‘Ripped Away’ is historical fantasy as two kids travel back to London at the time of Jack the Ripper

Ripped Away by Shirley Reva Vernick

“Ripped Away” by Shirley Reva Vernick is a middle grade novel, almost a novella, really, at a bit over 100 pages, featuring first person narrator Abe Pearlman. In his very relatable, charming narrative he describes his lonely existence. He’s not in any school clubs nor does he play sports. And when he nods at Mitzi, a classmate he finds interesting, she can’t be bothered to respond with even a nod. As he walks through town on his way home from school, he sees a sign he had never noticed before, “Fortunes and Futures,” in the third story of a building. He decides to investigate.

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‘The Unforgettable Logan Foster’ by Shawn Peters is a middle grade superhero fantasy kids will love

The Unforgettable Logan Foster
by Shawn Peters

“The Unforgettable Logan Foster” by Shawn Peters is a middle grade story that lives up to its title — it’s charming and filled with so much adventure and so many incredible characters that the book will be just that — unforgettable. It’s both rare and wonderful to find a middle grade fantasy which features a main character who is a very different kind of kid. The protagonist, Logan Foster, tells us his story as if he’s talking to us. In fact, he lets us know from the start that he is sharing this story for his younger brother—whoever and wherever he may be. Logan was found in an airport on the jetway of a flight that had just left for Boston. He was wearing a shirt that read “World’s Best Big Brother,” and on the tag of the tee shirt was written “L. Foster.” So Logan is sure that somewhere, he has a little brother, and he spends a lot of time online searching to try to find his sibling. Logan has an eidetic memory, and we realize that he’s very definitely neurodiverse. That makes his first person narrative interesting and humorous, as he will share his feelings and then repeat the dialogue that is practically identical to the thoughts that he shared. He admits, however, that he’s not adept at reading other people’s emotions.

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‘Boy Underground’ by Catherine Ryan Hyde is a coming of age story of a gay teen in the 1940s

Boy Underground by Catherine Ryan Hyde

“Boy Underground” is the title of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s newest novel, and the title has a double meaning. On one hand, the title refers to Nick, who is main character Steven Katz’ best friend, and who is also Steven’s romantic crush. Because of an unbelievable betrayal by Nick’s father, he must hide and ends up living underground in a root cellar on Steven’s family’s huge farm. On the other hand, the title could also refer to Steven, and the fact he is gay; something he is hiding from his family and pretty much everyone else. During this time homosexuality was considered a perversion and a crime. Steven’s feelings, his identity, his persona—all are hidden “underground.”

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Entertaining picture books with a message

Picture books — gotta love them for how they can entertain children while at the same time broadening their knowledge of the world, helping them make sense of it and presenting messages that will help them to become critical thinkers. Because that’s what learning is all about, isn’t it? Reading, gaining knowledge, and improving our thinking. Reading with children and inspiring them to become life-long readers is a way to ensure that they will also be life-time learners. These picture books are very entertaining, but they are also filled with messages that adults might point out to the children gently, to help them learn to look for messages in all the books they read.

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Fabulous nonfiction children’s books you need on your bookshelf: Part Two

Nonfiction books for middle grade readers are an important tool for teachers and librarians. Good nonfiction books serve multiple purposes: they provide factual information in an easier format than many websites or other informational sources; they can engage children by capturing their interest in topic that fascinate them; and they are books that don’t necessarily need to be read in one sitting. Nonfiction books can be picked up and read at one’s leisure because there’s no mystery to solve or plot to figure out. Many nonfiction books have colorful photos and graphics that further draw the eye and engage the reader. Others, like the memoirs included in this collection, read like fiction because of the first person narrative. See which books might interest the children in your life, or just pick your favorites for a teacher who might enjoy sharing them with students.

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‘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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‘The Ballad of Laurel Springs’ by Janet Beard is historical fiction about the songs that might just define us

The Ballad of Laurel Springs by Janet Beard

“The Ballad of Laurel Springs” by Janet Beard is historical fiction that begins in the present and gives us context for the ballads that are repeated through each woman’s tale — for this is a story that runs for over century, told about and by women all related by blood or circumstance. Each woman shares her story, some taking place in a year, some over many years, in first person narrative. At times, it almost feels like they are speaking directly to us. Pearl’s first sentence to us is, “I don’t believe in witches…Seems to me folks just like to blame their troubles on someone. If your cow stops giving milk, it’s probably sick, and if your horse up and dies, it’s probably gotten old. It’s not a witch’s fault—just bad luck.” That attitude changes horrifically later in her story.

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‘The Matzah Ball’ by Jean Meltzer is a perfect holiday almost-fairy tale romance

The Matzah Ball
by Jean Meltzer

Matzah balls are soft and filling and satisfying in warm soup. However, “The Matzah Ball” by Jean Meltzer might better be compared to the rugalach that her characters love to nosh on, sweet and sometimes nutty, but made with love (and honesty) and with a texture that melts in your mouth. This story is filled with lots of love in the best tradition of any romance novel, but it’s also much more. Meltzer provides us with an inside look at a main character who is strong and successful, and at the same times struggles with a chronic disease.

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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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‘An Unorthodox Match’ by Naomi Ragen is a brilliant peek into the lives of the Ultra-orthodox Jewish community

An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen

Naomi Ragen first brought us “Jephte’s Daughter,” which is listed as one of the hundred most important Jewish books of all times, and now with “An Unorthodox Match,” she pulls back the curtains on the insular lives of the New York Ultra-orthodox communities, and how people, no matter their apparent piousness, are the same everywhere. We meet Leah Howard, a woman brought up like many Jews (myself included), with no formal Jewish traditions and a decided lack of any real religious training. Her mother literally ran away from her parents and their conservative Jewish lifestyle, and Leah was raised with total freedom from religious strictures.

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