The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and The Button War

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Middle grade novels are wonderful, but I’ve had a steady diet of them for the past six weeks, and I’m looking forward to a summer filled with all of the “adult books” that have been piling up on my nightstand (and on the floor around it). I’m preparing to talk to kids about their summer reading selections and selecting novels for Buttonwood’s summer book club so my head is filled with eleven and twelve-year-olds having adventures, learning about their families, exploring new places, discovering social justice issues, and navigating friendships. Although many of them are excellent, there’s one that stands out: The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty. 

“Lightning Girl” is twelve-year-old Lucy Callahan who was struck by lightning when she was eight. The resulting brain damage results in acquired savant syndrome which, as I learned, can happen when someone has brain trauma and suddenly has new abilities. In Lucy’s case, she becomes a math genius. It’s kind of incredible actually. She recites pi to the 314th decimal and can solve any equation on the spot. Of course, she can pass middle school and begin taking college classes, but her grandmother, with whom Lucy lives, makes a condition before Lucy leapfrogs over middle school. She wants her granddaughter to: try middle school for one year, make a new friend, and try a new activity. Of course, Lucy figures out that not everything is as neatly resolved as a math problem, but more powerful than the “lesson” of the book is Lucy’s voice, distinctive and genuine. I liked her – and the supporting cast of characters – right away, and I didn’t want to leave Lucy when the book was over.

Completely different, but equally powerful, is The Button War by Avi. I reviewed this one for School Library Journal, and here’s an excerpt of my review:

“Avi’s intense and cautionary novel is a psychological thriller set in a hardscrabble Polish village during World War I. Patryk, the 12-year-old narrator, is one of a group of boys who meet nightly at the village water pump to share news and plan adventures, most of which are harmless dares. But on the night the Germans drop a bomb on the local schoolhouse, their lives are changed forever. A troubled boy named Jurek, whose parents died years earlier and who lives with his older sister, challenges his friends to steal the shiniest and most intricately designed military button. The winner, according to Jurek, will be the king. The king of what is unimportant to Jurek, a boy anxious to have control over something in his life….Avi has written a compelling and tautly constructed book that is a portal to grappling with the complexity of the human instinct to compete.”

A third grade student brought this to the Library this week. She wrote a message in binary code, and fortunately she included the letters on the side. The message which you can read in whichever language you choose, reads: I am reading a really good book.

Two more pictures to share….

First, one of Inly’s Children’s House teachers sent this to me after recess one day last week:

Sometimes I read a picture book to the middle school students at the beginning of class. It’s a quiet way for everyone to settle. Last week one of the 8th grade students asked if she could read:

The book she’s reading is Florette by Anna Walker – a story about blooming where you are planted.

Happy Reading – and Planting!


A Cozy New Book, the Book Fair, and a Rainbow….


I’ve long admired Cynthia Rylant’s work, particularly because she does everything well: picture books, early chapter books, middle grade novels, and poetry. Think of how many kids have learned to read with Henry and Mudge or Mr. Putter and Tabby. Her picture books, especially The Great Gracie Chase and The Relatives Came are crowd-pleasing read alouds.

Rylant also won the 1993 Newbery Medal for Missing May, a quiet novel about a young girl who discovers that love is more powerful than grief. Her books are gifts to children, parents, and teachers.

When I read that Rylant’s new middle grade novel, Rosetown, was being published this spring, I began poking around for an advanced reading copy – and I was finally able to read it yesterday. Once again, she has written a gem.

Rosetown is the story of Flora, a ten-year-old girl, who is experiencing lots of changes: her beloved dog has died, her parents have recently separated, and she is starting fourth grade. The place where she’s happiest is in a purple chair in the used bookstore where her mother works. There, Flora, can relax and curl up with an “extra-vintage” story. She also enjoys spending time with her close friend, Nessy, and Yury, a new friend from Ukraine. Although Flora is facing challenges, her parents are loving and supportive, and starting with the arrival of a new cat, things begin to turn around.

Rylant is especially good at taking a simple premise and making it meaningful.  She gently leads the reader like a wise and beloved guide and helps them navigate change. Taken together, from Mr. Putter to the Cobble Street Cousins, Rylant always keeps her focus on what’s most important: family and friends.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from Rosetown:

“And this is the story of any proudly owned used-book shop: that someone, at some time, has stumbled upon a kind of buried treasure within its shelves. But unlike shiny gold, which is taken instantly, the treasure – a vintage book – in a used-book shop is often left behind, to linger at the back of the mind for a while. Then there arrives the day when it becomes clear that the vintage book should belong to a certain someone.”

