Book Review: Song for a Whale

Lynne Kelly’s newest release is a masterpiece that offers a glimpse of the world from a perspective we hope to see more of in kid lit!

 
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Here’s the publisher’s summary:

From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Adventure, loneliness, discovery, friendship: Song for a Whale holds so much between its pages.

Iris is an amazing protagonist. I love seeing the world through her eyes and seeing how she solves the problems she faces in ways that would never occur to me as a hearing person. The way that Iris’ empathy for Blue 55 moves her to action is an excellent display of her ingenuity. Sound is something many of us hear, but for Iris, it’s something she feels. She shows the reader how we, too, can feel sound, and all that is communicated through it, on a whole new level.

Her experiences of being deaf at a hearing school open the reader to a different perspective. How do we show respect to those we communicate with? Kelly shows the difficulties in communication barriers though conflicts with Nina, who is sure she has mastered sign language, and with one of Iris’ teachers, who refuses to see past Iris’ difference. How often do we think we’ve mastered a complex topic, like a language and a culture, from reading a single book instead of learning from those embedded in them, as Nina does? Or how often do we limit our view of another and belittle their abilities, like Iris’ teacher?

Iris’ family dynamics are another intriguing element. Kelly links Iris’ relationship with her grandparents to poetry. The sign poems, poems rhyming not with words but with sign shapes, that Iris and her grandfather create are beautiful and a realm of poetry that I’d not experienced before. And the shared but distancing gulf of grief between her and her grandmother after the death of her grandfather draws the reader into the narrative in relatable ways.

Song for a Whale is excellent for those who love fixing things, for those who love adventure, for those who feel they are often misunderstood, for those who long for that special connection between kindred spirits.

Staff Picks: Lana and Andie

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to the wide world of children’s literature, we’ve got your back! Reading staff picks is a great way to find a variety of books curated by devoted bookworms. This week, celebration facilitator Lana and bookseller Andie share some of their favorites!

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Lana's Favorites

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Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World

I absolutely LOVE this book! The illustrations are adorable, and it is a great read about so many impactful, strong, and brilliant women throughout history. From scientists and inventors to artists and writers, there are so many incredible women featured in this book. If you are looking for an inspirational read for the little dreamer in your life, this one is perfect!

 
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Turning Pages

This kid-friendly autobiography by Sonia Sotomayor is one of my all-time favorite children’s books. Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice, tells her life story, and the courage, perseverance, and tenacity it took for her to achieve her success. It is also a great introduction for little readers to learn about the Supreme Court and what the Justices do.


 
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Andie's favorites

Fly by Night

Inspired by 18th-century England, Fly by Night is a thought-provoking and courageous fantasy-mystery. You’ll fall in love with protagonist Mosca and her (homicidal) pet goose Saracen as they discover conspiracies, colorful characters, secret schools, and floating coffeehouses. Soon, Mosca becomes a very important agent in the town of Mandelion’s impending revolution.

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May Bird Book 1: The Ever After

This has been one of my favorite books for over a decade. I just love the world Anderson has created, and the characters are lovable and so unique. 10-year old May discovers a portal to the world of the dead in her small West Virginia town, and when she falls through, she finds herself (along with her hairless cat, Somber Kitty) entangled in a struggle so much bigger than she herself has ever been.

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Harbor Me

Jacqueline Woodson has written what is sure to become an American classic. 6 kids from a variety of backgrounds record their unsupervised conversations with each other about their lives and their thoughts, big and small. The strongest thing about this book is Woodson’s decision to let the kids lead it - through their words, we get crucial insights about life in present-day America.

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Staff Picks: Olivia and Rachel

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to the wide world of children’s literature, we’ve got your back! Reading staff picks is a great way to find a variety of books curated by devoted bookworms. This week, assistant bookseller Olivia and celebration facilitator Rachel share some of their favorites!

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Olivia's Favorites

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The Count of Monte Cristo

Revenge is a dish best served cold. The story of Edmond Dantė’s journey of revenge is certainly not one to miss! Love, justice, isolation, mercy, vengeance, forgiveness betrayal and so much more is packed into this classic read. Willingness to forgive, and the true meaning of revenge carry the reader along a roller-coaster of emotions to reach the final thought of: "all human wisdom is contained in these two words, 'Wait and Hope.’”

 
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Ocean Meets Sky

It’s a good day for sailing.

Finn lives by the sea and the sea lives by him. Every time he looks out his window it’s a constant reminder of the stories his grandfather told him about the place where the ocean meets the sky. Where whales and jellyfish soar and birds and castles float. He’ll build his own ship and sail out to find this magical place himself!

 
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Rachel's favorites

Rapunzel by Rachel Isadora

This book is such a great view on a well loved fairytale! The illustrations are beautiful.

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Hidden Figures (the picture book!)

This was such a great read because of the history some of us never learned about. This true story encourages so many young girls (and guys) to literally shoot for the stars! Girl power!

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Book Review: Small Spaces

Katherine Arden takes readers on an eerie journey full of chills and cheers -

and your garden-variety scarecrow army.

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Publisher’s Summary

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn't think--she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with "the smiling man," a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price. 

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she's been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn't have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: "Best get moving. At nightfall they'll come for the rest of you." Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie's previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN. 

Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver's warning. As the trio head out into the woods--bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them--the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: "Avoid large places. Keep to small." 

And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

Review

Small Spaces is fantastically creepy. This, in part, is due to the book’s vivid atmosphere. It was 90+ degrees outside while I was reading it, and every sentence surrounded me with the chill of mid-autumn. I frequently found myself stumbling outside into the Georgia sun, only to wonder where all the Halloween costumes and apple cider were.

