Taking Off

Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos is Nova’s story. Nova is autistic and mostly nonverbal.

Nova and her older sister Bridget have spent most of their lives in and out of various foster families. They are between families when Nova is taken in by the West family. It seems that Bridget has run off with a boyfriend, but promised Nova that she would return to watch the Challenger take off. Nova is extremely interested in everything to do with space travel, and it is a special bond shared between the sisters.

The story follows Nova’s adjustment to a new school, friends and family. Each chapter is followed by Nova’s letter to her sister which essentially recaps the events in her voice (this was a bit redundant for me). Nova has always been underestimated and misunderstood because of her disability, but now she has a supportive family and an appropriate school placement on her side. Bridget is the only missing piece.

Spoiler: Events countdown to the ill-fated Challenger launch. The aftermath of the launch forces Nova to face the fact that her sister will never come back. This is a touching story that can build empathy and understanding about autism.

Harmonic Convergence

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson was a pleasant surprise from next year’s Nutmeg nominee list, reminiscent of The Freedom Writers with a twist of The Breakfast Club

Haley is about to begin seventh grade, yet the story follows her memories of sixth grade. She was part of a small specialized class with only five other students: Amari, Holly, Ashton, Esteban, Tiago and their teacher Ms. Laverne. Their teacher decided to give their class time alone in an unused Art classroom every Friday to build connections with one another. This was a very successful experiment. Haley brought in her recorder and each student took turns sharing his/her stories. 

Students share their experiences with racism, police brutality, jail and immigration. The students support each other and forge an unbreakable bond. Harmonic convergence is defined in the book as “when people come together and they all care about the same things…all that energy together can shift a whole planet” (140-1).  This feeling is a powerful entity in the story, promising what we can accomplish with time, care and attention to others.

Stepping Out

I’m finally back at it, and looking forward to getting my hands on as many books as possible this summer!

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling takes readers into thirteen-year-old Aven’s story. Life can be quite challenging for Aven as she was born with no arms. Her adoptive parents have pushed her to be self sufficient with the day to day tasks of eating, dressing and the like. Her biggest challenge is getting others to see and know her beyond her disability. This becomes extremely true when her family moves to Arizona to take over a failing tourist spot named Stagecoach Pass. She must start in a new school while adapting to their new setting. There is a lot to figure out about Stagecoach Pass and how her family ended up there.

Aven stays true to herself which allows her to befriend Connor, a boy with Tourette’s, and an overweight boy (forgetting his name). These friends support each other to be brave and to step outside their comfort zones. In the midst of their growing friendship is their work on solving the mystery of Stagecoach Pass, namely figuring out who the unseen owners (the Cavanaughs) really are, and more importantly, where they disappeared to.  

This is a sweet story of overcoming obstacles, the necessity of kindness and the power of friendship. 

Treehouse Ten

The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff is my final Intermediate Nutmeg read!

Winnie’s parents are so competitive and spiteful of each other, that they decide to handle their divorce by splitting Winnie’s time equally between them. This leaves an odd day every week in which Winnie lives in her incredible, apartment-like tree house between her parents’ homes.

Her parents start trying to outdo each other during their days with Winnie, leaving her no time for schoolwork. She is in danger of failing fifth grade. She decides to make a stand by not leaving her tree house and soon her nine best friends join her for their own reasons. It is a standoff between parents and their children.

Everything seems great until they reach almost twenty days at a stalemate. Winnie decides to do what’s best for her friends, and ultimately herself. She finally attempts to get her parents to listen to her side.

The story is written as a collective “memoir” by Winnie and her friends. There are cute touches throughout the book which keep it engaging and fun, such as artwork, post-it notes, how-to sections (everything from how to build a sock lizard to how to make Cheetos marshmallow squares), news clippings and more. Elements of the story were a bit far fetched for me, but I guess there is nothing impossible these days! This story will appeal to young readers who crave independence and taking a stand against their parents.

Personality Switch

Restart by Gordon Korman is my penultimate Nutmeg nominee.

Chase Ambrose goes from star football player to amnesia patient after a nasty fall from his roof.  He can’t remember anything from before his fall, but his classmates sure do. He was one of the school’s worst bullies along with his two best buddies. Now he isn’t able to play football due to concussion protocol. He finds himself hanging out with the very kids he used to terrorize while still trying to keep a foot in his former life, all while trying to remember what happened before the fall.

Major changes in his character include becoming a member of the film club, as well as befriending a war veteran at the senior living facility. This facility is the same spot where Chase and his football buddies were doing community service for a terrible bullying prank.

His football friends think he might be faking the whole thing for his own gain. It all comes to a head when they devise a way to implicate Chase in another bullying episode.

Will he resort to his former antics or has he truly changed?  What caused him to fall in the first place? This is a solid middle school read including relatable topics and important themes such as standing up for oneself and making positive changes. 

A Wild Ride

We’re Not from Here by Geoff Rodkey is another Nutmeg nominee taking place in outer space, but it’s WAY out there!  Mars is home to Lan’s family, including his parents and sister Ila, along with the remaining humans after a catastrophe wiped out planet Earth.  Time is of the essence for them to find a liveable planet.  The only prospect is the planet Choom, which is twenty years away and is currently home to some unique species.  The Zhuri, giant mosquito-like beings, are its main inhabitants, but there are also the Ororo and Krik (there were also the Nug- more about what happened to them in the story).

By the time Lan’s ship finally arrives in Choom’s orbit, the new regime has decided that humans are no longer welcome.  Lan and his family are the only ones allowed on the planet for a trial period.  His family needs to assimilate to life among the mostly hostile Zhuri, or the entire ship of humans will die. Lan and his family have several close calls as they try to fit into work, school and daily life on the planet.  

It is a uniquely strange story about how they manage to find a few understanding beings and how a dangerous government and its media twists events to best suit their agenda.  Readers of science fiction along with anyone looking for something very different will enjoy this one!

Moon Mission

I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Barstow-Logsted takes place in 1969 with events focused on Apollo 11’s moon mission. The entire story is written as letters to Michael Collins, which started as a final school assignment before summer break.  Mamie is a character who is not afraid to be herself, even if that makes her stand out. She is the only person in her class to choose Michael Collins instead of Buzz Aldrin or Neil Armstrong.  Mamie decided to keep up the letter writing through summer vacation. I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know who  Michael Collins was before reading this!

Mamie and her best friend/neighbor Buster are obsessed with everything related to the upcoming moon mission. During the excitement, Mamie’s family is going through some tough times. Her mom leaves after an argument with her dad, and Mamie fears this indicates a divorce. Her dad eventually leaves to win back his wife, leaving Mamie with her sixteen-year-old sister Bess. Bess’s only concern is her boyfriend.  Meanwhile, their older sister Eleanor comes by to help, but she doesn’t stay for too long. Mamie finds herself home alone quite a bit.

The story includes strong messages about true friendship, courage to not follow the crowd, and the essence of teamwork.  Every team member may not get the glory, but every contribution is crucial to reaching the mission’s goal.  This story lends itself to so many research possibilities- the time period, NASA and all the elements that go into a rocket launch, and letter writing to name a few.  This is a solid read for intermediate grades! 

Forever Friends

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman is an early edition copy I received. I decided to read this book due to its subject matter around the Chernobyl explosion, which is a new historical fiction time frame for me.

The main characters are Valentina and Oksana.  They begin as enemies but grow to be lifelong friends due to experiences that link them together. Their fathers were both working at Chernobyl when it erupted. Now they are being forced to evacuate their town. Oksana’s mother is sent to a hospital for radiation leaving Oksana with nobody to care for her. Valentina’s mother decides to take her with them. This sets the girls off on a new path living with Valentina’s grandmother (whom she has never met) in Leningrad.

Family history becomes a parallel story throughout the book, as “new” character Rifka is sent away from her mother and young brothers to escape the German soldiers during WWII. Eventually, the two stories’ connection is understood.

The plot is mostly engaged with the girls’ struggles and changes. But, I found it interesting to read about how the explosion was at first kept hidden. There are also tidbits about how they treated radiation exposure such as drinking milk, eating cucumbers, taking iodine pills, and staying low to the ground to name a few. For many, the exposure was too high for these remedies to work.

Sensitive topics of religious discrimination, physical abuse, and alcoholism are present. These topics are balanced by friends who become family with a message of being strong, kind, and generous.  It is a jump into a time period that may be unfamiliar to some, which can be a gateway to nonfiction about the place and time.

In the Details

Framed by James Ponti is another Intermediate Nutmeg Nominee to check off my reading list. The story begins with main character Florian being  kidnapped, before backtracking to the events leading up to this moment. 

Florian just moved to Washington with his parents. He is quite brilliant, owing much of his intelligence to TOAST (Theory of All Small Things). Basically this means he pays close attention to the small details in order to better understand the bigger picture. His new neighbor Margaret bonds with him over TOAST, and they use it to analyze people.

This is what gets them involved in a case of stolen artwork from their local museum.  Florian’s  attention to detail gets him recognition from the FBI and from the bad guys.  He is asked to be a covert asset to the FBI and goes through undercover training.  Unfortunately, he may not be as hidden as he thought.  Readers will find out how/why the head of the Ukrainian cartel kidnapped Florian, and if the true art robbers will be caught.

I appreciated this book’s clear plot and writing style. I think the story can lead to fun conversations and observation/writing exercises for kids to try TOAST in real life. 

Haunted Happenings

The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie is another Intermediate Nutmeg nominee fitting the spooky category. Tessa’s family (mom, dad and little brother Jonah) moved from Florida to Chicago for her dad’s new job. Everything is different, especially their creepy, old house. 

Strange things start happening the very first night there.  Tessa hears strange noises, has random drawings appear in her sketch book, and her brother’s creepy doll seems to watch her (among other ghostly events).  Luckily, she manages to connect to a group of new friends who are willing to help her figure out the ghost’s message.  Andrew, along with twins Nina and Richie, join forces with Tessa to get to the bottom of the haunted house.  In doing so, they cause a riff with their friend Cassidy who seems angry to have Tess in the picture. 

Similar to a Scooby Doo episode, the gang goes out to solve the ghostly mystery which takes them on a search into the library, local cemetery (chase scene minus the music! lol) and secret places in Tessa’s home.  Eventually Tessa is able to figure out the cause of her ghost’s anguish.  

This book is a creepy mystery for grades 3-5 showcasing the undeniable strength provided by friends.