MG Review: Remarkably Ruby by Terri Libenson

Cover image by Terri Libenson, published by Harper Collins Publishers

A middle grade graphic novel, set in an American middle school, which bursts with personality and colour. I am greatly indebted to Antonia Wilkinson PR for sending me a copy of this life-affirming graphic novel, written and illustrated by Terri Libenson a best-selling US cartoonist.

I love the fact that graphic novels are being welcomed into classrooms and recognised for the accessible nature of their content and I think that this particular book will be a huge hit with upper key stage 2 readers. Ruby is a rather awkward loner who is coming to terms with the loss of her grade school best friend and trying to find her place in middle school. She suffers from the nick-name “baked bean girl” coined by a cruel wit in her class after unfortunate incidents caused by her nervous stomach and has a pretty miserable solitary existence at school. Meanwhile, her former friend, Mia is a high-achiever who seems to be surrounded by new friends, including a boyfriend, takes a perfectionist’s approach to everything that she does and is running for class president.

The story details their respective story arcs as they navigate new friendships, finding their places in the middle school social structure. Ruby is rescued by an inspirational teacher’s recognition of her poetic talent and through the poetry club begins to find her voice and her tribe. Perfect Mia has to face some uncomfortable truths about her behaviour as her plans start to go awry. Alternate chapters focus on each of the girls, with the book designed in a striking way; Ruby’s chapters are presented as an illustrated story in a style that would be familiar to fans of Tom Gates whereas Mia’s chapters are presented in full graphic novel cartoon style. I was very struck by the contrast in styles highlighting the contrast between shy, quiet, wordsmith Ruby and self-confident Mia, who will not let anything or anyone stand in the way of her ambition.

The gradual realisation by the two main protagonists that despite their seemingly opposing characteristics, they actually share similar insecurities, leads them to an understanding that wraps up the story neatly. I recommend this book very highly to all readers of 9-13, it’s a hugely enjoyable read and has a strong underlying theme of finding your inner talent and recognising that everyone has their unique strengths.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Harper Collins for my review copy of Remarkably Ruby in exchange for my honest opinion.

The Key to Finding Jack by Ewa Jozefkowicz

Cover image by Katy Ridell, published by Head of Zeus

This is the second book that I have read by Ewa Jozefkowicz and I have to say that she has rapidly joined my list of favourite writers. This beautifully written and structured story within a story goes straight to the heart of identity, with its theme of unlocking the barriers that we put up to hide our true selves, even from those closest to us.

As regular readers of my blog will know, mystery novels are my genre of choice, and this contemporary tale of a twelve-year-old girl desperately seeking clues to unlock the location of her beloved elder brother had me hooked from page one. The story opens with Flick ( the narrator) trying to solve one of the complex puzzles that her older brother Jack habitually sets for her. The author has cleverly planted clues to the narrative within this opening puzzle, and this is just one of the details of Ewa Jozefowicz’s writing which I loved. 

Jack has just completed his A levels, in which he has astonished his parents by performing very well given their perception of him as a practical joker who has not applied himself to his studies in the way they would have wished. His father expects Jack to follow him into a career as a barrister and a law degree beckons once Jack returns from his gap year in South America. Flick is determined to treasure the remaining moments with Jack, realising that not only will she miss him while he travels, but she will see far less of him once he starts at university. Their relationship is cemented in the reader’s mind as one of love and mutual respect and encouragement.

Jack departs and Flick’s life continues as before, with her school days allowing us a glimpse of her hidden talent as a writer. Her class are set the task of writing a detective story and as Flick reads the opening of her composition aloud to her classmates you feel their incredulity at the quality of her historical story “The Case of the Beret and the Bell.” As she reaches the cliffhanger at which the young heroine Margot has disappeared in a huge London crowd she is summoned to the head teacher’s office to hear that Jack has been reported missing following an earthquake in Peru. The writing aches with the devastation and helplessness felt by Flick’s family. 

What follows is a tightly plotted and compelling unfolding of clues as Flick, assisted by her best friend Keira, seeks information about her brother’s location and in so doing uncovers the hidden details of his life. Starting from the key that he has always worn around his neck and which he has left in his room addressed to S.F., they track down all of his acquaintances who share those initials. At every turn Flick is able to unlock details of his personality from the heroic tales that each person recounts. In Flick’s words, “even the people you know well can be a cryptic puzzle.” In tandem with seeking her brother, Flick continues to write her historical story. The dual narratives of being true to your own desires and talents and having the courage to be honest about your identity in the face of the expectations of those closest to you are explored sensitively and movingly. Flick lives up to her brother’s childhood nickname for her, and Jack’s actions demonstrate that there is great importance in their grandmother’s elegant motto, “Don’t forget to live.”

