Top 10 Books of 2018 — The Year of Middle Grade

Hi guys!! It’s been quite a while since you’ve last heard me talk about books here, so Happy New Year!! I’m going to try my best to get some blogging in during my FINAL semester of high school. Man, I’m surprised I’m at this point already! Before I go on, I want to wish each and every one of you a wonderful 2019 full of many blessings and joys. 2018 was definitely a crazy year for me, but it was full of so many life-changing and amazing books! Here are my Top 10 Books of 2018! I think it was a great year for kidlit–I have nine Middle Grade novels and one picture book in the list below, and I am very happy to share which 10 they are! Please do check these books out–you will NOT regret it! (This list is excluding rereads, and I will only include one book per series.)


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10. Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske

Kat Greene Comes Clean

Goodreads

I’m starting off this list with a beautiful gem of a book! Kat Greene Comes Clean is one of the funniest novels I’ve read this year, and it’s one of the few books that you just want to give a great big hug. I couldn’t help from smiling all throughout this story! This MG realistic fiction debut offers such a vivid glimpse into some of the struggles that many children, especially those who have to parent themselves, go through. The lessons are heartwarming, the humor is belly-filling, and the story itself is life-changing.

9. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Fish in a Tree

Goodreads

I loved Fish in a Tree so much that I read it twice this year. The first time I read it, I literally could not put it down–I finished it within a single day. It’s a lot like Wonder (which I’ve yet to read but I’ve watched and loved the movie)–a bright and talented girl with dyslexia has to overcome her disability, her bullies, and even herself as she discovers new friends and her true potential. Fish in a Tree has taught me how to never underestimate people who are neurodivergent, for they may be some of the brightest and smartest people I would ever meet. Certainly, I’ve also connected with Ally’s story as I knew how it feels not to fit in with everybody else, but both she and I found the friends that love us regardless of our quirks.

8. Open If You Dare by Dana Middleton

Open If You Dare

Goodreads

When I can connect with a book, my reading experience is transformed so much because I can see myself in the characters. I share so many of Birdie’s feelings as she has to face an uncertain future regarding her friends moving away–it’s very similar to what I’m facing right now as I’m about to go off to college. I read this back in junior year, I know I probably need to reread it sometime during this semester. Truly this novel made me cherish the few yet true friendships I possess, and it has moved me so much to tears.

Continue reading “Top 10 Books of 2018 — The Year of Middle Grade”

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Author Interview: Ann Braden, MG Contemporary Author of The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Hi guys! Tomorrow, one of the BEST books I’ve read this year–The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden–is releasing from Sky Pony Press, and to celebrate, I have Ann, the author of this wonderful novel, here on the blog to talk about her latest novel. A few weeks ago I shared my really really personal review of The Benefits of Being an Octopus. You definitely NEED to read this book. I urge you to pick it up. If I could buy a whole shipment of copies to just hand out to kids and random people, I would do it. This is a book that you do NOT want to miss.


About the BookThe Benefits of Being an Octopus

Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.

Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.

At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.

Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.

Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?

This moving debut novel explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate through the eyes of one girl, living on the edges of society, trying to find her way forward.

The Benefits of Being an Octopus will release from Sky Pony tomorrow! Pre-order it today!

Goodreads

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound | Book Depository | Bartlebly’s Books


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1. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?

I love writing because stories shape us and change us in inexorable ways (both as the author and as the reader) AND because of the way it uses all parts of my brain!

2. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?

I love realistic fiction. My favorite authors are the ones who make me feel like it’s all real. I still remember reading Sara Zarr’s HOW TO SAVE A LIFE and being so struck by one simple scene where the girl and her mom are in the kitchen making peanut butter toast because it was so incredibly real. And I thought: How did she do that? I want to write like that! Sara Zarr, along with authors like Gary Schmidt and Jason Reynolds showed me that page-turners can be created with emotional arcs instead of snazzy plots. They freed me up to approach this book, not by trying to tell a great story, but simply trying to be as honest as possible.

3. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?

At the moment I’m a part-time writer and a part-time stay-at-home mom. In the past I’ve juggled a variety of different kinds of community organizing work along with my writing. I seem to find the kind of work that takes huge amounts of time, (while paying very little money) – but that feeds my soul and that hopefully helps to get more voices to the table and helps those new voices feel supported.

4. Your MG debut novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus, set to release on September 4th from Sky Pony Press, follows seventh-grader Zoey as she attempts to find her voice while navigating through poverty, loved ones in abusive relationships, and acceptance among her fellow peers. How do you desire for your book to be a bridge between the cultural divides in school? How do you want readers, regardless of financial situation, to be impacted by Zoey’s story?

The Benefits of Being an OctopusI think that too often in our society we discount those who live differently than we do, whether its how much money someone has, what kind of job someone has, or what kind of political views they have. When I was in middle school, I remember being so struck that every person in every car on the road had their own story. And as I got older and got to meet a wide variety of people, I came to believe more strongly that not only do they have their own story, but that nearly every person is trying to do their very best given the circumstances they’re faced with. I hope that readers come away seeing that many of the characters, even the ones they don’t necessarily agree with, are doing the best they can – and that maybe the people around them in real life aren’t so different.

Continue reading “Author Interview: Ann Braden, MG Contemporary Author of The Benefits of Being an Octopus”

ARC Review: The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden — A Powerful, Vivid, Beautiful Depiction of the Struggles Many Families Face Today

Hi guys! This year, I’ve discovered upon a slew of life-changing Middle Grade books that have impacted me so dearly. I am so happy to say that The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden is one of them, and today’s review displays how much it will change your perspective on what other people have to go through in their lives. It’s especially fitting since school is beginning for many people in these next few weeks, so I hope you’ll pick up this book for you or for your children/students.


About the BookThe Benefits of Being an Octopus

Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.

Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.

At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.

Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.

Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?

This moving debut novel explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate through the eyes of one girl, living on the edges of society, trying to find her way forward.

Goodreads

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound | Book Depository | Bartlebly’s Books


5 Stars

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic ARC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. This will not affect my review in any way.

Never have I ever read a book in my life that I wanted to be pushed into the hands of readers, from students to educators, than The Benefits of Being an Octopus. Ann Braden’s vivid portrayal of a young girl trying to “get by” each day as her family—her single mother and her four siblings—are struggling with financial troubles and her mom’s abusive boyfriend is a reality that many children around both the nation and the world face everyday. I would write a longer introduction, but this book is so powerful and so relevant that I must start on the body of my review as soon as possible.

I have to first start out by saying that I saw myself very clearly in one character, Matt. Matt is guy in class who excels in virtually everything he does; he also has a good family with a steady income. When I first met him, I saw too much of myself in him—the student who goes above and beyond in assignments, from staying up too late to working at rapid speed. But Matt has one characteristic flaw that I know I have: Forgetting how blessed and privileged he is. While eating out at the pizzeria or drinking a peanut butter banana smoothie may not seem like a big deal to him, for Zoe those things seem like a distant reality. She has to deal power outages, clothes that are too small, and not always seeing her mother due to work.

The Benefits of Being an Octopus reminded me—in fact, it poked and prodded me with a gigantic tentacle—that not everyone is as blessed as I am. I am blessed to have two loving parents along with a great sister, a nice home, and three best friends who have my back. I have the ability to afford things I want, to travel places, and to go out. I am glad that I have discovered and honed by academic, musical, and extracurricular talents and abilities. But many of my fellow classmates don’t have these luxuries. Some always are out of the house, hanging out with friends or partying hard, because of their parents or their parental situation. Others have to work even two jobs on top of school to help provide for their families. There are many kids who can say that they’ve never set foot outside my small town, while I’ve visited countries halfway across the world. Some don’t own their own cars while I have one ready at a moment’s notice. While I can wiggle my way through a difficult calculus problem, there are classmates who struggle with algebra or geometry. Not everyone has the opportunities and the blessings I have. And I’m not saying my life is perfect at all. What am I saying is that there’s so much in my life, especially the little things, that I take too much for granted.