Rosetown won’t be in stores until May 8 so it was not available to purchase during last week’s Inly book fair, but many wonderful books were – thanks to our partnership with our own beloved bookstore, Buttonwood Books and Toys. The big sellers were: The Bad Guys, Dory Fantasmagory, Lucky Broken Girl, Like Vanessa – and brightly colored squishies. I knew squishies were popular – and it’s truly hard to resist “squishing” them, but we had a run on penguins and sleeping kittens….

Here are some pictures from the week:

This is my favorite scene from the book fair:

This picture – taken by one of the book fair volunteers – nicely captures the mood of the week:

It’s always nice to close with a reference to Charlotte’s Web, this one courtesy of a second grade student who used string and push pins to make this wonderful project:

Happy Reading!


Gardens: On Book Covers and in Stories…

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It’s 35 degrees today, so it’s understandably hard to believe that warmer days are just around the corner, but at least flowers are blooming on book covers. Looking at a display earlier this week, it was reassuring to see that even though it’s grey and chilly outside, there is color in the bookstore:

One of the novels I most enjoyed reading during graduate school was Philippa Pearce’s 1958 fantasy, Tom’s Midnight Garden. It was a book that I missed as a child, and I was happy to see it on a class syllabus. It’s a magical story of Tom, a boy whose younger brother gets measles, and so in order to escape the contagious illness, Tom’s parents send him to his aunt and uncle’s country house. Tom expects life to be quite dull, of course, but when he hears the grandfather clock chime 13 times, he knows there’s a possibility of adventure. Creeping downstairs so he’s not detected by his aunt and uncle, Tom discovers a garden where he meets a girl named Hatty. The garden – and Hatty – do not exist in “Tom’s time” though. He is in the Victorian era, and during his trips to the garden, Hatty grows up. There are elements of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, The Secret Garden, in Pearce’s novel. Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, has called Tom’s Midnight Garden “a perfect book.”

With that as a background, I was looking forward to French artist, Edith’s, new graphic novel adaptation of Pearce’s book.  I read it earlier today and it did not disappoint. In fact, it made me think that I may be able to entice some students to read the graphic novel version and then perhaps encourage them to read the original.  It also makes me want to re-read it.

Last weekend, I arrived early at Lucky Finn to meet a friend for coffee, and was greeted by this scene:

I didn’t know the people, and so of course, I introduced myself and asked permission to take their picture. We had a wonderful time talking about The Wild Robot, and realizing that we had several friends in common.  It was a moment that made me think of this short piece in Naomi Shihab Nye’s book, Honeybee: 

One of the many joys of my work is finding notes from students on my desk. This past week’s note was one of my favorites:

The best part of her note is the word “desparate.” What reader hasn’t experienced that panic when you realize you don’t have a book to read? During our spring break, this student’s mother sent me two pictures of her daughter enjoying vacation – reading on the beach and during dinner.

When we were in Italy last month, I was looking at a glazed terra-cotta sculpture by della Robbia. It was an out-of-the-way room in a museum. There were only three of us in this particular gallery when I happened to turn around and catch life imitating art:

Happy Reading – and Napping!


Four New Middle Grade Novels…

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One sign of spring in my house is the growing stack of middle grade and young adult novels by my bedside – books I’m considering for Inly’s summer reading list. As the calendar turns toward the end of the school year, I am reading the books I hope will find their way into beach bags this summer…

Here are the three I read this week:

Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen by Candace Fleming is a “based on a true story” novel about a dog who becomes a Hollywood star. In the silent film era of the 1920s, a film director named Larry Trimble is looking for a “fresh face on the big screen,” and decides to gamble not on a person, but a dog. After looking for the perfect canine talent in the United States, but not finding the right dog, Trimble goes to Europe and after nearly giving up his star search, he meets a German shepherd named Etzel in Germany. Etzel was a well-trained police dog and so, at first, he’s a bit aggressive: “Etzel leaped through the broken window and tore across the yard. Fur on end, teeth flashing, the dog sprang for Larry’s throat.”  Larry takes a chance on Etzel though, patiently training his active dog, and in 1921, Etzel – now renamed Strongheart – was in his first movie, The Silent Call.

In the style of Hugo Cabret, Strongheart’s journey is told in both words and pictures. Eric Rohmann, the Caldecott winning illustrator, makes Strongheart spring to life in his beautiful illustrations.

My favorite is this one of Strongheart eying a donut on a countertop.

Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender is the story of Caroline Murphy, a 12-year-old girl growing up on Water Island, the smallest of the United States Virgin Islands. The island is so small that she takes a water taxi to her school in St. Thomas, where she feels friendless and “separate” from the other students. Caroline is also struggling to understand why her mother left their home abruptly and without explanation. When Kalinda, a new student from Barbados joins her class, Caroline’s life changes dramatically. At first, she is intrigued by Kalinda’s confidence and charisma, but mostly she is relieved that her days without a friend may be coming to an end. As they become closer, Caroline develops a crush on Kalinda that is confusing to Kalinda and something both girls are made to feel badly about. I like this book, mostly for its evocations of life in the Caribbean. As Caroline and Kalinda walk through an area popular with tourists, you can literally feel the heat and see the colorful souvenirs. I also appreciate that the center of this story is Caroline’s need to understand her mother’s disappearance. Although Caroline’s relationship with Kalinda is complex, the girls remain united in their quest to answer Caroline’s questions.

Like Vanessa by Tami Charles is also a middle grade novel, but I recommend it for the older end of that category, 6th through 8th grade. The story centers on Vanessa Martin, an African-American eighth grader who, after watching Vanessa Williams become the first black Miss America in 1983, is inspired to enter her middle school’s first-ever pageant.

Vanessa Martin’s life is not easy. She lives in Newark with her father who is not at home very often, her alcoholic grandfather, and her older cousin, T.J. When she decides to enter the pageant, she faces her father’s disapproval and mockery by the “popular” girls, but she also becomes closer to her cousin T.J., and gains the support and friendship of her music teacher, Mrs. Walton. More importantly, Vanessa becomes confident enough to find her mother and ask questions that have haunted her since her mother left nine years earlier. The novel’s strength is Vanessa. She has a rich and believable inner life. Her doubts about her body, her friendships, her family all struck me as genuine to a person that age, even if their personal external experience is very different.

And one more…..Paul Acampora’s new novel, Confusion Is Nothing New. This is an excerpt of the review I wrote for School Library Journal:

“A tribute to family, friends, and Cyndi Lauper, this is a story of a young girl’s search for answers and her journey towards a deeper appreciation of the people who love her. Fourteen-year-old white American Ellie Magari has never known her mother, who left the family soon after Ellie’s birth. Although Ellie’s father appears to be satisfied with their long-time understanding that they do not discuss Wilma “Korky” Korkenderfer, Ellie wants to know more. When she learns that her mother has died, her questions become more urgent; luckily for Ellie, there are people around her who may have some answers….Filled with references to 80s pop music, Acampora’s fast-paced and entertaining novel will satisfy lovers of family stories that have a touch of mystery.”

I have this week’s stack ready to go!

Happy Reading.


As 2017 Comes to a Close…

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As the year comes to a close, I am starting to see lists of books to watch out for in 2018, but it’s still too early to leave 2017 so maybe a look back….

Here are five books that defined my year:

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

Pilkey’s crime-fighting dog is the star of the most popular series in the Inly Library. The fourth installment will be released while we are on our holiday break, but I’m sure there will be kids waiting to check it out on January 2!

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna

This is my favorite picture book of the year. I love it more with every reading. The bright pop of orange on the child’s jacket. The reminder to put down our devices and explore the world. The way some of the illustrations seem to glow.

Patina by Jason Reynolds

The best book I reviewed for School Library Journal this year. Reynolds understands the difficulties and challenges faced by young people today and writes about their lives in a way they recognize, with integrity and respect.

Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson

My surprise read of the year. I bought this book because I needed something for a train ride and ended up wanting to skip my stop. Three characters whose lives intersect: Adri lives in Kansas in 2065. Catherine’s family is trying to survive during the Dust Bowl in 1934. Lenore’s brother has died in WWI, and she wants to travel to America. A quiet, mysterious, and beautiful novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

A ghost story that is truly unforgettable. Both sad and funny, it is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief after the death of his young son, Willy, that includes the voices of both historical and made-up characters. Winner of the Man Booker Prize. One of the New York Times 100 Notable Books. I read it earlier in the year. I’m listening to it now.

I’m hoping the last few weeks of the year are filled with reading. My book stack is so tall it wobbles. Last night I finished Autumn by Ali Smith. I’m now reading a book for School Library Journal, and after that Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben. There are 15 days left….

Happy Reading!

My Favorite Middle Grade Novels of 2017

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For those of you with a reader between the ages of 8 and 12 on your holiday shopping list, here are my favorite middle grade novels of 2017. Because “middle grade” includes a wide range of readers, I’ve divided this list between younger and older. Obviously, the categories are fluid depending on the child, but it may provide some guidance. Middle grade is that big section of novels that kids begin reading after Magic Tree House-style early chapter books. Common transition books include Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and of course Harry Potter.

