Emmy & Oliver

Do you ever come across a book that looks like one thing but is really something more than you were expecting? Well, that’s definitely the case with Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway. That whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing is sometimes accurate, as it turns out. Take a look at the cover below:

I know there’s not a whole lot to it, but based on what I see alone, I think I’m getting a cute love story set near water. To a certain degree, that is true, but this book is so much more than a love story (not that there’s anything in the world wrong with romance). This book is about relationships–between romantic interests, friends, and families–and how they change (or stay stagnant) as circumstances change.


From the moment they were born, Emmy and Oliver were together. They shared the same birthday, they lived next door to each other, and they were the best of friends. In an instant, though, everything changed. One minute, Emmy was watching Oliver leave school for the day; the next minute, his dad had taken him and disappeared. That was ten years ago, when Emmy and Oliver were just seven years old.

Emmy is now seventeen and a senior in high school. She hasn’t seen Oliver in ten years–has no idea where he went or what happened to him–but his disappearance continues to color her world. Since that day long ago, her parents have watched her every move. Her curfew is ridiculously early, she has to hide her love of surfing, and even applying for college is a no-no. They don’t want to let Emmy out of their sight because they know that the worst can most definitely happen.

After so long, most people have moved on from Oliver’s kidnapping. There are no more search parties. Every once in a while, his story is featured on the news, but that doesn’t really have much of an impact. Oliver is still gone, and his whereabouts remain a mystery. Until now.

One day, seemingly out of the blue, Oliver comes home. He’s been gone for ten years, but some people–his mother included–seem to expect him to pick up where he left off. But things are different now. Oliver’s a different person and so are those around him. Oliver’s had ten pretty good years with his dad, and now he’s expected to view the man who raised him as a villain. He’s coming into a whole new family as well. While he was gone, his mom remarried and had twin girls. How does he fit into his own family now? And does he even want to?

As for Emmy, she wants to get to know her friend again, but she has no illusions that they can pick up where they left off. She wants to know who Oliver is now. Emmy is one of the only people who Oliver feels comfortable talking to…and vice versa. Oliver tells Emmy about his life with his dad, how he feels about being back, and his frustrations with being the center of attention. Emmy confides in Oliver about her love of surfing and her plans for the future–plans she hasn’t revealed to her parents or either of her closest friends.

Day by day, Emmy and Oliver grow closer. Their parents still have eagle eyes on them, though, and it’s putting a strain on things. Neither of them feel free to truly be themselves. For Oliver, that means adapting to his new circumstances, coming to terms with what happened, and his feelings for his father. For Emmy, that means hiding her true self and what she really wants to do with her life.

Emmy and Oliver can’t go on holding everything in, and all of their complicated feelings, fears, and frustrations will soon come out, whether they like it or not. How will this change their relationships with their friends, their parents, and each other? What could it mean for their futures? Do Emmy and Oliver even have a future when so much of their lives is governed by the past? Answer these questions and many more when you read Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway.


In case you were wondering, I really liked Emmy & Oliver. It was a quick, moving, often funny read that kept me interested. Both Emmy and Oliver are snarky and funny, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, but they are also sensitive, loving, loyal, and totally real. The same goes for their friends. I also thought the parents in this story behaved in a fairly realistic way. I imagine that something as horrific as a child being kidnapped would make some parents hold on tighter to their own children, whether those children are seven or seventeen.

If I had one complaint about this book, it would be that it’s solely from Emmy’s point of view. I would have loved to read Oliver’s side of things. Granted, we see a lot of his story in his conversations with Emmy, but I think the book would have been stronger if we’d viewed at least some of the drama through Oliver’s eyes.

Emmy & Oliver is a nominee for the 17-18 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award. Will it win? I have no idea. No matter what, though, it is a good story, and it gives the reader so much more than the cover implies.

For more information on Emmy & Oliver, visit author Robin Benway’s website. You can also connect with the author on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Real Friends

Thanks to NetGalley, I have come across a book that is a must-purchase for my school library. As a matter of fact, I think this book will probably be a welcome addition to most elementary, middle school, and public libraries. I wish it had been around when I was growing up. The book is Real Friends, a graphic memoir written by Shannon Hale and wonderfully illustrated by LeUyen Pham.

To say that I related to young Shannon in Real Friends would be a drastic understatement. Make her a chubby girl in a small town in South Carolina, and parts of this book could have been my own story. I’m sure that anyone who ever had trouble making friends as a child (or even as an adult) will be able to see themselves in this book.

Shannon met Adrienne on the first day of school, and they became best friends. For Shannon, Adrienne was her only friend. Adrienne, on the other hand, had lots of friends. It was sometimes hard for Shannon to share her best friend with others, but she tried. She even made a new friend when Adrienne moved away, but she was always waiting for Adrienne to return and things to go back to normal.

Well, Adrienne did return, but things didn’t exactly go back to the way they were. Shannon and Adrienne were still friends, but Adrienne was also part of The Group, some of the most popular girls in school. Shannon didn’t always fit in with The Group, but she hung around with them anyway to stay friends with Adrienne.

