Monday, September 18, 2017

Saints and MIsfits, a novel written by S. K. Ali

For Janna Yusuf, 15, life just got a little more complicated. Janna is a hijab wearing Muslim whose parents, a Egyptian Muslim mom and secular Indian dad, are divorced; her older brother Muhammad has just moved back home from college after changing his major yet again, and is in the process of arranging a marriage with a girl Janna sarcastically refers to as Saint Sarah. 

Janna has also just been sexually assaulted by Farooq, the pious golden boy of the mosque, who everyone is in awe of because he claimed to have memorized the Qur’an and is even allowed to lead prayers. Added to all this is Janna’s crush on a white Christian boy named Jeremy, a friend of her brother and Farooq, and a boy she knows she can never date.

Janna spends her time trying to avoid Farooq, not knowing what to do about the assault. She does manage to go about her regular daily life at home and school. She continues to “elder-sit” Mr. Ram, an elderly Hindu man she takes to the community center once a week, and to participate in events at school, where she is the only other girl in an enriched math class; and at the mosque, she edits a newsletter Q&A for her uncle, the Imam, and photographs the mosque’s annual Open House. She is also part of the mosque’s team that goes a state-wide Islamic Quiz Bowl tournament. 

Janna’s two best friends are Tats, who is not Muslim and continues to promote a relationship between Janna and Jeremy, not really understanding that Janna can’t date him,  and Fizz, who is Farooq’s cousin, and who is a little too judgmental. But it is radical Sausun who really impacts Janna’s life. Ironically, Sausun is the most empowered girl in the book, a character who looks at everything with distain, including Janna, but who is a candy guzzler, Doc Martens- wearing, Youtuber, running a show called “Niqabi Ninjas” (unlike hijab, niqab covers the entire face, except the eyes).

As you might have surmised, Saints and Misfits is definitely a character-driven novel and Janna is its most complex character - a person for whom religion plays an important part in her life, a photographer, a graphic artist (she began a pictorial seerah life of the Prophet Muhammad book at age 9) and a lover of Flannery O’Connor stories. But Janna is also a questioner, who is just starting to discover and explore who she really is. 

Beside Janna, Ali has created a cast of interesting, mainly Muslim characters. Through them, she explores Muslim culture and some of the difficulties faced by girls who are, on the one hand, not so very different from other girls their age, but who are also bound by the strictures of their religion, a situation Farooq cruelly takes advantage of when Janna refuses to forgive and forget what he did to her. In reality, those of us who are not Muslim see girls and women wearing hijab all the time, but never really think or know what is means to decide to wear it. Through Janna and Farooq, Ali makes it clear what the underlying meaning of this decision is - more than just a symbol of modesty, it is supposed to protect Muslim women from being harassed and/or molested by men. Understanding that, Farooq’s behavior goes against everything that he is supposed to stand for.  

Janna's  story is a compelling, engrossing tale of self-discovery, and her lively narration will keep readers interested all the way through, and curious to see how she ultimately deals with Farooq’s assault and it is totally worth reading to the end to find out. 

Saints and Misfits is author S. K. Ali's debut novel and I am looking forward to reading more of her excellent work, hopefully in the near future. 

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Randomly Reading Roundup: Back to School

Even though the kids have been back to school for a while, it's not too late for some back to school reading. Here are some of my favorites that we have enjoyed both before and after school began. The kids like reading them, but more importantly they helped some of the kids open up about their own fears and concerns at the start of the new school year.

A New School Year: Poem Stories in Six Voices by Sally Derby, illustrated by Mike Song
Charlesbridge, 2017, 48 pages, age 5+
It’s the start of a new school year and in 24 free verse poems, young readers are privy to the innermost thoughts and concerns of six students from Kindergarten to Fifth Grade.  Told in four parts, it covers the night the first day, the morning of the first day, at and after school the first day. Kindergartener Ethan puts his bear’s fuzzy jacket in his pants pocket so he can touch it when he’s feeling scared; 1st grader Zach worries about making mistakes,Katie learns her 2nd grade teacher has been changed to someone she doesn’t know, a Mr. instead of a Miss or Mrs., third grader Jackie hopes her teacher won’t mind having her in the classroom an hour before school starts, Carolos worries that there won’t be anyone in Fourth Grade who looks like him, and Mia worries about homework, and whether she will have the right school supplies for Fifth Grade. How does each student’s first day work out? Derby has really summed up some of the most realistic concerns kids have about school, making this a great book for helping kids manage their own first day worries, regardless of their age. Song’s gentle, softly colored illustrations stay focused on the kids, who are a nicely diverse group of students.

