Monday, October 26, 2020

MMGM- Donut Dreams and Attacked at Sea

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

This post is both a paean and plea to Simon Kids. I am an unabashed fan of "Coco Simon" "Chloe Taylor", "Phoebe Rivers" and "P.J. Night". I am pretty sure that these are all pen names: research uncovers only Tracey West as admitting to penning some of these titles. 

These are all fantastic books. They are quick, concise stories that appeal to my readers and cover a huge range of "small problems". So many middle grade "literary fiction" covers "big problems" like death, divorce, disease and dismemberment, and while there is a limited market for this sort of book among the actual target demographic, my students feel more seen when problems they are actually having are addressed in books. This is why "friend drama" is the number one request I get in realistic fiction. It's a big deal when you're eleven and your parents don't want to get a dog, are having financial or marital problems, or are just trying to juggle the activities of a family of children. P.J. Night's Creepover series manages to blend ordinary middle school problems WITH scary stories, which is also brilliant. 

My only problem with series like Donut Dreams or Cupcake Diaries is that the series go on so long, and when someone loses the prebind version of book two, it can be hard to replace. I know that publishing exists to make money, but shorter series would be more profitable. As a parent, I was always loathe to buy book #28, and this is spoken by someone who tracked down ALL of the Animorphs books for my children. It doesn't make sense, but I'd be totally on board with buying twenty different five book series. 

So, Simon Kids, what I would REALLY like is different #OwnVoices authors writing engaging short series with the kind of cultural references about every day family life coupled with familiar, universal middle grade problems found in Hena Khan's Zayd Saleem, Maulik Pancholy's The Best At It or the works of Renee' Watson, Lisa Yee, Torrey Maldonado and many others. For extra bonus points, a series of creepy #ownvoices books (please include killer ghosts!) would also be very popular.

Simon, Coco. Family Recipe (Donut Dreams #3)
May 5th 2020 by Simon Spotlight
Library copy

Molly has a busy life; playing soccer, working at the family restaurant, keeping up with her school work, and hanging out with her sisters and friends. Since her dad is a high school shop teacher and her mother is an accountant with the restaurant, the family schedule is packed and requires strict adherence to a calendar. Molly does well with this, but Kelsey struggles to get her homework done and wake up on time. Molly has a close relationship not only with her immediate family, but also with her cousin Lindsay (whose mother passed away) and her grandparents. When her history teacher assigns a family tree project and classmate Eric gives her a hard time about whether she will include her "real mother" along with her adoptive family, Molly is conflicted and upset. Everyone knows she was adopted; her Korean features set her apart not only from her family but also most of the students in her school. In addition, Molly and Kelsey have always wanted a dog, and end up fostering two for the weekend-- chaotic but cute Ruby and steadfast Rusty. Molly isn't sure how to deal with Eric and the feelings that the project has aroused, but gets help from her supportive family when she reaches out to them. 
Strengths: Like Grandma's apple pie doughnut, there is a lot packed into this book! What I liked best was the warm relationship that Molly had with her father, and their shared love of running. The handling of the family calendar and the rehashing of what would happen during the day in regards to activities and transportation was also great. Kelsey's struggles with homework and Lindsay's inclusion in Molly's family so she didn't miss her mom as much worked well. I always wonder about Family Folklore or Family Tree projects, especially when it comes to children in foster care, but the teacher assigns the project in an understanding way (your family and your history are what you consider them to be), and Molly and Eric work out their differences with each other and with the project with the help of Molly's mother. I LOVED the family's realization that puppies are a lot of work, and the chaos Ruby causes adds some light moments. For a 150 page book, this is a masterpiece of interesting situations, lovable characters, and thoughtful problems.
Weaknesses: While Molly's experiences being adopted from outside the US seem true, I cannot accurately judge whether or not they would resonate with someone with a similar background. 
What I really think: See above. I really want similar books from #OwnVoices writers with boys as the main characters as well. If they can retain the sports interests, all the better!
Tougias, Michael J. and O'Leary, Alison.  Attacked at Sea
October 27th 2020 by Henry Holt and Co. 
(first published 2016 as So Close to Home)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In 1942, the Downs family was returning from Colombia on the freighter Heredia, owned by the United Fruit Company, for who the father, Ray Downs, worked. Because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and other events surrounding the beginning of WWII, the family thought it wise to return home. The mother, Ina, was a little disappointed because the home the company provided was nicer that the one they had had in the US, and the children, Ray, Jr.  and Lucille, had been enjoying themselves in their new surroundings. Travel on the ship was different from the liner they had taken to travel to Colombia; it was transporting mainly fruit. The crew, however, was nice, and the family made the best of it. When a German U-Boat was suspected in the vicinity, the family tried to disembark at Corpus Cristi, Texas, but was told that they would have to continue to New Orleans before getting off the ship. Of course, the ship was attacked, and the family members were separated. Ray and his son went in one direction, Lucille in another (luckily with some of the crew), and Ina was alone, and her eyesight compromised by the oil in the water. They spent almost a full day in the water, but luckily were all rescued and recovered in time. 

The most interesting thing about this book is that it also covers the attack from the German viewpoint, and talks about the German commander and his motivation, making the point that war is unpleasant, and people do whatever they need to do to survive!

This had a selection of pictures of the various people involved in the incidents. The reason that my students like books like this (and other nonfiction tales by Tougias, including Into the Blizzard ) is that they are good stories. We learn a bit about what the Downs' life is like in the US, and therefore have a vested interest in their survival. Following each of the people in the water gives this an immediacy as well. This is the sort of nonfiction that tweens don't mind reading, since it is informative AND engaging.

See some more pictures and read an interview with Ray, Jr. at HistoryNet


  1. I agree friend drama stories are always a big request in my world. I'm a little behind on the Donut Dreams series as I only read the first. Thanks for getting me up to date and for featuring on MMGM.

  2. I love true-life adventures, so will be hunting down Attacked at Sea. Also, donuts - and in this season how could anyone resist an apple pie donut?

  3. I appreciate, so much, what you were sharing about longer series vs. shorter series. And oh my goodness, when you mentioned Animorphs - YES!! It was only a few years ago that I finally started tracking down all the Animorph books. While you're talking about the Creepover series, I just checked and we only have books #1 and #3 of that series. And we're missing about a dozen (probably lost) books of the Cupcake series. I guess no time like the present to put in a request to buy the remainder of the series... Thanks for the shares, Karen!

  4. I love your plea to Simon Kids—a series of short #ownvoices stories sounds like something practically any human being could be on board with! Donut Dreams: Family Recipe sounds like a super-fun story, and Attacked at Sea sounds fascinating as well! Thanks for the great post!

  5. The second is exactly the kind of book I gobbled like candy in junior high. History and story!