Early Chapter Book Bonanza


Last week, my friend Nakenya and I presented at the Michigan Library Association’s annual conference.  We’ve done several presentations on diverse books for kids and teens at other conferences, but this time, Nakenya wanted to focus on early chapter books – a type of book so easy to do poorly, yet so important for getting kids really hooked on reading.  (Why, yes, we are also planning KidLitCon together… why do you ask?) 

As usual, we book talk each of the series here, though the slides just have the covers.  A .pdf handout with titles and authors is also available on request.

This post was originally posted on alibrarymama.com and is copyright 2019 by Katherine Kramp.  

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The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

I realized after I posted my review last week that it was Indigenous Peoples Day, too late to post a review of one of the three books by indigenous authors I have in my review queue.  But! We shall celebrate indigenous authors all year long, not just on Indigenous Peoples Day, starting with this multi-award winning book. This is from the teen section of my library.  

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie DimalineThe Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant Books, 2017. 978-1770864863
In the not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, most people have stopped dreaming, and the lack of dreams makes them go absolutely crazy, to the point where society has fallen apart.  Only Natives retain their ability to dream, and whites have found a way to harvest this ability from their bone marrow in a gruesome and deadly process. The need to escape this has profoundly shaped young Frenchie’s life.  When the story opens, he is just remembering his brother giving himself up to save Frenchie, their parents having been lost long before.  

As Frenchie – by this point a young teen – struggles to make his way to safety, he finds a band of young Aboriginals being led by one adult man, Miig, who serves as a father figure to them all (and tells them eventually about his lost husband), as well as the respected elder Nokomis Minerva.  Together, the two adults teach the kids hunting and camping skills, as well as precious words of language. Gradually, we hear the difficult “coming-to” stories of all the members of the group, each character distinct and memorable from the young lovers to the adorable little girl. (Though I didn’t write them down, they are also from several different nations, even if they all share the same valuable ability to dream.) But even this precarious existence is under threat, as there are people who will do anything for the reward for finding more people whose marrow might be harvested.  

This story moved with an unrelenting pacing and extreme emotional moments that reminded me of The Hunger Games. But though there is painful loss, there is also a hopeful ending, with a welcomed pregnancy  and reunions. Try this original spin on post-apocalyptic survival and take your Native reading out of the historical with this compelling and thought-provoking book.  

Cherie Dimaline is Métis and the Aboriginal Writer in Residence at the Toronto Public Library. 

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Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Was there ever a better match for a romantic teen graphic novel than Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks?  This one is already nominated for the Cybils, but I am sure there are other great titles out there, which hopefully you’ve read and can nominate!

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin HicksPumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks. Color by Sarah Stern. First Second Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1250312853
Deja and Josiah (whom Deja calls Josie) have been working at the Succotash Hut at a big pumpkin patch all through high school.  Now it’s the last night of the season, and next year, they’ll be at different colleges too far away to work. All these years, Deja’s listened to Josiah talking about the cute girl who works at the fudge shop, though he’s never mustered up the courage to talk to her.  Deja is determined not to let him go off to college without at least trying to talk to her. She’s bribed them into a shift right near the object of his affections to give him a chance.

Only just as they switch places, the fudge shop girl has switched to a different spot, too.  Soon, Deja and Josiah are on a tour of every attraction at the pumpkin patch, trying them out one last time, eating lots of delicious fall foods – and, in Deja’s case, having them stolen by the same bratty boy.  They also run into lots of other pumpkin patch employees, many of whom (both male and female) Deja has dated over the years. In the background, other employees chase a runaway goat. 

There’s an ongoing debate between the pair as they go – Josiah saying that maybe fate never intended him to date the girl of his dreams, Deja saying there’s no such thing, and Josiah needs to figure out what he wants and go for it.  You can probably guess the end from the cover, but the journey there is a delightful one. Faith Erin Hicks’s drawings work perfectly to illustrate Rainbow Rowell’s characters, bringing the fun of the fall entertainment to life, while Sarah Stern’s beautiful gradient colors add yet more to the overall feel.  It’s a quick, light read, with some good thoughts packed in, from the debate I mentioned earlier to the lack of fuss made over Deja’s dating a wide range of people or her unabashed love for treats from carmel apples to chocolate dipped pumpkin pie on a stick. This book makes a delicious, guilt-free autumn treat. 

