Where the Heart Is and Still a Work in Progress by Jo Knowles

Kidlitcon happened!  Providence was beautiful!  I plan to pull together my notes from that soon, but for now, a couple of books by the wonderful Jo Knowles, who was on my panel called “You Can’t Say That in Middle Grade”, along with Ann Braden, Paula Chase, Barbara Dee, and Varian Johnson.  

This is Jo’s new book, coming out in April, and which I read from an ARC that her publicist kindly sent me.

Where The Heart Is final coverWhere the Heart Is by Jo Knowles.  Candlewick, April 2019.
Rachel has just turned 13, and it’s turning out to be a really tough year.  (I remember 13 being very tough myself.) She got “engaged” to her best friend, Micah, when they were six, and though it sent off happy sparkly feelings at the time, it no longer does.  He’s definitely interested in her romantically, and she just doesn’t feel that way about him, and maybe not any boy. Her parents are fighting about money more and more often, and there’s less and less food in the kitchen.  It’s also hard to be stuck with second-hand clothes, including being the only middle school girl at the beach in a one-piece bathing suit. Despite all these tough things, there’s plenty of humor from her little sister, Ivy, as well as from Rachel’s job taking care of the animals on the hobby farm next door, especially the pig, Lucy, who knocks her down every time Rachel tries to feed her.  Looking at all of Rachel’s life, and including normal friendship problems as well as the very serious financial crisis her family is in helped the book rise above the crisis to be a story of personal growth and love.

Jo’s previous book was just released in paperback, though I read my library’s hardcover.

Still a Work in Progress by Jo KnowlesStill a Work in Progress by Jo Knowles. Candlewick, 2016.
Seventh grade Noah is just trying to deal with life at school – stinky bathrooms, do any girls like him, and how will his trio of best friends hold together when one of them starts dating?  Everyone adores his older sister, Emma, but he is afraid even to notice that she’s just pushing her food around on her plate, terrified that the Thing They Don’t Talk About might be happening again.  Art is the only thing that’s keeping him sane, along with keeping the hairless school cat safe. But suddenly the rest of life at school – especially the morning meetings to discuss the comments in the suggestion box – seem completely pointless.  Chapter titles are taken from the suggestion box discussion, including things like “Please Stop Standing on the Toilet Seats” and “Sequined Camouflage Is Not Appropriate at School.” This book looks at the hard work of carrying on with life when someone you love is having serious problems, with characters and an ending that hit the sweet spot in the middle between grim and rainbow unicorns.  

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The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Here’s another author from my Kidlitcon panel, which I’m posting from the airport on my way to Providence!

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann BradenThe Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. Sky Pony Press, 2018.
Seventh grader Zoey mostly keeps her head down on the bus and at school.  At home, she takes care of her three younger siblings while her mother works at a waitress at the pizza parlor.  It’s her job to keep the kids out of the way her mother’s boyfriend Lenny and his father, who spends the day in his recliner smoking and watching angry news.  She doesn’t have time for homework, and she feels it’s better not to raise expectations by doing it.

This resolve cracks when an especially kind teacher, Ms. Rochambeau, gives her the assignment to write about what animal she’d want to be.  Doing this assignment leads Ms. R., herself a first generation college graduate, to convince Zoey to join the debate club, even though this involves making alternate arrangements for care for her younger siblings. This in turn starts Zoey on a path towards being able to label and combat some of the toxic behavior happening at home.  

Meanwhile, her friend from the trailer park Silas is given a hard time by other kids on the bus for enjoying hunting, while her best friend Fuschia is dealing with an extremely unreliable mother.  This sensitive book deals with a wide array of topics, ranging from attitudes about the rural poor to common ground talk about guns, domestic abuse, recognizing gaslighting, and the power of working together. That could feel like too much crammed into one book, but they all felt like issues that a kid in Zoey’s situation would really be dealing with. I was rooting for her all the way, and hope for more books from Ms. Braden.  

Also on this panel are Paula Chase, author of So Done; Barbara Dee, author of Star Crossed and the upcoming Maybe He Just Like You, among many others; Varian Johnson with The Parker Inheritance; and Jo Knowles with the upcoming Where the Heart Is.


