Today nominations open for the Cybils Awards. The Cybils are the Children’s and Young Adult Blogger’s Literary Awards. The award “aims to recognize the children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal”.
How to Participate
Nominations will remain open from today until 15 October. Anyone can nominate a book (one nomination per category). There are 10 categories, ranging from board books to graphic novels to young adult speuclative fiction. Nominated books must be 1) published in Canada or the USA, 2) between 16 October 2016 and 15 October 2017, and 3) written in English. Books don’t need multiple nominations to make the cut. If you nominate it, it will be considered! You can find out more about nominating at the Cybils website.
Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in the Cybils as a panelist for middle grade fiction. This year, I will be participating as a judge for middle-grade speculative fiction, my favourite genre 🙂 This means I will be part of the second round group that selects a finalist from the shortlist created by the round one panelists. I am honored and excited to work with a group of book bloggers who are experts in the genre. Be sure to check out their blogs.
From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features 7 historical fiction books (that weren’t featured on any of my other lists).
Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm
Grown-ups lie. That’s one truth Beans knows for sure. He and his gang know how to spot a whopper a mile away, because they are the savviest bunch of barefoot conchs (that means “locals”) in all of Key West. Not that Beans really minds; it’s 1934, the middle of the Great Depression. With no jobs on the island, and no money anywhere, who can really blame the grown-ups for telling a few tales? Besides, Beans isn’t anyone’s fool. In fact, he has plans. Big plans. And the consequences might surprise even Beans himself.
Everything’s changing for Sarah Beth Willis. After Robin’s tragic accident, everyone seems different somehow. Days on the farm aren’t the same, and the simple fun of riding a bike or playing outside can be scary. And there’s talk in town about the new sixth-grade teacher at Shady Creek. Word is spreading quickly–Mrs. Smyre is like no other teacher anyone has ever seen around these parts. She’s the first African American teacher. It’s 1969, and while black folks and white folks are cordial, having a black teacher at an all-white school is a strange new happening. For Sarah Beth, there are so many unanswered questions. What is all this talk about Freedom Riders and school integration? Why can’t she and Ruby become best friends? And who says school isn’t for anybody who wants to learn–or teach? In a world filled with uncertainty, one very special teacher shows her young students and the adults in their lives that change invites unexpected possibilities.
I don’t really remember much about this one, except that it was less about race relations than you might expect from the description…
Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.
Nastiest character I’ve met in a middle grade book = Betty
On GoodReads, I wrote: “Wow, this is a dark book. It would have made me squirm if I had read it when I was 12. I’m not sure I enjoyed it now, at 24. I do like a dark story, but this had too many cruel moments and a bleak ending.”
Running away from home isn’t as easy as Ren thinks it will be. At least she isn’t running very far-just a few miles to the ghost town of Fortune… or Mis-Fortune as everyone else calls it. Mis-Fortune on the Mississippi. Supposedly, there’s an abandoned school on the outskirts with cheap rooms for rent. Ren knows her plan sounds crazy. But with only a few more weeks until Dad comes home from his tour of duty in Afghanistan, she also knows she has to do something drastic so Mom will come to her senses and stop seeing that creep Rick Littleton, the creep she promised she would stop seeing but didn’t, for good.
From the moment she enters the school’s shadowy halls, Ren finds herself drawn into its secrets. Every night old Mrs. Baxter, the landlady, wanders the building on a mysterious quest. What could she be up to? And can Mrs. Baxter’s outlandish plan to transform the gym into a pearl-button museum ever succeed? With a quirky new friend named Hugh at her side, Ren sets out to solve the mystery that could save Fortune from fading away. But what about her family’s future? Can that be saved too?
I included this on the list without thinking – is it actually historical fiction? Though it’s set in the present day, history plays a strong role and it feels like a historical tale, with the primary setting being the old school building and the plot focused on uncovering the past.
Though I found the plot less than exciting, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the novel because it reminded me of a converted schoolhouse I stayed at in the mountains of Japan.
