My name is Abby Johnson. I'm By day, youth librarian in Southern Indiana and By night, blogger extraordinaire. I blog about new librarians and library school students which is a passion of mine and you'll find many of my posts written with that audience in mind.
This summer, a professional dream of mine came true. Our library put in our first StoryWalk at a local park. I have always wanted to do one and I'm so grateful that my colleagues were so supportive of the idea. It was truly a team effort!
Our first story in the StoryWalk is A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin. She's one of my all-time favorite authors and this story fit in perfectly with our summer reading theme, A Universe of Stories.
While you can create StoryWalk posts a number of different ways, our library had funding to order premade frames from StoryWalk Solutions. Our Floyd County Parks & Recreation folks installed them for us and they look really nice. Each frame unscrews at the bottom so you can change out the story.
Our amazing marketing coordinator / graphic artist designed the spreads and we physically took apart a couple of copies of the book and glued them in before laminating them to create the spreads for each frame. This was a ton of work and we will definitely be seeking out permissions to use digital images for future stories so that we can create the spreads as digital files and then just print and laminate them.
On each spread, Ms. J and I came up with some kind of physical activity or dialogic reading question / talking prompt to encourage interaction and discussion as families walk along the StoryWalk together.
The walking path at this park is about three quarters of a mile and we ordered 20 posts, which is what I am told is the usual amount that libraries order. For A Big Mooncake for Little Star, that allowed us to include the entire book, plus an extra post in the middle where we placed a little activity break. Post 1 has the cover and info about the StoryWalk. Post 2 has the gorgeous endpapers. Posts 3-19 have the spreads from the story with one "activity break" in the middle (Post 13 below). And Post 20 has Grace Lin's author's note and more library info.
This is a permanent installation and we plan on changing out the featured stories quarterly-ish. My hope is that we'll be able to install more StoryWalks in our community!
I know you probably have questions, so hit me up in the comments and I'll write a follow-up post to answer everything. And if you have a StoryWalk in your community, I would love to know what's worked for you and what your favorite stories have been!
Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos. Grades 4-7. Random House, May 2019. 240 pages. Review copy provided by publisher.
It's 1986 and Nova has just been placed in a new foster home, a home without her older sister for the first time, and Nova is devastated. Her sister said she'd always be there for her, which is especially important to Nova because Nova has autism and she is almost completely nonvocal. Bridget was the one person who could always understand her and who knew that Nova understands more than anyone gives her credit for. Nova can read, she knows the alphabet, she knows what's going on around her, but since she mostly doesn't speak, most adults in her life assume that she's developmentally delayed.
Nova is obsessed with space and right now she's particularly obsessed with the upcoming Challenger launch - the chance to see a teacher in space for the first time. Her sister Bridget has promised to come back for the launch, so they can watch it together. As the days count down and the launch gets closer and closer, Nova starts to get nervous that Bridget won't keep her promise.
Written partly in the third person and partly in first person as Nova writes letters to her missing sister, this is a book that will have you feeling all the feels.
My thoughts: Readers who like to feel ALL THE FEELS need look no further. This book absolutely broke my heart. All I could do after I finished it was sit in the dark and listen to "Space Oddity" by David Bowie on repeat. Okay, that's maybe a little dramatic. But seriously. The feels. The title of this book and the heavy referrals to Nova's favorite song are so apropos because the way that song makes me feel is exactly how this book made me feel.
I kind of feel like this book is a love letter to what foster families and special education teachers can be, too. It's set in a time when our understanding of autism was much different than it is today. Nova's unfortunately used to being shuffled around since her mentally ill mother lost custody of the girls when Nova was little. But this new foster family is the first family that begins to really understand Nova and learns how she communicates. They know she loves space and enroll her in an astronomy class at school, they put her in a school with a good special ed program and teachers that begin to reach her in a way no teachers have before.
The book picks up speed as it goes along and the countdown to the Challenger space shuttle disaster gets closer and closer. Of course we know what's going to happen, we know it's not going to be good. I do kind of wonder if middle grade readers will be familiar with what happened at the Challenger launch - you might want to make sure before you hand this to kids or else the ending could be pretty devastating.
The author of this book was a teacher at a school for children with autism and has a lot of experience working with kids with autism and with foster kids. So, although it's not an own voices title, it's written by someone who has a lot of knowledge.