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On my Spring TBR for Top Ten Tuesday

Here are some of the books I’m planning to read this spring, though I know there are more waiting on my shelf to be read and I’m quite sure I’ve missed some new books coming out that I would want to read.  If you know of any you think I would love, do let me know! Top Ten Tuesday is graciously hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl

Top Ten Tuesday from www.ThatArtsyReaderGirl.com

Currently Checked Out:

  • The Collectors by Jacqueline West (middle grade)
  • The Hidden Witch by Molly Ostertag (middle grade)
  • Let Sleeping Dragons Lie by Garth Nix and Sean Williams (middle grade)
  • Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez (middle grade)


On hold & will hopefully come in this season:

  • Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers (YA)
  • Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee (middle grade)
  • Game of Stars by Sayantani DasGupta
  • The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (YA)
  • The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu (middle grade)
  • Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar (middle grade)
  • On the Come Up by Angie Thomas.
  • Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson (YA)


Witchmark by C.L. Polk (adult)

Still Waiting for

Stand on the Sky by Erin Bow (out, but I need to track down a copy)
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (coming in May)

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So Done by Paula Chase.

Kidlitcon is coming up!  I’ll be moderating a panel called “You Can’t Say That in Middle Grade!” with four wonderful authors who are willing to tackle issues that have in the past been reserved for teen audiences, if they’re discussed at all.  I will not be able to review all the books before I leave, but I’m really looking forward to our conversation! 

So Done by Paula Chase.So Done by Paula Chase. Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2018.
It’s the summer before 8th grade.  Tai (pronounced Tay and short for Metai)  Tai doesn’t remember her Korean mother, who went back home when she was an infant, and her drug-addicted father is an inconsistent and frankly unwelcome presence in her life.  She much prefers the life she has with her 40-something grandmother. (This made me feel so old, even if the grandmother leads a very active life!) has been eagerly waiting for her best friend Bean to come back to the Cove, the subsidized housing complex where they live. She’s expecting things to go back to the way they’ve always been, with Bean following along with the adventures Tai plans, even though Tai herself is changing, with a crush on cute drummer boy Rollie.  

But Bean comes back from her aunt’s house wanting to go by her real name, Jamila. She isn’t comfortable being anywhere close to Tai’s father, and since he’s moved back in with his mother, she won’t go to Tai’s house.  She loves ballet, so when she learns that there will be auditions for a new TAG program with lessons in dance, music, and drama, she’s all about it. A new pair of siblings, Chris and Chrissy, have moved to the neighborhood specifically to join the program, with Jamila and Chrissy bonding over their passion for ballet.  Tai, though, starts to feel left out by this new friendship. And surely that little thing that happened with her father at the beginning of the summer couldn’t have anything to do with Jamila’s new reluctance to come over? Before they quite know what’s happening, the friendship that’s been the foundation of their lives seems to be falling apart.

Strong, well-rounded characters draw the reader into this story that tackles some necessary and uncomfortable topics.  Chase isn’t afraid to give Tai lots of prickles, even as she ultimately has to do some soul-searching. The dark topic was balanced, though, with some strong family bond and by Jamila’s delight in her art.  It’s also good to read a story set in subsidized housing that emphasizes the closeness of the neighborhood over grittiness.  Book 2 in this series, Dough Boys, is due out in August.  

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The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

This is the sequel to The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, which won the 2017 Cybils award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction.  It came out in the middle of my 2018 Cybils reading, and was one of the first books I read in the new year.  

The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie BurgisThe Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis. Bloomsbury, 2018.
Silke was the scrappy street girl who helped our heroine Aventurine when she first arrived, completely disoriented, in the city.  Now, she gets her own story.

Silke is still working at the Chocolate Heart, enjoying the time with Aventurine and working her hardest to promote the chocolate house.  But she still feels that she needs her own place to belong.

Meanwhile, all the extra shifts at the Chocolate Heart mean she’s leaving the running of their used clothing stall at the marketplace nearly entirely to her brother, Dieter, which is putting an increasing strain on their relationship.  Even though they love each other. Even though they are the only family they have left, since they arrived as refugees and their parents didn’t arrive with them.

