Middle Grade Quests

By Alena Rivers and Hal Patnott

When we selected Grayling’s Song and The Inquisitor’s Tale for this week, we noticed a common theme of magical quests undertaken by ragtag teams that have to overcome their differences in order to work together. Each team of heroes relies on the special gifts of the individual members. The challenges they face help them grow, so that they can triumph over their personal struggles. What we didn’t expect was that in both stories rescuing books played a central role in the plot.

Stop by the Butler Center to take a look at our copy of Grayling’s Song and our advanced review edition of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion, 2016)

Grayling’s mother, Hannah Strong is considered by their townspeople to be a wise woman and healer, but no one, not even Grayling, knows exactly from where Hannah Strong’s  powers to heal come. During a typical day of tending to their daily work, Grayling is summoned by her mother. When she arrives, Grayling finds their cottage home burning to the ground, and Grayling’s mother rooted to it as her body slowly takes the form of a tree. Neither Grayling nor her mother knows who committed these powerful acts, or why. When they discover that Hannah Strong’s grimoire, the book of spells and rituals, is missing,  Grayling is told to find “the others” who also possess various forms of magic and get help. This sets Grayling off on her quest with a gathering song to sing that will lead her to the others for help, locate the missing grimoire and restore her mother to her human form. These are no small tasks for someone who does not possess the same gifts as her mother and is otherwise unaware of the other healers and cunning folk that live among their kingdom. Grayling will have to summon her bravery, determination, intelligence, resourcefulness and her ability to care for and trust in the strangers who can support her on her journey. A small but motley crew is collected along the way with a unified goal of finding the source of what emerges to be a larger problem afflicting healers across the land.

Karen Cushman provides readers with an engaging story of a young girl’s progression from dependence and insecurity to self-reliance, confidence and the desire to develop her own self-awareness. The author’s note contains a brief explanation of cunning folk along with an overview of the history of herbal medicine, folk magic and divination.

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly (Penguin/Dutton, 2016)

In 1242, King Louis IX rules over France. He hates peasants, Jewish people, and heretics. The latest enemies of his crown are three children and their holy greyhound. Rumors about these children have spread across the country. No one knows the whole story, but an unlikely group of travelers gathered at an inn share what they’ve witnessed. All of the travelers agree on one thing—the three children are saints with the powers to work miracles. Jeanne, a peasant girl, sees visions of the future—her dog Gwenforte came back to life. William, a monk with an appetite for knowledge, can shatter stone with his bare hands. Jacob, a Jewish boy, heals the sick and wounded with plants and prayer. They were outsiders even before they became outlaws. None of them chose their powers, but, in spite of their differences and danger, they choose to face their destinies together.

Adam Gidwitz skillfully weaves together medieval history and legend in The Inquisitor’s Tale. In the back matter he shares the historical inspiration for the characters and events as well as an annotated list of resources. A lighthearted, humorous tone and a central theme of overcoming personal prejudice against others make this medieval tale relevant for modern readers.

Stolen by Magic


by Hal Patnott

The following titles from our young adult and middle grade 2016 collections share a common motif, children stolen by magic. Stop by the Butler Center to check out our advanced review copies of The Call by Peadar O’Guilin and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin, Scholastic/David Fickling (August 2016)

Start counting. The Call lasts three minutes and four seconds to be exact, at least, in the mortal realm. In the Grey Lands, where armies of vicious and eternally beautiful Sidhe await their human prey, the Call might seem to last days. They know exactly when and where their victims will arrive in their treacherous and colorless wildlands. The choice is simple: run or die. For twenty-five years, the Sidhe have been stealing teenagers. No one can predict when the Sidhe will call, but they always do. Only one in ten survive.

Fourteen-year-old Nessa  can’t run. As an infant, she contracted Polio and now her legs prevent her from keeping up with her classmates at her survival college. Still, she refuses to give up her fight, despite the ridicule she receives from classmates, and teachers. On her tenth birthday, she decided, “I’m going to live. And nobody’s going to stop me” and she’s determined to fulfill that promise even if that means pushing away the people she loves (3). However, when mysterious and terrifying reports crop up of mass murders at other survival colleges around the country, Nessa has more to worry about than her impending Call. She must find a way to save her school and herself.

