The House That Wasn’t There BLOG TOUR

Today I’m honored to be participating in the blog tour for Elana K. Arnold’s latest book, The House that Wasn’t There.

ABOUT THE BOOK:

Alder has always lived in his cozy little house in Southern California.

And for as long as he can remember, the old, reliable, comforting walnut tree has stood

between his house and the one next door.

That is, until a new family—with a particularly annoying girl his age—moves

into the neighboring house and, without warning, cuts the tree down.

Oak doesn’t understand why her family had to move to Southern California. She has to attend a new school, find new friends, and live in a new house that isn’t even ready—her mother had to cut down a tree on their property line in order to make room for a second floor. And now a strange boy next door won’t stop staring at her, like she did something wrong moving here in the first place.

As Oak and Alder start school together, they can’t imagine ever becoming friends. But the two of them soon discover a series of connections between them—mysterious, possibly even magical puzzles they can’t put together.

At least not without each other’s help.

Award-winning author Elana K. Arnold returns with an unforgettable story of the strange, wondrous threads that run between all of us, whether we know they’re there or not.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Elana K. Arnold is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets.

MY TAKE

The House That Wasn’t There by Elana K. Arnold. Walden Pond Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0062937063. Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.  

Alder and his mother have lived alone in their cozy house in southern California ever since his father’s death years earlier.  His father was a famous folk singer, nicknamed Canary, and he and his mother still enjoy listening to the records (yes, on vinyl) of him singing, the record player kept under a picture of the family under the walnut tree that divides their property from the house next door.  He is convincing himself not to be worried that his best friend hasn’t contacted him all summer, but is convinced that things will be all right again as soon as they start sixth grade together. 

The house next to his has always been empty, but that soon changes as a new family moves in. 

Oak is very unhappy that her family is moving from San Francisco, leaving their home and all her friends behind.  Even her father has stayed behind to wrap things up there before joining them.  She is angry with everyone, and especially so when her mother has the walnut tree cut down to make room for an addition to the house.  

Naturally, none of this puts Alder and Oak on an obvious path to friendship – but rocky though their start is, the book chronicles their path to friendship.  It is filled with many believable struggles, like Alder’s pain when he realizes that his best friend has truly moved on and Oak’s resentment at her mother not treating her feelings as needing to be part of family decision-making.  But there is also the charm of kittens, a goofy stuffed opossum named Mort, and a house in between Alder and Oak’s that is only sometimes there.  I also loved that Alder is a knitter (even if he seems to knit at superhuman speed) and that he grows more comfortable with claiming that publicly.  

And since I often review fantasy books, let’s take a little time to talk about the magic in this story. It is the subtle kind, only sometimes there if you happen to catch it in the right light, rarely or never there if you look at it straight on.  It is never explained outright and only rises to the surface a few times.  It’s neither the full-on definable magic system of a traditional fantasy nor the subtle but ever-present magic of magical realism.  Still, it adds a lovely sheen, definitely pulling moments of the story out of the everyday and helping the characters to see the miraculous in everything.  

This heartwarming story of friendship and family is perfect for those who are open to the magic of the everyday.

Tour Stops:

March 28 Nerdy Book Club @nerdybookclub

March 29 YAYOMG @yayomgofficial

March 30 Unleashing Readers @UnleashReaders

March 31 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read

April 2 Maria’s Mélange @mariaselke

April 7 Bluestocking Thinking @BlueSockGirl

April 10 A Library Mama @alibrarymama

April 12 Storymamas @storymamas

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Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

This book was on my radar even before it was a Cybils finalist, won the Golden Kite award, and turned up on over a dozen “best of” lists last year.  I was so excited when I finally got my hands on it, and it did not disappoint.

Cover of Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

Elatsoe
by Darcie Little Badger. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

Levine Querido, 2020.

ISBN 978-1646140053.

Read ebook on Libby.  Audiobook also available.

Elatsoe – Ellie for short – is a Lipan Apache girl growing up in the present day in a world just slightly different than ours.  School, cell phones, cars – check.  But she, like her Six-Great Grandmother whose name she shares, can raise the spirits of dead animals.  Modern-day Ellie’s near-constant companion is her dog, who died several years ago.  Her best friend Jay is distantly related to Oberon, with the pointy ears to prove it, even if he hides them, and having some family troubles being stuck in the middle as his older sister is dating a vampire.  