Silke’s stories bring her to the attention of the Crown Princess, who wants her to use those abilities Silke’s been bragging about to find out why the elves are suddenly planning to pay a visit to the kingdom.  Though you don’t really turn down the Crown Princess, this comes with lots of problems. Dieter, tired of Silke’s stories, doesn’t believe that she isn’t just in trouble with the crown. Silke’s short hair and trousers make her decidedly gender-nonconforming in the era the story is set, and that makes posing as a lady-in-waiting especially challenging.  And her parents disappeared traveling through the elves’ country, so that dealing with them will bring up all the memories Silke’s worked so hard to suppress.

Silke’s story here looks at the power of stories themselves both to heal and harm.  It’s a rare fantasy with a non-white, refugee heroine. But young readers may not even notice this welcome diversity – they’ll be too caught up with the busy human-elf-dragon political games and the intrigue within the court, as well as Silke’s personal journey.  This series just keeps getting better, with plenty for older readers as well as kids.

I’m very excited for the next book, The Princess Who Flew with Dragons, coming out in November and featuring the often-overlooked Princess Sofia.  Take a look at the beautiful cover over at Random Musings of a Bibliophile!

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Peasprout Chen

The nice thing about reading books that were published earlier in the Cybils cycle is that sometimes the sequel is ready to read very shortly afterward!  Here are a pair of Taiwanese-flavored fantasies, the first of which was one of my favorite Cybils nominees that didn’t make our finalist list.

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry LienPeasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien. Henry Holt, 2018.
Chen Peasprout (family name Chen, personal name Peasprout) and her younger brother Cricket have been sent as goodwill ambassadors from the empire of Shin to study at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword.  Peasprout is the Peony Level Brightstar champion of wu liu, a fusion of ice skating and martial arts designed for women. Unfortunately, many of their fellow students are very suspicious – Shin has tried to take over Pearl in the past. Some of the few who are friendly are twins Doi – very serious, with long, shining hair – and her smiling, vegetarian brother Hisashi.  They’re the children of the chair of New Deitsu, the company that makes the pearl for which Pearl was named – a substance that covers all the streets and floors of Pearl and allows people to use their skates everywhere.

Peasprout is determined to come first in all the school competitions, even if she doesn’t have the money or connections of the other students.  When buildings start being vandalized and even destroyed, she’s sure that it’s her top rival, mean-spirited and suspicious Suki. She’s so suspicious of everyone that she doesn’t really believe that Cricket can be making friends or finding his own place.

Plot and character descriptions, though, don’t really do justice here.  The world building is beautiful, balanced against a stubborn and prickly main character dedicated to filial piety as well as her own personal success.  The language is worth noting, too, with flowery titles and exclamations like “make me drink sand to death” or “ten thousand years of stomach gas” that make it feel like reading directly translated idioms.  Peasprout herself, though described as 14, felt a little younger to me, fitting well into middle grade literature. All of this fits into a story that’s packed with competitions and battles on ice skates that keep the story gliding along.  

Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry LienPeasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien. Henry Holt, 2019.
Peasprout’s place at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword is still uncertain as book two opens.  Her friendship with Doi and Hisashi was rattled by the events at the end of the previous book, and things are made even worse by the arrival of Wu Yinmei, the secret heir to the Dowager Empress of Shin.  Even though Peasprout knows what it is to be under suspicion all the time, even though she’s from Shin herself, she’s come to love Pearl and is quite sure that Yinmei can’t be trusted.

As Pearl feels more pressure from Shin, all the various subjects the students had been studying are combined to make them ready for actual battle, complete with regular battle practices.  Peasprout becomes the leader of her own battleband, which she accidentally sticks with the team name Nobody and the Fire Chickens – versus the much more serious names of groups lie Radiant Thousand-Story Very Tall Goddess.  Mean girl Suki is now asking to be on her team, too – but can she really trust her? She still has some feelings for Hisashi, even though he’s definitely not the boy she thought he was at the beginning of book one. I just found her a little frustrating in this book, having so many of the same problems with trust that she did in the last book, even ones I thought she’d worked through.  