Peadar O’Guilin writes without pity. Nessa is as fierce as Katniss Everdeen, and the odds are definitely not in her favor. The Call is a dark and brutal adventure perfect for fans of horror and fantasy.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, Algonquin (August 2016)

Everyone knows a witch lives in the forest, because every year the people of the Protectorate must sacrifice their youngest child to keep her at peace. No one knows what she does with the children, maybe she eats them or makes them her slaves. The witch is not the Protectorate’s only problem. No one ever has enough to eat.They scrounge what they can from the Bog. Heavy clouds of sorrow hang over their isolated village.

Xan has lived on the volcano in the forest for five hundred years with her bog monster Glerk and her “Perfectly Tiny Dragon,” Fyrian (17). Although she can’t fathom why, every year the village at the edge of the forest abandons a baby in the swamp. She doesn’t ask questions. The Protectorate is so clouded with sorrow, that surely, she believes, those abandoned babies would be better off some place else, where they can grow up strong and loved. So every year she collects the baby and then sets off for the Free Cities where people are kind and love children. Along the way, she feeds the babies goat milk, and when that runs out, she uses magic to feed them starlight. However, one year, when Xan reaches up for starlight, she pulls down the light of the moon instead. While starlight might make “marvelous” food for a baby, moonlight is dangerous, because moonlight is pure magic (20). One sip enmagicks  the baby, so Xan has no choice, but to keep her and raise her herself.

At its heart, The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a book about the power of stories and the dangers of sorrow. Quirky and enchanting characters keep the overall tone lighthearted. Like Fyrian the “Perfectly Tiny Dragon,” The Girl Who Drank the Moon has “Simply Enormous” heart.

Supporting Early Literacy Practices with Newly-Published Board Books

By Alena Rivers

The Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, advocates for early childhood literacy in many ways, including the Babies Need Words Every Day project and the Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR) program, which it administers in partnership with the Public Library Association. ECRR stresses the importance of five practices that support early literacy skills in babies and toddlers: talking, singing, reading, writing and playing. Babies and toddlers can learn immense amounts of vocabulary and communication skills when parents and caregivers participate in these activities with their prereaders.

With their sturdy format and exciting visual content, board books support the practice of reading to very young children. Board books offer a wonderful introduction to building a habit of reading together while providing babies and toddlers with a valuable learning experience. Many board books are concept books, or books that present information on ideas such as numbers, colors, shapes or the alphabet. Concepts can be introduced through a variety of subject matter, from the familiar to the novel. The board books below offer three different ways to introduce the concepts of numbers and colors by way of food, animals and trains.

Edible Colors by Jennifer Vogel Bass (Roaring Brook, 2016)

Edible Numbers by Jennifer Vogel Bass (Roaring Brook, 2016)

Jennifer Vogel Bass’ board books provide vibrant, colorful photos of an unusual collection of fruits and vegetables. Babies and adults can find a visual explosion of colorful foods, some common and some unknown varieties, to explore while learning numbers and colors.

Edible Colors features a plethora of fruits and vegetables and provides them in a rainbow of colors. Well-known fruit and vegetable color combinations, such as orange carrots and green cucumbers are followed by a generous selection of additional fruits and vegetables of the same color.

Edible Numbers invites young children to explore numbers from 1-12 while counting the variations on more common fruits and vegetables. A two-page spread at the end of the board book provides a comprehensive view of the numbers and foods used throughout the book.

Picture This: Colors by Marie Vendittelli (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

Picture This: Numbers by Judith Nouvion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

The Picture This board books series explores homes, shapes, colors and numbers through images from nature. The full-color photos are close-up, textured depictions of animals in their natural habitats that babies and toddlers will find compelling.

Picture This: Colors features 14 vibrant photos of animals exhibiting each featured color. The text identifies the animal and its environment in a simple, repeating and predictable pattern.

Picture This: Numbers groups animals by numbers 1-10. Each animal featured is identified with a brief one or two sentence fact about the animal.