When Ellie’s dog wakes her with his howling one night, she knows something is wrong.  She finds out what it is later that night when she dreams of her cousin Trevor, telling her that he was murdered, by whom, and where.  The police, though, think it was a simple car accident.  This is the part where I’d expect her to go off and investigate on her own without telling her parents.  But Ellie has been raised to respect her elders, so when she starts investigating, it’s with the full support of her parents – even if they do urge her to be very careful.  

What Ellie and her team uncover is not simple murder, but a twisty mystery with roots tangled in centuries of white supremacy…

I loved so very much about this story, from its grounding in Lipan Apache culture to the easy way that Ellie states that she can’t see herself ever being interested in dating and proceeds to have a romance-free adventure.  Her relationships with her parents, Jay, and the interesting dynamic with her cousin’s young widow, Lenore, who is Mexican-American and unknowingly violating important Apache traditions around death.  Also, a baby and an adorable ghost dog!  Ellie’s ties to her namesake Six-Great Gran are also very important, shown through many conversations about her and stories of her life, illustrated in pencil at the beginning of each chapter.   I read this with a great deal of enjoyment, and passed in on to my mother, who was delighted.  

Other exciting, modern-day fantasies that confront racism include Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline is a post-apocalyptic Native thriller, while Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is contemporary Native teen fiction.

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Knitting Detour

In times of stress – this certainly counts – I often turn to reading or just flipping through books of things I could do if I had more time.  When my son was a tiny baby and I couldn’t clean the house at all, it was Home Comforts. I turned to it again at the beginning of quarantine, to help the newly emphasized cleaning seem calming and restorative.  Now what I’ve been craving is knitting, and most especially knitting in bright colors.  Since I have more reading than knitting time in my day, it’s very satisfying to look at the beautiful things I might choose to knit next, or just enjoy that someone came up with the idea, even if I may never knit it myself.  

Operation Sock Drawer
by the Knitmore Girls.

Interweave, 2020.

ISBN 978-1632506962. Received as a gift. 

What sock knitter doesn’t dream of a drawer full of hand-knitted socks?  The Knitmore Girls and their friends are here to help you, with this book that contains some answers to common sock-knitting problems, different ways to knit those tricky heels and toes, darning instructions, and encouragement for those aspiring to that full sock drawer.  But the heart of this book is the collection of 20 new patterns from a variety of different designers. Many of these patterns use bold colorwork to make eye-poppingly bold patterns, like Funhouse by Lisa K. Ross.  I Scream by Caitlin Thompson uses tan yarn and a waffle pattern on the foot and stacked colors with wavy borders so that the whole sock looks like an ice cream cone.  But there are also some nice textured and cabled socks, like the Gentle Drizzle socks by Emily Kintigh.  So very fun, and so much inspiration! 

Knit Happy with
Self-Striping Yarn
by Stephanie Lotven.

Page Street, 2020.

ISBN 978-1645671824.
Read from library copy. 

More bright knitting, even without needing to do colorwork!  Why hide your beautiful self-striping yarn projects inside your shoes? asks the author, and provides a whole book of patterns for accessories – hats, mittens, fingerless gloves – as well as larger shawls and sweaters – all using beautiful self-striping yarn.  Most of the smaller projects are relatively simple, though one of the mitten patterns used an intellectually fascinating but somewhat intimidating center-out technique to make a rainbow curve around the outside edges of the hand.  Happily, she also includes thoughts on matching solids to your self-striping yarn for larger projects, and how to swatch to see if your yarn will work for any given project.  If I had the stamina for large projects, I’d happily knit and wear the Sock Arms cardigan, the Drop a Rainbow pullover, or the Daring Double shawl – but feeling mostly up for small projects right now, I’ll see if the new yarn I bought will work for the Wave at the Rainbow cowl and knit the Rainbow Adventure fingerless mitts (pictured on the cover) if not.  Or maybe socks after all, or as well if there’s enough yarn?  The dilemma is real!  

Seasonal Slow Knitting by Hannah Thiessen.

Abrams, 2020.

ISBN 978-1419740435.
Read from library copy. 