The battle scenes were so vivid, though, I read several of them aloud to my son.  I was definitely on board for Peasprout and her Fire Chickens to win the ever-increasing stakes, and I hope for more books in this series.  

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4 Unique Fantasy Books for Kids

Seeing as how it’s March already, I’m going to try to finish reviewing all my Cybils books this week, so I can move on to the books I’m reading this year.  

dragonflysongDragonfly Song by Wendy Orr. Pajama Press, 2017.
This novel set in the Bronze age Mediterranean mixes prose and poetry in a world that’s divided between islands that still hold to the older Goddess worship, and those that have male-headed pantheons.  Into this world, the Lady of a small island has a daughter born with tiny extra thumbs – too imperfect to be the heir. She ends up, thumbs cut off, being raised as a lowly servant, then sent as tribute to one of the larger islands, where she’s trained to dance with the bulls.  There’s a lot of sorrow for our heroine to overcome, though it’s beautifully told, with a well-developed setting. I need to try to read the sequel, Swallow’s Dance.

Lulu the Broadway Mouse by Jenna Gavigan.Lulu the Broadway Mouse by Jenna Gavigan. Running Press, 2018.
Thanks to the publisher for this review copy!  Author Jenna Gavigan, herself a former child star on Broadway, brings us backstage with the story of a tiny mouse who longs to be a star.  Her family has helped with things like costumes and tech work for years – but will there ever be room for Lulu’s dream of singing? Lulu has to deal with snooty child star Amanda, as well, and hoping that her understudy Jayne will also get a chance to go onstage.  This is filled with insider knowledge and would pair well with the books from my Three for Theater Kids post.  

The Magic of Melwick Orchard by Rebecca CapraraThe Magic of Melwick Orchard by Rebecca Caprara. Carolrhoda books, 2018.
Isa knows her parents have a good reason for neglecting her – her little sister Junie is in the hospital with cancer.  How much can the magic apple tree in her new yard help? And can Isa let go of her determination not to need friends? Full of fun made-up words like “perfecterrific” and “squg”, this has humor and heart, despite the depressing sick sibling topic.  

Wizardmatch by Lauren MagazinerWizardmatch by Lauren Magaziner. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018.
Stop the presses!  This is the second middle grade speculative fiction book with a Filipino or part-Filipino character that I’ve found in my nearly 15 years of looking.  Lennie Mercado and her brother Michael are Filipino-American on their father’s side, wizard on their mother’s. They’re called to the wizard realm to enter a contest against their many, many cousins to be the next Prime Wizard.  Serious issues of systematic racism and sexism are hid under goofy contests and fun powers like stretching arms, growing hair, or barfing up birds. This went some delightfully unexpected places.


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The Rose Legacy and The Third Mushroom

The Rose Legacy by Jessica Day GeorgeThe Rose Legacy by Jessica Day George. Bloomsbury, 2018.
Anthea has been raised as an unwanted orphan, shuttled from relative to relative.  (This is just the first chapter, but it was so painful for my daughter, a big fan of the author’s Tuesdays at the Castle series, that she gave up at this point, which is a shame.  When a final aunt tires of her, she’s sent past the Wall to Scotland-like Leana, once an independent kingdom.  There she discovers that they still have horses – in fact, her uncle’s Last Farm is raising them! Anthea is horrified, as she was told that horses spread a plague to the other side of the wall.  She is also horrified by the cultures shock of girls wearing trousers for riding, and of boys and girls talking freely together. But one of the great horses, Florian, remembers her from her time at the Last Farm as a very young child, and is determined to to make her remember.  Things take a turn for the dramatic as Anthea changes her mind about the horses and finds that she may well have put them in danger. With a touch of magic, mystery, and growing adventure, this a great start to a new series for horse-loving kids.

