‘Playing the Cards You’re Dealt’ by Varian Johnson is a wonderful middle grade read about life, family, and dealing with challenges

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt
by Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson has written some fabulous books for middle grade readers. My students loved “The Parker Inheritance,” and my first experience with his writing was reviewing “The Great Greene Heist,” both novels sparkling examples of witty middle grade reads. With “Playing the Cards You’re Dealt,” Johnson gives readers a glimpse into the world of those who plays spades, and in the Joplin family, playing spades is as close to a religious experience as they are going to have outside of church. Ten-year-old Ant, short for Anthony, had embarrassed himself at the annual spade tournament the previous year, and he’s determined that he and his best friend and spade-playing partner, Jamal, will win this year.

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‘Flamefall’ by Rosaria Munda is the sequel to the thoughtful and thrilling ‘Fireborne’

Flamefall by Rosaria Munda

You don’t want to miss reading “Flamefall” by Rosaria Munda, the sequel to “Fireborne” and the second book in “The Aurelian Cycle” trilogy. In the first novel, Rosaria Munda created an alternate world populated by overlords and serfs. The overlords could do—and did do—anything they wanted to the peasant families they “owned” in Callipolis. These rulers were aided by their dragons, who were feared for their ability to shoot flames. The revolution that ensued was reminiscent of the Russian Revolution both for its ideals and the blood that was shed. The dragonlord families were slaughtered.

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‘Daughter of the Deep’ by Rick Riordan is thrilling and hugely entertaining

Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan

In an exciting leap that is just as thrilling as any twist Percy Jackson might encounter, Rick Riordan brings us a slightly different kind of adventure with “Daughter of the Deep,” his book about a group of students in a maritime academy who end up on the run for their lives and dive straight into an adventure that is based on Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” We first meet Ana Dakkar when she and her brother go for a swim in the ocean on which their special private school sits. We quickly learn that their parents died in an accident two years previously, and Ana and Dev are close. Dev is several years older than Ana, and at the end of their swim he gives her an early birthday present as she is leaving with the freshman class for a final weekend of trials.

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‘What About Will’ by Ellen Hopkins is a middle grade novel about love and family and addiction

What About Will by Ellen Hopkins

Ellen Hopkins knows a lot about addiction. Many of her young adult novels are about that very subject, and addiction’s deleterious effect on families is something she knows all too well. In “What About Will,” Hopkins writes about a younger brother who had a lovely family until he didn’t.

Trace Reynolds is twelve, and his older brother Will is the kind of older brother most kids only dream about. Even though Will is five years older, he has taught Trace to ride a two-wheeler, taught him to snow board, and taken care of him in myriad ways. Trace has known that Will loves him and would always be there for him. But after Will is in a horrible collision during a football game, everything changes.

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‘Bluebird’ by Sharon Cameron is a stunning work of fiction based on real events that are shocking

Bluebird by Sharon Cameron

Sharon Cameron demonstrated her ability to write engrossing historical fiction based on real events in her masterful book, “The Light in Hidden Places.” In some ways, “Bluebird,” based on real, shocking events, is the antithesis of that story. As a contrast to the first story that focuses on heroes that appeared in unlikely places during WWII, “Bluebird” unveils true villains who masqueraded as heroes. The main character, Eva, is a veritable hero, but we meet many of the truly evil beings whose bigotry, arrogance, and racial prejudice stoked the fires of hate during that time.

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‘Willodeen’ by Katherine Applegate; because Nature knows more than we do

Willodeen by Katherine Applegate

Award-winning author Katherine Applegate’s last series, “Endling,” was about the near-extinction of a species. In her newest magical novel, “Willodeen,” she presents an alternative world with strange, exotic creatures. As in our own world, some creatures in this magical one are cute, and others are not only ugly; they smell atrocious. They are called screechers because of the sound they make at night. Main character and first person narrator Willodeen and her father had enjoyed watching them — from a distance — because if you get too close to them, you smell, too. They both loved creatures, and the yard of their cottage was filled with domestic animals and wild ones, like the “ancient river otter who could no longer swim.” Together, Willodeen and her father observed nature and enjoyed watching animals, both ugly and beautiful, until one of the ever-increasing fire events destroyed Willodeen’s house and killed everyone in her family but her.