In summary, this heartwarming tale of unfolding identity is equally enjoyable for adult and child readers of 9+. I read it as an eARC thanks to #NetGalley and Head of Zeus Publishing but I will definitely want to obtain a physical copy as soon as one is available. This book is due to be published on 3rd September 2020.

My review of Girl 38: Finding a Friend by the same author is here.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Hope Jones Saves the World by Josh Lacey

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover image by Beatriz Castro, published by Andersen Press

Author: Josh Lacey

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: Andersen Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This book is written in the form of a blog and fortunately for me Page 11 just happens to be January 1st, so from a page with very little text we get straight to the core of the story:

“So here is my New Year’s resolution: I am giving up plastic”

This book in three words: Environment – Activism – Blogging

This week I am again reviewing a recently published book, which I was lucky enough to receive from Toppsta.com and Andersen Press in a giveaway.

Ten year old Hope Jones is appalled to read about the harmful effects of waste plastic on the world’s oceans and the creatures that live within and therefore decides that she will give up plastic and encourage her family to join her. She very quickly realises that this will be very much harder than she initially thought and starts to chart her progress in the form of a blog: hopejonessavestheworld.com

One of the most realistic things about this book is the organic process by which Hope’s mission evolves. She visits her school friend Harry’s house so that he can use his computing talents to set up the blog for her and whilst there is inspired by learning about the Greenham Common protesters from his mum. This leads to Hope setting up a protest outside the supermarket where her parents find it almost impossible to purchase the essentials required for family life without excess plastic packaging. Over time the protest grows, angering Mr Schnitzel the manager but inspiring some customers to change their shopping habits.

The difficulties of cutting out the use of plastic are not glossed over and there are certainly times when Hope feels that her quest is pointless, however supportive family members, friends and community all engage in a constant learning process. The hopeful message presented by the book is that by working together everyone can take “small steps to make big changes.” The scenarios faced will be recognisable to all children and hopefully will encourage them not to give up on their ideals but to make whatever small changes they can. At the back of the book there are ten suggestions of practical steps that everyone can try to make a contribution to cutting down on waste.

I think that this is a great book for any school collection on so many levels. Firstly it is an enjoyable read and the use of blog format with illustrations by Beatriz Castro make it very accessible to all KS2 pupils. The themes and ideas are great for prompting discussion about the environment and recycling and finally I see it as an incredibly useful resource for the primary school computing curriculum. It fits perfectly with lessons in using technology to communicate for a purpose, which includes learning about blogging and I’m sure in many schools, contributing to a school blog. I was also impressed that digital citizenship was covered, with a friend, Tariq, taking photos of the supermarket protest and asking for Hope’s approval and permission before posting it on social media. Overall I highly recommend Hope Jones Saves the World for children of 8+.

I am grateful to Toppsta.com and Andersen Press for my gifted copy of this book.

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

To take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Elle McNicoll

Illustrator: Kay Wilson

Publisher: Knights Of

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This sentence is how the main protagonist Addie introduces us to one of her older sisters, Keedie:

“Her voice is all one colour, a beautiful molten gold”

This book in three words: Autism – Bullying – Solidarity

This week, instead of my usual policy of looking back to a book or series that I shared with one of my own children, I am reviewing a book which I only read last week as it was the #PrimarySchoolBookClub choice for July.

A Kind of Spark is an important #OwnVoices book about autism, highlighting the value of being true to yourself and also of standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted just because they are perceived as “different” in some way. The author Elle McNicoll is autistic and parts of the book are based on her own experiences – both good and bad – at school. I was delighted to see the publisher, Knights Of, winning awards last week because they are giving us all a huge empathy boost by bringing diverse voices to our attention and encouraging us to re-evaluate our attitudes and behaviour.

The main protagonist, Addie, is in her final year at primary school and feeling very lonely as her best friend has deserted her for spiteful Emily who delights in bullying her and horrifyingly the class teacher Miss Murphy contributes to, and it would appear, encourages the bullying behaviour of certain pupils. Fortunately Addie has two allies at school, the librarian Mr Allison who is kindness and patience personified, and Audrey who has recently arrived from London and therefore seen as an outsider by the close-knit community of a small village outside Edinburgh.

The “outsider” theme is expanded as Addie becomes intrigued by the stories of women from the village who were tried and executed as witches several hundred years earlier. At a subconscious level Addie feels some kinship with these women and the theme of her determination to have a memorial plaque erected for them in the village is cleverly interwoven with her daily battle to “mask” her behaviours and fit in at school.