Steam Train, Dream Train 1-2-3 by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld (Chronicle, 2016)

Steam Train, Dream Train Colors by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld (Chronicle, 2016)

These board books were inspired by the Steam Train, Dream Train   picture book. The board book counterparts are illustrated with oil pastel drawings that identify the different types of train cars. Rhyming text offers a predictive pattern of language babies and toddlers will enjoy hearing.

Steam Train, Dream Train 1-2-3 uses half of each two-page spread to identify a number from 1-10 along with rhyming text describing the corresponding scenes of animals interacting with objects such as cars and balloons on each train car.

Steam Train, Dream Train Colors features a train in one of 10 different colors accompanied by rhyming text describing the train car and its animal passengers.

Geeky Reads

By Hal Patnott

Not all characters are suited for sword-swinging, dragon-fighting heroics. This week I looked at two titles from our collection with unlikely heroes that are thrust into their role with no choice but to fight to survive. Both protagonists come armed with knowledge of video games, pop culture, and the mechanics of a good fantasy story. Their “geeky” passions help them along the way, but ultimately they both have to learn about the importance of friendship and family to save the day.

Josh Baxter Levels Up by Gavin Brown (Scholastic, 2016)

Josh Baxter has no friends at his new middle school, but he’s had no problems making enemies. On his very first day he puts his lock on the wrong locker, accidently stores his gym clothes in the girl’s locker room, and becomes the target of the popular and evil football star Henry Schmittendorf (aka “Mittens”). Video games are his only escape, but when his grades start to tank, his mom takes those away too. That’s when Josh realizes his life is like an adventure game. If he wants to survive, he needs to build up his skills, make some allies, and face his problems head-on. Since the day school began he’s “been playing not to lose” but now “[it’s] time to play to win” (35). Josh Baxter Levels Up is filled with video game and pop culture references. As Josh learns to navigate friendships, school, and his relationship with his family, his health points go up and down. Every chapter tracks his new skills and experience points. When Josh has to make tough decisions, he first considers what his favorite heroes—including Superman, Han Solo, Link, and Steve the Minecraft Guy—would do in his situation. This fast-paced middle school adventure is a good read for an avid gamer.

Geek Fantasy Novel by Eliot Schrefer writing as E. Archer (Scholastic, 2016 Reprint Edition)

Fourteen-year-old, aspiring-game-designer Ralph Stevens only has one rule. He “must never, ever, make a wish. Not under any circumstances whatsoever” (4). His parents are so serious about this rule that, back in the fifth grade, when he brought in frosted cupcakes for his birthday treat, he was forced to sit in the hallway just in case one of his classmates tried to pressure him into making a wish. Of course, Ralph has no idea of his family’s dark and tragic history of wish-making. When his long-lost, British family invites him to stay for the summer, the last thing Ralph expects is to get tangled with his three cousins in a twisted and magical adventure of wish-fulfillment. As it turns out, granting wishes is not as simple as waving a wand. Ralph must help his cousins journey through fairy tale lands, and fight their evil duchess aunt. Meanwhile, the fourth-wall-breaking narrator hiding in the rafters keeps trying to kill him, and Ralph’s time is running out, because “by the rules of narrative economy, [each] wish has to finish within a hundred pages” (78). A lighthearted, over-the-top quest, Geek Fantasy Novel will appeal to gamers and fans of fractured fairy tales.

Soul-Searching Books for Sweltering Days: Middle Grade Summer Reads

By Alena Rivers

In a recent blog post, we featured picture books that speak to the summer experiences of young readers. This week’s books are summer-themed tomes fit for the elementary and middle-grade reader. These older children are embarking on a new level of self-discovery and finding their place in the world amongst their family and friends. Slow summer months can be full of opportunities for older children to do some soul-searching and to confront issues in their lives. The children in the stories featured here explore bigger themes in their lives such as adoption, death and divorce. Their experiences may be challenging but their stories are interlaced with touching, humorous and revelatory moments that lighten their moods. When given the space and the freedom that summer vacation can often provide, children can take another step into maturity by discovering that elusive balance between accepting their circumstances and doing something about them.