Too much of modern craft culture encourages crafters to work at a frantic pace to be able to work on the latest hot projects and be able to make things for gifts, too, the author asserts.  But much of the value in knitting is allowing yourself to slow down and enjoy the process, the connection to your local yarn stores and/or creators, fellow crafters, etc.  There are many essays on the particular tasks and types of knitting the author associates with each season – the loving washing and putting away of handknits in the spring, attending yarn festivals in the summer, digging into knitting in the fall and winter.  And there are ten different projects, including knitting, sewing, and general body care, a couple for each season.  I am by nature a very slow knitter already and have never been able to keep up with the knitting speed, but I enjoyed her meditations on season and craft nonetheless.  My favorite pattern from this book was the Friendship Bracelet cardigan, knit in the round in moss stitch, with charming Latvian braid trim around wrists and hem to look like friendship bracelets.  

Here are some other knitting books I’ve reviewed: 

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Reading with My Son – the Middle School Years

Recently, a friend asked me what audiobooks my son and I had enjoyed when he was in middle school.  It was a fun trip down memory lane to go through and pick out our favorites.  I’ll note with some chagrin that this list isn’t nearly as diverse as I would like, and I included some books we read when he was a bit younger that would still work for a middle school audience just for the diversity.  

Now that he’s in high school, even when school is in person, we don’t have the hour in the car every day we used to, so we’re not doing audiobooks anymore, and I’m only reading aloud to him once a week, so that it can take a year for us to finish a book (we’re now reading the latest Murderbot novel!)  

Links are to my reviews, and I’ve noted where audiobooks are available for download from my library, and hopefully yours as well.

Audiobooks with My Son

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich – Libby

Boneshaker by Kate Milford – hoopla

Bud, Not Buddy and The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis – Libby

Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones – hoopla – a classic series, which will make more sense if you read out of publication order and start with The Lives of Christopher Chant.

The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse – sadly, only the ebook is on Libby – we listened on CDs from the library.  Check your system? 

Howl’s Moving Castle series by Diana Wynne Jones – hoopla – I seem not to review books I consider classics, but I am forever grateful to the Danish exchange student who introduced my family to Diana Wynne Jones in the 90s – we had somehow missed her previously, despite all being fans of British children’s literature.

Knife by R. J. Anderson – Libby – this is a series of human-fairy politics, which my son and I enjoyed. We read only the first of the series because it was too scary for my daughter, five years younger.

Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas – hoopla 

Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage hoopla, Libby

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff- hoopla – the first of a beautifully-written series set in Roman Britain, with small touches of magic. I read the whole series many times as a child.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Libby, but the wait was shorter on physical CDs. 

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu – hoopla

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series by Grace Lin – Libby

Read-alouds with My Son

Geeks, Girls & Secret Identities by Mike Jung (this isn’t available on audio, but his new book, The Boys in the Back Row, which I still need to review, is.)

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (and several other books in the series) – hoopla

The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – just the first is on hoopla

Jinx series by Sage Blackwood – hoopla, ebook only

The True Meaning of Smekday series by Adam Rex – Libby

Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (started in 8th grade – lots of adult content!) – hoopla and Libby

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Four Favorite Graphic Novels: Twins, Class Act, Go with the Flow, and Katie the Catsitter

Even though I read mostly library books, my daughter reads and rereads her favorite graphic novels so often that it’s hard to resist buying them for her, especially right now when our local book stores need all the support they can get. Here are four of my daughter’s recent favorites that I also read and enjoyed.

Twins
by Varian Johnson & Shannon Wright.

Graphix, 2020.

ISBN 978-1338236132.

Read from purchased copy. 

Real-life twin Varian Johnson returns to the topic of middle school elections with this story that combines both elements. Maureen and Francine are twins and former best friends.  Maureen is the smart, quiet one, while Francine is more talkative and social.  But as they start sixth grade, they are suddenly in different classes, even different lunches.  Maureen is crushed at first, and when she finds out that it was Francine’s request, she feels utterly betrayed.  When the girls both run for class president, for different reasons, their rivalry threatens to tear their family and their mutual friends apart.  Will their relationship survive?  And can they both find their own places in middle school? Shannon Wright’s art echoes that of Raina Telgemeier and Victoria Jamieson, amplifying the emotions and keeping the twins visually distinct. Combining the allure of twins with the ever-relatable topic of shifting friendships in middle school, this was an instant hit.  

Class Act
by Jerry Craft.

