In Ronald L. Smith’s novel Hoodoo, twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher’s family has a history of practicing hoodoo or folk magic. Despite his name Hoodoo can’t cast a single spell. His grandmother, Mama Frances, tells him that his heart-shaped birthmark under his eye is a sign he’s marked for magic and his ability to conjure will come in time, but Hoodoo’s time is rapidly running out. A mysterious and malevolent man called the Stranger has appeared in town and he’s stalking Hoodoo. Hoodoo has to discover the truth about his family’s past and find a way to conjure before the Stranger destroys Hoodoo and everyone he loves.
Part coming-of-age story, part Southern Gothic tale, Hoodoo is creepy and mysterious, perfect for any middle schooler who enjoys the supernatural. Even though the story is set in 1930s Alabama during Jim Crow, Hoodoo’s world is a self-contained society with its own secrets and powers. Hoodoo is a likeable and relatable narrator, struggling not just with supernatural forces but also with bullies and his first crush.
Smith currently lives in Baltimore and he recently won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. His writing is smooth and easy, with a rhythm to it that lends well to reading the book out loud. Hoodoo is a good read for any fan of scary stories, but fans of Lemony Snicket should definitely check this book out. Read the Between the Covers author interview of Ronald L. Smith here.
George Saunders is an award-winning author and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who’s made a name for himself writing dark, occasionally violent stories that satirize capitalism. In other words: not exactly bedtime material. But with his newest book, he decided he wanted to write exactly that: a story to tell his daughters at bedtime. To do this, he had to come up with a whole new bag of tricks and the resulting book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a refreshingly touching defense of tenderness.
The story takes place in the three shack seaside town of Frip, where a young girl named Capable lives with her father and makes a meager living producing goat’s milk with the rest of her community. Unfortunately, Frip is also home to some orange spiky baseball-shaped creatures called gappers who attach themselves to goats, stopping them from producing milk. Getting gappers off of goats is a constant chore for the people of Frip, until the gappers form a new strategy: to gang up on Capable’s yard all at once. Capable asks her neighbors for help, but, sadly, they’ve decided that their sudden gapper-free life is a reward for their good character and that Capable’s bad luck must be punishment for bad character. They offer her ridiculously impractical advice like, “Be more efficient than you’ve ever been before. In fact, be more efficient than is physically possible. I know that’s what I’d do.” In order to survive Capable will have to find a new way of life and a way to teach her neighbors the value of community.
As always, Saunders' prose is a comfort. Even in storybook mode he manages to be scathing and critical without sacrificing warmth, something not many writers have balanced since Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a reassuring voice, and, much like a good bedtime story, you’ll want to read this book again and again. If you have time, check out his most recent appearance on The Late Show to hear him sing a song inspired by Frip (Saunders is one of those rare guitar strumming MacArthur Geniuses).
Marianne Dubuc is an awarding-winning author and illustrator, but never before has she created such an absolutely mesmerizing book for children (or unselfconscious adults). In Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, we follow Mr. Postmouse as he delivers the mail, getting a sneak peek into a detailed cross-section of each animal abode on his route. Mr. Mouse must travel from treetops to the bottom of the sea in his quest to deliver the mail, but he is never too busy for a smile and a wave at each happy package recipient. Roller skates for turtle or a new shovel for mole, each package in the wagon must be delivered. The illustrations are bustling with details, and readers are sure to find something new each time they open this book. Every panel creates complex, funny characters like the yeti who loves to knit, the overeager ants and a very friendly dragon. While the text is amusing and easy to read, the book’s clever illustrations will win over readers of all ages.
Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins is a laugh-out-loud picture book that also gently pokes fun at our interest in cooking fancy, gourmet foods. Bruce is a grumpy little bear who only likes eggs. He scours the Internet for new and interesting ways to prepare them. No ingredient is too difficult for him to procure as he combs the forest, ever the local shopper. However, things get complicated when he finds a recipe online which calls for duck eggs. The eggs hatch as Bruce attempts to prepare them, and he finds himself the victim of mistaken identity when the ducklings think Bruce is their mama. This book has a great sense of humor and will delight both kids and the grownups they beg to read it again. The author infuses this same hilarity into the illustrations as well. I especially enjoyed Bruce’s unibrow and his many disgusted and disgruntled expressions.