As World War II threatens the United States in 1941, fourteen-year-old Junior Bledsoe fights his own battles at home. Junior struggles with school and with anger—at his father, his insufferable granddaddy, his neighbors, and himself—as he desperately tries to understand himself and find his own aim in life. But he finds relief in escaping to the quiet of the nearby woods and tinkering with cars, something he learned from his Pop, and a fatherly neighbor provides much-needed guidance. This heartfelt and inspiring prequel to the author’s Blue and Comfort also includes an author’s note and bibliography.
Didn’t capture my interest. Perhaps more interesting if you’ve read the other two novels?
Joseph Johnson has lost just about everyone he’s ever loved. He lost his pa in an accident. He lost his ma and his little sister to sickness. And now, he’s lost his pony–fast, fierce, beautiful Sarah, taken away by a man who had no right to take her. Joseph can sure enough get her back, though. The odds are stacked against him, but he isn’t about to give up. He will face down deadly animals, dangerous men, and the fury of nature itself on his quest to be reunited with the only family he has left. Because Joseph Johnson may have lost just about everything; but he hasn’t lost hope. And he hasn’t lost the fire in his belly that says he’s getting his Sarah back–no matter what.
10 year old me would have liked this book, despite the setting. I liked the quietness about it.
Caution regarding the portrayal of Indigenous people: Joseph’s mother taught him not to be derogatory towards Chinese people but she didn’t teach him the same about ‘Indians’. Deb Reese does not recommend this book.
Ask anyone: September 11, 2001, was serene and lovely, a perfect day—until a plane struck the World Trade Center. But right now it is a few days earlier, and four kids in different parts of the country are going about their lives. Sergio, who lives in Brooklyn, is struggling to come to terms with the absentee father he hates and the grandmother he loves. Will’s father is gone, too, killed in a car accident that has left the family reeling. Nadira has never before felt uncomfortable about being Muslim, but at her new school she’s getting funny looks because of the head scarf she wears. Amy is starting a new school in a new city and missing her mom, who has to fly to New York on business. These four don’t know one another, but their lives are about to intersect in ways they never could have imagined.
Yup, it’s a little strange to think stories about 9/11 can be considered historical fiction for this age group.
This one didn’t strike me in the same way as Towers Falling. This one felt more hokey, somehow.
I like the timeline – days leading up to 9/11 instead of the exact day of or many days later.
This concludes the final installment in my series reviewing Cybils middle grade fiction nominees. I found participating in the Cybils as a round one judge to be a unique and enjoyable experience. Though it can be a lot of work, that ‘work’ is reading and thinking about books, so it’s still a good time 🙂 If you’re interested in serving as a judge for Cybils 2017 (applications open in September), check out the website here.
From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books which I personally enjoyed (that weren’t shortlisted or featured on any of my other lists).
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real–and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones. With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself. Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.
[Okay, this book was shortlisted, but I just have to talk about it here.] As a child, I would have loved Some Kind of Happiness. I can’t argue that it has broad kid appeal, though I hope children who struggle with anxiety and/or depression may take comfort in this story. Sometimes Finley has blue days, where she feels desperately sad and overwhelmed, and she can’t figure out why. Early on, she writes, “(If anyone around here should feel sad, and heavy, and unable to get up and brush her teeth before bed, it should be Gretchen, or stick.) (Not me.)” (63). She comes to learn that she likely has an anxiety disorder and depression, and that there are ways for her to manage both. I found the story beautifully written (particularly the excerpts of Finley’s stories). This book sort-of straddles the boundary between fiction and speculative fiction. While Finley’s fantastical stories aren’t real within the context of the story, they feel real enough to me. It’s no secret that I prefer speculative over contemporary fiction. Finley’s writing injects that touch of fantasy I crave. Finally, I like story lines where kids are discovering the past wrongs of adults.
Own voices? – Yes. Legrand suffered from anxiety when she was a child (she wrote a guest post at SLJ about her experiences and the importance of mental illness representation in works for children).
