Sharon Verbeten

A Soft Place to Land, Janae Marks’ second middle grade novel, is a heartwarming story of family, friendship and one girl’s longing to find her place amid the world’s turmoil.

Until recently, 12-year-old Joy lived in a comfortable house with her loving parents and her little sister, Malia. But when Joy’s father loses his job, her parents must sell their house to avoid foreclosure. Joy and her family move to a small apartment, where she and Malia must share a bedroom. The financial stress also means her parents can no longer afford Joy’s piano lessons, which is a crushing blow because she loves music and aspires to become a film composer when she grows up.

Just when all seems lost, Joy meets a kindred spirit: Nora, a classmate who also lives in Joy’s new apartment building and has worries of her own. Nora introduces Joy to a secret hideout where they can escape their troubles and share secrets. The hideout becomes the titular soft place to land for Joy, Nora and the other kids in their apartment complex. 

In the hideout, friendships blossom and splinter. A shared passion inspires Joy and Nora to test their independence by starting a dog-walking business to earn money, which elicits interest and growing trust from their parents, but yields unanticipated results. Troubling hidden messages scrawled on the hideout’s wall leave Joy concerned, puzzled and wanting to do more to help the anonymous writer. 

The desire for a safe haven is shared by all of the novel’s characters. Chaos is everywhere, Joy discovers, but what matters is how you confront challenges, share what you’ve learned and invite others in. If you can find the strength and courage to do so, you may find that home has been right in front of you all along. 

A Soft Place to Land, Janae Marks’ second middle grade novel, is a heartwarming story of family, friendship and one girl’s longing to find her place amid the world’s turmoil.

In Nidhi Chanani’s enchanting Jukebox, a girl travels back in time but connects with the present.

Shaheen discovers the titular machine as she searches for her music-obsessed father, who has gone missing after they had an argument. She has enlisted her cousin, Tannaz, to help her find him, when the pair stumble upon the jukebox in the attic of her father’s favorite record shop and strange things start happening. With the spin of a record, the jukebox takes them on a magical mystery tour, transporting them to the pivotal places and moments in history that reflect the records it plays. They find themselves amid protest marches, epic concerts and more, all fueled by the legendary music of Nina Simone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and more. Tannaz enjoys the ride, but Shaheen keeps her eyes peeled for her father and the chance to make things right between them.

Author-illustrator Chanani cleverly employs time travel in this middle grade graphic novel, using it to explore themes of family and friendship in what is ultimately a coming-of-age narrative. Her depictions of the power of music to connect us with history are touching.

Chanani’s illustrations are one of the best things about this book. In addition to graphic novels and picture books, Chanani has been a featured artist with Disney Parks, and her playful, colorful style is well suited to the story she tells here. Her characters have exaggeratedly large and expressive eyes, which lend themselves well to portraying emotions. And as you would expect in a book with music at its core, every page is infused with motion and action.

Although the mystery of the jukebox is eventually revealed, it’s clear that Shaheen’s journey is only just beginning. After all, as Stevie Wonder said, “Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories.”

In Nidhi Chanani’s enchanting Jukebox, a girl travels back in time but connects with the present.

Pawcasso is a joyful graphic novel from acclaimed author-illustrator Remy Lai (Pie in the Sky) that abounds with silliness, camaraderie and a few white lies.

A dog wanders around town, holding a basket in his mouth. There’s a shopping list inside the basket, but why is the dog shopping on his own? Where is his owner? And where will he go next? Jo is bored, upset that her father has left on yet another extended work trip and eager for a distraction. When she sees the dog pass by her house, she slips out of her yard and follows him into the cleverly named Dog Ears bookstore, where a children’s painting class is being held in an upstairs meeting room.

The class is so enamored with the charming dog that they name him Pawcasso and invite both him and Jo back for the next class, under the mistaken impression that the dog belongs to Jo. Though she wonders where his owners are, Jo effectively adopts Pawcasso, going so far as to give him a bath after he rolls in something stinky. She quickly comes to love the attention she receives when everyone believes that Pawcasso is her dog.

But not all of Jo’s neighbors find Pawcasso charming. It turns out that the Duchamp family has submitted a petition to the city council that would require all dogs to be leashed, and the town quickly becomes divided over the issue. How can Jo protect Pawcasso when he doesn’t even belong to her?

All over town, children and adults work together to support their side of the debate in an excellent depiction of civic engagement. Characters respectfully stand up for their beliefs, gather support and follow through. Lai’s candy-colored, cartoon-style illustrations are a delightful complement to this cute, clever romp. The book is full of well-executed canine puns and jokes, including Jo’s fabulously phrased apology: “I made a Chihuahua-sized lie, but it snowballed into a Great Dane-sized lie.”

Readers who enjoyed Lai’s two previous illustrated middle grade novels will love Pawcasso, her first graphic novel. It’s a gentle story of community, forgiveness and redemption.

Pawcasso is a joyful graphic novel from acclaimed author-illustrator Remy Lai (Pie in the Sky) that abounds with silliness, camaraderie and a few white lies.

Annie Logan believes she was born under an unlucky star. It’s what her mom always said, before she left their family when Annie was only 4 years old. Was Annie the reason she left? Annie will never know for sure, but she feels like the black sheep of the family anyway. Although she’s 11 now, her older brother, Ray, treats her like a baby, and she chafes under her dad’s strict rules—and neither her brother nor her dad ever wants to talk about Ma. 

