For Parents

Books on the Ground

When I visit schools, I always like to ask what the students are reading. I think of this as my ‘books on the ground’ question. I know what middle grade books I love and I probably have a good sense of what the librarian is recommending but what are the kids actually reading?  It provides a little insight into what makes these middle grade readers excited when it comes to books. As an author, this is invaluable market research. Sure, I want to tell my stories but I also want kids to read them so knowing what they are carrying around in their overstuffed backpacks is important.

This year I’ve been participating in a program that pairs authors with classroom teachers. A typical author visit lasts for an afternoon and while it’s great to get even that much time with students, #KidsNeedMentors gives us multiple opportunities to interact with a specific group of kids.

Last month I sent my adopted class a video and at the end I asked them the ‘books on the ground’ question. And I was thrilled to get a stack of letters in response, all about what they are reading… and about their pets, siblings, families, sports, hobbies and favorite foods. There is nothing better than a stream of consciousness letter from an eleven year old. Seriously,  this stack of letters absolutely made my week!

Anyway, friends, I want to share some of the books my students are taken with right now – old, new, serious, fun, graphic, series’, sad, heartwarming and more. Maybe you will see something that will work for the middle grade readers in your life. (book descriptions from Amazon.)


Two-Faced (Almost Identical), by Lin Oliver

When Charlie compromises her values to help one of the popular girls cheat on a test, Sammie is inadvertantly pulled into the mess. Written from Charlie’s point of view, this story will let readers experience the lengths that wanting to be popular in middle school can take you to, the conflict it can cause, and the tough moral stands a girl sometimes has to take.

Amulet 8, by Kazu Kibuishi

Emily has lost control of her Amulet and is imprisoned in the Void, where she must find a way to escape the influence of the Voice. Meanwhile, Emily’s brother, Navin, travels to Lighthouse One, a space station where the Resistance is preparing to battle the approaching Shadow forces that would drain planet Alledia of all its resources. Emily and Navin must be smarter and stronger than ever to ensure Alledia’s survival.


Endling: the Last, by Katherine Applegate

Byx is the youngest member of her dairne pack. Believed to possess remarkable abilities, her mythical doglike species has been hunted to near extinction in the war-torn kingdom of Nedarra.

After her pack is hunted down and killed, Byx fears she may be the last of her species. The Endling. So Byx sets out to find safe haven, and to see if the legends of other hidden dairnes are true.

Along the way, she meets new allies—both animals and humans alike—who each have their own motivations for joining her quest. And although they begin as strangers, they become their own kind of family—one that will ultimately uncover a secret that may threaten every creature in their world.

Grenade, by  Alan Gratz

It’s 1945, and the world is in the grip of war. Hideki lives on the island of Okinawa, near Japan. When WWII crashes onto his shores, Hideki is drafted into the Blood and Iron Student Corps to fight for the Japanese army. He is handed a grenade and a set of instructions: Don’t come back until you’ve killed an American soldier.

Ray, a young American Marine, has just landed on Okinawa. He doesn’t know what to expect — or if he’ll make it out alive. He just knows that the enemy is everywhere. Hideki and Ray each fight their way across the island, surviving heart-pounding ambushes and dangerous traps. But when the two of them collide in the middle of the battle, the choices they make in that instant will change everything.


The Big Time, by Tim Green

Things couldn’t be going better for Troy White. The Atlanta Falcons’ football genius is at the top of his game, helping the team get to the playoffs. Agents and lawyers are knocking on his door with big-money offers for the upcoming season. And his own football team has just won the Georgia State Championship! Troy’s celebrating with his friends at linebacker Seth Halloway’s mansion when another lawyer comes knocking—and he says, “I think I’m your father.” In that instant, Troy’s life is changed forever.


Fish in a Tree, by Linda Mullaly Hunt

The author of the beloved One for the Murphys gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t fit in.

“Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”

Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions.  She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.

Rebound, by Kwame Alexander

Before Josh and Jordan Bell were streaking up and down the court, their father was learning his own moves. In this prequel to Newbery Medal winner The Crossover, Chuck Bell takes center stage, as readers get a glimpse of his childhood and how he became the jazz music worshiping, basketball star his sons look up to.

A novel in verse with all the impact and rhythm readers have come to expect from Kwame Alexander, Rebound will go back in time to visit the childhood of Chuck “Da Man” Bell during one pivotal summer when young Charlie is sent to stay with his grandparents where he discovers basketball and learns more about his family’s past.

Jedi Academy: The Force Oversleeps,  by Jarrett J. Krosczka

Victor Starspeeder is back at Jedi Academy for year two, but it’s not going the way he’d planned. He was thrilled about Drama Club and hoped to get the lead in this year’s musical… But a new kid got the role! What gives?! Plus, he keeps oversleeping and getting to class late . . . Worst of all, his big sister Christina is getting ready to graduate from Jedi Academy, and there are rumors going around that she’s a Sith! What’s a Padawan to do? In times when he feels more alone than ever, Victor will have to trust the ways of the Force and his friends if he’s going to survive year two in this all-new chapter in the Jedi Academy series.

