Category Archives: Middle grade fiction

Amina’s Gift by Hena Khan

Three or so years ago, we were lucky to have a family move in across the street from our house with 3 children: 2 girls and a boy.  These were kids that played, laughed, biked, were outside and active and exactly who my kids hoped for in a new family.  Hours were spent playing with these kids.  We know them, care for their family, and miss them dearly.

Like neighbors do, we exchanged holiday greetings and went to their birthday parties.  The typical librarian, I often gave the children books as gifts; however, the stories never featured characters that were mirrors of themselves and their life experiences.  My neighbors didn’t get to read stories about kids like them – Pakistani American children growing up in the U.S.

Amina’s Voice, published by Simon and Schuster’s new Salaam Reads imprint, changes that.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Meet Amina.  Much like many middle-schoolers, she wants to keep a low-profile.  It’s a bit harder with a unique name like hers, something her best friend Soojin understands.  But Soojin starts taking about making her name more “American” and mean-girl Emily, who has made fun their cultures (Pakistani and Korean) for years, starts joining them for lunch and projects, throwing Amina’s world into chaos.  At home, it’s no better: there’s no chance of escaping unnoticed when she and her older brother are signed up to give a Quran recitation at her mosque with the expectation of excellence from her parents and visiting uncle from Pakistan.  When the mosque is the target of a hate crime, Amina’s home and school communities come together in unexpected – yet fully believable – ways.  Khan knows her background and gives all readers an accessible story that will educate as well as entertain.  An important book for all libraries.  Highly recommended.  Share with ages 8-12.

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

It’s a gift to be able to write for children.  It’s really impressive, though, to be able to write in an authentic child voice: to represent the conversations, behaviors, and internal monologues with developmentally-appropriate actions, thoughts, and dialogue.  A few authors and characters spring to mind as exceptional examples, including Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Kevin Henkes’s Billy Miller.

They have some company with Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Julia Marks.  Sloan impressively nails both a solid kid-friendly plot line and authentic voice and actions in Short.  

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

It’s summer vacation, and Julia’s brother wants to audition for the local summer play.  She does not.  Julia has far more important things to do this summer, like writing letters to her friends and mourning her dog Ramon’s death.  But she tags along to the audition, reads for a part, and is surprised to learn that she’s cast in the production of The Wizard of Oz…as a Munchkin.  This is a sore point, as she’s shorter-than-average and a bit sensitive about it.  Following through in the role – with the support of fellow cast members and little adults – Julia learns what commitment means as she discovers the strength of community, both on stage and in her town.  By getting out of her comfort zone, she starts daydreaming less and doing more – both in the play and in the real world.

Sloan has crafted Julia’s world with a deft hand: it can be scattered at times as Julia flits from one thought to another.  However, this is what makes Short exceptional: it is all-kid. What child doesn’t jump from one idea to the next?  Consider this passage:

Julia’s loss of her dog is a big part of who she is – Ramon is woven through the narrative – and her flitting thoughts about his smell, collar and the carving are as authentic as Ramona cracking an egg on her head or Billy’s fear of performing poetry stage.  High praise, there.

Share with ages 8-12.  Highly recommended, especially for teachers looking for a read-aloud with strong voice.

Short released January 31, 2017.  Thanks to Penguin Young Readers for an advance copy.

Cheers, y’all! –arika

The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol

Recommending books – to students, teachers, colleagues, friends, neighbors – is the bread and butter of any librarian worth her or his salt.  But as a librarian MOM, it’s a bit different.  Because Mom comes first, and not often will one’s child take mom’s advice – be it about slowing down on the slick grass or wearing a coat on a rainy day or trying a new title – without some resistance.  However, ‘resistance is futile’: this librarian mom doesn’t give up when it comes to books. My two children are starting to figure this out.  Case in point: James Nicol’s The Apprentice Witch.

At ALA in Orlando in June, I’d picked up a pre-release copy. Printed on 8×11 paper and bound by plastic combs, logic said that a book shared in such an early state must be exciting. After a quick read, the first person that came to mind was my daughter – this was similar to some of her favorite books.  But she was not interested in Mom’s opinion, even with a stellar booktalk.  So I tried a new tactic and started reading it aloud one night (this, by the way, is a great trick).  Within two chapters she was hooked, and so was my 7 year old son.  That night, they stayed up and she read aloud to him about Arianwyn and her “friends”.  She finished it less than a week later to rave review.  See for yourself.  🙂

The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol

summary & review by JMD, age 9

The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol is a fascinating book to read. A young girl that is about 16 years of age named Arianwyn is becoming a witch, and according to schedule, every young girl that is her age that she can test to see if she can become a real witch. Everything seems to be going right when then something goes wrong… Arianwyn fails the test. Her punishment is to protect a small town, Lull, that Arianwyn soon finds out is a town with big problems.