As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 2016)

Twelve-year-old Genie and his older brother Ernie are spending a month with their grandparents in North Hill, Virginia while their parents spend time together sorting out their fading marriage. Genie is distraught knowing that his parents are on the brink of divorce so his time away from them has him more anxious than usual. Shortly after they arrive at their grandparents’ home Genie learns that his grandfather is blind. This revelation, and adapting to an environment unlike his home in Brooklyn, only adds to Genie’s anxiety. Country life offers a quiet and industrious place for Genie to roam, think and get to know his grandfather. All of these experiences deepen his understanding of his family history and help him discover more about himself and his role within the family. Readers will empathize and laugh with Genie as he braves new territory learning about grits, sweet tea and family secrets. Recommended for ages 9-12.

Just Like Me by Nancy Cavanaugh (Sourcebooks, 2016)

Julia is an eleven-year-old girl who has been encouraged by her parents to attend a week-long, overnight summer camp to bond with her “Chinese sisters.” Julia, Becca and Avery are not exactly sisters, but they were adopted from the same adoption agency in China and their families get the girls together occasionally. Julia is not excited about spending more time with Becca and Avery who identify more with their Chinese heritage than Julia. To add to her frustration, within minutes of checking into their camp cabin, Julia realizes that all six cabin-mates are not going to get along well. Through narrative text and periodic journal entries, Julia shares her week-long experiences as she tries to navigate contentious relationships while still enjoying proverbial summer camp activities. Julia’s concerns about her adoption story and her periods of reflection provide readers with thoughtful examples of how taking risks can help us find answers. Recommended for ages 9-12.

Summerlost by Ally Condie (Penguin Random House/Dutton, 2016)

Nearly a year ago, twelve-year-old Cedar Lee suddenly lost her father and youngest brother in a car accident. Cedar, her mother and her remaining younger brother, still feeling the pain of their loss, move to their mother’s home town for the summer where Cedar finds an unexpected friendship, mystery and a summer job at the Summerlost theater festival to keep her busy. Despite her new distractions, the loss of her loved ones leaves a void not easily filled. Cedar’s time over the summer is spent building relationships, bravely taking on new experiences and learning how to find strength through the recovery process. A heart-felt exploration of the growth we hope to find after losing loved ones. Recommended for ages 9-12.

Butler’s Thoughts on Moving Forward after Orlando

by Hal Patnott

Last week, I planned to write an entirely different post today, but, in the early hours of Sunday morning, everything changed. One hateful man with a semi-automatic assault rifle killed 49 people and injured over 50 more at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. This tragedy was not a random act of violence, but a deliberate act of hatred. During Pride Month–a time of year set aside for celebrating our community and our continued fight for equality–a violent and ignorant act ended the lives of 49 human beings with families, friends, and futures in one of the few spaces in our society where they should have been able to freely express themselves and their love. Let’s not forget, he also attacked on a night of cultural celebration. It was Latinx Night at Pulse. More than 90% of the victims belong to the Latinx community. The attack on Pulse was not an isolated incident of hatred either. Evidence from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence shows that LGBTQ People of Color face a significantly higher risk of homicide and violence. Those of us in the LGBTQ community grow up with messages from the media and our peers telling us not to exist. A survey conducted by the Human Rights Campaign reveals that LGBTQ youth are two times more likely than their peers to experience physical assault at school. The bullying doesn’t end when we grow up. We are accused of crimes we’ve never committed and then barred from fulfilling basic needs like using the bathroom.

In his address on Sunday following the massacre, President Obama said, “In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another. We will not give in to fear and turn against each other.” He reminds Americans that to continue to “actively do nothing” about the violence in our country “is a decision.” LGBTQ people live in every city across the United States, and, whether you realize it or not, we stand on both sides of the reference desk in the library. Since Sunday, leaders in the library profession have spoken out about the tragedy in Orlando. Sari Feldman, President of the ALA, promises in her statement that, “In defiance of fear, ignorance and intolerance, the library community will continue its profound commitment to transforming communities by lending its support.” The chair of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Round Table, Peter Coyl also writes, “Libraries can and should be safe places. Even if you are far from Orlando, there are those you serve who are affected by this tragedy. They are looking for help and hope.” Libraries must offer more than empty promises to serve everyone in the community.