I know this review isn’t usually my standard format. I’m not reviewing over any of the story elements except for one gigantic overarching theme. This review is pretty much a personal reflection on Braden’s beautiful book. But I think that whenever I am compelled to write such a personal essay that helps me further understand and examine a key theme of a book, then that story must be very special. It must have struck a deep chord in my heart and changed my mindset. That is the mark of a five-star book. Certainly it is receiving one from me! It is one of the best Middle Grade novels—scratch that, books—I have ever read. No matter your background, no matter your age, you need to read this book. It will change your perspective as much as mine did. The Benefits of Being an Octopus will make readers become aware of the struggles that each person is going through, and it will instill in them the courage to speak up for, to be mindful to, and to reach out to those who may not have the blessings that the readers may experience. And for readers who may be in Zoe’s shoes, they will realize that they are not alone and that they have the power to change who they are.

Please note that I read from an uncorrected proof, so there could have been changes between this draft and the final publication.


About the AuthorAnn Braden

Ann Braden writes books about kids struggling to find their voice amidst the realities of life. Newbery award-winner Karen Hesse describes Ann’s debut middle grade novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus as “a compassionate look at poverty, hard choices, and defending one’s right to be treated humanely. A very fine first novel, written with a deft hand.” Ann founded GunSenseVT, a grassroots group focused on championing the common ground on the issue of guns in Vermont, which recently helped pass landmark gun violence prevention legislation. She also founded the Local Love Brigade, which now has chapters all over the country sending love postcards to those who are facing hate. Ann is the co-host of the children’s book podcast, “Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide,” along with Pakistani American author Saadia Faruqi, and is a former middle school teacher. Ann lives in southern Vermont with her husband, two children, and two insatiable cats named Boomer and Justice.

Website | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads


Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

Are you excited for The Benefits of Being an Octopus? Do you like MG contemporary?

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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July Reading Recap!

Hi guys! July has been a crazy month for me, and it’s definitely been busy! I’ve been to Singapore and road-tripped around the Philippines, and it’s great to be back home. I’m looking forward to all of the adventures I’m going to have this school year, whether they be in a book or in real life! I’ve actually finished nine books this past month, which is a stunning accomplishment for me! I am going to try to knock out as many ARCs and review copies as I can in August (though I’m not doing #ARCAugust). Hope you enjoy!


5 Stars

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schröder (Re-Read!)

Be Light Like a Bird

Goodreads

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden 

The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Goodreads

The Story Collector by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb

The Story Collector

Goodreads


4 Stars

Air Awakens by Elise Kova

Air Awakens

Goodreads

Pints with Aquinas by Matt Fradd

Pints with Aquinas

Goodreads

Lost on the Water by D. G. Driver

Lost on the Water

 

Goodreads

EngiNerds by Jarrett Lerner

Enginerds

Goodreads

Legendary by Stephanie Garber

Legendary

Goodreads

Gunslinger Girl by Lyndsay Ely

Gunslinger Girl
Goodreads


In Case You Missed It

Author Interviews

Rob Vlock, author of Sven Carter & the Trashmouth Effect

Supriya Kelkar, author of Ahimsa

Author Guest Posts

Mon D. Rea, author of Elemental Ninjas, on “Over-genre-lized! (or Why I Genre Hop)”

LILbooKtalks

“Finding Your Narnia: Transporting Readers to Magical Worlds” with Christina Soontornvat and K. E. Ormsbee

Discussions

Reality Has So Much to Offer, Just Like Reading

Book Reviews

Hidden Pieces by Paula Stokes (4 stars)

Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske (5 stars)

Open If You Dare by Dana Middleton (5 stars)

The Juniper Sawfeather Trilogy by D. G. Driver (4 stars)

Reading Recaps

June Reading Recap


Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts?

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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