Reluctant to get close to anyone yet eager to fit in, Annie agrees to a game of ding-dong-ditch that goes awry when the house’s elderly owner, Gloria, trips and falls on her way to the door. Annie’s ill-fated and, yes, unlucky prank comes with a reprimand, and she must help Gloria with her oddball dog all summer. 

Annie’s summer of reckoning offers many epiphanies. Getting closer to Gloria takes time and effort but proves rewarding. Gloria challenges Annie’s long-held belief that luck is something beyond her control, and as the two develop an unusual friendship, Annie begins to realize that her own luck, whether for good or for ill, might be up to her. 

Against the backdrop of the small North Carolina town’s upcoming Rosy Maple Moth Festival, the characters in These Unlucky Stars face their weaknesses and discover their strengths despite the many challenges life has put in their way. Annie’s mother rarely comes up in the story, but McDunn excels in illustrating how her absence has shaped Annie’s life and continues to influence every decision she makes. These Unlucky Stars is a warmhearted story about learning to make your own way, in luck and in life.

Annie Logan believes she was born under an unlucky star. It’s what her mom always said, before she left their family when Annie was only 4 years old. Was Annie the reason she left? Annie will never know for sure, but she feels like the black sheep of the family anyway.

Rufus the great horned owl is the self-declared “worst owl in the history of owldom.” Next to his fledgling sister, First, 6-month-old Rufus feels like a runt. An unsuccessful, can’t-hunt-to-save-his-life runt. When Rufus’ mother is captured by humans while First is away from their nest, Rufus is left alone, afraid and unprotected against the unknown dangers of the night.

Reenie is far from thrilled to go live with her “alleged aunt” Bea, whom she’s never met, while her mother undergoes psychiatric treatment—until she learns that Bea is a falconer. As Bea raises a hawk and begins planning for passage bird season, Reenie is entranced and begins learning all she can about the fascinating sport.

Rufus’ and Reenie’s stories intersect when Rufus—cold, injured and sick—is ensnared in Bea’s live trap. Bea and Reenie take Rufus in to rehabilitate him, but Reenie soon develops an attachment to him that cannot last, because the goal of rehabilitation is to release the animal back in its habitat. Besides, Reenie has learned the hard way that attachments are usually temporary.

Reenie and Rufus narrate Of a Feather in chapters that alternate between their perspectives. The format is a smart choice by author Dayna Lorentz that easily allows readers to see the parallels in their situations. They’re both lost, missing their mothers and seeking the reassurance and validation they need to be able to soar on their own wings. Reenie longs to make friends, but is afraid of the vulnerability that comes with opening up. Rufus is torn between the ease of living with humans and returning to the wild to find both his mother and his higher purpose.

Author Dayna Lorentz is no stranger to writing about animal-human relationships; her previous books include the Dogs of the Drowned City trilogy, written from the perspective of a dog separated from his family in the aftermath of a hurricane. Her deep research into the world of falconry and bird rehabilitation are present on every page as she conveys the exhilarating rush of working with incredible birds of prey. Though readers will pick up quite a bit of information by reading the story itself, significant back matter provides even more fuel for curiosity and discovery.

Of a Feather’s wonderful balance of nature-driven narrative and emotional storytelling will appeal to readers who love the great outdoors as well as those who prefer to stay inside with a good book.

Rufus the great horned owl is the self-declared “worst owl in the history of owldom.” Next to his fledgling sister, First, 6-month-old Rufus feels like a runt. An unsuccessful, can’t-hunt-to-save-his-life runt.

In the year 2091, millions of miles away from Earth, 11-year-old Bell and a handful of other kids are growing up on Mars. Sent there as orphaned infants, they have never known another life, another home or another family. Along with several adults, they make up the American settlement, where their days seem rather mundane, except for the fact that they live in outer space, complete with dust storms, flying meteorites, planetary rovers and algae-based food.

The settlement has very strict rules. Chief among them is, “No contact with foreign countries, ever.” Any contact with the Martian outposts from other countries is forbidden. But the red planet is a mysterious and desolate place, and, feeling isolated, the children are eager to explore. They’re never told why they can’t visit the other outposts, so they venture out and discover new challenges, but are soon discovered and reprimanded. Though they long to return to the other settlements for camaraderie, they are eventually forced to seek help when all the adults fall ill with a mysterious virus.

Holm peels back decades of secrets to expose previous relationships and disagreements between the Martian settlements while exploring the tension between independence and community. She returns often to the metaphor of a lion’s pride, which Bell discovers in a book early on in the story. In a dangerous environment, lions and perhaps humans, too, must provide and rely on communal support to survive.

Written before the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolated setting and threat of unknown illness sometimes cause The Lion of Mars to feel eerily contemporary and timely. Three-time Newbery Honor author Jennifer Holm is known for her stories of family and relationships, but this is her first venture into science fiction. Although she constructs a lived-in vision of life on a Martian outpost that will please sci-fi fans, the story she tells remains rooted in the outpost’s ad-hoc family and anchored by Bell’s down-to-Earth narrative voice.

The Lion of Mars looks past the red dust to reveal how our communities shape us just as much as our environments.

In the year 2091, millions of miles away from Earth, 11-year-old Bell and a handful of other kids are growing up on Mars. Sent there as orphaned infants, they have never known another life, another home or another family. Along with several adults, they make up the American settlement, where their days seem rather mundane, except for the fact that they live in outer space, complete with dust storms, flying meteorites, planetary rovers and algae-based food.

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