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Freedom Fire and Spark

Today I’m featuring a couple of middle grade speculative fiction books that are eligible but not yet nominated for the Cybils. (You can nominate books here.) Both feature kids flying on the backs of fantastic beasts!

Freedom Fire. Dactyl Hill Squad 2 by Daniel José OlderFreedom Fire. Dactyl Hill Squad 2 by Daniel José Older. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2019. 978-1338268843
Magdalys Roca’s story that began in Dactyl Hill Squad picks right up again here, as she and the other residents of the Colored Orphan Asylum are flying on the back of the giant pteranodon Stella to the Civil War battle lines to look for her brother, who has been injured in battle.  They run into fighting almost immediately, and the rebel army isn’t about to give a creature as large and dangerous as Stella a pass just because she’s carrying kids. When they find the Louisiana Native Guard, Magdalys is pressured into helping them before continuing the search for her brother, because it turns out that Magdalys’s skill of speaking to dinos is one that’s only been used in battle by the Confederates, leaving the Union army at a decided disadvantage.  

We get to know lots of interesting characters in the Louisiana Native Guard (though some of them did blur together), as well as getting a closer look at Magdalys’s friend and fellow orphan Mapper and his motivations. There is a lot of action and a fair amount of violence, but also a serious look at the trauma of gun violence, even if the kids would rather shoot than be shot themselves.  Once again, actual people and battles are referenced, though the timeline is compressed, with references for further exploration given in the afterward. This is another stellar entry in the series.  

Spark by Sarah Beth DurstSpark by Sarah Beth Durst. Clarion Books/HMH, 2019. 978-1328973429
“Mila was quiet” opens this story of a quiet girl in a loud family.  She’s been working for years to bond with a dragon egg, but when it hatches, it comes out a lightning beast – not the quieter dragons of sun, wind, and rain that help to regulate the climate of her country.  Lightning dragon riders are known for their boisterous temperaments, but Mila thinks her beast is perfect. She goes off to the lightning school over her parents’ objections and slowly begins to make a place for herself.  But when she and her dragon blow over the mountain border during a storm, she learns a horrifying secret. Can she find a way to way to spread the word while staying herself?  

Spark blends a sweet story of a girl’s bond with her dragon and a quiet girl learning to make friends with a strong environmental message. The message that even a quiet person can find a way to be heard and make a difference is also strong – in this case, by working with other people and making a space for the people truly affected to speak for themselves. 

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Nominate Me for the Cybils!

There is still another week in which to nominate books for the Cybils Award!  I started going through all the eligible books I’ve read this year (far from exhaustive) to see what I wanted to nominate.  I have nominated in some categories; in others, such as the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, I’m waiting to what other people nominate because I can’t nominate all the books I want to.  It’s taken me all week to put this post together, during which time, it’s gotten considerably shorter as other people have nominated the books.  I also have books at home waiting for me to read to see if I want to nominate them!

Early Chapter Books

  • Judy Moody and the Right Royal Tea Party by Megan McDonald
  • Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and LeUyen Pham
  • Sadiq and the Green Thumbs by Siman Nuurali and Anjan Sarkar
  • Sarai and the Around the World Fair by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown
  • Truman the Dog. My Furry Foster Family 1  by Debbi Michiko Florence

Graphic Novels, Elementary/Middle Grade

  • Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill
  • Pilu of the Woods  by Mai K. Nguyen
  • Catwad: It’s Me by Jim Benton 
  • Catwad: It’s Me, Two! by Jim Benton 
  • Hilo: Then Everything Went Wrong by Judd Winick

Graphic Novels, Young Adult

  • Sleepless vol. 2 by Sarah Vaughn, Leila Del Duca, Alissa Sallah, Deron Bennett
  • Cheshire Crossing by Andy Weir and Sarah Andersen


Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Most of these are sequels to books that were nominated in previous years; those with stars are stand-alones or the beginnings of new series.