Readalikes: Readers who like Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind (Atheneum, 2010) for its glimpse inside the mind of a nonvocal child with disabilities will love Nova's story, as well; particularly the parts written from Nova's point of view.
Ann M. Martin's Rain Reign (Feiwel & Friends, 2014) is another heartfelt story about kids on the autism spectrum who face really hard things in their lives.
The quest for understanding and for people in their lives who will communicate with them on their own terms is also a strong theme in Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly (Delacorte Press, 2019). Twelve-year-old Iris is Deaf and goes to a mainstream school where many people assume she's not smart or struggle to communicate with her.
Father's Day is coming up on Sunday, June 16 and I have ten great picture books to share or display at your library.
Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Dan Santat. (Putnam, 2017). Nicholas is scared of lots of things, but having his toy dinosaur nearby helps him face the world. When his dinosaur goes missing, Nick must count on his dad's help to face his fears. This is a really sweet story about a father's power to encourage.
A Different Pond by Bao Phi , illustrated by Thi Bui. (Capstone, 2017) Bao and his father go to the pond early in the morning to try to catch fish for their family's food before his father head's off to his second job. And as they fish together, Bao's father tells him about a pond he fished at when he was a boy in Vietnam. This is a beautiful, quiet story about the power of family.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison. (Kokila, May 2019) Does anything show fatherly love better than a father willing to work and work at getting his daughter's hair just right? I love the expressive illustrations in this adorable picture book.
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall. (Candlewick, 2017). When Jabari is unsure about jumping off the high diving board at the pool, it just takes some encouraging words from his father to give him the courage to take the plunge.
My Dad Used to Be So Cool by Keith Negley (Flying Eye Books, 2016). A young boy looks at his dad's tattoos and imagines all the cool things his dad used to do, like playing in a rock band and riding a motorcycle. This is an ode to all the "cool dads" out there, or dads who like to think they're cool, anyway.
My Daddy Rules the World: Poems About Dads by Hope Anita Smith. (Henry Holt, 2017). This collection of poems celebrates all kinds of dads, from dads who snore to dads to cook breakfast to dads serving overseas. Some funny, some poignant, this collection has a little something for everyone.
My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña. (Kokila, May 2019) Daisy Ramona takes a ride on her papi's motorcycle all around their neighborhood and visits all her favorite places. As they ride together, Daisy notices that her neighborhood is changing, but one thing will always be the same: her love for her father.
Don't forget the grandpas! It's their day, too!
The Bagel King by Andrew Larson, illustrated by Sandy Nichols. (Kids Can Press, 2018). Every Sunday morning Eli's zaida goes to the bakery and gets bagels for everyone. But when zaida falls and the doctor insists he has to rest, Eli must take things into his own hands. This is a charming story about one boy and his grandpa and the community around them.
Natsumi! by Susan Lendroth, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. (Putnam, 2018). Natsumi is sometimes a little... much. But her grandfather is always patient and accepts her as who she is. When he introduces her to a new hobby, he knows just what will suit her.
Drawn Together by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat. (Disney-Hyperion, 2018) When a young boy visits his grandfather, they find it hard to communicate because they don't speak the same language. When they sit down to draw together, they find that art is a different way they can communicate. I love Dan Santat's brilliant illustrations in this book that shows that love is stronger than language barriers.
I am happy to say that we had a lot of success with this program, learned a lot, and plan to continue (and expand it!) next year. My goal was to collect 100 votes with the Firefly Kits and we ended up collecting 196 votes. Together with the other programs we did, we sent in over 200 votes. I'm really proud of that and hope that we can make it even more next year!
Teachers were really enthusiastic about participating. I had the most success in reaching out to preschools and daycares that we have already worked with in the past, but I hope that next year with some experience under our belt we may be able to advertise it more broadly and pick up some new groups.
I really did not have to convince teachers about the worth of this program. Once they understood what it was, they were super into it. I had several teachers ask me about participating again, so I think we'll hit the ground running next year. My plan is to get this started earlier in the year next year since we now have a template for it. That will allow more time for the teachers to keep the bags and more time to spread the word.
I decided to make the bags circulating for one week, but several of the teachers kept them longer in order to do the activities in the provided teacher guide. One preschool made their own voting poster for the whole school. One preschool even took pictures of all the crafts the kids did and make a big thank-you poster for us! I love the creative things the teachers thought to do with the voting and I want to encourage that. I had no problem being flexible with the check-out time since we never had a wait list for the bags. Next year, starting earlier will give us even more time, so I will probably extend the check-out time.