thirdmushroomThe Third Mushroom by Jennifer L. Holm. Read by Georgette Perna. Listening Library/Random House, 2018.
The story of Ellie and her best friend Raj from The Fourteenth Goldfish continues, beginning with a riff on how her parents tried and failed for years to get her to like mushrooms.  She now has a cat she loves, Lucas (trigger alert for pet death here!). Her grandfather Melvin shows up unexpectedly, still in the body of a fourteen-year-old.  He’s grumpy and has old-man clothes and stinky socks, refusing to wash his own laundry and eating everything in sight. Naturally, that makes him very hard to live with, especially for Elli’s mother.  Ellie and her grandfather start doing experiments with regeneration in fruit flies, while Ellie and Raj try dating, which turns extremely awkward. In a rare positive depiction of senior romance, Melvin starts falling for the new, older librarian at Ellie’s school.  If he can stop looking like a high schooler, he might even have a chance with her! With mild science fiction mixed with real life and plenty of humor, this one that appeals to a broad range of kids. Bonus points for talks about the importance of boys and girls being able to be just friends, despite the cultural pressure that pushes towards romance.  

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The House in Poplar Wood and The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker

Back to the backlog of Cybils books!  Here are two creepy-beautiful stories, both on the shorter side.

The House in Poplar Wood  by K.E. OrmsbeeThe House in Poplar Wood  by K.E. Ormsbee. Chronicle Kids, 2018.
There are three great shades, all rivals, who take human apprentices in the town where our story is set. All three are hated even worse by the Whipple family, which has always run the non-magical side of the town.  It’s creepy to begin with, but made worse in the past, when the apprentices of Death and Memory fell in love and had twins. Since then, they’ve been forbidden to see each other. The two Vickery twins have grown up in separate sides of the same house – Lee living with their mother and Memory, and Felix with their father and Death.  Lee is able to go to school, even if it’s designed to kill curiosity, while Felix must stay home. When older teen Essie, who worked for Passion, falls off a cliff to her death, both boys reluctantly team up with Gretchen Whipple, the mayor’s daughter. The book is filled with dark woods, cold rain, forced apprenticeships, the courage to stand up for beliefs and freedom, and the importance of questioning the system.

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda WoodsThe Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods. Illustrated by Anuska Allepuz. Philomel Books, 2018.
The mountainous city of Allora was once utopic, with its winding streets, bright houses, and rough seas with fish that simply flew out to be eaten by its residents.  Then it was hit by a terrible plague. After his wife and all their children died, Alberto turned from carpentry to making nothing but coffins. Thirty years later, he is given a project by the mayor to make an extra-large square coffin of golden oak (there is a lot of fat shaming here about the mayor needing the extra-large coffin.)  As he’s working on it, taking breaks to make a simple coffin for the recently deceased but very private Miss Bonito, a boy appears out of nowhere, with an astonishingly beautiful bird – quite surprising, on an island that’s almost completely isolated from the outside world. Helping the boy find a place of safety also seems to help Alberto work through his long-standing grief.  I was unhappy about some aspects of this, including previously mentioned fat shaming and the method for dealing with the problems from the boy’s past. Trigger warning: an abusive father (though the abuse is in the past.) But it’s a tiny gem of a book, a shorter story told with beautiful language and illustrations.

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A Perilous Journey of Danger & Mayhem: a Dastardly Plot

A Perilous Journey of Danger & Mayhem: a Dastardly Plot A Perilous Journey of Danger & Mayhem: a Dastardly Plot by Christopher Healy. Harper Collins Childrens, 2018.

1883 – It’s the Age of Invention in an alternate New York City.  Molly Pepper is trying to help her mother Cassandra succeed as an inventor while also running her deceased father’s pickle shop to support the inventing.  If only Cassandra could get accepted by the Inventor’s Guild and get a spot at the World’s Fair she’d be all set – but they are only open to men. Cassandra is invited to join a group of female inventors (real inventors, fictional team) called the Mothers of Invention, but they seem very hoity-toity.  

While snooping at the Inventor’s Guild headquarters, Molly meets Emmett Lee, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, whose Chinese-born father was captain of a voyage to the South Pole that vanished. When Molly and Emmett discover a plot to set off an explosion at the World’s Fair, they have to both try to stop it and find someone – anyone – to believe them.  This is full of madcap adventures with strong feminist and pro-immigrant themes. I didn’t love it quite as much as I thought I would given all the great elements, but I enjoyed it and then looked up more about all the Mothers of Invention.

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