Shawn Stout takes a break from her popular Penelope Crumb series to introduce young readers to Frankie Baum in her engaging new middle grade novel A Tiny Piece of Sky. It is 1939 in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Frankie Baum, the youngest of three sisters, is wondering if her German-born father really is a spy. Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winner, Kathi Appelt raves about this captivating coming-of-age story, “At turns hilarious, at turns heartbreaking, Shawn Stout’s story shows us the damage that a whisper campaign can do to a family and a community, and at the same time shows us, each of us, a way to find our hearts.”
Between the Covers: What was the inspiration behind A Tiny Piece of Sky?
Shawn Stout: A Tiny Piece of Sky was inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Albert and Mildred Beck, and their three daughters, in the 1930s. My grandfather, the son of German parents, was a restaurant owner and businessman in Hagerstown, Maryland, and amidst the post-WWI anti-German hysteria, he was falsely accused of being a Nazi spy. Following those accusations, there was an organized boycott of his restaurant, which sent him and my grandmother into a financial crisis and contributed to my grandfather’s early death.
I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about her family’s restaurant, about the rumors of espionage and about the boycott. Many decades later, after my grandmother died, we were cleaning out her apartment and found letters dated 1939 from local civic organizations, which voiced their support for my grandfather and his restaurant, and denounced the accusations that he was a German spy. I held onto those letters and knew that one day I would write about their story.
BTC: Frankie is Number Three, the youngest of three sisters and yet she is spunky and fun. Is her character autobiographical in any way? The sisterly relationships are so real. Did you draw on real life experience from your own family?
SS: Like Frankie, I’m a Number Three, so I do know what it feels like to be the last to do everything. (It doesn’t feel so great, let me tell you.) I certainly heard a lot of “No, you’re not old enough,” when I was a kid, so I can relate to Frankie’s frustrations. But that’s where our similarities end, I think. Frankie is much more adventurous than I was at her age, and she has a lot more gumption. Gumption. I love that word.
The relationship between the Baum sisters was really fun to write. I don’t think I consciously drew on any experiences from my own life, but it’s hard to say where things come from when I’m writing. Having an older brother and sister, though, has definitely helped shape who I am and made me sensitive to the dynamics between siblings.
BTC: You did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of life in a small city during the war. What kind of research did you do to create this authentic setting? What is your writing process like?
SS: Before I wrote a single word, I read a lot of books about pre-WWII era in the United States, and about anti-German sentiment and the super-patriotism of the time. I listened to radio broadcasts from the 1930s like “The Shadow” and dug up newsreels and local newspaper articles. I also interviewed family members and those few still living who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant in the 1930s. To get a feel for the place, I was able to find photographs dated 1938 of the restaurant and staff, as well as advertising postcards, matchbooks and an original menu.
My writing process is different for each book. For this one, I started out with the research and tried to immerse myself in the period. Then, once I felt as though I had enough of a handle on the time and place, I started writing. I knew I wanted to tell the story mostly through the youngest Baum’s eyes — Frankie’s — so I started with her character until I could find her voice. When I found it, the story started to take off.
BTC: One of the most impressive feats in this book is your ability to address injustice through Frankie’s eyes without preaching. So many children’s books seem to feel a need to teach a lesson and become didactic. How do you let the reader come to his/her own conclusion and avoid lecturing?
SS: That’s a great question. I try to stay inside my characters’ head as much as I can and let them react to what happens in the story as it unfolds. Honestly, as I’m writing, I’m rarely thinking about the reader — my focus is on the story and the characters — so the idea of teaching lessons or morals doesn’t ever occur to me. I learn so much about the world through my characters as I’m writing, so there’s no place for me, as the author, to preach to anyone.
BTC: What were some of your favorite books as a child and what do you tell children who ask for advice on how to be a writer?
SS: My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I was also in love with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. I still am, actually.
BTC: Will you share with our readers some of your favorite things about living in Maryland?
SS: I grew up in Maryland and continue to love living here for many reasons — watching the seasons change, being close to both the mountains and the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, and enjoying its eclectic cities. Maryland has so much to offer. I’ve lived here all my life and still haven’t explored everything.