The Teacher's Pet by Anica Mrose Rissi, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora
Disney Hyperion, 2017, 40 pages, age 4+
Mr. Stricter, who is anything but, and his young students are watching the growth of tadpoles as their science project. When the tadpoles are grown enough, they release them into a nearby pond, except for one named Bruno. Bruno grows and grows into a large hippo, who eats homework, farts, and continually disrupts the class. But Mr. Stricter just doesn’t see what a problem the class pet has become. It’s up to the children to solve the problem of Bruno, and convince their teacher he needs to be freed. Rissi turns the tables in this humous tale illustrating the pluses and minuses of having a class pet and young readers will definitely get the age-appropriate irony she uses. Classroom pets can be fun, but also distracting and kids may recognize some of their own behavior in their teacher. A fun story with a nice old fashioned feel to the bright acrylic and pencil illustrations. 

Sarabella's Thinking Cap written and illustrated by Judy Schachner
Dial Books, 2017, 32 pages, age 5+
Sarabella is a talented artist who has a lot of trouble focusing on her school work and getting it done on time. Consequently, she brings home a lot of notes about daydreaming instead of paying attention. But no matter how hard she tries, Sarabella’s keep turning away from school and into her own daydreams. Finally, her teacher Mr. Fantozzi gives his class a weekend a project ideal for Sarabella, called “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” And Sarabella knows just what she needs to do for this project. This is an important story to share with a class, or even at home. Kids have difficulty focusing on school for all kinds of reasons and wisely, Schachner doesn’t’ not give Sarabella a specific diagnose. But she doesn’t excuse behavior like Sarabella’s either. Instead, she presents a way that should lead to understanding. After reading this book, I immediately began to daydream about what my thinking cap would have looked like when I was Sarabella’s age. And I wish I had had this book to read to my former students who also struggled with focus problems. Schachner’s gouache, acrylics, college and mixed media illustrations will take your breath away.

This story also really struck a personal note for me. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic who struggled with school, brought home lots of notes similar to Sarabella’s, and often lapsed into daydreaming. It wasn’t until an 8th grade teacher actually “saw” me that things changed. 

Twindergarten by Nikki Ehrlich, illustrated by Zoey Abbott Wagner
HarperCollins, 2017, 32 pages, age 4+
Twins Dax and Zoe go together like peanut butter and jelly, but now they are getting ready to start Kindergarten and feeling a little jittery: the twins had wanted to be together, but ended up in separate classes. Mom thinks that perhaps it will be a good opportunity for them to make separate friends, but the twins aren’t so sure they want to do that. The night before the first day of school, Dax pushes his bed closer to Zoe, but the next day, it is Dax who makes the first friend,a boy named Max. And even though she has met a girl named Sydney, Zoe misses him that much more. At recess, they have a chance to be together again, just like peanut butter and jelly. When recess is over, Dax slips something into Zoe’s pocket that turns out to be just the thing she needs to be able to make her own friends and have fun in Kindergarten. While Twindergarten is about twins, it is a good book to share with any child who is feeling a see-saw of emotions about starting Kindergarten - excited but nervous, confident but jittery. Abbott’s whimsical color pencil illustrations have the feel of a child’s drawing, making the story all that much more relatable for kids. This is an excellent choice for kids who need just a little more reassurance that starting school doesn’t change everything.

How To Get Your Teacher Ready by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, 32 pages, age 4+
Kids know all about how they get ready for school and all the special events of the school year, but what about their teacher? Written in the same vein as her earlier books, a classroom full of students offer advice to a teacher to help her cope with any jitters she might be experiencing about starting school. From a big first day “Good Morning,” students answer anxious questions such as why she doesn’t have a cubby and where the bathroom is. Advice for Picture Day (no messy snacks), the Holiday Concert (how to spot her family in the audience) and Field Day (make sure her whistle works), and a variety of other mishaps and events are covered. Reagan also turns the tables in this whimsical look at the school year, but this is a clever way to deal with a child’s fears about school and what to expect, by putting the teacher in the child’s place. Wildest colorful illustrations are humorous and really catch the feeling of a year in Kindergarten. 

