It’s back-to-school time at our house, and I have the perfect book recommendation for the occasion: The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin. It’s thought-provoking and lots of fun. Larrabee liked it too.
Caitlyn is the new kid in the 7th grade. She’s not happy about leaving her friends in New York behind to move to a small town in Vermont. To make matters worse, her new school has only ten other students, and most of them have known each other since kindergarten. Worst of all, she finds that she’s taken the place of the legendary Paulie Fink, who’s described as a troublemaker, master prankster, and evil genius, and is sorely missed by the rest of the class.
Caitlyn is preoccupied with the unwritten rules of fitting in, but nothing she learned in her previous school seems to apply in this unconventional crowd. Soon, the others convince her to plan and judge a reality show-style contest to name the Next Great Paulie Fink. As she finds her place in this new group, she reevaluates the way she treated other kids in the past.
There are lots of things to like about this book: the way the class’s lessons in Greek philosophy take on surprising relevance to their lives, the 7th graders’ relationships with the “minis” (kindergarteners), all the humorous Paulie stories, and, of course, the goats.
The Newbery winners are always interesting, well-written books. But, let’s face it. Some of them aren’t the type of book you’d choose to read during your last week of summer vacation.
This year’s winner–Merci Suárez Changes Gear by Meg Medina–is an exception. It’s a heart-warming and funny coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old Cuban-American girl. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it.
The story begins on Merci’s first day of sixth grade at Seaward Pines Academy, a fancy private school she attends on a scholarship. The new school year brings a lot of unwelcome changes for Merci. She misses her fifth grade homeroom teacher, she wishes she could still play sports with the boys during recess, and she feels like she’ll never figure out how to get along with Edna, the most popular girl in her class.
Things are changing at home too, where Merci lives with her extended family in three neighboring houses they call Las Casitas. Her older brother is learning to drive and applying to colleges. Merci is asked to take more responsibility for her younger twin nephews. Most importantly, her grandfather, Lolo, who has always been her companion and confidant, seems unusually forgetful lately and sometimes gets angry for no reason. Merci is worried, but no one will tell her what’s wrong.
The story alternates between Merci’s life at school and her life at home during the first half of her sixth grade year, and both parts are equally engaging. My favorite scene is one in which Merci and her classmates make a mummy for their Great Tomb Project in social studies class. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it will make you wince and giggle.
If you just have time to read one more book this summer, I recommend this one.
Spark by Sarah Beth Durst is a delightful fantasy for middle grade readers.
Twelve-year-old Mina is a quiet girl. She lives with her boisterous family on a farm in Alorria, a land with perfect weather thanks to the storm beasts and their guardians.
Mina has always dreamed of being a storm guardian, and for the past two years, she’s been caring for a storm-beast egg. But when her egg hatches, she discovers that she’s bonded not with a gentle sun or rain beast but with a fiery lightning beast named Pixit. Despite her family’s misgivings, Mina and her beast eagerly set forth to learn their duties at lightning school.
School is full of challenges for a shy, calm girl like Mina, though. The other students are so reckless and confident, and she worries that she’ll never fit in. Just as she’s starting to find her place, she accidentally crosses the border during a thunderstorm and learns that the Alorrians’ control of the weather has disastrous consequences for the outsiders. But what can one girl and her storm beast do to right this wrong?
Larrabee and I love books with lovable non-human characters like Bob (Bob), Charlie (Sweep), Squorp (The Menagerie), or Inkling (Inkling). And Pixit is one of our new favorites! His irresistible combination of innocence, wisdom, and humor made us smile.
Mina is a terrific heroine too. This is not a book about a quiet girl who learns to speak up. Rather, it’s a book about a quiet girl who learns that she can be a leader in her own quiet way.
If you’re looking for an action-packed summer read, check out Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard books. Larrabee discovered the first one, Recruit, on the first day of summer vacation and has since binge-read the whole series.
In the first book, 14-year-old British kickboxing champion, Connor Reeves, is recruited into a top-secret squad of teen bodyguards trained to protect young celebrities. After some intense training, he travels to Washington, DC for his first mission: to guard the President’s high-spirited daughter.
Kids who like the Alex Rider series will like this one too. Both series are fast-paced and have a similar mix of action and suspense. Like the Alex Rider series, the Bodyguard books contain some violence and so are appropriate for older (grades 5+) readers.
You should be warned that the publisher has republished each of the original four books in two parts, so you’ll need to get the books two at a time. (Larrabee and I learned this the hard way.) Recruit ends with a major cliffhanger, and the rest of the story is in the second book, Hostage.
One of the coolest things about these books are all the fascinating details about the way bodyguards assess threats and counter dangers to their principal. After reading them, you’ll find yourself walking around in Code Yellow.
Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. If your kids are intrigued, check out Rocket to the Moon! by Don Brown, a history of rockets in graphic novel format. Starting with the first Chinese firecrackers, Brown traces the innovations and discoveries that led to the manned missions to the moon.
This book is full of interesting information. Larrabee read it in a day and quoted facts from it to me for weeks afterward. My personal favorite tidbit is that three early rocket scientists from three different countries were all inspired by the same novel: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Hooray for science fiction!
Rocket to the Moon! is the first book in Brown’s Big Ideas That Changed the World series. I’m looking forward to the next one.
Tinn and Cole Burton, the main characters of William Ritter’s Changeling, are twins. They look identical in every respect, and they get into all the same mischief. But only one of them is a human boy. The other is a goblin changeling. And neither knows which one he is.
