Circus Mirandus

I’ve never been a big fan of the circus. I think I went once when I was a kid, and I was so freaked out by the clowns that I never thought to go back. If, however, there had been a whisper of something like Circus Mirandus during my childhood, I may have changed my tune.

As you’ve gathered by now, Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley is my latest read. It’s a nominee for the 17-18 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, and it’s simply magical. This book is perfect for readers who enjoy Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, and pretty much everything by Roald Dahl.

Micah Tuttle has grown up with his Grandpa Ephraim’s stories of Circus Mirandus, a magical circus that has to be believed to be seen. Micah believes. He believes in Bibi, the invisible tiger that guards the circus; the Amazing Amazonian Birdwoman, who flies and commands an enormous flock of birds; Big Jean, the smartest elephant ever; and, most importantly, the Man Who Bends Light, or the Lightbender, an extraordinarily powerful magician. Micah knows that all of it really exists, and he’d dearly love to see it someday, preferably with his beloved grandfather by his side.

Unfortunately, Grandpa Ephraim’s health is failing. Micah knows even telling stories about Circus Mirandus would make him feel better, but Aunt Gertrudis, Ephraim’s vile, mean-spirited sister isn’t having it. She thinks Ephraim’s stories are nonsense, and she does everything she can to keep Micah from seeing his grandfather and talking about the circus they both hold dear.

But Aunt Gertrudis may not have much choice in the matter. Circus Mirandus is real, and the Lightbender owes Grandpa Ephraim a miracle. Micah just knows that this miracle can save his grandfather’s life, and he’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that Grandpa Ephraim gets what he needs. Micah is joined in his efforts by his new friend, Jenny, a girl who doesn’t exactly believe Micah’s tales of the circus. She simply wants to help Micah.

Micah and Jenny set off to find Circus Mirandus and bring the Lightbender back to Grandpa Ephraim. The two find the circus, and it’s more magical than either of them could have ever thought. Micah is enchanted by it, much like his grandfather was years ago, and he knows something this wonderful surely has the power to save Grandpa Ephraim. But it may not be so easy.

The Lightbender seems hesitant to honor Ephraim’s requested miracle, and Micah doesn’t know why. He’s disheartened, but he soon learns a shocking family secret that may explain why the Lightbender is reluctant to fulfill his promise. Will that stop Micah from doing everything he can to help his grandfather, though? Absolutely not.

Will the Lightbender perform the miracle Grandpa Ephraim requested? Will Micah’s grandfather become healthy again so that Micah doesn’t have to live with his horrible Aunt Gertrudis? Or does destiny, and the Circus Mirandus, have something else in store for Micah’s future?


I know I’ve given too much away in this post, but once I got going, I didn’t want to stop. To be honest, I could write a lot more about this book. It’s poignant and spellbinding, and it calls to the reader’s imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope my students feel the same way.

I think this book is great for readers in upper elementary and middle grades. Readers as young as third grade will find something to love in this book–and even something to despise. Aunt Gertrudis is truly awful. For those Harry Potter fans out there, she’s almost as bad as Dolores Umbridge.

Circus Mirandus is the perfect book for anyone who’s ever wanted to run away and join the circus. Even if that’s never appealed to you, the book is excellent for readers who believe that there’s magic in the world. We really just have to open our eyes and be willing to see it.

For more information on Circus Mirandus, visit author Cassie Beasley’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Handful of Stars

As you may know, I don’t typically read dog books by choice. If I read a book with a dog on the cover, it’s usually because that book is on an award list, I’ve gotten a review copy, or a friend has guilted me into it. (Hi, Jessie!) Well, my latest read, a book with a dog front and center on the cover, is one of those that I felt I had to read, especially if I plan to promote it to my students. I picked up this book, Cynthia Lord’s A Handful of Stars, because it’s nominated for next year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Before I give a short synopsis of A Handful of Stars, I will tell you that I enjoyed this book. Despite the dog on the cover, the dog in the story, in my opinion, was not the biggest part of the story. More than anything, he precipitated the events that led to the book’s central relationship. I can live with that.

Lily never would have thought that her blind dog and a peanut butter sandwich could lead to a remarkable friendship, but that’s exactly what happened. When her dog, Lucky, slips his leash and rushes headlong into danger, it’s Salma Santiago’s sandwich that redirects him and saves the day.