Quill Tree, 2020.

ISBN 978-0062885500.

Read from purchased copy. 

In this sequel to New Kid, the focus is split between our former narrator Jordan and his friend Drew, one of the few other Black kids at their private middle school.  Though Drew’s known for his humor, things can still sting – things like a girl who likes him enough to bake him fresh treats every day, but won’t listen when he tells her to stop touching his hair.  Or teachers telling him to be humble when he walks into class, when the white boys are told to act as if they own the place.  The school also starts a new diversity & inclusion effort which is hilariously badly done, excluding the school’s Black teacher.  And though Drew loves the grandmother he lives with and isn’t ashamed of their apartment, it still puts a strain on his friendship with rich, white Liam when he visits his mansion for the first time.  As with New Kid, though the daily microaggressions are easy to catalog, the sense of humor, the joy in friendship, and the genuine heart with which the story is told make this a story everyone should read.  My daughter has read it at least 15 or 20 times since we bought it for her.  

Go with the Flow
by Karen Schneemann & Lily Williams.

First Second, 2020.

ISBN 978-1250143174.

Read from library copy.

Three girls who are already friends, plus one new girl, bond on the first day of freshman year in high school.  The new circle includes African-American Brit, who is amazing at math but has cramps so painful that she often has to miss class; uncoordinated blond Christine, just deciding if she’s comfortable telling people she likes girls, red-haired artist and rebel Abby, and tiny Asian-American Sasha, determined not to ruin her chances of friendship at her new school.  When Sasha experiences the teen nightmare of getting her period unexpectedly on that first day, while wearing white pants, the other girls come to her rescue.  But they are still filled with rage at the injustice related to girls and their periods.  Why does Sasha’s accident carry such large and long-lasting stigma?  And why do the boys get new football uniforms but the school won’t pay to keep period supplies in the restrooms? This is a story of friendship, struggle and activism, with a teensy bit of romance.  The art is appealing done and shaded with reds and browns.  Though the girls are in high school, it’s perfect for middle school.  It took my own daughter two of the three weeks I had it out from the library to warm up to the idea of reading it (period stigma at work??), but once she did, she loved it, and read it at least once a day until I had to take it back.  

Katie the Catsitter
by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue.

Random House Graphic, 2021.

ISBN 978-1984895639.

Read from purchased copy. 

It’s summer in New York City, and both of Katie’s best friends are off to spend the whole of it at camp.  Katie and her mother just can’t afford it, though, so she promises to write her best friend Bethany while hanging up posters in her apartment building offering to do odd jobs for her neighbors.  After multiple failures, she winds up cat-sitting for the glamorous Ms. Lang, who has 217 cats with minor to major superpowers.  As if that wasn’t enough excitement, Katie is sure she’s uncovering a mystery regarding one of the city’s super-powered residents – but is that person a hero or a villain?  She’d love to talk it out with Bethany, but the once daily postcards have gotten fewer and farther between, leaving Katie feeling unsure of their friendship.  Katie and her mother are white, while Bethany is brown-skinned and Ms. Lang appears African-American.  This book is just lots and lots of fun, with a core of reflection about friendship underneath.  It’s no surprise that my cat-loving daughter is also in love with this one. 

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Unicorn Island by Donna Galanti

Here is a sweet and exciting fantasy for kids bridging up from early chapter books.

Unicorn Island
by Donna Galanti.
Illustrated by
Bethany Stancliffe.

Epic!/Andrews McMeel, 2021. ISBN 978-1524864705.

Review copy received from the publisher.  

As the story opens, our heroine Sam is preparing to use her very limited cooking skills to make a special meal for her mother to celebrate them living in the same place for a year, only to find out that her flutist mother has taken a short-term, no kids gig in Europe.  

Sam is sent off to stay with her grouchy Uncle Mitch in Foggy Harbor, and the elements of a classic fantasy-mystery are introduced.  There is an old house full of character and secrets, the aforementioned grouchy and reticent uncle (who shares her affinity for burning food as well as her hair color), a local kid her age to befriend, and an unchanging fog bank off the coast, into which Uncle Mitch regularly rows deep into the night.  