Next year, I would also like to circulate the bags to families, too. We did not have a ton of participation from individual families with our in-house voting. I think we might get more participation if families could check out all the books and read at home. I didn't want to do that this year since we had a limited number of bags for our pilot program and I had a small window of time. I wanted to concentrate on groups of kids to get the most bang for our buck. If we offer the bags circulating to the public, I think it'll be easier to spread the word and that may catch the eye of our local teachers, too.
It was a great, pretty easy program to run and I think our teachers and their students got a lot out of it. It was definitely successful and I'm excited about doing it again next year!
Roll With It by Jamie Sumner. Grades 4-7. Atheneum, October 2019. 256 pages. Digital galley provided by publisher.
Ellie is a kid who tells it like it is - which surprises some people because Ellie has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. People expect her to be sunshine and inspiration, but Ellie doesn't hold back from telling people exactly what she thinks. Ellie loves baking and dreams of being a professional baker. And one big thing that's going on in her life is that her grandfather is not doing well. So Ellie and her mom decide to move to small town Oklahoma to help out.
Now, not only is Ellie the new kid, she's the new kid in the wheelchair who lives in a trailer park on the wrong side of town. It could be a recipe for disaster, but unexpectedly Ellie has met some kids that she's connected with. For the first time, she's found her people. She's found kids who not only see her but see her for who she is instead of just seeing "the kid in the wheelchair".
Now, Ellie's just got to convince her mom that moving to this small town that's kind of unequipped to handle a kid in a wheelchair - a kid sometimes in fragile health - is the best thing that's ever happened to her.
Ellie's voice grabbed me from the first page and just wouldn't let go. I honestly couldn't put this book down. This is a story with a lot of heart and humor and an absolutely unforgettable protagonist. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with CP, so she writes from a place of experience with CP and wheelchairs and the like. I don't have the knowledge to judge how accurate this story is to a disability experience, but coming from a writer who has a lot of experience with a close family member with a disability gives me some confidence in its authenticity.
So, I appreciate a story about a girl living with a visible disability and I really appreciate having a girl in a wheelchair on the cover. But at its heart, this is a story with very universal themes - finding true friends who accept you as who you are, doing what you need to do to help family members in times of need. This is a book that has wide appeal to readers who enjoy character-centered stories and characters with strong voices.
When I think about middle grade novels with strong voices, my first thought is always of Mo LoBeau in Three Times Lucky (Dial, 2012) by Sheila Turnage. Although the subject matter is different, readers who love characters with a strong voice who aren't afraid to say what they think and a story set in a small, rural town will enjoy both of these books.
Braced by Alyson Gerber (Scholastic, 2017) is an own-voices, character-centered story about 12-year-old Rachel who must wear a back brace when her scoliosis worsens. Readers interested in reading about characters living with a visible disability may enjoy both of these.
Finding true friends is a major theme in Roll With It and readers interested in more stories about girls finally finding true friends who like them for who they are may enjoy Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, 2019). When Emma starts a new school after being homeschooler through fourth grade, her greatest wish is to find a best friend. But navigating new friends turns out to be harder than she thought it would be.
And that's a wrap for Middle Grade May! I had a fabulous month reading and sharing middle grade books with you all. I've still got some book posts I'm working on (things got nuts toward the end of this month with Summer Reading coming up!), so look for those in the coming weeks.
And check out my Instagram, where I've got video booktalks of some of my favorite new and upcoming middle grade reads (more to come there, too).
This month, I wanted to concentrate on new and upcoming middle grade books. I was hoping to read 10 books and ended up reading 12 books, so I met my goal. Here's what I read this month:
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly. Grades 5-8. Greenwillow, September 2019. 304 pages. Reviewed from digital galley provided by publisher.
Booktalk: There are stories of extraordinary children who are chosen from birth to complete great quests and conquer evil villains. This is no such story. Sometimes, you are an ordinary child.
Sometimes, you choose yourself.
So begins Lalani's story. Lalani is about an ordinary a child as it gets. She's not especially smart or brave or hardworking. But times are getting desperate in her village. There's been no rain for weeks and weeks. The plants that they make into medicine are no longer growing, so the sick are dying. Lalani's father set off on a Sailing Day and never returned - just like all the sailors that leave their island - and her mother has just been been struck with mender's disease.