  • Let Sleeping Dragons Lie by Garth Nix & Sean Williams
  • Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien
  • Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
  • Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits by Anna Meriano
  • *Straw into Gold: Fairy Tales Respun by Hilary McKay
  • *Riverland by Fran Wilde
  • Aru Shah and the Song of Death by Roshani Chokshi
  • York Book 2: The Clockwork Ghost by Laura Ruby
  • Freedom Fire by Daniel José Older
  • *Dragonfell by Sarah Prineas
  • *Spark by Sarah Beth Durst
  • Girl with a Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis
  • Wundersmith: the Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
  • Secrets of Winterhouse by Ben Guterson


Middle-Grade Fiction

  • A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée


Young Adult Speculative Fiction

  • Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers
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Early Chapter Book Trio: Juana & Lucas, Polly Diamond, Phoebe G. Green

Here’s a trio of fun early chapter books!  Because Cybils nominations will be opening up October 1, I’ve added notes on which books would be eligible to be nominated.  

Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana MedinaJuana & Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana Medina. Candlewick, 2019. 978-1536201314
It’s been three long years since we first met Juana and her dog Lucas, growing up in Bogotá, Colombia. I was so happy to see her again!  In this book, we meet more of Juana’s neighbors and family members. Now, years after Juana’s father died in a fire, Juana’s mother is falling in love again.  This leads to the big problemas of the title: the horrible idea of her mother getting married and Juana not having her all to herself, moving to a new house, and having to wear a scratchy dress for the wedding.  In the end, of course, love and Juana’s big personality win. I still adore Juana, and wish that we had many more books about her. This came out this year and is eligible to be nominated for a Cybils award.  

pollydiamond1Polly Diamond and the Magic Book by Alice Kuipers. Illustrated by Diana Toledano. Chronicle Books, 2018. 978-1452152325
Polly Diamond has a baby brother on the way.  The problem with that is that when he arrives, she’ll have to share her room with her little sister – ugh! Then, a magic book arrives in the mail.  With the help of the book (and an inobservant babysitter) she’s able to remake the house into something a little (okay maybe a lot) bigger, and much, much more fun – except maybe for the part about turning her sister into a banana. Charming illustrations illuminate both the family and Polly’s wishes. 

Polly and her family appear to be African-American; the author is white and the illustrator is Spanish-American. It might be rainbow sprinkle diversity to show Polly and her family as Black when there’s nothing else linking them to African-American culture, but the story about her adjusting to her new family size is heartfelt, and the wishes are over-the-top silly in a way that feels enormously appealing to kids.  It’s also relatively rare to find kids books where the main characters wear glasses.

This book came out in May 2018, and is thus not eligible for the Cybils this year (though it’s now out in paperback for those looking to purchase!), but the sequel, Polly Diamond and the Super Stunning Spectacular School Fair, is eligible.  Mia Mayhem is a Superhero! by Kara West and illustrated by Leeza Hernandez, which came out in December of 2018 and is therefore also eligible this year, looks like it would appeal to a similar audience.  

phoebeGgreen1Phoebe G. Green: Lunch Will Never Be the Same by Veera Hiranandani. Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin, 2014. 9780448466958
I looked into this older early chapter book series by Newbery Honor-winning author Hiranandani.  Phoebe, who is white, gets school lunches, and her parents “assemble” the same rotation of simple meals for dinner each week at home.  When a new girl from France, Camille, comes with very fancy lunches, which Phoebe describes in numbered lists, it’s a revelation to Phoebe.  She tries her best to get a dinner invitation from Camille, because if her lunches look amazing, the dinner must be truly spectacular. In the process, though, she ends up alienating her best friend, Sage (who is of East Indian origin), and Camille also isn’t sure that Phoebe really wants to be her friend.  There is lots of yummy food, some very believable friend issues, and it made me laugh out loud. The only thing that would have made it better would be if the POV character could have been East Indian, like the author. And if there were more than four books in the series, because four books is not enough to satisfy avid early chapter book readers.  

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Two Fantasies and a Truth

Well, technically, two fantasy books and a nonfiction – I do believe that fiction can hold just as much truth as nonfiction – but going for the catchier title.  Here’s catching up on reviews of some more of my reading for adults.

