If your kids love books about strong girls who have overcome considerable odds to achieve lasting success, then you must read this fabulous nonfiction picture book biography, How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine!Read More
“Own Voices.” It’s a prominent term in the children’s literature world right now. What is it, you ask? Own voices is a term coined to describe books written by authors that share a minority or marginalized trait with their main character. So in other words, these books aim to provide a more authentic perspective, then say, a white author writing about a Muslim main character, or an able-bodied author writing about a protagonist with a signifiant physical disability. When I learned about Ellie Terry’ Forget Me Not, an "own voices” novel in verse about a young girl struggling with Tourette’s Syndrome, I was immediately intrigued and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
Forget Me Not tells the story of Calliope “Callie” June, a seventh-grader with Tourette’s Syndrome who is constantly on the move with her mother, which means she is constantly having to start over at new schools. And what does that mean? It means Callie is constantly having to find ways to hide her embarrassing disorder that makes her so different than the rest of her classmates. When Callie arrives in a new town and makes friends with her neighbor, Callie finds something that resembles the smallest sliver of happiness. So what happens when Callie discovers that her mother might make her move, yet again, right as Callie is on the cusp of something special?
Forget Me Not is written in verse from Callie’s perspective and in prose from the perspective of Callie’s neighbor, Jinsong. Callie’s desire to be accepted among her peers is both honest and gut-wrenching as she struggles to understand her Tourette’s and hide it from those around her. But hiding it is impossible, and when her behaviors are on full display at school, the cruelty she experiences is heart breaking. Callie’s poetry is lyrical, deep and, at times, breathtaking. Add to this Jin’s story - one in which we feel his immediate affection for Callie, but watch as he struggles with own internal conflict: can he maintain his “cool” among his peers and still befriend the “weird girl”? Or will he risk social suicide by letting anyone realize how much he adores Callie? Their intertwined stories explore acceptance, connection and confidence, and the two share a heart-felt story you don’t want to miss.
Want the book? Get it here! Forget Me Not, by Ellie Terry. *This is an affiliate link.
I have read so few middle grade books touching upon a parent with mental illness, yet it affects an astounding number of adults in the United States. The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that 1 out of every 5 American adults experience mental illness in a given year. Of these, 1 in 100 American adults live with schizophrenia. What do these staggering statistics tell us then? Mental illness is not taboo. And the fact that there are so many adults afflicted means there are children struggling to make sense of a parent’s disease. How can we help these children feel less alone and more understood? One answer is to give them books in which they can see themselves and their stories.
Enter Where the Watermelons Grow, a powerful new middle grade novel by Cindy Baldwin. This beautiful book tells the story of Della Kelly, a tween girl whose mother suffers from schizophrenia. The book opens with Della’s mother digging seeds out of a watermelon in the middle of the night, talking to people only she can see, and Della at once knows her mother is being tugged back down a dangerous road that once landed her in the hospital for months. With her Dad distracted by trying to save the family farm and her mom spinning out of control, Della decides she is the only one that can heal her mama and save her family - and she refuses to let others in for help. Will Della be able to hold her family together as her mother’s symptoms worsen by the day?
I love Where the Watermelons Grow for so many reasons. First, its tackling of mental illness felt authentic at every step. It provided gut-wrenching, yet age appropriate details of schizophrenia, giving children a glimpse into this disease in a way that felt both informative for those who haven’t experienced it, and trustworthy for those who have. More importantly, though, I loved Della’s emotional journey and the way in which she matured during the story. Our protagonist went from keeping her mother’s secret buried deep down, not only for fear of what others would think of her family but because of her own fear that she somehow caused or contributed to the sickness. Yet as her mother worsened, Della matured enough to understand that not only was she in no way responsible for the illness, but allowing others to support her would give her the love and strength she needed to survive. Community can be healing, but sometimes, we shy away from that very notion because letting others in to our family secrets can be downright frightening. Della’s eventual acceptance of her mother’s schizophrenia - and the recognition that it is not a badge of shame upon her family- resonated deeply and reminds readers that all families struggle with challenges, but there are always people who will be there to help. We just have to let them in. A beautiful, tender and poignant novel.
For another, totally different yet wonderful read about a child struggling with a parent’s mental illness, check out our review of The Secret of Nightingale Wood, by Lucy Strange.
Want the book? Get it here: Where the Watermelons Grow, by Cindy Baldwin. *This is an affiliate link. HEE received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher, but all opinions contained herein are expressly our own.
I've always particularly loved window books. There's just so much to be learned by reading about a person so different from you, or a time period so removed from the one in which you live. From challenges faced to experiences had, the world seems to open at your fingertips, giving you glimpses into lives so opposite from your own. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I loved Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, by Dusti Bowling, a middle grade novel written about a girl with no arms.