In addition to being transportive, the book features a cast of likable and interesting characters. Too often, stories that begin in a school setting lean too far into social tropes. (Don’t get me wrong - this is not exclusively a middle-grades problem.) While this can provide writers of fantastical books room to move quickly through more “mundane” bits of plot, it can also unnecessarily flatten characters.

Arden doesn’t do this. From the very beginning, her characters defy the tropes I expected them to fit. Fierce Ollie stands up for new girl Coco, who has an eccentric and dainty reputation. Brian, the handsome athlete who accompanies Ollie and Coco into the woods, is kind and helpful throughout the journey. We see three kids who run in very different circles develop a deep understanding for one another.

And this is just the main trio. There are many exciting twists regarding good guys and bad guys. Some characters, perhaps more interestingly, turn out to be neutral.

The world Arden builds around this story is high-stakes and eerie, just unexplored enough to keep a grasp on readers’ interests. Spooky cornfields, old farms, and journals of those long dead all pitch in to create Arden’s masterpiece of an atmosphere.

Naturally, scarecrow armies come next.

The brilliance of the scarecrows is that they’re not just spooky space-fillers. Small Spaces deals with pretty heavy ideas like death, grief, and family, ideas that call into question what it means to be a human interacting with other humans, ideas that might seem scary and monstrous to kids (and really, everyone). When themes like this are set against strange, humanoid, inanimate-but-animate monsters, well . . . no spoilers, but it goes to interesting places.

And ultimately, those places are optimistic. Small Spaces is about adventure and fantasy and creepy autumn ambiance, but it’s also about the role we can play in our own grief. We don’t have to remain imprisoned by our emotions, so long as we are determined to love, in the same way that our diverse protagonists insist on loving each other. Love can bring us out of grief, and maybe - just maybe - save us from armies of super-spooky, semi-sentient scarecrows.

Get your copy from our online store here:

Happy reading!

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Staff Picks: Lauren and Andie

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to the wide world of children’s literature, we’ve got your back! Reading staff picks a great way to find a variety of books curated by devoted bookworms. This week, manager Lauren and bookseller Andie share some of their favorites!

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Lauren's Favorites

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Little Leaders: Bold women in black history

I love how this book showcases important people we probably didn't learn about in history class (at least we didn't in mine). And those illustrations! Such a delightful little book. I can't wait for the others in this series to be released (coming in October).

 
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The Serpent's secret

Typical teenager who wants to fit in trope meets snot covered demon. What's a girl to do to get her parent's back from an inter-dimensional prison? Kick some monster butt! 

 
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The jackaby series: the dire king (#4)

This series is fun right from the get-go and ends with one of the best books ever. Seriously, if I could only read one book for the rest of my life it would be The Dire King. It has everything you could ever want in a book. 

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Andie's favorites

Moby-dick: a babylit storybook

Moby-Dick is one of my all-time favorites, and now little ones can embark on the adventure, too! With fun and beautiful illustrations, this book is begging to be taken off the shelf for story time - or to be put back up for display.

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The digger and the flower

This story's tenderness is perfect for a book aimed at boys. It teaches kids to notice beauty and cultivate love, and to let their vulnerabilities show, even if it might feel silly sometimes.

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goldeline

This book has so much of what I love: fierce girls, magic, and a Southern Gothic feel. It's a story about commitment to what is true. (If the word "Hawthornian" doesn't scare you off, it has notes of The Scarlet Letter. If it does scare you, then this is nothing like Hawthorne, and you should definitely read it.)

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Book Review: Willa of the Wood

The author of the Serafina series returns! Robert Beatty's Willa of the Wood is fierce, fantastical, and captivating.

How beautiful is this cover? 

How beautiful is this cover? 

Here is the publisher's summary:

Move without a sound. Steal without a trace.

To Willa, a young night-spirit, humans are the murderers of trees. She's been taught to despise them and steal from them. She's her clan's best thief, creeping into the log cabins of the day-folk under cover of darkness and taking what they won't miss. It's dangerous work, but Willa will do anything to win the approval of the padaran, the charismatic leader of the Faeran people.

When Willa's curiosity leaves her hurt and stranded in the day-folk world, she calls upon the old powers of her beloved grandmother, and the unbreakable bonds of her forest allies, to survive. Only then does she begin to discover the shocking truth: that not all of her human enemies are the same, and that the foundations of her own Faeran society are crumbling. What do you do when you realize that the society you were born and raised in is rife with evil? Do you raise your voice? Do you stand up against it?

As forces of unfathomable destruction attack her forest home, Willa must decide who she truly is--facing deadly force with warm compassion, sinister corruption with trusted alliance, and finding a home for her longing heart.

Sound awesome? It is. Willa gets more enthralling and mysterious the deeper the reader ventures into the story.

The book is lengthy, but middle readers will remain glued to Willa's story. Her adventure is full of high energy bursts with breaks just short enough for readers to gather themselves before Beatty throws us into even more vine-like twists and turns. 

The cast of characters is diverse, ranging from quaint to flashy to threatening to kind. Willa herself is a brilliant mixture of feistiness and compassion, fiercely gentle towards all living things she encounters. (Not to mention how super-awesome her magic is.)

Her companions include Luthien, the female head of the wolves, who aids Willa through a life-threatening chase, and Nathaniel, a homesteader man, who takes Willa under his wing.

Willa is also set during an interesting historical moment - the construction of the Great Smoky Mountain railroad in the early 1900s. Willa's clan is at odds with several other groups: the homesteaders, the Cherokee, and the railroad workers. 

Beatty is right on point when it comes to getting middle readers interested not only in the magic of reading, but also in American and regional history. (You can get me interested in anything historical if you add in forest spirits.)

Willa will make page-turners of middle readers and parents, alike. 

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