The third strand of the story is based around the dynamics of Addie’s family. Her mother and father are both working long hours and are incredibly supportive of her needs. She is also cared for in contrasting styles, by her older, twin sisters Keedie and Nina. I thought that Keedie was the absolute heroine of this story, autistic herself, she had obviously experienced an even harsher time at school than Addie and does her best throughout to protect her younger sister from the slings and arrows of ignorant bullies. despite being exhausted by trying to cope with her university challenges. Nina is not neuro-diverse and as such sometimes feels left-out in the family unit. Although at times she is less patient and less considerate of Addie’s needs, there is no doubt about her love for her two sisters.

One of the most striking things for me about the writing was Addie’s description of the sensory assaults that everyday situations caused for her. So for example the school bell is described as “screeching loudly” and other loud noises “feel like a drill against a sensitive nerve.” The power of this kind of writing to help you walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and understand just how differently they experience and therefore react to external stimuli is so valuable for us all and I am immensely grateful to Elle McNicoll for inviting us into her world. Additionally, the story makes clear that autism should not be seen as a disability, rather that the ability to experience the world differently provides unique opportunities for creativity and should be celebrated.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone of 9/10+, children and adults alike.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

To take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recomment this book, or link to your review.

Author: Victoria Williamson

Illustrator: I’m sorry, but my Kindle does not have this information

Publisher: Kelpies, an imprint of Floris Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: Yet again, I am probably bending the rules in this section! I lent my physical copy to someone before lockdown, so I only have my Kindle version to refer to, therefore I will use a quote from 11% as my Kindle will not allow me to search for page numbers! This quote encapsulates the plight of Reema, devastated by the separation from her beloved brother on the journey to the UK, and now bearing a huge weight of responsibility on her young shoulders as her family adapt to life as refugees on a Glasgow housing estate.

“Now that Jamal, with his expensive education and fluent English, is no longer with us, I am the only one who can speak for my family in halting foreign words.”

This book in three words: Alienation – Empathy – Friendship

In the week that we have marked #EmpathyDay I am giving a backlist shoutout to a beautifully written, powerful and moving story which charts the development of a friendship between two very different girls on a housing estate in Glasgow. I have lost count of the number of times that I have recommended this book! You can read my original review here.

Review: Do You Know Me? by Rebecca Westcott and Libby Scott

Do You Know Me? book cover, published by Scholastic

This incredibly moving and thought-provoking novel is a collaboration by Teacher/Author Rebecca Westcott and teenager Libby Scott, who is autistic. The power of Libby’s voice, expressed through the diary entries of protagonist Tally, calls out to all readers to empathise with those who have so much to teach us about neurological difference.

Twelve year-old Tally has suffered from bullying previously in the school year and now faces the prospect of a week-long Year 7 residential trip, which she has only considered attending because Mrs Jarman, her trusted, understanding Drama teacher will be there. In the preceding week’s assembly Mrs Jarman says:

“You’ll be learning to face your fears. You’ll discover that strength and courage come in many forms, and most of all, you’ll learn that your are capable of doing far more than you ever thought you could.”

Unfortunately for Tally she has to start learning these lessons immediately as at the last minute Mrs Jarman cannot attend the camp, and instead of sharing accommodation with her kind best friend Aleksandra, she is allocated a cabin with three of the girls who have bullied her previously and two girls from another school. Of these two strangers, she realises that Skye is the kind of “popular” girl that everyone is afraid to cross despite her appalling behaviour, and the other Jade is an outsider with many similarities to herself.

As the week’s activities and dramas unfold, your eyes are opened to the incredible challenges faced by people with autism as Tally tries to mask some of her behaviours, avoid stimming and read the vocal and facial signals of strangers which are often incomprehensible to her. The bullying plot is crafted beautifully to examine the behaviour of all the teenagers and to show the gradual acceptance and celebration of differences. It is not only Tally who discovers strength and courage during the week.

This is an absolutely essential book for everyone working in schools to help gain empathy for those with autism and also general tween and teenage behaviour. I would highly recommend it as a story for Year 6 pupils in preparation for their transition to secondary school as it would spark many discussion points about what to expect and how to deal with new situations for the entire cohort. I loved the portrayal of Tally’s family, demonstrating the gentle, choice-giving manner with which those with autism need to be treated, whilst also recognising the stresses and frustrations felt by the entire family. The scene where Tally is expected to open her twelfth birthday presents, with its palpable feeling of tension taught me a valuable lesson in empathy which I am determined to remember.

An absolutely essential book to add to any school library. I am most grateful to my fellow members of the Primary School Book Club for voting for Do You Know Me? as May’s book choice!