Ruby on the Outside

Last night, I finished yet another of next year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees. This book, Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin, was a quick but powerful read, and it handled a difficult subject with a great deal of sensitivity.

What is life like for kids whose parents are in prison? Well, Ruby Danes can tell you that it’s not easy. She doesn’t want to tell anyone the truth of her mom’s situation and risk becoming an outcast. That makes forming real friendships very difficult. But Ruby is getting ready to begin middle school, and what she wants more than almost anything is her very own best friend to face the future with her.

As it turns out, Ruby may just get what she wants. A new girl, Margalit, has moved in nearby, and she and Ruby hit it off almost instantly. They spend most of their summer days together, and Ruby thinks she’s finally found the best friend she’s been looking for. Can she trust Margalit with her secret, though? Would Margalit judge Ruby for her mother’s crimes?

When Ruby begins to piece together what led to her mother’s incarceration, she doubts that Margalit could ever want to be best friends. It seems that Margalit’s family may be closely tied to the crime that landed Ruby’s mom in prison. This devastates Ruby, and it forces her to finally deal with some deep feelings that she has toward her mother.

Will Ruby be able to forgive her mother for the decisions she made in the past? Will she be able to reveal her secret to Margalit and find the friend she needs? Find out when you read Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin.


Ruby on the Outside is an important book to add to upper elementary and middle school library collections. It addresses a situation that is often overlooked, but, like it or not, that situation is all-too-real for many children, even those in our own spheres of influence.

This book is not preachy, overly optimistic, or terribly gritty, but it does offer a simple, realistic, and touching look at the life of one girl dealing with her mom’s imprisonment. That one thing colors nearly everything in Ruby’s life, and it’s interesting to see how she looks at things that most of us may take for granted. Something as simple as “Have your mom sign this permission form,” for example.

Ruby on the Outside is a powerful little book with many big lessons. I hope many students and teachers in my school–and many others–will give this book a chance and use it to foster discussions about empathy, forgiveness, and friendship.

To learn more about Ruby on the Outside and other works by Nora Raleigh Baskin, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads. You can also hear more about this book from the author herself in the video below. Enjoy!

Advertisements

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.

Atlantia

Atlantia, a stand-alone novel by Matched author Ally Condie, had been sitting on my bookshelf for while. A few weeks ago, I decided to finally read it. It was not quite what I was expecting. I wanted to like it as much as I did the Matched series, but something held me back…and I’m not even sure what it was. For whatever reason, I just didn’t connect to this book. Maybe I’ll be able to work that out throughout the course of this post.

Rio longs to be Above. She’s lived Below, in her underwater home of Atlantia, for her entire life, but she’s never really felt like she belongs here. Even though she’s promised her sister, Bay, that she’ll stay with her Below, a part of her longs for the sand, sun, and sky Above.

It’s understandable, then, that Rio feels a sense of betrayal when her sister makes the stunning decision to go Above herself. Left Below alone, Rio is adrift, torn from the last person who truly knew her and her secrets. You see, Rio is a siren–one of the last of these powerful beings–and she’s always hidden her true voice from those around her. Could this secret have something to do with her sister’s abrupt departure? And could it be the key to Rio finding her way Above?

Eventually, Rio comes to realize that she’s not as alone as she thought. Her aunt, also a siren, is determined to help Rio find her voice and get in touch with her true power. Why though? Can this woman, who was never before part of Rio’s life, be trusted? Does Rio even have any choice in the matter if she wants to be reunited with her sister? What exactly is her aunt’s agenda?

As Rio comes to terms with her own power and her family’s actions, she uncovers some terrible truths about Atlantia itself. It seems that terrible forces are at work that will ensure the destruction of not only Atlantia but every siren who still exists. It also appears that Rio may be the only hope to stop these horrible events from occurring.

What can Rio do to turn the tide? How can she, an untried siren, possibly thwart the powers that would seek to destroy her? Who can she rely on to save herself and the only home she’s ever known?