Salma is a migrant worker who travels with her family to Lily’s hometown in Maine each year to work in the blueberry fields. Before now, Lily never gave much thought to the migrant workers, but her blooming friendship with Salma is opening her eyes. While Lily stays in one place, Salma moves from place to place all year long. That makes it hard to form lasting friendships or become part of a community. Even with those differences, though, the two girls form an almost instant connection

Lily and Salma grow even closer as they paint bee houses, plan to save Lucky’s eyesight, and prepare for the Downeast Blueberry Festival. The festival marks the end of the blueberry season, and one of the highlights of the event is a pageant. Lily isn’t interested in entering the pageant, but Salma is.

Lily isn’t so sure about Salma’s plans to enter the pageant. After all, no migrant worker ever has. She helps her new friend, though, because that’s simply what friends do. Salma may not be one of the local girls, but she contributes just as much to their community as anyone else, and she deserves to be a part of this special event.

Will Salma win the title of Downeast Blueberry Queen? Will Lily and Salma find a way to save Lucky’s eyesight? What will become of this special friendship once blueberry season ends? Answer these questions and many more when you read A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord.


In my opinion, A Handful of Stars is a particularly timely book. I think it emphasizes commonalities and bonds of friendship regardless of socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds. Lily and Salma’s relationship teaches all who read this book that a friend is a friend, no matter where they’re from or what they do. Sure, there may be bumps in the road, but the most important thing is to be there for each other. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a few adults who could stand to learn this lesson.

Aside from the larger themes in this book, A Handful of Stars is also great for introducing concepts like the relationships between bees and plants, expressing oneself through art, trying new things, and even caring for dogs with special needs. All of these different things give this special book broad appeal. I know I’ll have no problem selling this book to nearly all of my 3rd-5th grade students. (FYI, I think the book is a good fit for any upper elementary or middle grade reader…even one who may have an aversion to dog books.)​

Click here for more information on this book and others by Cynthia Lord.

See You in the Cosmos

It’s not very often that I read a book and think, “Man, I wish I’d listened to this as an audiobook.” But that’s just what happened with my latest read, See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng. The very nature of this book makes it a perfect story to listen to…providing you’ve got the right narrator(s). I haven’t experienced the audiobook, so I can’t speak to how well it’s done, but, like Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, this is a book that you probably need to hear to truly appreciate.

See You in the Cosmos is essentially a transcript of eleven-year-old Alex Petroski’s life. He’s recording the world around him on his Golden iPod–a tribute to the Golden Record launched by his hero, Carl Sagan–and everything that pops into his head goes into this record. But who is Alex making this recording for? Aliens, of course. Alex wants to show them what life on Earth is/was like and to provide them with the sounds of his home.

Alex talks about Carl Sagan and his canine namesake, his mom and her quiet days, his absent brother, and the rocket he’s built to launch his Golden iPod into space. He talks about his solo trip to SHARF (the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival) and the people he meets there. He also talks about what he’s discovered about his dad through Ancestry.com, and that’s what leads him on a journey that he never could have anticipated.

From his home in Colorado to New Mexico to Nevada to California and back again, Alex meets new people, makes friends, and finds a sense of family that will help him through some tough times ahead. And even when things get difficult, Alex keeps his sense of wonder about the world around him and his hope that things will work out. His attitude is contagious and may just help to change the lives and hearts of those around him.


Even without listening to this book, Alex’s voice shines through each page. He actually reminds me of one of my all-time favorite students. (Yes, all educators have favorites. Anyone who says different is lying.) My favorite student–or “My Boy,” as I like to call him–is inquisitive, funny, innocent, generous, very literal, and always wants to see the best in people…even when some of them don’t deserve it. That’s what I see in the character of Alex. He is all of those things I just mentioned, and he never holds a grudge against those who wrong him. It would have been all too easy, but, at least in my mind, Alex’s focus on the larger universe allows him to truly see the bigger picture.

So what age-range would I recommend See You in the Cosmos to? Well, I think some upper elementary readers may like it, but I think this book is ideally suited for a middle grade audience, particularly readers who appreciate science. It’s a fun, sometimes light-hearted, read, but it also deals with serious stuff like abandonment, mental health, family secrets, and holding onto true friends.

See You in the Cosmos isn’t like any book I’ve read in recent memory, and I’m betting anyone else who gives it a try will feel the same way. Read it, and let me know what you think. If you’ve read it as an audiobook, I’d also love to get your take on how that experience may differ from the print version.