Happy Chanukah and Jewish Books!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Hope you’re all well! This is a little bit of a departure from my regular posts, but I felt it was important. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of Chanukah or Hanukkah, depending on the way you spell it, because there is no wrong way, even though Chanukah is the right way, because that’s the one I use, but anyway, no matter the spelling, Jews all over the world are celebrating. It’s a beautiful holiday, filled with joy, lighting candles, singing songs, giving gifts, and perhaps the best part of all, eating latkes and jelly doughnuts. And yet, this year feels different. This year feels a little sad in many ways, because I don’t recall a time in my life where anti-Semitism was so prevalent. Don’t get me wrong, because people who hate Jews have always been there, but yet over the last ten years or so, it’s seemingly been increasing in numbers and intensity every year. I’ve faced it a lot in my life, and still don’t feel any of the instances are as bad as they are now.

This can’t go on and change needs to occur. It can’t begin with the adults who won’t change opinions, but it can with younger kids who are impressionable. If they learn hate, they’ll grow up hating. If they’re unfamiliar with something, it’ll seem strange and alien. If they see more stories with Jewish characters and see Judaism as part of the world around them, there’s a chance they won’t grow up hating the unknown. So, this post is basically a call for more Jewish characters for younger readers, and especially for Middle Grade. It’s important for parents, teachers, and librarians, to promote books with Jews in them. Jewish books are Diverse books.

So, for this holiday season, while you’re sitting there and fretting over what to get, don’t worry any longer. Because, I now have fantastic news for you! I’m going to tell you about some really great books to go pick up just in time for the end of the Chanukah, which also make for wonderful reading for Christmas!

Now, admittedly, there aren’t a lot of Middle Grade books which are Chanukah-based. There are plenty of them for younger readers who like picture books, but not for the older ones. I’m going to have to rectify that. Get me my agent on the phone! But, to fill in the void, I’m going to suggest some great books by Jewish authors, which would make great gifts for the bibliophiles you care about.

So, without further ado, we’ll start with a couple that are actually centered on Chanukah. I haven’t read this one, but it looks like so much fun!

Dreidels on the Brain, by Joel Ben Izzy:

One lousy miracle.  Is that too much to ask?
Evidently so for Joel, as he tries to survive Hannukah, 1971 in the suburbs of the suburbs of Los Angeles (or, as he calls it, “The Land of Shriveled Dreams”). That’s no small task when you’re a “seriously funny-looking” twelve-year-old magician who dreams of being his own superhero: Normalman.  And Joel’s a long way from that as the only Jew at Bixby School, where his attempts to make himself disappear fail spectacularly.  Home is no better, with a family that’s not just mortifyingly embarrassing but flat-out broke.

That’s why Joel’s betting everything on these eight nights, to see whether it’s worth believing in God or miracles or anything at all.  Armed with his favorite jokes, some choice Yiddish words, and a suitcase full of magic tricks, he’s scrambling to come to terms with the world he lives in—from hospitals to Houdini to the Holocaust—before the last of the candles burns out.

No wonder his head is spinning: He’s got dreidels on the brain. And little does he know that what’s actually about to happen to him and his family this Hanukkah will be worse than he’d feared . . . And better than he could have imagined.

The next one is:

Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake by Rebecca O’Connell


In this Hanukkah story, Penina fi nds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn’t looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and her best friend is deserting her to go on a dream vacation to Aruba. Then Penina discovers why Mrs. Brown must go away and hears that a snowstorm may ruin Zozo’s trip, and Penina knows she’s the one who must bring some holiday spirit to her friends. Readers of all backgrounds will relate to Penina as she turns a pile of problems into a Hanukkah to remember.


How I Saved Hanukkah by Amy Goldman Koss


Marla Feinstein, the only Jewish kid in her fourth-grade class, hates December. While everyone else is decorating trees, she’ll be forgetting to light the candles and staring at a big plastic dreidel. The holidays couldn’t get much worse. So Marla decides to find out what Hanukkah’s really about—and soon she and her family have made the Festival of Lights the biggest party in town!


Now, some non-Chanukah books by Jewish Authors, which feature Jewish characters:


Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske

Kat Greene lives in New York City and attends fifth grade in the very progressive Village Humanity School. At the moment she has three major problems—dealing with her boy-crazy best friend, partnering with the overzealous Sam in the class production of Harriet the Spy, and coping with her mother’s preoccupation with cleanliness, a symptom of her worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder.

With nowhere to turn, Kat reaches out to the free-spirited psychologist, Olympia, at her new-age private school in New York’s Greenwich Village. Olympia encourages Kat to be honest. Eventually, Kat realizes that sometimes asking for help is the best way to clean up life’s messes.



This is Not the Abby Show by Debbie Reed Fischer

Abby was born for the spotlight. Now it’s her time to shine!

Abby is twice exceptional—she is gifted in math and science, and she has ADHD. Normally, she has everything pretty much under control. But when Abby makes one HUGE mistake that leads to “The Night That Ruined My Life,” or “TNTRML,” she lands in summer school.
Abby thinks the other summer-school kids are going to be total weirdos. And what with her parents’ new rules, plus all the fuss over her brother’s bar mitzvah, her life is turning into a complete disaster. But as Abby learns to communicate better and finds friends who love her for who she is, she discovers that her biggest weaknesses could be her greatest assets.
Hilarious and heartwarming, This Is Not the Abby Show is for everyone who knows that standing out is way more fun than blending in.