I would categorize Atlantia as science fiction…even though it’s billed as fantasy. It seems obvious to me that the entire concept of this underwater city comes about because of the damage done to the environment Above. The societies in this book found a way to build a fully-enclosed, underwater city where people could live free of pollution. Once there, sirens–and others with special abilities–evolved due to their new surroundings. Industry revolved around keeping the city intact, and there was a certain amount of interdependence between Above and Below. Even religions changed (or were formed) to explain these new dynamics. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on all of this, I find it fascinating, and it helps me to have a more positive outlook on this book as a whole. (I’m still not overly fond of Rio or the somewhat forced romance in the book, but that’s probably my issue.)

Atlantia, in my opinion, is a good fit for libraries that serve middle grade and teen readers. There are some interesting family dynamics, a decent mystery, supernatural elements, and a bit of romance…something for everyone, I guess. It may not be my absolute favorite book, but it makes me think, and that’s all I can really ask for.

To learn more about Atlantia and Ally Condie, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with the author on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

My latest read, Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, is another nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that enthused about reading this book. I didn’t want to read one more book where kids take on too much responsibility because the adults in their lives have–in one way or another–abandoned them. (I kind of got my fill of that when I read Keeping Safe the Stars, another SCCBA nominee.) But, since I do promote all twenty SCCBA nominees, I plowed through, and, while Summer of the Gypsy Moths is not exactly my favorite book on the nominee list, I can say it was a good book, and I know many young readers will enjoy it.

While Stella’s flighty mother is drifting from one town to the next, Stella is sent to live with her Great Aunt Louise on Cape Cod. Even though Louise is kind of grumpy sometimes, Stella likes living with her. Louise keeps things nice, neat, and orderly, something Stella’s mom never did. Stella has high hopes that her mom will eventually settle in Cape Cod with her and Louise, and they’ll be a happy family.

One obstacle to that “happy family” scenario–along with Stella’s mom’s lack of reliability–may be Angel, a foster kid who’s also living with Louise. Angel and Stella are like oil and water, and they seem to work best when they stay far away from each other. Fate, however, seems to have other ideas.

When the girls discover that Louise has suddenly passed away, they must work together to decide what to do. Neither girl wants to go into group homes or anything like that, so they do the only thing they can think of. They keep Louise’s death a secret. They make up plausible excuses for Louise’s absence. They take care of the vacation cottages that Louise was responsible for. Stella takes comfort in cleaning, gardening, and keeping Louise’s prize blueberries alive. Both girls do what they must to survive as long as they can. It’s not easy, but Stella and Angel think they have no other choice. They must learn to rely on each other.

Both Stella and Angel have taken on more than any two kids should, but their predicament is bringing them closer together. They’re communicating, working together, and learning more about each other. They each have their own ways of coping with this horrible situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

But what happens when the secrecy finally becomes too much? When the truth is revealed, what will it mean for Stella, Angel, and their future? Will they find the sense of family and home they so desperately need? Will someone finally take care of them? Find out when you read Summer of the Gypsy Moths, a 14-15 South Carolina Book Award nominee by Sara Pennypacker!

_______________

I think many of my students will draw parallels between Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Keeping Safe the Stars, and that’s a good thing. The two books have different settings and circumstances, but the struggles that the characters experience in each book are very similar. In both books, young children take on way too much in order to avoid being taken away from their homes. I look forward to conversations about the similarities and differences in how each character handles certain situations and what young readers may have done differently.

That being said…

*Spoilers ahead!*

One big issue I had with this book was the neatness of the ending–and how long the main characters got away with deceiving everyone around them. I mean, two girls hide a dead body, bury it in the backyard, and live on their own for nearly two months, and everything essentially works out fine for them! I know it’s fiction, and one can expect a fairly happy ending in a book written for upper elementary and middle grade readers, but this seemed very unrealistic to me. Like many other books I’ve read this summer, the responsible adult in me (don’t laugh) cringes at the entire premise of this book. I’m sure many of my students will be intrigued by the plot–and I know they are the target audience–but Summer of the Gypsy Moths just wasn’t for me.

If you’d like more information about this book and acclaimed author Sara Pennypacker, visit her website. And let me know if you have a different take on Summer of the Gypsy Moths. Maybe you’re seeing something that I missed!