Allie Velasco wants to be a trailblazer. A trendsetter. A winner. No better feeling exists in the world than stepping to the top of a winner’s podium and hoisting a trophy high in the air. At least that’s what Allie thinks; she’s never actually won anything before. Everyone in her family is special in some way; her younger sister is a rising TV star, her brother is a soccer prodigy, and her great-grandfather is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. With a family like this, Allie knows she has to make her mark or risk being left behind. She’s determined to add a shiny medal, blue ribbon, or beautiful trophy to her family’s award shelf. When a prestigious school contest is announced, Allie has the perfect opportunity to take first, at last. There’s just one small snag: Her biggest competition is also her ex-best friend, Sara. Can Allie take top prize and win back a friend, or is she destined to lose it all?
Please disregard that blah cover. That’s what I should have done. Because I judged a book by its cover, Allie, First at Last turned out to be my biggest surprise read of the Cybils nominees. I appreciated that Allie’s flaw is her desire to be competitive. I find that often, if a character is hyper-competitive, it’s because they’re good at something and want to always be the best. Allie is still struggling to find her ‘thing’. The exploration of friendship via her relationships with Victor (new kid in school who Allie makes some negative assumptions about) and Sara (Allie’s former friend who isn’t totally sure why they’re not friends anymore) strengthen the story. Finally, I liked the inclusion of some WWII history via Allie’s great-grandfather.
Own voices? Yes – Cervantes is Mexican-American, like Allie.
Who eats Cheetos with chopsticks?! Avery and Becca, my “Chinese Sisters,” that’s who. We’re not really sisters—we were just adopted from the same orphanage. And we’re nothing alike. They sing Chinese love songs on the bus to summer camp, and I pretend like I don’t know them. To make everything worse, we have to journal about our time at camp so the adoption agency can do some kind of “where are they now” newsletter. I’ll tell you where I am: At Camp Little Big Woods in a cabin with five other girls who aren’t getting along, competing for a campout and losing (badly), wondering how I got here…and where I belong.
Just Like Me = camp narrative + adoption narrative. I thought the camp atmosphere was portrayed well, capturing the spirit of competitiveness that can overtake kids. I liked that the girls couldn’t always get along (although their bickering may grow old quickly for some readers). They had to learn to work together and empathize a little as they learnt about each other’s backgrounds. This applies not only to Julia, Avery, and Becca, but to the other three girls in their cabin as well.
Own voices? – Not exactly… Cavanaugh is definitely not an American girl adopted from China. The author photo in the book showing Cavanaugh (a White woman) with her daughter might lead one to assume that Cavanaugh adopted her daughter from China. However, the description does not clarify this, nor have I found explicit evidence online. In a time when we are recognizing more and more the value of own voices narratives, I am curious about the experiences (or lack thereof) which an author draws from, especially when writing contemporary fiction. I find it a tad frustrating not to be able to do that.
When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?
I was in grade four when 9/11 happened. It’s not something I think about very often, despite its astonishing repercussions on current events. I’d briefly thought about how nearly all my students (up to grade nine) were born after 9/11. I had never thought about how one would teach such students about 9/11. To these students, 9/11 may be just as historical as Pearl Harbour. I thought Rhodes sensitively handled the depiction of the event and how it impacted(s) people, including the PTSD of Deja’s father. I loved the diversity of the characters and how they connected. Basically, I appreciated how the story unfolded and explained the events of 9/11, while exploring the concept of community. Deja has a strong voice, and is a key character in the story (ie., she’s not just a mouth piece to teach about 9/11). Like Some Kind of Happiness, I’m not sure this one has broad kid appeal. I can imagine some kids reading Some Kind for pleasure, but this one has a strong classroom vibe to it. (The book was inspired by teachers who witnessed 9/11 and didn’t have a way to talk about it with students.)
Own voices? Yes – Rhodes is an African-American educator.
From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books told in alternating first person chapters.
Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick
Other than their first names, Naomi Marie and Naomi Edith are sure they have nothing in common, and they wouldn’t mind keeping it that way. Naomi Marie starts clubs at the library and adores being a big sister. Naomi Edith loves quiet Saturdays and hanging with her best friend in her backyard. And while Naomi Marie’s father lives a few blocks away, Naomi Edith wonders how she’s supposed to get through each day a whole country apart from her mother. When Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi Edith’s dad get serious about dating, each girl tries to cling to the life she knows and loves. Then their parents push them into attending a class together, where they might just have to find a way to work with each other—and maybe even join forces to find new ways to define family. .
I think Two Naomis has such a cute cover. I love how the greenery frames the girls. The images on the cover distinguish the girls much better than the words in the book, however. Although it’s told in alternating chapters from a first person perspective, their voices are not distinct enough from each other. I had to keep checking back to remind myself which girl was speaking. I wonder how the book was co-authored. Did each author write one of the Naomi’s chapters, or did they write everything together? The parent’s actions seemed a bit over the top. Why did they have to keep so many secrets? I found the girls’ reactions to one another, and growing relationship over the course of the story, more realistic. I appreciated that even though they were reluctant to attend a computer game programming class together, the activity eventually grew on them.
Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The good ones. The not-so-good ones. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. But Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like the indignity of school is worthwhile. Who makes the idea of growing up less terrifying. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind. Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she is very sick and won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a plan. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand just what Ms. Bixby means to Topher, Brand, and Steve—and what they are willing to go to such great lengths to tell her.
Topher, Brand and Steve narrate this one. Each boy has their own, unique reason for wanting to give Ms. Bixby a special ‘last day’. The story does an excellent job at conveying how a great teacher can make such a positive difference in a kid’s life. There are some fun action/adventure elements that are a touch over the top – but this is middle grade fiction. I expected the story to be more sad than it was. I didn’t cry until the epilogue 😛 I came away thinking, “Man, we need more teachers like Ms. Bixby”.
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL. Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own. Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in. Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.
My sister and I reviewed this book for my Family Reads series. Joe and Ravi narrate the story. I wrote the Cybils shortlist blurb for this one: “Joe has lived in New Jersey his entire life. Ravi has just moved to New Jersey from Bangalore. As they start grade five, both face new challenges. Ravi discovers he is no longer a star pupil as he was in India. His attempts to befriend Dillon Samreen (an American-born Indian) don’t go over as he expects. Joe’s best friends have moved away and his mom now supervises lunch, giving Dillon an additional excuse to pick on Joe beyond his auditory processing disorder. Over the course of one hectic week, Joe and Ravi move beyond misunderstandings and snap judgements to overcome their common challenge – Dillon. Narrated in alternating chapters by the very real voices of Ravi and Joe, Save Me a Seat offers a fresh take on bullying and friendship narratives.”
Cameron Boxer is very happy to spend his life avoiding homework, hanging out with his friends, and gaming for hours in his basement. It’s not too hard for him to get away with it . . . until he gets so caught up in one game that he almost lets his house burn down around him. Oops. It’s time for some serious damage control–so Cameron and his friends invent a fake school club that will make it seem like they’re doing good deeds instead of slacking off. The problem? Some kids think the club is real–and Cameron is stuck being president. Soon Cameron is part of a mission to save a beaver named Elvis from certain extinction. Along the way, he makes some new friends–and some powerful new enemies. The guy who never cared about anything is now at the center of everything . . . and it’s going to take all his slacker skills to win this round.
Slacker is primarily Cameron’s story, but a variety of characters narrate different chapters. It had been a long time since I read something new by Gordon Korman. I adored his hilarious books in grade five, when my teacher read them aloud to the class. Slacker was kind of fun, though the writing and characters didn’t stand out to me. I didn’t find it was as funny as, say, the Macdonald Hall Books, but I am perhaps biased from having read those books when I was actually 10 😉 A recommended book for a reluctant reader.
ICYMI – This past Tuesday (14 February) the Cybils winners were announced! Ghost by Jason Reynolds won in the middle grade fiction category. No surprise there 🙂 Of course, any of the books we shortlisted could have won and I wouldn’t have been surprised. When the shortlist was announced, I wrote this about Ghost: “I have never been a reader of ‘sports book’, but here is a book that will appeal to sports fan and non-fans alike – even if the feature sport is track. Ghost is a story about a kid finding something he loves doing, and learning how to push himself and be better. This is the first book I’ve read by Reynolds. Now I can see his appeal!” Congratulations to Reynolds and all the other Cybils nominees.
From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books in which a pet or an animal play a key role.