There's no hero showing up to save them. But maybe all it takes is one girl, stubborn or foolish enough to start things in motion. Maybe all it takes is one girl who will never, ever give up. One ordinary girl with an extraordinary will: Lalani of the Distant Sea.
This is an extraordinary story. Based on Filipino folklore, this is a layered look at a community on the verge of something and a girl with nothing left to lose. When Lalani's father didn't come home, she got a stepfather and stepbrother who are domineering and demanding. "The sky was clear, but a storm had entered their house." When Lalani's mother takes ill, she's finally desperate to break the norm and start looking for extraordinary solutions to save her own family and the village.
This story is set in a world of fantastic creatures, a menacing mountain that threatens the village's existence and a land of plenty that no one has ever reached (or returned from, anyway). Readers who are looking for a lush fantasy novel that's unlike anything they have read will want to pick up this book.
It's dark. It's scary sometimes. It's rich and layered and feminist. This is a book to watch.
Hand this to fans of The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin, 2016) by Kelly Barnhill for readers who like a rich fantasy story with a wholly original setting where you may not always know where it's going but things come together in a really satisfying way at the end.
Hand this to fans of A Path Begins (The Thickety) (Katherine Tegen 2014( by J.A. White for readers who like a strong heroine in a dark fantasy novel with scary moments.
Hand this to fans of Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond, 2011) for readers who love a strong everyday heroine who will stop at nothing to save her friends.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. Grades 4-7. Balzer + Bray, 2019. 352 pages. Reviewed from galley provided by publisher.
Jude always dreamed of America, but her dream was nothing like what actually happened. She dreamed of becoming a famous movie star just like in the American movies she and her best friend watched from their seaside city in Syria. It was nothing like what actually happened - leaving her father and brother to travel to stay with family in Cincinnati as things grow more and more violent. Actually living in America is way different than the movies.
In America, Jude is "Middle Eastern". She gets looks from people and realizes that they assume that she has come from violence. She struggles to learn English and to make friends at her new school where her American cousin wants nothing to do with her. When she wants to try out for the school play, her cousin and her friends frown on it, assuming that someone with an accent will never get cast. Can this place ever feel like home? Will she ever be reunited with the other half of her family?
There were so many details that struck me throughout this story - like the reaction that Jude gets when she starts wearing hijab. Strangers approach her to tell her that she doesn't have to cover herself in America, but Jude has never seen hijab as anything but a joyous symbol of growing up. And the moment when Jude realizes that everyone here assumes that her country is violent and wartorn, when in fact Syria was peaceful for most of her life and she believes it will be again. Reading this book as a white woman, it shone a light on a lot of assumptions that American make about Muslim people and Middle Eastern countries. Jude learns what it's like to see her country through the eyes of others and it's much different than how she views her own home.
And the verse is so beautifully crafted, there were so many passages that made me sit up and take notice. Jason Reynolds has a blurb on the back of the galley where he says this is a story that "peels back layers of culture and identity, fear and prejudice, exile and belonging" and that is the perfect way to explain why this story is so important.
Readalikes: Readers who rooted for the intrepid young heroine Ha in Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (HarperCollins, 2011), another novel in verse about a refugee girl coming to America, will root for Jude, too.
This is an older title, but another great novel in verse about the refugee experience is Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel & Friends, 2007). The way that Kek, a refugee from Sudan, experiences the overwhelming new world of America is similar to what Jude goes through. Both are lyrical portraits of the refugee experience.
And readers interested in contemporary stories of Muslim girls navigating middle school will also enjoy Amina's Voice by Hena Khan (Salaam Reads, 2017). Amina is a Pakistani-American girl and Jude is a Syrian immigrant, but both face prejudice and stereotyping as Muslim girls. Both also have a hidden talent for singing.
Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord. Grades 3-5. Scholastic, 2019. 192 pages. Reviewed from galley provided by publisher.
Fifth grader Emma (formerly homeschooled) is starting public school for the first time and Scared and Excited are in a race to see which will win out. Emma's number one goal in fifth grade is to make a best friend; she's been lonely in homeschool since her older brother decided to start public school, and she figures she'll find one the very first day.
But it's not as easy as she thought it would be. There are a lot of weird rules in public school, it takes way too long to get through each day (at home she was usually done with her lessons by lunchtime), and most of the kids seem to already have established friend groups. Each day, Emma longs to get home to the newest addition to her family: a pet rabbit that she and her game warden dad rescued and that Emma has named Monsieur Lapin in honor of the forest stories her Pepere used to tell her.