Then, just before their 13th birthday, the twins find a note in their favorite climbing tree. The note instructs the changeling to return alone to the goblin horde the next day or else magic in the Wild Wood will die, the horde will die, and he will die.
Tinn and Cole are not entirely sure the note is real, but they can’t take the chance that one of them might die if they do nothing. So they decide to follow the map enclosed with the note into the Wild Wood and across the swamp known as the Oddmire to find out who they really are. Along the way, they meet strange creatures and face many dangers.
Changeling is a fast-paced fantasy adventure. It has a fairy tale-like feel that reminded me of The Girl Who Drank the Moon. My favorite thing about the book was how Tinn and Cole wrestle with the uncertainty about which one of them is a goblin and what that will mean for the other one and for their relationship.
This book is the first in a new series (The Oddmire). Some series openers have frustrating cliffhanger endings, but I’m pleased to report that this book does not fall into that trap. It provides a couple of tantalizing clues about the next book, of course, but it resolves the main story questions raised in this one in a satisfying way.
Thank you to Algonquin Young Readers and NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book. Its expected publication date is July 16.
I watched The Parent Trap over and over when I was a little girl. I loved the story of two identical twins raised apart who meet at summer camp and scheme to reunite their divorced parents.
To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer caught my attention because its premise sounded like The Parent Trap in reverse. Two twelve-year-old girls, Avery and Bett, are being raised by single, gay dads on opposite sides of the country. When their dads meet at a conference and fall in love, they decide to send the girls to the same summer camp. But Bett finds out and emails Avery. The two agree that they don’t want to meet at camp, and they don’t want their families to change.
The story is told entirely in letters (mostly emails) over the next year and a half. I’m not always a fan of epistolary novels, but this one works because the two girls have such distinct personalities and writing styles. Avery (a.k.a. Night Owl) is an intense New Yorker who worries about a lot of things. Bett (a.k.a. Dogfish) is an outdoorsy and fearless Californian. It’s fun to see the story unfold through their different viewpoints.
My dad is a big Civil War buff, and I grew up among the battlefields of Middle Tennessee, so I was intrigued by a middle grade novel about a twelve-year-old Civil War reenactor. The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody by Matthew Landis did not disappoint. It’s a terrific school friendship story with a historical mystery on the side.
Oliver is an expert on the Civil War, so he’s thrilled about his new social studies project. But then he gets paired with Ella, a girl who never does her homework and is rumored to be failing the 7th grade. To make matters worse, they’re not assigned one of the famous generals he knows so much about. Instead, they’re tasked with researching Private Raymond Stone, a low-ranking soldier who lived near their Pennsylvania town and died of dysentery.
Both Private Stone and Ella turn about to be a lot more surprising–and complicated–than Oliver expected. The same could be said for this book. I recommend it.
In the first chapter of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart, 12-year-old Ella (a.k.a. Coyote) accepts a free kitten from two boys outside a mini mart. Despite her dad Rodeo’s strict no-pets policy, she smuggles the kitten aboard their converted school bus home. And she names him Ivan after the gorilla in her favorite book, The One and Only Ivan. At that point, I was hooked and eager to follow Coyote on her remarkable journey.
Coyote and her dad have been living on the road for five years. They haven’t been back to their home in Washington state since her mother and two sisters were killed in a car crash. But one day, when they’re in Florida, Coyote talks to her grandmother on the phone and learns that her neighborhood park is going to be torn down in less than a week. She and her mother and sisters buried a memory box in that park, and she’s determined to retrieve it. The problem is that home is even more of a no-go than a pet for Rodeo. So, Coyote hatches a plan to get back there without her father figuring out their true destination. Along the way, they pick up several interesting passengers with missions of their own, and they have lots of adventures.
I recommend this book to anyone who likes a good road trip story. It’s one of those stories that has sad parts but overall has an upbeat tone. Larrabee enjoyed it too. Thanks to my friend Lindsay for recommending it to me!
The minute Larrabee finishes a book he loves, he always asks, “Is there a sequel?”
If, like us, you loved The Doughnut Fix by Jessie Janowitz (a 2018 Cybils finalist), then I have good news for you. Tris’s adventures continue in The Doughnut King!
The doughnut business that Tris started with his friend Josh is a huge success. It’s so popular, actually, that they can’t keep up with demand, and that’s a problem. Meanwhile, the town of Petersville has problems too. If it’s not able to attract tourists, it may disappear.
When all his other options to fix his supply issues fail, Tris reluctantly goes on a reality TV kids’ cooking show in the hopes that he can use the prize money to buy a doughnut-making robot to save his business and his new town. But the contest will test more than just his baking skills.
The best thing about this book is the characters. They’re vivid and interesting, especially Tris and his family. His dad speaks French when he gets angry and takes on crazy projects, such as trying to make maple syrup from sycamore trees. His mom, a professional chef, thinks baking is a more important life skill than swimming. His middle sister Jeanine is an academic superstar, and his youngest sister Zoe eats chocolate cream straight from the pastry gun. And Tris is one of those ordinary kids who ends up doing extraordinary things.
I recommend this book to kids who are foodies, bakers, entrepreneurs, or fans of fun stories. Just don’t read it when you’re hungry!
Thank you to Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Netgalley for giving me the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book. Its expected publication date is May 7.