finished copy in our hands! There will be a second book in the series, coming in October, 2018.

About the Author (adapted from Amazon bio):

Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar and author of popular history, spirituality, poetry/mysticism, memoir, and young reader fiction. He is the author of 30 books including many about Francis of Assisi such as When Saint Francis Saved the Church, The Complete Francis of Assisi, and The Enthusiast. HBO optioned the film rights to Sweeney's history about the medieval Celestine V, The Pope Who Quit. Sweeney, a father of four, is married to a congregational rabbi and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


About the illustrator (from the book jacket)
Roy DeLeon is an Oblate of St. Benedict, spiritual director, yoga instructor, graphic designer, and professional visual artist. He is also the author of Praying with the Body. Roy lives in Bothell, Washington, with his wife, Annie.