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Julie Sternberg, author of Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie and its two sequels (linked to my reviews), writes books for the younger middle grade readers, with shorter chapters and expressive characters who represent the 8-10 year old age extremely well. My own third grade daughter was thrilled when I told her that Sternberg has started a new series. The first book, The Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine: Friendship Over introduces another lovable young girl trying to work through a highly-relatable experience.

Friendship in childhood can be filled with ups and downs, and ten-year-old Celie is currently low down because her (former) best friend Lula suddenly stopped speaking to her. No explanation, no reason that Celie can think of. Having to see her every day at school but not being able to chat with her at recess or pass notes during class is leaving Celie feeling alone, especially when Lula refused to come over for Celie’s birthday celebration! When their teacher begins to notice the effects of their estrangement, she recommends they go to a guidance-sponsored “friendship fix” program, and Celie’s parents tell her she must attend. Now she’s hurt, angry, and embarrassed!

At the same time, Celie’s grandmother begins to act strangely. Though she lives far away, she and Celie have a strong relationship and love to send each other art they’ve created and special gifts. Celie begins to understand that there is a serious problem when her mother goes to stay with her grandmother for a couple weeks to help with doctor appointments and take care of her. Worrying about her grandmother and not having a best friend to talk with is a double hit!

The format of the book is as the title suggests- “top-secret” diary entries that burst with the earnestness of a ten-year-old. Her feelings are on full display here, and her expressions sound pitch-perfect. As in her previous books, Sternberg has created a loving family that still manages to sound realistic, with parents who set boundaries but do so with heart.

I feel fortunate that my daughter has been reading Sternberg’s books for the last couple years, because they’ve been perfectly suited to her age and developmental level. This series seems to be slightly more complex in delivery than her first book, which is fitting as Celie is slightly older than Eleanor from her first series. As in those books, there are some lessons to be learned here about friendship and family relationships, but they aren’t overtly emphasized, just subtly woven into the narrative and the experiences of the characters. For readers in the earlier stages of middle grade fiction reading, this new series will hit the right spot.


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If You Were a Dog #Giveaway

In the new picture book If You Were a Dog by Jamie A. Swenson, young children are asked to imagine how they might act if they were animals instead of little kids. As kids are usually among the most imaginative people I’ve ever encountered, I am a big fan of this unique format for a story book. I’m even more impressed with the fabulously fun and rich language that make up the descriptions of the animals, and those paired with Chris Raschka’s vibrant illustrations make for an engaging reading experience. Please see my complete review over on 5 Minutes for Mom, where you can enter to win a copy of the book for a child in your life!
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With a seemingly realistic backdrop and a human-like bear as the main character, Frank! by Connah Brecon weaves an imaginatively wild story filled with bizarre happenings. Notorious for always being late, Frank’s trouble really starts when he begins school. It’s not because he’s careless, or even because he takes his time getting moving. No, Frank is never on time because he always seems to stumble into situations while he’s on his way somewhere, and because of his kind nature, he is compelled to offer assistance. Does he come upon elderly people who need help crossing the street, or children at play whose ball rolls into the street? Well, not exactly. While one scenario does involve a cat stuck in a tree, the other reasons Frank gives for
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Duck in the Fridge

Kids know silly when they see it, and from the first glance at Jeff Mack’s new picture book, Duck in the Fridge, they’ll likely be prepared to giggle. The title alone made a four-year-old friend of mine crack up! What in the world should they expect with a title like that? As they open the book, they’ll see an exuberant boy bouncing on his bed, clad in pajamas, but clearly not all that sleepy. When his dad settles in to read him a bedtime story, the boy asks him why he always reads from Mother Goose tales at night. Thus begins the dad’s tale of the time he found- yup, you guessed it- a duck in the fridge. Dad, as a little boy himself, becomes the main
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The Underground Girls of Kabul, a 5-Star Read

“In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child – a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom.” Sure, I know it’s a little like cheating to start a review with the publisher’s blurb, but this one
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Stanley the Builder and Stanley’s Garage #Giveaway

If you regularly spend time with toddlers and young preschoolers, you’ve likely learned just how interesting the immediate world around them can be. As a preschool teacher for over a decade, I took classes of three and four year old children on a multitude of field trips to places in our own neighborhood- the post office, the grocery store, restaurants, and the like- just so they could get an inside look at how places they’ve regularly visited actually work. Along that community theme, a new series of oversized board books featuring a handy, hard-working guinea pig are a wonderful addition to young readers’ collections. In Stanley the Builder and Stanley’s Garage, children are introduced to tools, construction vehicles, and real world jobs that relate to concepts in their
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A vintage clothing shop in a small college town is the backdrop for a lovely story of resilience, self-awareness, and the bonds of friendship that can grow among women in the novel Vintage by Susan Gloss. Violet Turner owns and runs the shop independently, as it had always been her dream to do, but the path she took in fulfilling this dream was filled with obstacles and detours until finally getting her to her destination. She soon finds out that more obstacles lie ahead, ones that could potentially destroy everything she has built, and she may have to open herself up to accepting assistance and collaboration before finding her way again. Violet is a lover of personal stories, and being in the market for buying old
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Short stories carry a large task- to quickly grab a reader’s attention, as well as to develop an engaging story and flesh out characters in significantly fewer pages than a novel has to do so. In Flings, Justin Taylor creates a series of tales that are simply snippets of the lives of a wide array of characters, all of whom are trying to figure out just how they fit in the world around them. The beginning of each story jumps right into painting a vivid picture of protagonist and setting, with diverse places serving as backgrounds- New York City, Florida, Hong Kong, and others. Somehow, even with so few pages, each conflict builds up gradually, though oftentimes, very little resolution follows. The endings of the stories aren’t
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Small Blessings

In a small college town, one might think tradition is king. On the surface, this might be the thought for the students and residents here, for at first glance, the cast of characters introduced in the beginning chapters do seem to fit their respective roles, most especially quiet and unassuming English professor Tom Putnam. But as readers get into the world created by Martha Woodroof in Small Blessings, they’ll soon discover a delight of a novel filled with wacky characters and unexpected twists and turns. Wacky might be an understated term for the characters in this novel. They’re not your standard, everyday people, though they end up being wholly relatable and undeniably endearing. Tom Putnam has come to accept his lot in life, for when he’s
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Desire Lines #Giveaway

When I think back to high school, the memories that stand out the strongest all revolve around my small group of close friends. As a teenager, they were my world, and though we all live in different areas now and only “see” each other online, they’ll always hold a very special place in my heart. The novel Desire Lines by Christina Baker Kline incorporates this idea into a story with a mystery at its heart and a compelling tale of self-discovery. After a short-lived marriage and a career that was never fully developed, Kathryn doesn’t know what to do next. Until she can figure out where she wants to be and what she wants to do, she returns to her hometown in Maine to stay with her
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Calvin, Look Out!: A Bookworm Birdie Gets Glasses

A few years ago, I became enamored with a little starling named Calvin, a book-loving bird who skipped flying lessons in favor of trips to the library and more time immersed in a book. Jennifer Berne’s Calvin Can’t Fly: The Story of a Bookworm Birdie became a much loved read aloud in my preschool classroom, and it remains a favorite of my own children to this day. Imagine my excitement when I saw that Berne had collaborated with illustrator Keith Bendis once again to bring a new Calvin story to the shelves. Calvin, Look Out! A Bookworm Birdie Gets Glasses gives the gist of the book’s tale right there in the title, but be prepared for a little silly adventure in the process, of course. When Calvin
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The Home Place

In The Home Place by Carrie La Seur, complex family relationships and a harsh, rural Montana setting await Alma Terrebonne upon her return home for the first time in several years. Unfortunately, the trip is due to the death of her younger sister, a happening that has the potential to become another piece of slightly mysterious family history. When Alma leaves Seattle, it doesn’t take long for her to be drawn back in to the ways of her hometown, and it becomes imperative to her to find out the truth behind her sister’s death. As readers can imagine, Alma ends up facing more than she had bargained for. The idea of “getting out” is one with which many folks who grew up in small towns can relate. It represents
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