Pie

Now that next year’s South Carolina Book Award nominees have been announced, you’ll likely be seeing a few more children’s books featured on this blog than you’re used to. I put these books on this blog and my elementary book review blog simply because I think these books will appeal to students in both upper elementary grades and middle grades, as well as some YA and adult readers. (And let’s all remember that the Harry Potter books were marketed as children’s books. Quite frankly, I judge anyone–no matter what age–who hasn’t read these works of awesomeness.)

I’ve already read and reviewed two of the books on the 13-14 SC Children’s Book Award Nominee list (Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick), and this weekend, I decided to read one more. My pick was Pie by Sarah Weeks. This was a really fast, easy read, but it pulled at my heartstrings a little bit…and it made me really want some pie. (I’m diabetic, so that’s not really a good thing.) It also contained a bit of a mystery that readers will be as eager to unravel as Alice, our totally relatable main character, was. Technically, Pie is a work of historical fiction (it takes place in 1955), but it doesn’t really read that way. In my opinion, this book is totally accessible to all readers, and almost everyone will be able to find something they can identify with.

Alice Anderson’s world is turned upside down when her beloved aunt, Polly Portman, passes away suddenly. To everyone else, Polly was the Pie Queen of Ipswitch, but Alice thought of Polly as her best friend in the entire world. She doesn’t really care how much everyone else missed Polly’s pies. Alice simply misses her Aunt Polly…until something happens that puts Alice–and her aunt’s cat Lardo–into the center of a mystery.

It seems that Aunt Polly’s highly coveted pie crust recipe was left to Lardo in her will. And Lardo was left in the care of Alice. Why would Polly–a very smart and not at all crazy woman–leave her prized recipe to her cat? How did she even do this? Of course, everyone is curious about this, but Alice is starting to think that someone is curious enough to commit crimes–like burglary and catnapping–to somehow get greedy hands on this recipe that her aunt valued so much.

Alice tries to take her concerns to her parents and even the police, but no one (except her friend Charlie) believes her. So Alice and Charlie do some investigating of their own. Suspects abound, especially since everyone seems determined to take Aunt Polly’s place as the Pie Queen of Ipswitch. It’s up to Alice to figure out who the real culprit is. Will she be able to solve the mystery? And what will she learn about herself along the way? Read Pie, a sweet mystery by Sarah Weeks, to find out!

With each chapter starting with a delectable pie recipe, I plan to really market this book to my students who frequently check out cookbooks. (A lot of kids are into cooking. Who knew?) This is a really sweet (pun intended) book that, yes, does contain a bit of a mystery, but also explores the bonds of family and friendship. It also teaches an important lesson about using one’s own talents and not worrying about what someone else may be good at or the recognition they may receive (a message that even I needed).

For more information about author Sarah Weeks and her books, including Pie, visit the author’s website. I just got a great idea from this site that I may try at my school next year. How cool would it be to have a mother-daughter book club for Pie and have participants bring in their favorite pies or try some of the recipes listed in this book? I just hope I can get someone to bring in a sugar-free pie!

Defying the Diva

As someone who was bullied in high school (and still carries some of those emotional scars), I’m usually not a fan of books that center around bullying.  D. Anne Love’s Defying the Diva was a little bit different, though.

At the end of her freshman year in high school, Haley Patterson becomes the target of the school’s worst “mean girl.”  She is picked on, laughed at, gossiped about, and Camilla, the queen bee, sends Haley an email suggesting she kill herself.  Even Haley’s supposed friends turn on her.  In fact, she becomes a pariah at school.  Haley says nothing and just hopes to get through the rest of the school year and leave everything to spend the summer with her aunt.

During the summer, Haley is still dealing with the scars from the previous school year.  It is difficult for her to make friends because she is scared that they will eventually decide she’s worthless and turn on her.  Through her job at a local resort, however, she meets some people who refuse to allow her to hide away.  Through their steadfast friendships, Haley becomes stronger and realizes that she should stand up for herself.

Haley eventually learns that mean girl Camilla has been bullying other girls, and injuries resulted from those actions.  One of Haley’s former friends thinks she should come forward with what happened to her during the school year.  Haley really doesn’t want to relive that pain.   She has to decide whether she should say nothing or fight for herself and prevent Camilla from bullying other girls and getting away with it.  I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens…