Lori K. Joyce

Author Natasha Deen, whose Guyanese family moved to Canada when she was a young girl, mines her own immigration experience for her newest YA novel, In the Key of Nira Ghani.

Fitting in as a teen is anxiety provoking, but it’s even more difficult when you’re an immigrant and one of only two people of color in your whole school. Nira’s parents want the best for her, and the family recently fled Guyana with just their belongings in order to make a better life in Canada. They want her to become a doctor and to live a comfortable life. Since Nira is a dutiful daughter, she studies faithfully, but she has a love in her life that she hides from them—jazz trumpet.

For Nira, playing her instrument provides a welcome escape from the mean girl at school who makes ignorant, racist comments and asks rude questions about Nira’s identity. Nira’s best friend, Emily, also helps until she becomes good friends with the mean girl. To further complicate things in her life, Nira is forced to spend time with a cousin whom she can’t stand.

Guyanese cultural references add to the richness of this tale. A possible romance is on the horizon for Nina, but familial conflicts abound, with Nira’s wise grandmother often smoothing out rough patches until something happens that even she can’t fix.

This layered story ripples with jazz-like rhythms, and Deen gracefully shows what it’s like to be an outsider and how a true conviction of spirit is sometimes all the improvising one needs.

 

 

Author Natasha Deen, whose Guyanese family moved to Canada when she was a young girl, mines her own immigration experience for her newest YA novel, In the Key of Nira Ghani.

In a new crop of exciting and emotional middle grade reads, summers spent by the water take center stage, but not necessarily how readers might imagine. Whether these stories take place by a lake or on an island, their coming-of-age themes will echo as young readers deal with their own families and friends and weather the storms of growing up. 


In Josephine Cameron’s debut Maybe a Mermaid, an 11-year-old girl named Anthoni is looking forward to her first summer at the Showboat Resort at Thunder Lake, a place that her mother has spoken of as almost mythical. Mother and daughter have been constantly on the move in order to sell her mother’s Avon-like beauty products, so Anthoni is looking forward to spending time in one spot long enough to make a “True Blue Friend.” But when they arrive at the Showboat, it’s clear the resort’s heyday has long passed. This is the final straw for Anthoni, who realizes she must confront mother—who has been her rock and moral compass—about her increasingly unethical behaviors. Soon Anthoni befriends Charlotte, the former Boulay Mermaid who now owns the resort. While helping the aging performer, Anthoni discovers secrets from the resort’s past. Amid all of these unexpected twists, Anthoni begins to spend time with the other children living at the resort, and she still believes that the summer holds the promise of a true friend. But has Anthoni breached the trust of DJ, the most likely friend candidate, while vying for the attention of popular girl Maddy? How far will Anthoni go to redeem herself? This summertime coming-of-age story chronicles how a young girl discovers life’s many shades of gray.

Ali Standish, author of The Ethan I Was Before, addresses more of life’s big questions with another summer book set on the water. August Isle offers personal and public mysteries for three friends to solve. Having grown up seeing her mother’s postcards of August Isle, an island off the coast of Florida, Miranda has always yearned to visit this wonderful place. But when work assignments come up, Miranda’s parents have to leave home for the summer. When Christy, Miranda’s mother’s friend, comes to take Miranda to the island for the summer, nothing goes the way she imagined. Determined to make the best of her summer situation without her mother, Miranda timidly agrees to take sailing lessons, even though she has yet to make it out of the tadpole level in her swimming class. Eventually she decides the time is right to become Miranda the Bold when she accepts a dare to enter the neighborhood’s (reportedly deserted) haunted house at night. When Miranda is caught by the owner of the house, she and her friends have to spend the rest of the summer helping him sort through his old boxes of treasures. As Miranda sorts through the man’s things and gets to know him, she realizes her strained relationship with her mother is tied to a secret on August Isle—a secret that everyone is keeping from Miranda. With dogged determination, Miranda swallows her fears and pursues the mystery, but she puts herself in harm’s way trying to unravel the truth about her family. In August Isle, young readers will learn that bravery comes in many different forms and that internal bravery is even more important than external bravado.

Gillian McDunn’s debut novel, Caterpillar Summer, is another island-set story of finding family. Fifth-grader Cat, short for Caterpillar, is the glue that holds her small family together. This summer, Cat and her brother Chicken expect to spend three weeks with Cat’s best friend’s family, but when her friend’s grandmother has a stroke, that plan falls through. Meeting Chicken’s special needs in a new city would be too hard for Cat to do alone, so Cat’s mother decides to leave them with her parents (Cat’s grandparents) on an island off the coast of the Carolinas. This comes as a shock to Cat because she doesn’t know anything about her mother’s parents. While Cat’s grandmother is warm and welcoming, her grandfather is a bit scary and aloof. Cat longs to ask her grandfather about her mother and the issues that stand between him and her mother, but that conversation doesn’t seem likely. After a few heartwarming gestures, Cat and her grandfather begin to understand each other little by little, bonding through fishing and walks on the beach. Eventually, Cat does learn what separated their family, and she comes up with a plan to bring them all back together. Readers will cheer for Cat’s development and maturity and will hope her mother can let go of the pain she suffered as a child.

Young characters chase family mysteries and find themselves over the course of a summer in three new middle grade stories set on sunny beaches.

In Deborah Hopkinson’s How I Became a Spy, readers will find an action-packed story centered on a diary complete with coded messages, mysterious strangers and a new friendship.

During London’s “Little Blitz” of 1944, 13-year-old Bertie volunteers as a civil defense messenger, which means he has the dangerous job of riding his bicycle during air raids in order to deliver messages to and from bomb sites and command centers. After Bertie finds the diary that an American girl drops after they collide in the darkness of wartime London, Bertie’s rescue-trained pup finds an unresponsive woman in a nearby alley. However, she has disappeared without a trace when Bertie brings the team back to save her.

Bertie is able to track down the American girl who dropped the diary, and together with his Jewish friend David, who came to England before the war began to escape the Nazis, they become a formidable cipher-busting trio.

Historical accuracy is compounded by the quotes that begin most chapters citing spy instructions from Britain’s Special Operations Executive Manual, and other chapters begin with quotes from Sherlock Holmes, who serves as the children’s inspiration for solving the mysteries of the diary. An engrossing tour through wartime London.

In Deborah Hopkinson’s How I Became a Spy, readers will find an action-packed story centered on a diary complete with coded messages, mysterious strangers and a new friendship. During London’s “Little Blitz” of 1944, 13-year-old Bertie volunteers as a civil defense messenger, which means he has the dangerous job of riding his bicycle during air raids in order […]

When developing risk-taking, self-confident children, parents know that showing children examples of bravery is more effective than talking about this rather intangible word. Two new picture books about bravery in action will leave children chuckling with delight and feeling strong and confident.


Lindsay Leslie’s This Book is Spineless has the most imaginative approach to overcoming fears. The book itself is scared of what lies ahead as the pages turn, and the book asks readers to help it be brave and face its fears. With book puns such as “being spineless” or “growing a spine,” this story is sure to be a delight to children and the adults who read to them.

Leslie’s sensory language will almost allow young readers to hear the ghosts, see the mysterious strangers and feel a rocket’s propulsion during their adventure with the book. At the end, the book also realizes that while it needed a little push from the reader, it quite liked the journey and was proud of preserving to the end of the tale and surviving spooky events that frightened it.

Illustrator Alice Brereton creates scary mirror-image prints in blacks and grays. Once the book plucks up enough courage to advance beyond these illustrations, the book becomes even braver and takes many risks to finish the story. Bright colors create an explosion of joy and confidence at the end.

When You Are Brave also focuses on rising to and successfully navigating life’s challenges. Author Pat Zietlow Miller (Sophie’s Squash) creates an inspirational story that is quietly profound with positive messages of looking inside oneself to find a tiny seed of courage which will grow with use.

A young girl is faced with moving somewhere brand new and far away. But soon the girl realizes she has to be as brave as a caterpillar that goes to sleep, not knowing when it will wake up; or like the lost dog who searches for miles for his welcoming backyard light; or a baby bird, launching from the nest for the first time. Even when things might not work out, having had the courage to try is a mighty life lesson.

Illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, (Doll Bones and Miss Maple’s Seeds), creates richly detailed gray, dark scenes when the girl is scared. Once she reaches deep inside to find her courage, Wheeler depicts the tiny fire starts to glow from within her, which soon grows into a magical, shimmering set of wings. The connection between the girls’ growing courage and the growing light is a beautiful inspiration for young readers.

When developing risk-taking, self-confident children, parents know that showing children examples of bravery is more effective than talking about this rather intangible word. Two new picture books about bravery in action will leave children chuckling with delight and feeling strong and confident.

People hear about America’s opioid crisis on the news, but author Kristin Russell brings readers up close and personal to this problem in her debut novel, A Sky for Us Alone. Cultural richness and material poverty collide in Russell’s fictional Appalachian setting of Strickland County. This is much more than a simple cautionary tale of how opioids can devastate a community. Instead, Russell has created a living, breathing tapestry of Appalachian life that is filled with voices both ancient and youthful.

When 18-year-old Harlowe Compton discovers his older brother Nate’s body on their front porch, he vows to figure out who shot him. Nate served as the rock of their family, and his brutal death has devastating consequences for the Comptons. While Harlowe grieves over the loss, he also watches his family disintegrate. Harlowe’s mother deals with her physical and mental pain by slipping back into opioid use, and his father, unable to cope with both his wife’s addiction and his son’s death, simply disappears.

However, Harlowe finds an unexpected bright spot in his life when a new girl named Tennessee Moore moves to town, and despite their overwhelming family issues, the two teens find true friendship, support and love.

The coal-mining industry and its Mafia-like bosses—the powerful and conniving Prater family—serve as the backdrop for the action and mystery in A Sky for Us Alone. All life in Strickland County is viewed through coal’s influence. Vivid contrasts abound between the mining rubble, draglines, polluted runoff and the pristine beauty of the southern Appalachian wilderness.

Readers can expect a satisfying and uplifting ending despite the overall grimness of Russell’s well-told teen drama.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

People hear about America’s opioid crisis on the news, but author Kristin Russell brings readers up close and personal to this problem in her debut novel, A Sky for Us Alone. Cultural richness and material poverty collide in Russell’s fictional Appalachian setting of Strickland County. This is much more than a simple cautionary tale of how opioids can devastate a community. Instead, Russell has created a living, breathing tapestry of Appalachian life that is filled with voices both ancient and youthful.

A tale split between a narrative in the modern day and one in World War II shows the very best of people in the worst of times. Anne O’Brien Carelli’s Skylark and Wallcreeper gives young readers a fictional but personal look at the lives of young French Resistance fighters, one of whom grows up to be an elderly survivor of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Before readers meet Collette as a resistance fighter, she is introduced in the modern era as an old woman who lives in a nursing home due to her struggles with dementia. Collette’s granddaughter Lily is stranded at the care facility as Superstorm Sandy dumps tons of water on parts of New York and New Jersey, causing massive flooding and power outages. When the evacuation order is given, the residents get moved, but not before Lily’s grandmother tells her to grab a mysterious red box and a packet of letters.

Later, while on a food foraging mission for the nursing home’s residents, Lily loses the mysterious box and its precious contents. Now on a mission of her own, Lily braves the turmoil of the storm in order to rescue her grandmother’s treasure.

Through her search, Lily learns that her grandmother disguised herself as a boy to secretly convey messages for the resistance army, at great personal peril. As the narrative shifts back to Collette’s childhood, the German soldiers and French police patrol the town all hours of the day and night, and one night things do not go as planned. Will the French Resistance be jeopardized?

Carelli’s parallel storylines plow deep into loyalties of friends, family and country and create two compelling portraits of heroes in action.

In Skylark and Wallcreeper, Anne O’Brien Carelli’s parallel storylines plow deep into loyalties of friends, family and country and create two compelling portraits of heroes in action.

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