For more information on this book and others by Jack Cheng, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Last Kids on Earth

My latest read, also a nominee for the 17-18 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, is so popular with my students that I had to buy a new copy and read it quickly before adding it to my library collection. After reading it myself, I can see what all the fuss is about.

The Last Kids on Earth, the first book in a series written by Max Brallier and illustrated by Douglas Holgate, is a hilariously funny look at a world that has been taken over by monsters and zombies. Yes, I know that doesn’t sound like a premise for a funny book, but it totally works here. That’s primarily because of the voice of the main character, Jack Sullivan, and the awesome illustrations peppered throughout the book. You’ll see what I mean when you give this book a whirl.

Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. You’ve got some serious competition here.

Jack Sullivan didn’t set out to be an action hero, but it just can’t be helped when the world is ravaged by the monster apocalypse. Alone and on the lookout for his best friend, Jack lives in a tricked-out treehouse, and he occupies his time by completing increasingly dangerous, self-imposed challenges–or Feats of Apocalyptic Success. Anything to keep monsters, zombies, and boredom at bay.

Unfortunately for Jack (who has endured more than his share of misfortune already), he’s attracted the attention of the worst monster he’s ever encountered, a fearsome creature called Blarg. Jack’s going to require some help to defeat Blarg–if that’s even possible–so he needs Quint, his best friend and a scientific genius, more than ever. Luckily, things are about to look up a bit for Jack.

Jack eventually reunites with Quint, and the two really get to work on making their treehouse home into a true fortress. We’re talking spikes, catapults, bottle-rocket launchers, and much more. They even have a souped up vehicle called Big Mama with monster-fighting capabilities. And when they team up with Dirk, a reformed school bully, and Rover, a lovable dog-like monster, these guys may just be unstoppable. Jack may finally have what he needs to complete his ultimate Feat of Apocalyptic Success–rescuing June Del Toro, his longtime crush.

Jack is sure that June is still out there somewhere, a damsel is distress just waiting for him to save her. He and his crew go on a search for June in their old middle school, but they’re not exactly prepared for what they find. It seems that June doesn’t really need rescuing. (She’s saved herself, thank you very much.)

June is a warrior in her own right, and she somewhat reluctantly agrees to join forces with Jack and company…and just in the nick of time, too. The ferocious Blarg is making a beeline for Jack, and he’ll need all the help he can get to defeat this big baddie.

Will Jack and friends be able to destroy Blarg so they can get back to their regularly scheduled monster apocalypse? Stay tuned to find out!


Given that this is the first book in a series, I’m pretty sure you can guess how the action in The Last Kids on Earth turns out. Read it anyway. The humor alone makes this book worth reading, whether you can predict the ending or not.

When it comes to using this book in a classroom setting, I can see this being hugely popular as a read-aloud, especially in 4th or 5th grades, maybe even in middle school classrooms. Kids (and adults) are sure to laugh out loud, and they’ll experience a truly stellar example of a character’s voice driving a story.

I am 100% terrified of zombies, but I couldn’t get enough of this book, and I’m eager to read the second installment, The Last Kids on Earth and the Zombie Parade. (Yippee. More zombies.) If book two is anything like the first, I’m sure I’ll be highly entertained. It’s already out, and I have several new copies in the library, so I’ll read it in the near future.

According to Goodreads, there should be at least one more book in this series, The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King. It should be out on September 26th of this year. If that’s the case, I’ll make a run to the bookstore as soon as I can to get a bunch of copies for my students…and myself, of course.

If you’d like to learn more about The Last Kids on Earth, visit author Max Brallier’s website. You may also want to take a look at the book trailer below. It gives a bit more information on this book than I covered in my post. Enjoy!

Nooks & Crannies

Greetings, earthlings. I realize it’s been a while since my last post, and the reason for my absence can be explained in two words–book fair. Yes, my spring book fair pretty much consumed my life for about ten days, and I barely had the energy to drive home from work and fall into bed, much less form coherent thoughts about what I was reading. But I was reading during this stressful event, and I bring you my thoughts on my latest read today.

Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson was recently named as a nominee for the 2017-18 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. It’s being marketed as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue, and I’d say that’s a fairly fitting description. It’s funny, perplexing, sometimes infuriating, and rather entertaining. I look forward to discussing this book with my students and getting their take on this engrossing and somewhat convoluted mystery.