The large text size and numerous full-color illustrations put this at the chapter book or not quite middle grade level for me, but despite all the main characters having single-syllable names, the text includes good descriptive language and a mystery that isn’t quite wrapped up in this book.  Though her friend Tuck is only shown in the pictures as Black, not described as such, I did appreciate that his veterinarian mother plays a key role.  The illustrations are in a crisp digital style, with pictures that contrast happy and tense moments, as in Sam and her mother first shown dancing with cheerfully steaming pots and then both sadly looking at a burned mess.  A picture of her talking with Tuck becomes more than just talking heads with a misty beach setting, and Sam’s always-flowing hair adds to the fantasy feel of it all.  

The unicorns advertised on the cover don’t make their appearance until halfway through the book, but the action builds enough to keep things moving pleasantly along.  I am personally hoping that Sam’s long-lost aunt will be rediscovered in the next book. We can always use more fantasy books at younger levels to engage those readers who aren’t interested in realism, and this is a lovely choice, particularly for readers who enjoyed books like the Kingdom of Wrenly and Zoe and Sassafras series or Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures.

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Complex & Compelling Teen Fantasy: Legendborn and Burn

These two books – both finalists in the Teen Speculative Fiction category of the Cybils Awards – have complex, multilayered, and very compelling narratives. Legendborn also won the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe for New Talent Author Award. (And watch for the Cybils Awards winners to be announced on Valentine’s Day!)

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Narrated by Joniece Abbott-Pratt.

Simon & Schuster, 2020.

ASIN B084KQMM99.

Listened to audiobook on Libby.

 I’d been excited about this book from the moment I heard about it, and was so excited that my hold came in the day it was announced as a Cybils finalist. 

16-year-old Bree Matthews is still reeling from her mother’s sudden death in a car accident. She’s changed so much she hardly recognizes herself, but decides to go ahead with her plans to start an advanced high school program at UNC-Chapel Hill with her best friend anyway. 

Then, on her first night there, she sees a demon.  And one of the two people who sees it as well tries – but fails – to erase her memory of it.  But the feeling triggers a memory of the hospital after the accident – someone there tried to erase her memory as well.  Could these two incidents be related?  When the boy she’s assigned as a mentor, Nick, turns out to have been involved in the same group, she comes up with a very risky plan to infiltrate the group to find out the truth about her mother – though being the only person of color in a very white group requires both a thick skin and making more scenes than she’d really planned for.  The group claims to be descendants of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, still carrying out his mission centuries later.  Will Bree be able to keep herself separate, or will she be forced to join for real?  What about the increasing number of lies she has to tell her father and her best friends? Things get even more complicated when her psychologist, a Black woman who knew her mother in college, introduces Bree to traditional Black magic, Root, and warns her of the evil of the magic used by the Order.  And yes, there’s some of the expected love triangle as well. 

So, very intense (corroborated by my goddaughter, to whom I gifted a copy), with lots of demon-fighting, secret societies with even more secret plots, but also family and friend issues, and dealing with both the good and bad parts of being a Black teen in a racist society.  It was reminiscent of Buffy with that mix of demon battles mixed with the social challenges of school and family, but with much more up-to-date racial consciousness.  I am definitely looking forward to the next book! 

Burn by Patrick Ness.

Quill Tree, 2020.

ISBN 9781406375503.

Read ebook on Libby
(audiobook also available.)

It’s 1957 in the tiny town of Frome, Washington.  Sarah Dewhurst, whose Black mother died two years ago, is waiting at a gas station with her white father for the dragon they’ve hired to help with their failing farm – something that will make them even more outcasts than being a biracial family.  But though her father tells her not to talk to the dragon, she does.  Kazimir tells her that she is in danger, and though she’s not really special, she’s prophesied to save the world.  He thinks, anyway – prophecies are slippery things.  Meanwhile, Sarah and her almost-boyfriend, Japanese-American Jason, are definitely in danger from the openly hostile deputy sheriff. 

And in Canada, Malcolm, a teen follower of a cult of dragon worshippers who call themselves Believers has been sent on a mission that will involve him killing some people to save the world from war.  He’s not excited about the killing part, but thinks that saving the world will be worth it.  Finally, we follow the pair of FBI investigators who are tracking the assassin while trying not to offend the Candian officials too much.  