Aven Green, the story's protagonist, is a spunky girl who loves to make up stories about how she lost her arms. But the truth is, she was simply born without them. And her adoptive parents wouldn't let her sit by and mourn a life of things she couldn't do. Instead, they made her work for everything she wanted -- she opens her own backpack and plays the guitar and eats her own food -- all with her feet. But life with no arms is not easy. Especially when you suddenly find yourself moving to a new state, starting a new school, and friendless. But when Aven meets Connor, a boy at her school struggling with Tourette's Syndrome, a new world opens up for both kids, and they not only learn how to help each other, but they learn a ton about themselves, too.
If your kids or students loved Wonder, this is a fabulous "read-a-like" that upper elementary children will devour. Equal parts humorous and emotional, with even some mystery thrown in for good measure, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus was a quick read that truly gave me much to ponder about my advantages as a fully able bodied woman. It is a book that will build bridges and empathy, taking the stigma away from "others" who may be different in certain respects, but who have the same yearnings for friendship and connection as everyone else. A beauty, and one I cannot wait to get into my students hands. Two trunks up!
Want the book? Get it here! Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, by Dusti Bowling.
Oh, you guys! I absolutely LOVED LOVED LOVED this book! The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Rebecca Strange was one of the best chapter books I’ve read in a long time. I found myself thinking about the novel while I was at school and while I was driving and during all of those times that I was so busy parenting yet all I wanted was to climb into my bed to get back to Henrietta and her story. It is absolutely no wonder that this was one of Amazon editors' top chapter book picks of 2017. In short - it was fabulous.
In The Secret of Nightingale Wood, Henrietta (AKA "Henry") and her family have just begun to settle into their new home at Hope House, but shortly after they arrive her father must leave and go abroad. To make matters worse, her beloved brother, Robert, has recently died, her mother is suffering from a debilitating mental illness, and their devoted Nanny Jane is doing everything the doctors tell her to take care of Mama, even if it means keeping Mama locked in a room and giving her medicine that keeps her sedated. Henry is distraught - but when she wanders into the adjacent Nightingale Wood one evening, she may just meet something -- or someone -- who will help her find the courage to change the lives of those she holds closest to her heart.
Considering the current state of our country and the battle raging around mental illness, The Secret of Nightingale Wood was an especially fascinating read when considering how such illness was treated and viewed in the early 1900s. I was captivated by Henry's insight and maturity, as well as her recognition that the doctors treating her mother were getting it all wrong. Even more haunting was Henry's own emotional state, and her constant agonizing over whether she, too, was actually going crazy -- or just looked upon as such. What a beautiful story this was -- I can't stress it enough. The characters are nuanced and real, their struggles are relatable, and the setting feels just ghostly enough to make its almost tangible beauty both mysterious and intriguing. A must read for your upper elementary kids and students. I could not put it down!
Want the book? Get it here! The Secret of Nightingale Wood, by Lucy Strange. *This is an affiliate link. HEE received an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions contained herein are expressly our own.
Some characters in literature have such vivid voices, they stay with you long after the last page of the story has been turned. So is the case with Ada Smith, the young protagonist in Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's powerful Newbery Honor book, The War That Saved My Life. This has been on my TBR list for quite a while, and now that I've finished it, I am eagerly awaiting the sequel. The War That Saved My Life is a compelling, character driven journey (my favorite!) highlighting one's will to survive... and eventually thrive. Ada's story is mesmerizing.
The War That Saved My Life is set in Great Britain during World War II. Ten year old Ada had a club foot and an abusive mother who is both mortified and ashamed by the fact that her daughter is crippled. She keeps Ada locked in their small apartment in London, and Ada has thus never seen grass or felt the sun's warmth on her face. When evacuations begin, taking children out of London and bringing them to the safety of the English countryside, Ada escapes her mother's wrath with her younger brother Jamie in tow. The two are placed in the care of a woman named Susan, and though Susan claims she is "not nice," Ada and Jamie may just learn what it means to love-- and be loved in return.
This book is a marvel, and Ada felt so authentic throughout the story. Ada's prior struggles and post traumatic stress make it challenging for her to adapt to her new surroundings, so change happens slowly- and Bradley handles her evolution deftly and with a masterful touch. There are so many different types of freedom fights in literature, and Ada's struggle to be free from an abusive parent and a crippling stereotype is at once poignant and triumphant. A must have for every tween and classroom library.
Want the book? Get it here! The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. *This is an affiliate link.
Guilt. It can be overpowering for an adult-- but even more so for a child. Guilt over a poor choice made at school, guilt over treating a friend badly, or in the case of Cyclone, the wonderful new middle grade novel by Doreen Cronin, guilt over a serious health issue they believe they somehow caused. This novel gripped me right from the start, both for it's intriguing premise and it's matter of fact and authentic narrator.
Cyclone begins when the narrator, 12 year old Nora, blackmails her older cousin into riding one of the oldest roller coasters at Coney Island. Riley is terrified, but she gives in and goes along with Nora. They ride successfully, but when they exit the rickety roller coaster, Riley collapses. It turns out Riley had a preexisting heart condition (and the ride specifically had signs saying it should not be ridden by anyone with heart problems!) which caused her to have a stroke-- a condition not solely reserved for adults. Nora is fraught with guilt, believing that she caused Riley's stroke, and this challenge is a through-line of the novel. What follows is the story of Riley's rehabilitation and eventual recollection of the events leading up to her collapse... and as the chapters unfold, we learn Riley, too, has a secret she feels to guilty to share.
Nora's voice is honest and pure, and her use of footnotes through the narrative not only ground the reader in the story but explain some of the important medical terminology to help children understand Riley's diagnosis. More importantly, though, Cyclone is extraordinarily relatable. It explores persistent feelings of guilt through both primary and secondary characters and deftly depicts the ways guilt can shape and challenge our relationships both with others and with ourselves. This is a pitch-perfect read for late elementary schoolers that provides them an avenue to safely examine their own feelings of shame or self-reproach, but also nurtures empathy as they root for Riley's rehabilitation. Two trunks up!
IF YOU LOVE NOVELS FOR TWEENS, YOU MUST CHECK OUT THESE POSTS TOO!
Want the book? Get it here! Cyclone, by Doreen Cronin. *This is an affiliate link.
If you love picture books about friendship, especially books that showcase empathy and inclusiveness, you will adore Be a Friend by Salina Yoon!
It's been a rough week for me, and I needed to take a break from social media. I needed some time to think about the world in which we live, the reasons I'm devastated about the results of the election, and the way I can convey to others that this has nothing to do with being a sore loser or which candidate had the better economic policy but everything to do with the tenor of hate that the results of the election is inspiring. It scares me. It makes me fearful for the world we will leave to our children. And so I come back more determined than ever to do what I can to stand up to the hate and to convey messages of love and inclusiveness at every opportunity I have. I turn to books.
Be A Friend, by Salina Yoon, is one of my absolute favorite books from 2016. In this sweet story we are introduced to Dennis, a young mime, who never uses words to convey his emotions. He is lonely- going through his days in solitude- until he is befriended by a little girl who catches his make-believe ball. The beauty of this story lies in the fact that Dennis's new friend does not try to make Dennis speak. Instead, the readers see that their newfound friendship transcends words. Even without talking, the children finds ways to communicate and easily establish a special connection with one another.
Be a Friend is poignant, wise and exquisitely crafted. It's message, despite its simplicity, packs a huge powerful punch. These kids are different from each other. And difference, to some, is scary. Or threatening. But it shouldn't be, and Be a Friend reminds us that we can easily find ways to accept each other- for our similarities and especially for our differences. We don't have to try to change others to conform with our personal expectations. Instead, unexpected beauty can be found in embracing the differences we see in our neighborhoods and on our playgrounds. Read this book. Read it a lot. And help your kids understand that they can bridge divides with nothing more than a smile- or engaging the lonely child at the park in a game of make-believe.
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Want the book? Get it here! Be a Friend, by Salina Yoon. *This is an affiliate link.
Perfection. It's a notion many of us strive for, but something so rarely met. Being the prettiest, the smartest, the fastest. The skinniest. The most popular. Or, to some, a more quiet, less showy pursuit of perfection: being the cleanest, the most organized, or the one most able to create order in their chaotic, everyday life. Is there ever an end point, one where a person can stand back and view his accomplishments with a satisfied smile, arms crossed over his chest, all while thinking to himself, yes! This is perfection! Or is perfection merely an illusion, something sought after with almost reckless abandon, until the seeker himself is so caught up in finding perfect that he or she loses himself along the way?
This is the idea behind Elly Swartz's thought-provoking and heart-wrenching debut novel, Finding Perfect, about twelve year old Molly Nathans, a sixth grader struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder. To Molly, perfection is the number four, the tip of a newly sharpened pencil, and her perfectly aligned glass animal figurines. Not perfect? Her mother's sudden absence to take on a new job. Molly concocts a plan to bring her mother back home, believing that if she wins her school's slam poetry contest, her mom will never miss the celebratory banquet. But writing her poems becomes increasingly harder as Molly's obsessive habits begin to spiral out of control, and the rest of her life suddenly does too. Will Molly's compulsions keep her in check, or will they actually be the very things preventing her from finding her own version of perfect?
Swartz's Finding Perfect is a stellar debut tackling obsessive compulsive disorder, a little discussed disorder that affects nearly 500,000 children in the United States. This is the first middle grade book I've come across discussing this mental health challenge, and it does so in an authentic, heartfelt and honest manner. Molly's voice is pitch perfect and emotionally resonant. Her obsession with perfection, made increasingly dire by her mother's absence, the trials and tribulations of being a middle schooler, and her sudden fear that a lack of order will adversely affect her brother's health, creates authentic desperation. Molly leaves readers heart broken -- yet achingly hopeful -- as her life spins out of control and she is unable to remove herself from the clutches of OCD's vicious web. Finding Perfect will ring true with all children struggling to find their own versions of "perfect" in a society increasingly focused on putting unrealistic demands on children, which often causes kids to place absurdly unrealistic expectations on themselves. An important read, a powerful read, and one that belongs in all middle and elementary school libraries.
Want the book? Get it here! Finding Perfect, by Elly Swartz. *This is an affiliate link.