The Raven Tower by Ann LeckieThe Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. Orbit, 2019.
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radtch trilogy was told from the point of view of a conscious, intelligent ship, which had taken on a body.  With this book, she goes even farther by making the narrator a stone – a very large stone, The Strength and Patience of the Hill, telling a human character, Eolo, aide to the Lease’s Heir of Raven Tower, about events after the death of Lease.  It’s set in ancient times, and the second-person narration gives us a strange distance from Eolo. I found it fascinating, but it is out there enough that it isn’t going to work for everyone. Indeed, many of my blogging friends who usually agree on books were sharply divided on this one.   Continue reading

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LaGuardia and Self/Made

Onwards, with some graphic novels featuring powerful women of color from the adult section of the library. I’m a big fan of Nnedi Okorafor, and I buy the adult graphic novels for my library, so naturally I had to purchase and read her new graphic novel!  Self/Made came in with the same order and also caught my eye. 

LaGuardia by Nnedia Okorafor, Tana Ford, and James DevlinLaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor, Tana Ford, and James Devlin. Berger Books/Dark Horse, 2019. 9781506710754
In a not-too-distant future, aliens – many of them sentient plants – have arrived in the world, with Nigeria as their base.  Professor Citizen Raphael Nwabara tends to large numbers of these plants at his apartment, while perhaps secretly being a human separatist, and definitely pulling any green shoots from his beard.  Meanwhile, his pregnant fiancee, physician Future Nwafor Chukwuekuba is coming back to her grandmother in New York without telling him – harboring a tiny sentient plant who calls itself Letme Live, with troubles of its own.   The scanning at LaGuardia is intrusive and offensive (though this is only a brief part of the story, inspired by the author’s own experiences there), and the hospital her parents once worked at is now treating only humans, despite the large numbers of aliens living there.  Alien technology could help with many of people’s problems, but suspicions are high and protests grow as politicians try to shut down borders. 

This is by its nature more of a short story than a novel, and so just doesn’t have room for the depth I’m used to from Okorafor.  I do like the social commentary on our current treatment of “aliens” who are just other people, when maybe if there were actual aliens, we’d still be better off approaching with compassion and an open mind.  The main characters here are all people of color or aliens, and they are drawn beautifully by Tana Ford – pregnant Future is beautiful and so beautifully confident and powerful, though Ford is also able to show Letme’s emotions.  The scenes of so many diverse creatures working together for change is inspiring, so while this isn’t my favorite of Okorafor’s works, I’m glad I read it.  

Self/Made by Mat Groom, Eduardo Ferigato, and Marcelo CostaSelf/Made volume 1 by Mat Groom, Eduardo Ferigato, and Marcelo Costa. Image, 2019. 978-1534312272
Amala, a fierce female warrior, is the last of her unit left after an attack.  She joins forces with an arrogant hero, but turns on him when she decides he isn’t on the side of right – multiple times as the scene replays.  The scene cuts to us finding out that this is a video game. Amala is an NPC who’s turned on the developer playing the hero – just as arrogant and furious in real life as he was in the game.  He tells the coder, Rebecca, to delete her. 

But Rebecca, an older woman with limited social skills, who’s turned down advancement opportunities to work on her character building, would rather lose her job than Amala.  She steals Amala and puts her in a robotic body. But what happens when Amala figures out she wasn’t meant to be a real person?  

So, this is not the groundbreaking story the creators seem to think it is – reflections on how human an AI can be have been going on for decades, and Murderbot has a much more rounded-out character than Amala. And a white man writing about a white woman creating a woman of color who struggles for her own freedom gives me pause.  Still, if you want a high-action story about women fighting obnoxious, entitled men, with a side of the personhood of AIs, you could do worse than this one.  

Both of these are in the adult section more because of being about adult characters than about anything that parents of teens are likely to find objectionable – there is some violent death in Self/Made, but it’s pretty minimal for an action comic.  I offered both of these to my son to read, though he was too busy reading They Called Us Enemy to get to them. 

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They Called Us Enemy by George Takei et al

Star Trek actor turned activist George Takei shares the moving story of his life before his acting career in this graphic memoir.  It’s been getting a lot of deservedly good press, and I knew I had to read it. I brought it home at the same time as Cheshire Crossing, and my son passed over that much more light-hearted book to read this one.  

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei et alThey Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, with art by Harmony Becker. 

Mr. and Mrs. Takei met in America – George’s father an immigrant from Japan, his mother born and raised in California, where the couple met.  They owned a business and their own home, and had three children when the Pearl Harbor bombing took place and Japanese-Americans were moved to internment camps.

