Thursday, February 19, 2015

Celebrating Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Finalists and Winner

     Today, I'd like to celebrate the 2014 Middle Grade Fiction Cybils Finalists that I read, along with other Round 2 judges (@randomlyreading, @thereadingtub, @5M4B, @GeoLibrarian).  I held off putting reviews on my blog and Goodreads during that time since we didn't want anyone to see what we might have been leaning toward. 
     This was the first time I've served as a judge for a book award.  The selection process was interesting.  We had a few Google Group threads going as we read, but the real nitty-gritty discussion was held the Sunday evening over Google Hangout before the awards were announced the following Saturday.  At first, I didn't think we were going to come to an easy agreement.  A couple of my favorites weren't shared by other members of the committee, and some of theirs weren't shared by me.  Just as I thought it was going to get frustrating, our winner rose to the top, and we all enthusiastically agreed.  Amazing!  We enjoyed them all, though, so kudos to the Round 1 Judges.  Here they are in no particular order (except I'm saving the winner for last, of course).

The author, Varsha Bajaj, said one of her family members asked her to write a “happy story about India.”  She definitely accomplished that in this light-hearted, entertaining story about Abby discovering who her father really is after not knowing her whole life.  Meeting her father had always been her one desire.  She knows he lives in India, but that is all.  When she suffers from a severe allergic reaction to coconut, her mother decides it’s time to contact him.  She finds out he is actually a Bollywood star! Soon she endures an unpleasant flight to India to meet him; the country is described in all its color, noise, poverty, and wealth.   She learns to love the country and people of her father and her heritage while she’s there, but doubts her father’s love for her, causing her angst until the very end of the story.  Kids will like the layers of everyday problems of Abby’s hometown thrown in with the bigger problems of an estranged father and discovering your roots.  There’s even a romance thrown in.  The ending will warm your heart.
Wow – this book is so much more than suggested by its cover and title.  Those two things will ensure that it flies off the shelf, but readers will get more than they bargained for once they realize that it’s not all silly humor; although, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud appeal..  Benjamin’s beloved father has recently died of cancer, and he and his mom are struggling with paying the rent.  He feels the need to take care of his mother because of a last conversation between with his dad.  Therefore, he enters contest after contest, writing ditties for toilet paper companies (they’ve had to cut back on the good toilet paper to save money).  Throw in Zeyde, Benjamin’s grandfather, who comes to live with them and is suffering from Alzheimer’s, a best friend whose passion is makeup artistry for horror films, toilet paper trivia, a goldfish, and an awesome neighbor lady, and you’ve got quite a story.  Another interesting aspect of the characters is that Benjamin and his mother, grandfather, and the neighbor lady are Jewish.  There are only subtle references to this, indicated by the use of Yiddish words (a helpful glossary is in the back).  I really loved this book - theme topics of kindness, empathy, grief, financial struggles, illness, family, bullying, creativity, and perseverance are prevalent.  I’d love to use this one as a fifth grade read aloud for our Family and Friendship unit.

First of all, what a gorgeous cover!  This story is a gripping winter adventure in Alaska in which the protagonist, 14-year-old Victoria, puts her life and her beloved sled dogs’ lives at risk in order to buy some winning leader dogs from a retiring musher.  Victoria is angry at her mother who is talking of moving to Seattle after Victoria’s father's death.  Victoria never felt like her mother understood racing, dogs, and Alaska like she and her dad did.  Even though she’s already a champion musher, Victoria feels the need to win even more so, driving her to be careless.  My 5th and 6th graders will LOVE the breathless pace of this book and survival story.  There’s even a boy that Victoria has to rescue, taking the temperature up a notch or two, but it stays within middle school boundaries.  This story will have great appeal to both boys and girls and covers theme topics of resilience, family, home, and grief.  It will also spur conversations about the costs of putting winning above all else.