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‘Pony’ by R. J. Palacio is a superb new novel about devotion

Pony by R.J. Palacio

While the plot of “Pony” by R. J. Palacio reminded me a bit of another middle grade book about a pony, “Some Kind of Courage” by Dan Gemeinhart, the stories are quite different apart from being historical fiction with both boys having a horse that they love dearly. Each story is beautiful in its own right, and “Pony” is one that will not be quickly forgotten. In “Pony,” Palacio forces us to think about love, loss, and the connections that bind us to each other.

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‘Sugar Town Queens’ by Malla Nunn is an emotional tale of familial discrimination and the slums of South Africa

Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn

In “Sugar Town Queens,” author Malla Nunn takes us on a journey to the slums of South Africa, where fifteen-year-old Amandla lives with Annalisa, her white mother. Where they live, in the slum called Sugar Town for its proximity to the sugar cane fields, her mother is the only white person, and the oddity of her existence there extends beyond her skin color. Annalisa’s accent marks her as upper class, as does her insistence on living in an immaculate house—even though it’s one room made from tin — teaching Amandla how to make tea the correct way, and speaking correctly. The narrative is powerful, and we see the world through Amandla’s clever, perceptive eyes.

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‘Spy School at Sea’ by Stuart Gibbs is the latest in the middle grade series for lovers of espionage and good writing

Spy School at Sea by Stuart Gibbs

I asked a student who was a huge fan of the Spy School series if I could jump into the Stuart Gibbs Spy School series without having read the first few novels. He said that I’d be too confused. I believed him. Shame on me. I jumped into the series with “Spy School at Sea,” and I was not confused. At all. To the contrary, I was charmed and engaged in the fabulous writing, clever plot, and absurdly silly and yet deadly events that befall our main character. Granted, Gibbs does reference past exploits of main character Benjamin Ripley, and we know that he has a past with his nemesis, Murray Hill, but the fast-paced action and the witty dialogue, not to mention the teenage foibles, all make for a story that is funny, clever, and exciting. No preparation necessary.

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‘Tips for Magicians’ by Celesta Rimington is a superb middle grade book that deals with overcoming loss, family and friendship

Tips for Magicians by Celesta Rimington

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from “Tips for Magicians,” a new middle grade book by Celesta Rimington. The title sounded cute—but I realized the book is much more than “cute.” It’s a powerful and touching story of a boy who loses his mother in an unexpected accident, and we see that the grief and the resulting damage to his family seems overwhelming. Harrison’s mother was a beautiful classical singer, and she performed all over the world. His father was her stage manager, and since her death he’s been working a lot. We don’t know if he needs to work or wants to be busy to assuage his grief, but he’s gone a lot. Since her death, Harrison’s father can’t stand to hear music in their home, and Harrison has been grieving not only the loss of his mother, but the loss of the music that both he and his mother loved and shared together.

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Two cat picture books about the joys — and the problems — of the cats we love

Cats. Can’t live with them; can’t live without them. At least some of us feel that way. I adore my black cat, Blacky, yet my other black cat Natty is a big pain in the neck. He jumps on us, delights in knocking over things on our nightstands, and eats any flowers I bring into the house (so I don’t get flowers anymore). But we love them even when they drive us nuts. Here are two picture books that celebrate those cats that can be “negative” or have “problems.” You’ll love them both as much as my grandson and I do.

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Two picture books that share uplifting memorials of 9/11

While most adults were alive and watching as the horror of 9/11 flashed before us on a television screen, there is a new generation of people, some young adults, who were not alive when the US was attacked on that infamous day. I remember that I was in my first year teaching fifth grade. When we heard what had happened, I turned on the television and we watched in horror as the second plane flew into the second tower. I remember telling my students that this was an event that would change the world, and that it was an event that they would never forget.

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