One of the girls, Jenny, seemed to really dislike Shannon, and she made it pretty clear that she wanted Shannon out of The Group. Shannon took this really hard and spent a lot of time crying in the bushes. (This was something she did at home, too. Her older sister wasn’t exactly nice to her a lot of the time.) Shannon didn’t know what she’d done to make Jenny so mean to her, but she was growing a little tired of it all. Maybe she didn’t want to be part of The Group after all if this is what she had to deal with.

Eventually, after she and The Group ended up in different fifth grade classes and Adrienne transferred to a different school, Shannon made a couple of new friends. These friends were popular as well, but they were popular because they were nice…unlike Jenny. They seemed to like Shannon just as she was, but could it last? These girls were in the sixth grade and would be going to junior high next year. What would Shannon do then?

Join Shannon as she navigates the ups and downs of friendship (and even sisterhood). It’s not always an easy path, but putting in the effort to find real friends–and to find peace within–is always worth it.


Let me reiterate this one more time: Real Friends should be added to every library that serves elementary or middle grade children. Young readers will love the graphic novel format, and they’ll stick around for the thoroughly relatable story. Market it with Cece Bell’s El Deafo and Jennifer Holm’s Sunny Side Up, and it will surely fly off the shelves.

Look for Real Friends when it’s released on May 2nd. Your library patrons will thank you.

Vigilante

For those of you who’ve read and binge-watched Thirteen Reasons Why and are looking for something similar, I suggest you give Vigilante by Kady Cross a try. This book, which was released a couple of weeks ago, made me so mad that I could scream, but it also made me want to fight back against a society that shames victims while excusing their attackers. I’m not advocating taking things to the extremes that the main character in this book did, but I can certainly understand the appeal. When you feel like nothing is being done, sometimes the only thing to do is to take the situation into your own hands.

Everything changed after the party. The party where Hadley and her best friend, Magda, went their separate ways. The party where Magda was drugged and raped by four “good boys,” and the shameful act was posted to social media. Months after that party, despite all of the physical and video evidence, those “good boys” remained free, and Magda had to live with what had been done to her.

Hadley tried to be there for her friend, but Magda was slipping farther and farther away.  Soon, she would be completely out of Hadley’s reach. The pain and humiliation became too much for Magda, and she ended her life. Now, Hadley is starting her senior year of high school without her best friend, and she has to sit in the same classes with the boys who destroyed her world.

Numb since her friend’s death, Hadley finally begins to feel something again when she gets the chance for a little revenge. At a party, one of Magda’s attackers is left passed out and alone. Hadley takes that as her cue. She writes “rapist” on him in Magda’s lipstick and posts a photo of the guy–using his own phone–to every site she can. Her classmates take care of the rest.

After the photo goes viral, Hadley decides to take things a step farther. Donning a pink ski mask and using her martial arts training, Hadley begins to go after the other guys who raped her friend. Along the way, she encounters (and stops) more attempted sexual assaults. Finally, after so long feeling like she failed her friend, Hadley is doing something that makes a difference…something even the cops can’t seem to manage.

But things are getting far more complicated than Hadley ever envisioned. Taking punches is becoming all too commonplace for her. People are starting to suspect that she is the person the media has dubbed “Pink Vigilante.” And the very guys she’s targeting are putting their own target on Hadley. She knows what they did to Magda. What more would they try to do to her?

Even as her quest for revenge threatens to overtake her world, Hadley simply can’t stop. No, she won’t stop…not until every one of Magda’s attackers has paid for what they’ve done. She’ll deal with the consequences of her actions when she’s finished, but she has to see this through.

Will Hadley find justice? Or will her desire for vengeance lead to her own destruction? Find out when you read Vigilante.


As I sort of mentioned at the beginning of this post, I do not advocate violence or taking the law into your own hands. That being said, I couldn’t help but cheer for Hadley as she put a hurt on the horrible guys she encountered. She refused to accept that she and the other women around her simply had to be victims, so she did something about it. Yes, many of her actions were questionable (and illegal), but others were inspirational, like getting involved in self-defense classes, finding a group of girls to watch each others’ backs at parties, and calling people out–even her own mother–for victim-blaming.

Aside from Hadley, one of the characters in Vigilante that I particularly liked was Detective Davies. This woman was involved in Magda’s case and was disgusted by how it turned out. She taught Hadley’s self-defense class and encouraged all who attended to band together. She told them how to fight, and, at a school assembly, she gave the single most important way to stop sexual assault and rape. Don’t sexually assault or rape anybody. Full stop. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if a girl (or guy) is drunk, wearing revealing clothing, or strutting around naked. She’s not asking for it. No excuses, fame, or family money should be enough to erase sexual assault. (I’m thinking of quite a few public figures as I type this.)

I do think Vigilante is suited to a mature teen audience, but many of its themes need to be discussed with girls–and boys–as early as middle school. While this book may not be the best fit for middle grades, I urge you to seek out others that may be more age-appropriate.

If Vigilante sounds like the book for you, I also urge you to read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (obviously), Some Boys by Patty Blount, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, and The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney.

For more information on author Kady Cross, visit her website.

Finally, if you or anyone you know has experienced sexual assault and you need help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. You can also go to RAINN.org for more information.

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!

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.