Tabitha Crum never expected a piece of paper to change her life. But when she and five other children are invited to the estate of the Countess of Windemere, she knows some type of change is coming. Maybe that’s a good thing. After all, her life thus far has been anything but grand. Her parents barely tolerate her presence, her only friend is a mouse named Pemberley, and her future may involve washing dishes at the local orphanage.

When Tabitha arrives at Hollingsworth Hall, she quickly realizes that all is not what it seems…and her inner detective comes to life. She and the other five children have been invited here for a very specific reason–something that rocks them all to their cores–but the eccentric Countess appears to have more sinister motives for this invitation. And when, one by one, the children begin disappearing, Tabitha knows she–and her trusty mouse, Pemberley–must investigate all of the strange happenings around her.

What–or who–could be to blame for this unfolding mystery? Could the rumored ghosts that inhabit the manor truly exist? Is the butler responsible, or could it be the Countess herself? Whatever’s going on, Tabitha is determined to get to the bottom of it, but even she may be unprepared for what she uncovers.

Secrets will be revealed, and those secrets could have the power to change Tabitha’s life and the lives of those around her. What will Tabitha discover in the nooks and crannies of Hollingsworth Hall? You’ll have to see for yourself…


As is the case in many children’s books similar to this one, most of the adults in the book are absolutely horrendous. This is especially true of Tabitha Crum’s parents. I wanted to reach through the pages of the book and give both of them a good shake. Truly horrible people. The same is true for many of the other adults depicted…and some of their kids as well. (The apple doesn’t fall far, does it?) Luckily, those bad apples ultimately get what’s coming to them in the end, so karma (or the Golden Rule, if you prefer) is, in my opinion, a big deal in this book.

I think Nooks & Crannies is a great selection for upper elementary and middle grade readers–or anyone who likes a good mystery, really. I also think this book might make for a good class read-aloud. A book like this one is sure to keep kids engaged and eager for more.

If you like Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, or Sherlock Holmes, you’ll find something to love in Nooks & Crannies. I found this book to be charming, thrilling, delightfully whimsical, and absorbing. I’m hoping my students feel the same way. (If I do my job well promoting the book, I’m sure they will.)

To learn more about Nooks & Crannies and Jessica Lawson, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Sometime next week, I’ll put together a book trailer for this book. If you’d like to see it when I finally post it, visit my YouTube channel.

Where I Belong

When I first became an elementary school librarian, I figured out pretty quickly that Mary Downing Hahn was the go-to author for scary stories. I guess that’s why the book I finished last night surprised me a bit. While parts of Where I Belong are horrific, it’s not the scary book I typically expect from this author. Oddly enough, some of my students who have no problem with ghosts, gore, or stuff like that find a few of the situations in this book a little too disturbing. It kind of makes me evaluate what really frightens people.

Brendan Doyle expects people to be mean to him. It’s pretty much all he’s known. Abandoned by his mother when he was little, Brendan has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. His current foster mom, Mrs. Clancy, doesn’t know what to do with him, and his teachers seem to feel the same way. Brendan doesn’t care much about school, so he doesn’t see why he should even try to pass the sixth grade. He doesn’t want to go to middle school anyway.

As for relating to other kids, he doesn’t. Brendan hasn’t a friend in the world, and he spends much of his time alone. He’s bullied by other kids and by a trio of ruffians who delight in terrorizing everyone they meet.

Brendan finds some measure of peace in his books, art, and visiting the forest nearby (which he’s sure is enchanted). One day, after building a private treehouse in the woods, Brendan meets an old man. He’s convinced this guy is the Green Man, the protector of the forest. Brendan looks to the Green Man as an ideal, someone to aspire to. Maybe he can escape real life and live in the forest someday, too.

Back in the real world, sixth grade is over, and Brendan is now attending summer school. He’s not enthused, even with a decent teacher and a possible friend, a girl named Shea. Shea follows him around–even when he tells her to get lost–and just will not allow him to ignore her. Almost against his will, the two become friends, and they find common ground in their love of fantasy, the forest, and family lives that aren’t so great. Shea even convinces Brendan to try a little harder at school so that she’ll have a friend in middle school. Maybe things are beginning to up for Brendan.

Unfortunately, things don’t stay so great for long. Once again, Brendan becomes the victim of the three hooligans who have given him a hard time before. This time, though, they take things a step or two further. Brendan wonders why the Green Man, guardian of the forest, doesn’t come to help him. He feels lost, broken, and alone, and he doesn’t know what to do.

But Brendan is not alone. He has Shea. He has the Green Man (who has a story all his own). He has his summer school teacher. He even has Mrs. Clancy. With their help, maybe he can find some hope. He may even find the courage to stand up to his tormentors and see justice done.

Soon, Brendan will discover that hope and friendship can overcome even the darkest times, and he’ll finally find out where he belongs.


I think I’ve made this book sound pretty good (not to pat myself on the back or anything). It is good, but I didn’t like as much as I wanted to–as much as I usually like Mary Downing Hahn books. I did cry at the end, so I was invested emotionally. I guess that’s something, but I much prefer Hahn’s spooky stories. I’m betting my students will feel the same.

Some of the situations Brendan finds himself in are, in my view, a bit too gritty for most elementary school kids. I’m thinking specifically of his run-ins with the three ruffians mentioned in my synopsis above. I think the book as a whole is fine for mature 4th/5th graders or middle school students, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a lot of my younger or less mature students. I just don’t think they’re developmentally ready for some of what Brendan encounters. (Feel free to disagree in the comments.)

For more information on Where I Belong and other books by Mary Downing Hahn, visit the author’s website.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

A word to the wise: Don’t stay up late reading a Neil Gaiman book and expect to get any sleep. I’m dragging today after finishing The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it was worth it.

If you’re at all familiar with Gaiman’s work, you probably already know that this book, like so many of his others, is creepy, magical, strange, and thought-provoking. It’s written for an adult audience, but there’s something childlike about it as well. It explores the fears of a young boy and how he views the terrifying world around him. Did everything happen just as he remembers? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. In my opinion, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, while delving into one man’s memories of his childhood, also explores the themes of hope, facing one’s fears, accepting help, and believing in magic.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a man returning to his hometown for a funeral. In an effort to escape all of the condolences being offered, he decides to explore the area once so familiar to him. He goes past where his childhood home once stood and makes his way to the lane leading to the Hempstock farm. It is here that he begins to remember the events that took place when he was just seven years old.

When he was seven, he met Lettie Hempstock, a girl who seemed larger than life and who believed that the pond at the end of the lane was an ocean. Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother were all wise, magical, mysterious, and somehow timeless. They knew things that no normal person possibly could. The boy didn’t know quite what to make of these ladies, but he intrinsically trusted them.

Following the death of an opal miner, a strange darkness entered the world. The boy looked to Lettie Hempstock to beat the darkness back, but it somehow found a way into his life–into his very body.

The seemingly impossible events that followed shook the boy to his core and terrified him completely. The darkness that plagued him took human form and threatened every aspect of the boy’s life, even the sense of safety he should have felt in his own home, with his own family. How could he possibly fight something that scared him so deeply? Where could he look to for help?

Only the Hempstock family had the power and knowledge to help the boy. But how? What could these women possibly do to rid his world of this ancient evil? What would have to be sacrificed to save his life? And would that sacrifice ultimately be worth it?


I’m still pondering some of the mysteries in this book. Gaiman, a master storyteller, doesn’t give readers all of the answers. Some things are left to our imaginations (which is awesome).

A few unanswered questions:

  • What is the main character’s name? We never know his name or the names of his family members. Only the Hempstock ladies and a couple of other memorable characters are named outright.
  • Who died and precipitated the main character’s visit home? We know it’s not his sister, as it’s mentioned that she’s waiting on her brother. Is it his mom? His dad? Who led him home?
  • What’s the deal with the Hempstocks? Are they three incarnations of the same person? Perhaps some version of the Triple Goddess–the Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden? I honestly don’t know, but this seems the most plausible explanation given the events of the book and what we learn about this family.
  • Why does it take revisiting the “ocean” to jump-start the main character’s memories? One would think something so traumatic would have been impossible to forget. Also, what exactly is this ocean? Where did it come from, and what’s the source of its power?
  • Did the events he remembered really happen? Were they the imaginings of a child to cope with something he couldn’t understand? Or is it the adult who forgets in order to cope with something that should have been impossible? How does the man as an adult explain what happened?

Maybe you’ve figured out the answers to all of these questions. Maybe not. As for me, I’ll be thinking about these things–and a few more–for a while.

Like I mentioned before, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is written for an adult audience, but some teens may enjoy it (particularly if they’re already Neil Gaiman fans). It’s deep, intense, and it does play with your mind a bit, but give it a whirl if that’s your kind of thing.

For more information on this book and others by Neil Gaiman, check out the author’s website.