Kisses for Kindergarten by Livingstone Crouse, illustrated by Macky Pamintuan
Silver Dolphin Books, 2017, 40 pages, age 4+
It’s time to start school, but Stella Isabella Harden isn’t quite ready for Kindergarten, explaining to her parents that her puppy Buster told her she didn’t have to go. So Stella decides to reimagine Kindergarten with Buster. Reimagined school begins with playtime in the park, which is fun, as is the snack time picnic she and Buster share. Nap time begins with building a pillow fort for napping and ends with a pillow fight. But then comes story time and Buster really wanted a story. Too bad Stella Isabella can’t read to him. And so Buster places his paw on the book, and lets Stella Isabella know she needs to go to real school. And Buster - well, Buster waits patiently every day for Stella Isabella to come home from school to tell him a story. Written in a rhyme that sometimes doesn’t really work, this is, nevertheless, a book for kids who think they don’t need to go to school, and who, like Stella Isabella, discover that they really do need to and want to go. And while the rhyme might not always work, Pamintuan’s boldly colorful illustrations do. She has really captured the playful energy and love between Stella Isabella and her pup, Buster. A nice book for reluctant school-goers.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Zinnia and the Bees by Danielle Davis

The last day of seventh grade couldn’t be worse for Zinnia Flossdrop. First, she must spend the day sitting in the principal's office for yarn-bombing the school mascot. At home, she discovers that, Adam, 18, her beloved brother, a talented magician and sometimes prankster-in-crime has left home, leaving no note or explanation. Her rather cold dentist/community activist mom doesn’t seem to care, replacing Adam with a sickly little dog. Seeking comfort, Zinnia buys herself a cone of her favorite ice-cream, which melts, falls out of the cone onto a table, and gets in her hair when she puts her head down for a good cry.

Little does Zinnia know that there is an industrial rental hive of escaped honeybees looking for a new home in order to live as free bees and pollinators as nature meant them to be. Yes, the bees find a new home in Zinnia’s abundant, wildly curly locks. And nothing she does gets them to move out. So, Zinnia does the only thing she can think of - puts on a sweatshirt and covers her hair with a hood.

Which naturally arouses the curiosity of visiting, plaid-wearing Birch, nephew of her next-door neighbor. Birch is a bird-watcher, the son of naturalists, and a solid, straightforward kind of kid, who sees and faces things head-on - luckily for Zinnia. He’s the only person who actually notices that there are bees living in her hair. Little by little, the two become friends, though it is a rocky road given Zinnia’s somewhat depressing situation(s), and Birch’s overly positive attitude. Together, they begin to search solutions to getting the bees out of Zinnia’s hair and into a proper hive, while also trying to find out where Adam might be and why he left so abruptly.  

In between Zinnia’s unfolding tale of woe, are short chapters narrated by one of the bees. That way, the reader learns why they decided to run away (with parallels to Adam’s reasons), and the difficulty of surviving until they find a new hive. The plight of the bees is told with both humor and pathos, so be prepared to suspend your disbelief and at the same time, learn some interesting facts about bees. 

Over the course of the summer, having a headful of bees and no big brother to fall back on teaches Zinnia some hard truths about herself and her feelings, and about what it means to be a sister, a daughter and a friend. 

At first, I thought the yarn bombing thing was kind of silly, but as I read and got to know Zinnia better, I realized it is the perfect metaphor for her - always covering up and hiding her real feelings from everyone around her - feelings that are holding her captive, and which naturally leads to all kinds of misunderstandings. 

On the other hand, the bees are looking for freedom, tired of being held captive as pollinators on demand. Their quest for freedom also leads to all kinds of misunderstanding - particularly with regard to Bee 641, who led them to Zinnia’s hair in the first place.

This is a debut middle grade novel for Danielle Davis. Though not without flaws, it is nevertheless an entertaining and well-done novel. I particularly liked the way she managed to weave in some real information about the plight of bees in today’s world through some nice use of magical realism. And I thought her characters were very interesting, and just quirky enough to work without going over the top. 

Zinnia and the Bees is a coming of age novel that is sure to please young readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Friday, September 1, 2017

Blog Tour: Duck and Hippo Lost and Found by Jonathan London, Illustrated by Andrew Joyner

Duck and Hippo Lost and Found
by Jonathan London, illustrated by Andres Joyner
Two Lions, 2017, 32 pages
It’s the end of summer and friends Duck and Hippo decide to have one last picnic at their favorite pond, and of course, they invite their other friends, Elephant, Pig and Turtle. Everyone has brought something to contribute to the picnic, so the friends decide it’s time to have some fun dancing and singing. But when they to stop to have something to eat, Hippo realizes he forgot to bring anything. 

What to do? Hippo decides to go find the last of the summer berries in the forest to share with his friends. But after he has been gone for a very long time, his friends get worried and decide to go and look for him. Duck really gets worried when the sun begins to go down. Is Hippo really lost, could he have fallen into a hole, as Duck fears, or could he still just be looking for berries? 