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next?
SS: I’m working on a new middle grade novel, but it’s too early in the process to talk about it in very much detail. I will say that it has to do with a lonely girl, an unkindness of ravens and a bit of old magic.
Jo Franklin’s book I’m an Alien and I Want to Go Home begins with Daniel Kendal’s sister telling him, “You’re an alien, abandoned on Earth by your alien parents.” It’s a typical nasty remark that siblings say to each other but to Daniel, the statement makes sense. He is tall and lanky with brown hair and eyes. His parents and siblings are all short and stocky blonds with blue eyes. There are no baby pictures of Daniel, and the final bit of evidence comes from a paper clipping his mother saved regarding some sort of unidentified object crashing to earth the day Daniel was born. All of these factors make Daniel feel certain that he is an alien and needs to go home.
With the help of his two best friends, Eddie and Gordon, Daniel figures out that he must be from a distant planet known as Kepler22b. The problem is how can he contact his ‘real parents’ and get back to his home planet. Through a series of hilarious misadventures including a bizarre encounter with a group of self-proclaimed alien abductees, the trio set out to find a way to send Daniel to Kepler22b.
For any young people who have ever felt like they didn’t fit in, Daniel’s quest to get back to where he thinks he really belongs is both relatable and humorous. Franklin’s short chapter punctuated with clever dialogue and Marty Kelley’s quirky illustrations make this book a great choice in particular for reluctant readers.
Dealing with the loss of a parent is hard enough, but in Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, teenager Kai must learn how to continue on after the loss of almost his entire world. March 11, 2011, should have been a normal day for Kai and his classmates; instead, it quickly turns into horrific tragedy as the students struggle to escape as their hometown is destroyed by the Tohoku earthquake and the resultant tsunami. In the course of a few hours, Kai goes from a normal student who loves soccer to one of the few survivors left alive to salvage what they can from the destruction.
The story then follows Kai through the next year as, angry and grief-stricken, he must come to terms with what has happened to him. This includes travelling to New York City to meet with young adults who lost their parents 10 years previous on September 11. Kai is encouraged to go as a way to heal and connect with others like him, but agrees only when he realizes he has a chance to find his estranged American father if he goes. But once in New York, Kai gains a greater understanding of how tragedy shapes us, and is inspired to reclaim his life.
Author Lowitz was living in Tokyo when the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck Japan and took part in the volunteer relief efforts. While fictional, Up from the Sea is inspired by her experiences and by the survivor’s stories. Lowitz creates memorable images with very little description, allowing readers to share in both Kai’s grief and his burgeoning hope. Because it is a novel-in-verse, it’s a fairly fast and clear read, good for all kinds of readers. But that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of Kai’s journey from the dangers of the earthquake and tsunami to his struggles as he learns just how strong he can be.
Even though Kai’s loss is caused by an unexpected natural disaster, Kai’s personal journey is universal, one we all have or will have to face. Up from the Sea is ultimately a hopeful and encouraging story of humanity’s strength of will to persevere. Readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira.
Yo-Kai Watch is poised to become the next Pokemon! The Nintendo 3DS game about tracking and befriending cute little Japanese folklore-inspired ghosts has landed stateside and brought with it an anime show and a manga series. Kids everywhere can get their Yo-Kai fill no matter their preferred medium.
In the first volume of the manga, Yo-Kai Watch hero Nate Adams — an ordinary elementary school student — is on his way home one afternoon when he happens across a capsule machine made of stone. To Nate’s surprise, the machine still works and grants him a stone capsule. At first he feels slightly underwhelmed by the rock, but then it goes nuts and poofs out a floaty, unibrowed, blue Yo-Kai called Whisper.
Whisper is super grateful for being freed and pledges to serve Nate as his personal butler. He even gifts Nate a swanky watch...a Yo-Kai watch! The watch emits a special light that reveals the otherwise invisible Yo-Kai to its wearer, which Nate quickly realizes makes him his look like a crazy kid as he converses with his invisible familiar in front of his friends and family.