It turns out that Lapi might just be the key to making a new friend, but not the first friend Emma would have chosen. Jack, a kid who sits in her desk cluster and who has special needs, LOVES animals. Emma has a list of things she's looking for in a best friend: likes the things she likes, always chooses her side, accepts her for herself... and Jack ticks a lot of those boxes. But, while the other kids in class are mostly kind to Jack, no one hangs out with him outside of school. If Emma befriends Jack is she branding herself a weirdo? Can she find the strength to navigate school and stay true to herself?
This is the sweet, realistic story that we've come to expect from Cynthia Lord. Emma is a likeable character who is easy to root for, even when she's sometimes making questionable choices. I loved the strong sense of setting, a small community in the mountains of Maine and Emma's house on the lake and all the nature all around them.
And even though this is a gentle story, it packs a bit of a punch, as well. I found myself getting emotional towards the end as Emma tackles something that is really hard for her to do, even though it's the right thing to do. The characters really felt real to me and that makes sense since a lot of this story was inspired by elements of the author's life - she has an adult son with autism, her children were homeschooled and her daughter went from that to public school, and they even keep rabbits.
Young animal lovers will eat this book with a spoon. Hand it to readers who enjoyed A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold (Walden Pond, 2017), which also features a neurodiverse character obsessed with animals.
Readers who enjoyed the adventures of a former homeschooler starting middle school in graphic novel All's Fair in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (Dial, 2017) will also be interested in Emma's journey.
And readers who like school stories about unlikely friends like Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (Scholastic, 2016) will love reading about Emma's quest to make a friend.
It's time for another update on my Romance Project! In 2019, I started a project to read more romance novels in order to become more familiar with this super popular and fast-growing genre. I posted my first update a couple of months ago and it's time to update you again with the titles I have been reading and enjoying. If you have suggestions for titles or authors I should read (particularly LGBT titles - I would love to read some in honor of Pride Month!), let me know in comments!
(Please note that although this IS #MiddleGradeMay, these are decidedly adult titles and NOT middle grade!)
My first Alyssa Cole for the Romance Project and it won't be the last! I really enjoyed this modern romance with a strong, STEM-focused female lead. When Naledi starts getting emails claiming that she's betrothed to the prince of an African country, she's sure she's getting scammed. Meanwhile, Prince Thabiso is trying to track down the woman he's been betrothed to since they were children since his parents are insisting that he marry soon. It's an enjoyable romp that includes epidemiology and a private plane, so yes, please.
This book has made me a huge Christina Lauren fan and I'm going to now seek out all their books. This modern romantic comedy stars Hazel - a wild and wacky 3rd grade teacher who knows she's a little much sometimes - and Josh - a focused physical therapist and brother to Hazel's best friend. Hazel and Josh know they're nothing alike and completely undateable, but when Josh catches his long-term girlfriend cheating on him and Hazel tries to cheer him up, they spark up a friendship. This is a fun and funny steamy romance with such loveable characters that I couldn't put it down. This would make a great beach or airplane read.
Now this is a historical romance that I really enjoyed with a feminist slant and a heroine with a true sense of agency. Having entered the "spinster years" of her late 20s, Lady Calpurnia has all but given up on marriage. When her little sister happily announces her engagement, Callie starts to wonder what her impeccable reputation is doing for her if she's never going to be married. So, at her brother's urging, Callie starts a list of activities she would do if she was not worried about her reputation. Activities that a lady would NEVER do. Things like shooting a gun, drinking whiskey, and fencing. And then Callie starts to check activities off the list. This book was recommended to me by romance readers for a more feminist historical romance and it definitely checked all the boxes!
See, I told you that wouldn't be my last Alyssa Cole, and I enjoyed this one even more than the first Reluctant Royals book. This standalone sequel features Ledi's best friend Portia who is tired of being a fuck-up. When she gets the opportunity to apprentice at an armory in Scotland, she takes it and decides to debut the New Portia - no drinking, no men, just concentrating on her career and not letting anyone down. But she definitely didn’t bargain on a smokin’ silver fox of a boss and the instant connection they would feel... and she DEFINITELY didn't bargain for the fact that he would turn out to be the lost lost heir to a dukedom.
Have suggestions for me? I'd love to hear what titles and authors you recommend! Particularly LGBT, but any suggestions welcome!