Pandas on the Eastside by Gabrielle Prednergast
When ten-year-old Journey Song hears that two pandas are being held in a warehouse in her neighbourhood, she worries that they may be hungry, cold and lonely. Horrified to learn that the pandas, originally destined for a zoo in Washington, might be shipped back to China because of a diplomatic spat between China and the United States, Journey rallies her friends and neighbours on the poverty-stricken Eastside. Her infectious enthusiasm for all things panda is hard to resist, and soon she’s getting assistance from every corner of her tight-knit neighbourhood.
Pandas on the Eastside is alternative historical fiction, something I hadn’t previously come across in middle-grade fiction. The author’s note at the back of the book states, “In 1972, the government of China gifted two giant pandas […] to the people of the United States[.]” Prendergast notes that although the relationship between China and America was strained that year, the gift of the pandas went “went off without incident.” Her story imagines an alternate narrative “in which the panda’s journey was not quite so smooth.” I found this book tackled two unique topics for middle-grade fiction: a child’s perspective of international diplomacy (conducted via pandas!) and neighbourhood life in an impoverished area of 1970s Vancouver. Journey learns how to engage in activism with the support of a varied cast of characters who live in her neighbourhood, including shop owner Mr. Huang, teacher Miss Bickerstaff, and homeless man Kentucky Jack. There are a lot of historical references in here, including hippie life, racial tension, and American war deserters.
Ben Coffin has never felt like he fits in. A former foster kid, he keeps his head down at school to avoid bullies and spends his afternoons reading sci-fi books at the library. But that all changes when he finds a scruffy abandoned dog named Flip and befriends the librarian’s daughter, Halley. For the first time, Ben starts to feel like he belongs in his own life. Then, everything changes, and suddenly, Ben is more alone than ever. But with a little help from Halley’s magician father, Ben discovers his place in the world and learns to see his own magic through others’ eyes.
Sad happenings fill the beginning and ending of this book. Some of those happenings could have been removed, probably to the improvement of the narrative. Halley comes across as a toned-down manic pixie dream girl, or at least a kind of inspirational cancer patient cliche. But Ben has a good outlook on life, and a nice relationship with his dog. Ben trains Flip as a service dog who assists children in a reading program at the library. That was my favourite part of the story. I don’t think Halley’s story needed to conclude as it did. Overall, not as sad as you might expect from all that happens in the first few chapters.
Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite. But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.
I prefer this ‘dog book’ over the one above. Charlie’s had a rough time. She’smoving to the mountains to live with relatives because her father’s incarcerated and her mother’s not well enough to take care of Charlie. Every day she makes the same wish. Will it ever come true? Charlie eventually recognizes that good people surround her in her new home, including friend Howard, stray dog Wishbone, and caregivers Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus. I appreciated that Charlie had a rough temper and had to learn how to manage it. I think the cover of this book captures the mood well – a soft and warm story about finding family.
Captain Natick does not want to take a kitten on board his ship when it sets sail in 1847, but his daughter convinces him that the scrawny yellow cat will bring good luck. Onto the ship the kitten goes, and so begins the adventurous, cliff-hanging, lucky life of Jacob Tibbs. At first, Jacob’s entire world is the ship’s hold, where the sailors heave their heavy loads and despicable, long-tailed rats scurry in the darkness. But before long, Jacob’s voyage takes him above deck and onward to adventure. Along the way, Jacob will encounter loss and despair, brave thunderous storms at sea, face down a mutiny, survive on a desert island, and above all, navigate the tricky waters of shipboard life and loyalties.
One of my favourite books growing up was Ragweed by Avi. I also enjoy stories of ships and sailing adventures. Jacob Tibbs, therefore, suits my tastes just fine. It may appeal only to a particular type of reader – this is, after all, historical fiction narrated by cat. I have only read bout a third of the book so far. There have been sad moments and humorous moments. The tough life aboard the ship is not toned down. Tibbs, being the only cat on ship, is fairly isolated. We get glimpses into the lives of men from what Tibbs overhears. (The cat tells the story in first person.) I like the style, with its touch of formality that reflects the time. I would call this a classic adventure book, especially a solid read for those who loves cats! (And I see on Goodreads even some self-declared dog lovers enjoy the book…)