It’s for the greater good, though. Each chapter pits Nate and Whisper against a mischievous Yo-Kai hounding people around town. First is Jibanyan, a fiery two-tailed cat who vows to get revenge on the car that ran him over. Then there’s Happierre and Dismarelda, two bulbous spirits who alter the moods of everyone and everything around them but balance one another quite perfectly. Next comes Mochismo, an animated rice cake who haunts a child who never finishes his rice cakes whenever he’s treated to them. That’s not even all of the Yo-Kai Nate meets in volume one — they’re everywhere!
Children who know and love every last Pokemon or teens who grew up with the critters should definitely check out Yo-Kai Watch.
There’s a new kid at school, and the title of Patrick Jennings’s new book Odd, Weird and Little describes him perfectly. Toulouse is certainly odd — he dresses in a full suit and tie; he writes everything with a quill and ink, which is definitely weird; and he’s undeniably little: “kindergartner short,” according to our protagonist, Woodrow. Woodrow takes a liking to him anyway, and the two slowly become friends. Woodrow, often the subject of ridicule for many bullies himself, stands up for Toulouse despite his weirdness. However, even Woodrow can’t deny that Toulouse is not quite normal, perhaps even not quite human. For instance, he refuses to take off his gloves or hat. He rarely speaks, though when he does he has a musical, “flutey”-sounding voice. And he can climb higher on trees and ladders than any other 10-year-old kid should be able to. But Toulouse doesn’t say a word about being different, and Woodrow is too polite to ask.
Although Woodrow recognizes that Toulouse is a little odd, he empathizes with Toulouse rather than ostracizing him, understanding that he, too, can sometimes be a little odd. This book is a humorous, light read for children in grades 4 to 6, with traditional-yet-always-relevant messages about bullying: that it’s okay to make friends with the kid everyone is teasing, it’s okay to stand up for him and it’s okay to be a little different yourself.
If you’ve read every rendition of The Night Before Christmas and you know every line of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Polar Express, you might be looking for something different this holiday season. Here are just a few new picture books featuring some familiar characters.
In his third adventure, The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas written by Laura Murray and illustrated by Mike Lowery, the Gingerbread Man and his classmates prepare songs, cards and treats to show their appreciation for their neighbors and community helpers. Drama ensues during the delivery of gifts when the weather suddenly turns windy and snowy and the class returns to school…without the Gingerbread Man! With his icing dripping and his legs doughy, will he still be able to deliver his Christmas gift to a very special person?
In The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish written by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna, the pout-pout fish is gloomy because he has procrastinated his holiday shopping, and still needs to find gifts for all his friends. The gifts must be perfect in every way— big, bright and meaningful, with a little bit of bling. First, he is overwhelmed by choices, and then all the stores close, leaving Mr. Fish wondering how he will find all his just-right gifts before the Christmas party. This holiday-under-the-sea is a beautifully illustrated variation of the typical White Christmas setting.
When Santa Claus arrives at the castle with presents on Christmas Eve, three knights mistake him for an intruder and are determined to keep him out in The Knights Before Christmas written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Scott Magoon. Santa Claus is just as determined to reward the knights for their chivalrous deeds, and launches their goodies over the castle wall using a Christmas tree as a catapult. This book is a fresh and enjoyable take on the original poem, and the detailed illustrations filled with speech bubbles and puns will require several re-reads to appreciate all the humor.
A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius by Stacey Matson is the story of aspiring writer Arthur Bean. If you had to pick just one word to describe our young hero, that word would NOT be “humble.” Told largely through school writing assignments, journal entries, and emails, many of the laughs come from Arthur’s pompous and defiant attitude.
Arthur has no doubt that he will handily win this year’s short story competition — in addition to writing for the school newspaper, starring in the school play, and just generally being a seventh grader. His attention is further diverted by his crush on his writing partner Kennedy, and being forced to tutor his nemesis Robbie. On top of all that, his mother died recently, his father isn’t handling it well, and Arthur feels isolated from their extended family. It’s certainly not an easy time to be Arthur Bean. And it’s not surprising that he develops a crippling case of writer’s block.
Arthur’s confidence doesn’t waver despite never writing a single word of his short story. When he makes a choice that is even more duplicitous than usual, readers will wonder how he will justify his actions and get himself out of this tricky situation.
Fans of Gordon Korman’s Swindle and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series will enjoy Arthur’s antics. A sequel has already been published in the author’s native Canada.