This sounds complicated enough to start with, but there are also some cold war politics and multiple universes thrown in, along with Malcolm meeting a young man who might be the one he’d want to settle down with, if only such a thing were possible.  Yet somehow, Ness manages to pull all these elements together into one cohesive, action-packed whole. There is beauty and heartbreak and devastation, a very high body count, including both mass deaths and individuals we care about.  All the characters are interesting and multi-faceted, and I did not lose track of who they were even with my Covid brain.  I know people have been raving about Patrick Ness for years, and I had only ever read The Rest of Us Just Live Here until now.  I may need to fix that.  I will definitely recommend the audiobook to my son and my love. 

Posted in Audiobook, Books, Fantasy, Print, Reviews, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Blog Tour! THE IN-BETWEEN by Rebecca K.S. Ansari

I am so excited today to be part of the blog tour for this spooky, twisty brand-new middle grade book, THE IN-BETWEEN by Rebecca K.S. Ansari. Thanks to Walden Pond Press for the invitation and the review copy of the book!

ABOUT THE BOOK

A dark, twisty adventure about the forgotten among us and what it means to be seen, from the acclaimed author of The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly.

Cooper is lost. Ever since his father left their family three years ago, he has become distant from his friends, constantly annoyed by his little sister, Jess, and completely fed up with the pale, creepy rich girl who moved in next door and won’t stop staring at him. So when Cooper learns of an unsolved mystery his sister has discovered online, he welcomes the distraction.

It’s the tale of a deadly train crash that occurred a hundred years ago, in which one young boy among the dead was never identified. The only distinguishing mark on him was a strange insignia on his suit coat, a symbol no one had seen before or since. Jess is fascinated by the mystery of the unknown child— because she’s seen the insignia. It’s the symbol of the jacket of the girl next door.

As they uncover more information— and mounting evidence of the girl’s seemingly impossible connection to the tragedy—Cooper and Jess begin to wonder if a similar disaster could be heading to their hometown.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca K.S. Ansari

Rebecca lives in a very loud house in Minneapolis with her husband, four boys, and her seriously massive pets. After twelve years as an ER doctor, she shed her scrubs to write magical and mysterious worlds for middle-grade readers. She is drawn to any story that evokes, “Please, Mom! Just one more chapter!” and she strives to craft the same. Rebecca was the winner of the Minnesota SCBWI Mentorship for 2015. When she isn’t writing, you can find her biking, cooking or escaping “up north” with family, friends, and a stack of good books.

PHOTO CREDIT: PIXEL DUST

The In-Between by Rebecca
K. S. Ansari.

Walden Pond Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0062916099.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher for review purposes. 

MY TAKE

Cooper has been angry with everyone in his life and hating himself ever since his father left to start a new family. His friends’ invitations and his little sister’s hopefulness only make him feel more isolated and broken. More than anything, he wants to go back to the way things were before. Failing that, any kind of distraction would be good. He already dislikes the girl in the recently renovated house across the street, who is always staring, but won’t talk to him. When his sister Jess notices that the crest on her private school uniform is the same as that on an unidentified child from a train crash 100 years earlier, he both welcomes the mystery and is instantly suspicious.

As the story unfolds, it gets increasingly creepy, even as we learn more of Cooper’s history with his now-absent father and with Jess, whose diabetes Cooper helps to manage. The tension that builds is intimately intertwined with Cooper’s inner journey, away from the intense pain of the opening, and the ending has multiple twists that I didn’t see coming. Though I felt part of the mystery was left unsolved, the ending was still satisfying enough that I’m guessing most readers won’t notice or care. Give this one to kids who love stories of magic in the real world, spooky mysteries, or who are struggling themselves with reality right now.

TOUR SCHEDULE

Blog Tour 1/27-2/2

January 27  Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers @grgenius

January 28  Michele Knott @knott_michele

January 29  Writer’s Rumpus @writersrumpus

January 30  Maria’s Melange @mariaselke

February 1  StoryMamas @storymamas

                   Charlotte’s Library @charlotteslibrary

February 2  A Library Mama @alibrarymama

          Iowa Amber Reads @iowaamberreads

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Format, Genre, Middle Grade, Print, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Picture Books: Odd Dog Out and Ronan the Librarian

Here I am belatedly reviewing some picture books that came my way last year, because just because 2020 was rough doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t hear about these fun books, both stressing the power of staying true to yourself to make change in the world.  