George’s memories as a child growing up in the camps, with his limited understanding, are mixed together with stories of his parents, historical information, and the fights he got into with his father as a teen, blaming his father for what happened. This mixed format – along with the warm family memories that happened even in the camp – keep the narrative from descending into despair, despite the horrible injustices.  Multicultural artist Harmony Becker does an excellent job with the art, too, bringing life to what would otherwise be dull accounts of the passage of bills through Congress, for example, and keeping even very young George recognizable and giving the many inhabitants of the camps distinct appearances.  

As a four-year-old, George saw living in a horse stall at a newly converted racetrack as an adventure, but as time goes on, he comes to understand the pain of the assumed disloyalty, as the government not only confiscates homes and businesses, but also removes men in any kind of leadership position – from teacher to Buddhist priest – from their families.  The extreme efforts of those in the camps for years to create something like normalcy for their children – setting up schools and visits from Santa – are also inspiring. As the author points out, we are again in a time where we are placing people in camps, simply because of where they come from. As uncomfortable as it can be to revisit our past, it is necessary to keep from repeating our mistakes.  This is a very accessible way to bear witness, and one that my normally sci-fi only teen son read and endorses.  

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Rebel Girls and Gowns: YA Graphic Novels

Continuing with the graphic novels, here are some aimed at teens (or at least, from the teen section of the library.) 

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen WangPrince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. First Second Books, 2018.
This book was tearing up the award and best-of charts last year, winning an Eisner award and being a Cybils finalist, among many other honors. 

Frances is working as a lowly seamstress, dreaming of being a big designer, when she gets the job of her dreams: personal designer to Prince Sebastian, who secretly goes out on the town dressed as Lady Crystallia.  But what future is there for a cross-dressing prince in 19th century Belgium? And will Frances’s dreams of greatness ever come true? Her fashion designs felt much more 21st-century daring than truly 19th century, but it’s drawn for a modern audience.  I feel obliged to note that this prince was a real person (I’m guessing the dressing is imagined), his father famous in real life for committing atrocities in the Congo. The author has stated that she didn’t know anything about this when she created the book.  The ending, too, was a vision of how you’d want things to go – not realistic, but worth it for creating a space where such a thing could have been true. Despite my criticisms, this was great fun to read, with a worthy message.  

Sleepless vol. 1 by Sarah Vaughn, Leila Del Duca, Alissa Sallah, Deron Bennett. Image Comics, 2018.
Sleepless vol. 2 by Sarah Vaughn, Leila Del Duca, Alissa Sallah, Deron Bennett. Image Comics, 2019. 978-1534310582
This fantasy duology was recommended by Stephanie Burgis, and, like the first book, features some beautiful dresses, this time with a fantasy Burgundian feel.  Lady Pypennia, or Poppy, has grown up the acknowledged illegitimate daughter of the now-deceased king of Harbeny, though in distant Mribesh, where her mother is a great star reader, she is considered legitimate.  Still, Poppy has grown up in Harbeny and considers it her home. The kingdom of Harbeny has long been protected by the Sleepless Knights, who stay magically awake for years in service to the Crown. Poppy has a sleepless knight, Sir Cyrenic, assigned to care for her. Political intrigue and forbidden romance ensue as Poppy’s uncle assumes the throne, with extra cuteness provided by Poppy’s pet fennec fox, all told with lush illustrations. 

Cheshire Crossing by Andy Weir and Sarah AndersenCheshire Crossing by Andy Weir and Sarah Andersen. Ten Speed Press, 2019. 978-0399582073
My love requested that I bring this home from the library, because he and my son are such fans of The Martian. Upon getting it home, my daughter jumped on it and read it more than once.

In this story, Alice, Wendy and Dorothy all wound up in boarding school together – this time, hopefully friendlier than the many other places where they’ve been cruelly treated because of their “delusions.”  Here, the headmaster believes their experiences but wants to study them, though these girls definitely have minds of their own. Alice is particularly distrustful and wants to escape immediately, causing a problem that will need all the girls and even the Mary Poppins-inspired Nanny to solve, as the Wicked Witch of the West and Captain Hook team up for maximum villainy.  The SLJ review recommended this for teens, as Peter Pan starts growing up and gets very hormonal, but there’s nothing terribly explicit and my daughter at least was not fussed.  

This is an engaging and humorous take on the problems of girls returning to a world that doesn’t believe in their adventures, also dealt with in much darker form in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway.

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