So, this is the part when you may be asking how you can help. June is GLBT Book Month. It’s not too late to raise awareness by building a display or making finding aids like bibliographies to increase access for your patrons. Don’t stop at the end of the month, though. Recommend diverse books to all patrons all year round. GLBT books aren’t just for GLBT readers. Evaluate the collection you have and make sure you can provide patrons with representation for all sexual orientations, gender identities, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. If you don’t know where to start, the Rainbow List is an excellent resource. Consider how you catalog and where you shelve these materials. Above all, think critically about how you treat people. Watch out for the assumptions in your language about gender identity. Don’t contribute to a culture of hatred and fear by reacting with Islamophobia. Remember that everyone walks into the library with a different narrative and different needs. We say the library serves everyone, but as librarians it’s our responsibility to actively open the doors and welcome them.

We affirm and support the thoughts and recommendations outlined here, and aspire for the library community to be a model of service to all communities.

Janice M. Del Negro, associate professor

Diane Foote, assistant dean and curator, Butler Children’s Literature Center

Sujin Huggins, assistant professor

Kate Marek,  dean and professor

Alena Rivers, graduate assistant, Butler Children’s Literature Center

To Grandmother’s House We Go!

by Alena Rivers

Not all of our summer excursions can be tropical vacations. Whether taking time for staycations or logging miles and miles on the road to visit family, for children, time spent in a different place, or traveling to it, can spark imaginations and inspire new adventures. Long road trips and quiet summer days provide great opportunities for children to explore their surroundings and give their brains the freedom to daydream. Here are a group of newly-published picture books in the Butler Center that feature children and the imaginative ways they spend time with grandparents or passing the time on warrior-style road trips to visit them.

Are We There Yet? By Nina Laden, illus. by Adam McCauley (Chronicle, 2016)

A boy and his mother take an extended drive to grandmother’s house. Not long before they are on the road, the boy asks his mother, “Are we there yet?”. The mother simply replies, “No.” This familiar-to-adults exchange is repeated across each two-page spread of the book while readers are taken on an illustrated journey through cities, over bridges past farms and deserts until they reach grandmother’s house. The story is a simple reminder for kids and their adult caregivers of the excitement just outside the car window that can be easily overlooked on long road trips.

Are We There Yet? By Dan Santat (Little, Brown, 2016)

Caldecott medalist, Dan Santat creates a larger-than-life visual voyage when a young boy and his parents embark on what feels like the longest car ride ever to his grandmother’s birthday party. The boy’s initial excitement about the road trip is soon stunted by the bland scenery outside his car window. Santat illustrates imaginative scenes and uses minimal but complimentary text to depict what can happen when you let your brain run wild during the most mind-numbing, tiresome treks to the fun waiting at the end of the road.

The Bell in the Bridge by Ted Kooser, illus. by Barry Root (Candlewick, 2016)

Charlie, a young boy, makes annual, two-week summer visits to his grandparents’ farm. Not much happens during these summer visits so Charlie amuses himself by playing near a stream with tadpoles and turtles. Charlie discovers that by using a rock to hit the railing of a bridge over the stream, the result is a bell-like sound with its faint echo following it. One day after banging the bridge, an extra sound, just like his, is returned in the distance. Who or what is causing this additional sound? The mystery adds just the right amount of excitement to speed up the slow summer days that remain before Charlie’s parents come to pick him up. Soft water color and gouache shades of green, yellow and orange enhance the feeling of quiet warmth indicative of summer mornings and late afternoons.

The Not-So-Faraway Adventure by Andrew Larsen, illus. by Irene Luxbacher (Kids Can, 2016)

Young Theodora, or Theo as her grandfather, Poppa, calls her, decides that a trip on a streetcar to a nearby beach is the perfect birthday present for her adventurous grandfather. The journey takes time but there is much to see along the way. When they finally reach the beach, Theo and Poppa spend the day discovering its many treasures and dreaming up big adventures. Their trip ends with a refreshing meal of gazpacho soup and another surprise waiting for Poppa in his apartment. Colorful, mixed-media artwork provides vivid illustrations of the city, beach and all the places in between.