I enjoyed reading The Apprentice Witch because there is a lot of magic and fantasy put into the book and those are things that I look for when I look at books. I recommend this book for ages 8 and up. Also, this book is for fans of the series Upside-Down Magic and Fairy Tale Reform School.

The Apprentice Witch is out July 25, 2017 in the US and released July 6, 2016 in the UK

And a little side note: It was serendipitous that I picked up this advance copy at Scholastic’s Chicken House reception. Chicken House is Scholastic’s publishing arm for titles originally published in the UK.  Little did I know at that time that I’d be moving to the UK!

 As seen at the 2017 London Book Fair at the Scholastic booth.

Cheers, y’all! 🙂 arika

Bringing literature to life with Skype

London. It has its iconic buildings, red buses, and afternoon teas. Sounds great.  And it is…to an adult.

To a child, though, there is only one thing they’re interested in when it comes to London:  Harry Potter.  And there is one place that stands out, a spot that’ll determine if she is a witch or he a wizard: Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station

Both are real places – a fact lost on me when I first read the books.  And lucky me: I got to share them via Skype with a class of 2nd graders who read and compared US and UK editions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone earlier this school year.  This group, I thought, would love to “see” the platform and the real King’s Cross.  Technology – Skype – could help make it happen.

I sent a query email to their teacher Ms. A, asking if she was interested in a virtual field trip.  (Note: this was quite deliberate –  I know that Ms. A loves England & London.)  A Skype rookie, she was willing to try something new because London! England! HARRY POTTER!  Making literature come alive!!  It was the tech that could be tricky.  Because while my former school is Microsoft school, few teachers use Skype (or any other platform) to connect to the world and expand the classroom walls.  It was a goal of mine, once in London, to help change that. 🙂

Ms. A was great at sorting it out (a very English phrase): securing a wide-angle camera and a better mic from the district, asking for help from the tech folk when needed, setting up a Skype account.  I was ready with the Skype app on my phone and wifi.  And together, we made some magic.

I “toured” King’s Cross with the class – it’s enormous, with trains and a tube (subway) station, dozens of restaurants and people everywhere – then made our way to the platform.  Along the way, I answered questions, showed them the official Platform 9 3/4 shop, and asked them questions about HP.

Skype was a perfect tool for our virtual field trip, though I imagine Google Hangouts would also work well.  Some helpful tips (learned in “The School of Trial and Error”) for hosting a Skype literature field trip:

  • Do a practice call in advance!  Make sure the mic/camera/connection/usernames work.
  • Make sure the whole class has heard the book & knows about the location to be shared.
  • Have students submit questions in advance in the event of tech troubles.  Ms. A emailed hers to me.  They were partially about HP, partially about London, but all from their heart.
  • Use a mic and headset for the single presenter.  This is a MUST!  My mic/headset earbuds were vital to the success.
  • Know your “tour” and literature. Don’t start at the main event…lead up to it.
  • Plan for 20 minutes.  Much more and people get restless.

And some reflection:

  • Have some student interaction/movement.  I asked students to share their Hogwarts house and which was their favorite character, but I should have done more with this.  Maybe a  “who said this line?” quiz?
  • Come up with questions to ask the class that require everyone to participate.  Again, I could have done better…
  • Ask the students if there is anything they would like to see more of.  I feel like I went way too fast through the train station and that it was a blur.  I should have slowed down!
  • Find someone to interview?  Maybe the people at the HP store, maybe someone waiting in the Platform 9 3/4 line…

Thanks, Skype, for making our world a bit smaller AND bigger.  Technology allowed us to expand the walls of learning outside of a suburban Seattle school and connect to a city thousands of miles away.  It also allowed this homesick librarian to see and interact with her students in a way not possible a decade ago.  Win-win, all around.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

The only thing worse than spending summer vacation in a dusty, remote New Mexico town is meeting grandfather Serge, who is struggling from dementia. As Carolina’s family prepares to sell Serge’s house, he tells her stories of a long-lost tree and how bees will save them.  Magical realism at its finest.  (Ages 10-14)

One of the titles shared at Build a Better Collection, part of PSESD’s 2016 T-L Summit.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Newto Newport Beach, Cindy (nee Zomorod) seeks to reinvent herself into a true California girl. But as an Iranian-American in the 1970’s, she’s faced with realistic racism which escalates during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.  A historical, hysterical coming-of-age story.   (Ages 10+)

One of the titles shared at Build a Better Collection, part of PSESD’s 2016 T-L Summit.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day  by John David Anderson

Three boys – Topher, Steve, and Brand – narrate this touching story of an unforgettable teacher. Ms. Bixby is dying of cancer, and her expected last day didn’t happen as planned…leading the boys to draw on her lessons and their memories to go on an epic journey (and it is epic) in the hopes of sharing one final moment with her.  (Ages 9-12)

One of the titles shared at Build a Better Collection, part of PSESD’s 2016 T-L Summit.