Apple Pie Promises: A Swirl Novel by Hillary Homzie

Lily has lived with her mom since her parents got divorced several years ago, and her dad has recently remarried to a woman with a daughter her age named Hannah. But now, Lily’s mom has gotten a once-in-a-lifetime work opportunity in Africa and she’ll be gone for a year, so Lily is moving in with her dad―and new stepmom and new stepsister. It’ll be as easy as apple pie, right?

Wrong. Lily promises her dad that she’ll try to get along with everyone, but she is not happy about it. Her stepmom is nice, but she’s no replacement for her real mom, and Lily feels like she barely gets any one-on-one time with her dad anymore.

The real problem, though, is Hannah. What starts out as tension between the new stepsisters becomes a full-on war, both at home and at school. Harmless pranks turn into total sabotage. Can Lily survive the year―or is her family fractured beyond repair?


Takedown by Laura Shovan

Mikayla is a wrestler; when you grow up in a house full of brothers who wrestle, it’s inevitable. It’s also a way to stay connected to her oldest brother, Evan, who moved in with their dad. Some people object to having a girl on the team. But that’s not stopping Mikayla. She’s determined to work harder than ever, and win.
Lev is determined to make it to the state championships this year. He’s used to training with his two buddies as the Fearsome Threesome; they know how to work together. At the beginning of sixth grade, he’s paired with a new partner–a girl. This better not get in the way of his goal.
Mikayla and Lev work hard together and become friends. But when they face each other, only one of them can win.


In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart

Miles is an anxious boy who loves his family’s bowling center even if though he could be killed by a bolt of lightning or a wild animal that escaped from the Philadelphia Zoo on the way there.
Amy is the new girl at school who wishes she didn’t have to live above her uncle’s funeral home and tries to write her way to her own happily-ever-after.
Then Miles and Amy meet in the most unexpected way . . . and that’s when it all begins.


These are just a few, and there are many more that I don’t have space for, and if I forgot some, it sincerely wasn’t intentional, but please consider getting books with Jewish characters in them, or supporting Jewish authors. Because again, Jewish books are Diverse books. Say it with me. Let’s all remember it. Jewish books are Diverse books.

Anyway, I want to wish all of our readers a very Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and everything else under the sun!

With that being said, I need to go, because Dorian Cirrone warned me not to make this post longer than the eight days of Chanukah, and I think I might’ve failed that edict.

But before I go, there’s one more thing! If you want a Christmas book written by a Jewish author, you can go pick up my own Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies! (Shameless insertion of self-promotion now complete)


Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever? This is a very funny “scary” book for kids, in the same vein as the My Teacher books or Goosebumps.

Again, I thank all of you for reading, and until next time . . .

So, Why Realistic Fiction?

Realistic Fiction in the Classroom

By Robyn Gioia

A genre that is not front and center in today’s stories of zombie, vampires, unicorns, and fairies is the world of realistic fiction. My class and I recently studied realistic fiction and what I learned was surprising.

The root word “real” in realism says it all. Are the characters regular people? Do they have problems? Do they make mistakes? Do they have real emotions? Do they grapple with pain, feel love, become utterly depressed, or bubble over with serendipity? Is the world real or is it a fantasy world with three moons and purple mountains? If it’s a made-up world, does it follow the rules of physics? If a character walks off a cliff, do they get hurt?


Probably the biggest element to examine is plot. Is it believable? Although circumstances may be extraordinary at times, is it something that could really happen? How do the characters deal with real problems? Are the solutions something that can really happen?

I noticed my students were so firmly rooted in fantasy, that when we studied our unit on realistic fiction, it took a lot of examination to decide if something could really happen. They argued that a character who miraculously survived a plane crash could climb the highest mountain, and walk a hundred miles to the next village without any food or water.

When I added that there are no super powers in realistic fiction, they stared at me. Then came the explanations. Maybe the survivor was in shape, they said. Maybe this person had a big dinner before the crash. Then the next set of “maybes” became even grander, without text evidence I might add. Maybe someone gave the person a ride. Maybe the person found a bunch of  power drinks. The “maybe” syndrome continued.

After our discussion, things got better. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the different reading groups asking each other, “Can it really happen and where is the evidence?”

So, why realistic fiction?

This brings us to the question. Why teach realistic fiction when other genres are vastly more popular?

Realistic fiction grounds students in real life. It lets them experience real life situations through cause and effect. It shows them the complexity of problems and how humans might react. It helps them to understand relationships. It helps students see life through the perspective of others.  It shows them how problems may or may not be solved. It exposes them to the vast differences in cultural beliefs and interactions between others.

To sum it up, realistic fiction helps students understand the way life works.

At the end of our study, something I did not expect was a comment from one of my brightest. “I haven’t found any books that I like. But I just learned that I like realistic fiction.” Grinning from ear to ear, he pulled out a copy of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and settled down to read.