This is a wonderful story about friendship and loyalty, sharing and caring. And even as the sun goes down and the moon rises, there is not cause for young readers to feel anxious. The friends are not really portrayed as being young, and they are smart enough to stick together as they look for and call out to Hippo. And once Hippo realizes he is lost, he is quick to call out for help. All's well that ends well, and the happy ending will certainly please young readers as the friends are reunited and finally finish having their end of summer picnic.

Storyteller Jonathan London and illustrator Andrew Joyner have once again collaborated to bring young readers this second installment in the Duck and Hippo series, and Duck and Hippo Lost and Found is every bit a wonderful as their first book Duck and Hippo in the Rainstorm. London's simple but well paced text and Joyner’s colorful cartoon-like drawings compliment each other so well and make for a fun, energetic story.


Meet the Author:

Jonathan London has written more than one hundred children’s book, including the bestselling Froggy series, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz. Many of his book explore nature, among them Flamingo Sunset, illustrated by Kristina Rodanas, and Little Penguin: The Emperor of Antarctica, illustrated by Julie Olson. He is also author of the Arron’s Wilderness middle-grade series, illustrated by his son Sean London. Jonathan lives in Graton, California. Learn more online at

Meet the Illustrator:

Andrew Joyner is an illustrator, author and cartoonist based in South Australia. He has illustrated a number of picture books, and he wrote and illustrated a chapter book series about a warthog named Boris. He has also illustrated for newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, and Rolling Stone magazine, among others. Learn more online at

There's more fun with Duck and Hippo in the free downloadable activity page at

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was provided by the publisher, Two Lions

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish

Ethan Truitt, 12, and his best friend Kacey Reid used to have all kinds of adventures together, until one night Ethan dares Kacey to do something and, though it ends in a tragic accident, Ethan can't help but blame himself for causing it. 

Now, his parents are moving from Boston to Palm Knot, a coastal town in Georgia, using the excuse that they need to take care of his elderly grandfather, but in reality, Ethan knows it is an attempt to help him come to terms with his overwhelming grief and his all-consuming guilt.

At first, living with his grumpy grandpa Ike in a somewhat dumpy, dilapidated house, and with an angry older brother who resents him because of the move, really isn’t helpful. At school, Suzanne, who seems to have a little crush on Ethan, wants him to hang around with her and her friends, the “cool kids,” but Ethan isn’t very inclined to do that. Instead, he starts hanging around with the intrepid Coralee Jessup, a smart, talkative black girl who claims to be violin prodigy, and who is not much liked by the “cool kids.” 

Coralee also introduces Ethan to the unofficial library in the back of the hardware store, both run by Mack, a woman who has been collecting books for decades and who always has some salt water taffy for her patrons. And maybe grandpa Ike isn’t so bad after all, especially when he decides to teach Ethan how to drive his pickup truck. 

As Ethan adjusts to life in Palm Knot, the circumstances of Kacey’s accident are slowly revealed in flashbacks. The reader knows that Kacey is still alive because Ethan has run away a few times to try and see her. She is in a nursing home, in a coma and on life support. When Ethan is told that her parents have decided to take her off life support, Ethan’s pain is intense and palpable. His pain is compounded by the fact that when he finds out that Coralee has betrayed his confidence about what happened to Kacey to Suzanne, Suzanne also makes it a point to tell him the truth about Coralee’s life with the result that Ethan begins to believe that everything Coralee has told him about herself is a lie. 

Everything comes to a dramatic climax and denouement when a hurricane hits Palm Knot and Coralee goes missing. Ethan couldn’t help Kacey when she was hurt, but can he redeem himself and help save the new friend he turned his back on?

The Ethan I Was Before couldn’t be a more appropriate title for Ethan’s story. No one remains unchanged after going through a trauma that literally shatters the innocence of childhood, and the intense feelings that follow.  

This coming of age novel is written in the first person from Ethan’s point of view, so that the reader journeys with him through all his turmoil and agony as he finally attempts to come to terms with Kacey’s accident and his part in it, and begins to discover who he is now. Besides his narration, there are, throughout the book, lists that Ethan makes at the suggestion of his therapist in Boston just before he moved, thinking it might help him make sense of his world and who he is now, ”The Ethan you were before may be gone, but now you have the chance to get to know the new Ethan.” 

This is a debut novel for Ali Standish, and while I thought there was just a little too much going on at the end of the story, I also felt that she really understood what Ethan was going through and conveys it to her readers quite well and with a great deal of empathy. Ethan’s story is very moving and will have readers riveted, I know I was. And while it is an emotionally charged novel about guilt, grief, the possibility of healing, it is ultimately a novel about the importance of family,  friendship, honesty, and most importantly, hope.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+
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