Odd Dog Out
by Rob Biddulph.

HarperCollins, 2019.

ISBN 978-0062367266. Review copy kindly received from the publisher.

In a world of Dachsunds who all dress alike, appropriate to the situation, one dog stands out for her flamboyant dress.  Though her outfits are cheerful and expressive, it’s hard being the only one different.  Rhyming text describes her traveling across the country to a place where she fits right in – but is that really what she wants? The art is bright and detailed enough to warrant closer looks. This light-hearted story is one that my daughter, despite being mostly a middle grade reader at this point, returned to multiple times and refused to let me donate to the school library (the ultimate fate of most of my finished review copies.)  

Ronan the Librarian written by Tara Luebbe & Becky Cattie. Illustrated by Victoria Maderna.

Roaring Brook Press, 2020.

ISBN 978-1250189219. Review copy kindly received from the author.  

In a Norse-inspired but multi-ethnic barbarian world, Ronan is known for his raiding, looting, and fighting.  When he discovers a trunk full of books and figures out how to read them, he falls in love with reading.  But barbarians aren’t supposed to read!  While still continuing to raid, now looking for books, Ronan battles expectations for barbarian behavior.  And when he’s amassed enough book treasure, naturally the next step would be to start a library.  But can he interest a horde of barbarians in a library?  

In strict historical accuracy, the Norse society this book is very loosely based on was more literate than the English and European societies they raided – and the Norse did not have horns on their helmets.  But this reservation is just for the record, as historical accuracy is not at all the point here.  The story, with loose and lively painted art (at least by look) hits just the right level of silliness to make for a very fun read-aloud.  And, as our culture is definitely prejudiced against men reading, especially those who are active or athletic, I am really happier to teach modern children that reading is for everyone through humor and save the actual history for later.  All in all, charming, especially for fantasy- and history-loving families.  I think my own children would have wanted multiple readings had it been out when they were small!

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2020 in Review – the Books

Following my report of how I read by the numbers, here’s looking at a different set of numbers – the books that I rated 9 or 10.  It’s always fun to look back at the books I loved over the past year!  Even if I wonder at myself for the ratings I gave at times – why, for example, did I rate only one book in a trilogy a 9, when I now have overwhelmingly positive memories about all the books?  Nevertheless, giving you all the books I loved would officially be Way Too Many, so for the most part, I stuck with my original ratings to put this list together.  

This is the first year that there are no picture books on this list.  My picture book reading has gone way down since my own children rarely read them.  While I still read a few dozen picture books over the year, I didn’t write reviews of them because of trying to focus on keeping up with the reviews of my other reading, and I traditionally only log them if I’m writing reviews of them.  Now I’m realizing that that makes it hard to go back and find the picture books I loved when I need them, so I may need to reconsider that policy!  And (as I drafted this post last week and am now posting it after watching the ALA Youth Media awards), I am super excited that one of the two picture books I bought for myself this year, We Are Water Protectors, won the Caldecott Award!

Here is my standard disclaimer about rating books:

“I have never liked doing a public scale rating of books – the librarian in me would rather describe what’s in the book and let you decide if it sounds good for you. But I do give books number ratings on my own private spreadsheet. I shamelessly borrowed the Book Smugglers’ 10-point rating system for this, where 0 is “I want my time and my money back”, 5 is “meh” and so on. For my purposes, 7 is a book I enjoyed, 8 is one I loved and 9 is one I really, really loved. 10 only gets given out retrospectively to books I find myself re-reading and thinking about a lot – a true personal classic.”

Not Quite Middle Grade

  • Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Read by Michael Boatman

Middle Grade

  • Go with the Flow by Karen Schneemann & Lily Williams
  • Guts by Raina Telgemeier
  • Indian No More by Charlene Willing Mcmanis and Traci Sorell
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

Teen

Adult

  • Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Narrated by Cassaundra Freeman
  • Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Narrated by Cassaundra Freeman
  • Paladin’s Grace by  T. Kingfisher
  • The Self-Driven Child by Ned Johnson and William Stixrud
  • “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Tatum

Rereads

All but the first of these are books that I had previously read to myself and then read aloud or listened to with one of my kids. I also read bits and pieces of two other books without finishing them: Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford, and Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelsson – because somehow reading about how to keep one’s home in perfect order is enormously comforting during global chaos.  

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