Middle grade novels keep are typically fast paced, and the plot generally moves in a straight line rather than jumping around. But as kids get older, the stories become more complex and thoughtful.  It’s also helpful to look at the age of the protagonist. Most of the time, the main character is about the same age as the potential reader.

Here are my favorite middle grade novels of 2017:

Young Middle Grade

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes

Older Middle Grade

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

See You In the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Saving Marty by Paul Griffin

The End of the Wild by Nicole Helget

Amina’s Voice by Amina Khan

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

In other holiday news, on Saturday I was one of the judges for the Scituate Harbor Gingerbread House contest. My qualifications? I enjoy eating gingerbread, and I certainly appreciate the time and creativity the participants dedicated to this festive start to the season.


New York, Kipling, and Midnight at the Electric…

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We were in New York last weekend, but although it was a short visit, there was still time to go to the Strand. We arrived at 10:55 a.m. on Sunday for the bookstore’s 11:00 a.m. opening, and there were people lining up outside.  It was a wonderful moment – to see a line at a bookstore. I should have taken a picture, but instead we hurried into line. One of the best things about the Strand is the display signs. This was one of our favorites:

I purchased a copy of Midnight at the Electric, a young adult novel by Jodi Lynn Anderson, to read on the train ride home.  The starred Kirkus review sparked my interest, but I didn’t expect the novel to be so powerful.

This is a really good book and definitely one to add to your list for anyone ages 12 and over.  It opens in the year 2065 and a sixteen-year-old named Adri is preparing to move to Mars. To train for the launch and life on Mars, Adri goes to Kansas to stay with her 107-year-old cousin, Lily. At Lily’s house, Adri finds letters that lead her to the story of Catherine, who lived during the Dust Bowl and then to Lenore, who lived in England during WWI. It sounds confusing, but all of the stories are connected in a way that left me tearful at the end of the book. This is my favorite kind of reading experience – a book that was not on my “list,” but ended up being one of my favorites of this year.

Speaking of the Strand, this week’s The New Yorker cover is awesome – an illustration by Jenny Kroik of a woman shopping at New York’s go-to independent bookstore. This one will find a place on our walls.

While we were in New York, we saw an exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center. John Lockwood Kipling: Arts & Crafts in the Punjab and London focuses on Kipling’s work as an illustrator and designer in British India. He was also the father of Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book and Kim.  I read about the exhibit when it was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but it would have been a challenging day trip.

Kipling spent ten years teaching at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai) and eighteen years as the curator of the  Lahore Museum in Pakistan. His influence on both cities was remarkable. As part of the exhibit, there are videos about the buildings he helped to design, but his illustrations are the stars.

This one is interesting. It’s a menu for Rudyard Kipling’s twenty-fifth birthday celebration. Designed and drawn by John Lockwood Kipling, the illustration shows Rudyard as a baby being carried and below that, Lockwood and his wife looking into Rudyard’s crib. The adult Rudyard is the man smoking a pipe.  It’s hard to read the menu, but it includes turbot and oyster sauce and plum pudding.

This is an 1884 illustration of Rudyard’s sister, Trix, that reads: “An unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed, happy in this — she is not yet so old, but she may learn.” Not sure what to make of that, but a beautiful picture.

I’ve also been working with Nancy Perry, my friend and colleague at the Norwell Public Library, to prepare for our annual presentation of our favorite children’s books of the year.  This year’s program will be on Thursday, November 30 at the James Library in Norwell at 7:00 p.m. It is a free and fun evening of conversation about books. An added bonus is that Buttonwood Books and Toys will be there to sell books. Please join us if you can.

At school, I’m reading Countdown by Deborah Wiles with our middle school students as part of our focus on life in post-WWII life in America. Inly’s 6th graders are learning how to be responsible and smart news consumers. Yes, we are talking about how to spot fake news!  We are looking at how to navigate the wild world of the internet and who to trust – no easy task in this divisive climate, but the kids are having fun.

I’ve been somewhat obsessed with book covers recently.  Given all of the “noise” in our ears and eyes, a book cover that causes you to stop and look is powerful.  Books may be old technology, but seeing someone’s art as a billboard for a story, is one of the greatest pleasures of book shopping.

Here are a few that caught my attention this week:

A friend saw this copy of Brave New World at her parent’s house –

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of RBG vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter has a wonderful dust jacket, but….

This is what’s under the jacket –

And the end pages are worth the price of the book –

All of the sudden, it’s really cold and windy and there is no denying that winter is almost here. My response was to buy these:

Happy Reading!