This is a delicious middle grade story that will keep you reading until you find out what 11-year-old Gladys Gatsby is cooking up and how she will solve the pickles she’s gotten herself into.  The very first chapter will hook kids right away – who wouldn’t want to read a book that leads with “No, today would forever be the day Gladys Gatsby set the house on fire…and, if her family survived, the day she got into a great, big, fat amount of trouble.”  Gladys’s passion is cooking in a family whose idea of gourmet is soggy Chinese takeout and greasy burgers.  The only kitchen appliance regularly used is the microwave.  However, she won’t let that stop her.  She’ll figure out how to become the new food critic of the New York Standard newspaper with the help of her teacher, Ms. Quincy, and her new best friend, Sandy, and the beauty queen and bully of her school, Charissa.   I love the food similies Tara Dairman sprinkles throughout the story: “But before she even finished the first column, her new shell of confidence cracked like an egg” and “Now Gladys’s brain felt like a rotisserie chicken spinning on a spit.”  I think intermediate grade kids will eat this up and will be glad it’s the start to a series.

Read Mr. Schu's post with Kwame Alexander.
Look at those shiny new stickers on The Crossover's cover!  I could not be happier for this book's success.  I had "read" it previously by listening to the amazing audio version and reread the print version for Cybils purposes. Both times it moved me to tears.  It has been a blast to follow Kwame Alexander's response to the ALA Youth Media Award.  He's one of the most enthusiastic recipients I've ever seen.  Follow him on Facebook, and you will enjoy his status updates and media coverage.  "Filthy McNasty" will steal your heart with his obsession with basketball, relationship with his twin brother, father, and mother, and the emotions he wears on his sleeve.  The novel in verse format with its powerful word choices and text shapes, styles, and sizes will keep you captivated.  It will appeal to boys and girls alike, and you don't have to be a basketball fan.  You just have to like an amazing, emotional story about family, fear, growing up, education, words, relationships, what it means to be successful, and love.  This book will forever be a favorite of mine.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

I had read this one, also, before it became a Cybils finalist.  I really, really loved Maggie Mayfield and her family! Her funny, poignant, and smart voice captivated me from the very beginning. I caught myself laughing aloud, tearing up, and cheering her on. Her sisters, running feats, botched romance, and sarcasm cracked me up, but her struggles with the serious things happening in her life made me ache for her. I don't think this book is for anyone under 6th grade (maybe some mature 5th graders) - there is some young adult material (drug, alcohol, and sex references), but it would make a great mentor text for voice and structure for older students. I loved the footnotes. I also appreciated that it tackled a parent's illness (multiple sclerosis). Some of our students are faced with that great challenge and would see themselves in Maggie's journey. The story is inspired by the author's real family experiences with a father with MS. By the way, speaking of the author, when you see her on her website page, don't you want to be friends with her?! I highly recommend this book!
And our winner (announced Feb. 14th - how appropriate that Valentine's Day was announcement day - BOOK LOVE)!  Drumroll please...
Check here to listen to an audio excerpt and download a Teacher's Guide. 
Eleven-year-old Sam is mad at the world.  His mother left him when he was three and a half, and he just found out she got remarried, his father’s bakery is going bankrupt and has a girlfriend Sam doesn’t like, and on top of all that, he has someone else’s heart and has to take pills twice a day, every day!  He got a heart transplant when he was almost four.  We find out all this background as Sam is smashing the windows at the condemned Nickel Bay railroad station.  Even Sam’s town of Nickel Bay is suffering.  Usually a mysterious, anonymous “Nickel Bay Nick” character passes out hundred-dollar bills all over town starting twelve days before Christmas.  The town’s citizens would just find the bills miraculously hidden in purses or pockets, cars or store packages.  But this year…nothing.  When Sam hears police sirens coming his way (this is not an unusual sound for Sam – we learn he is pretty much a juvenile delinquent), he takes off and ends up hiding on the Christmas-light-strewn roof of Mr. Wells’s house, a guy who lives only a block away from Sam.  This is where it all begins – the revelation of who Nicklebay Nick really is, Sam’s recruitment as the new Nickle Bay Nick, and a transformation that only a guardian angel could orchestrate.
There you have it!!  I hope you read ALL these books and add them to your classroom or school library!  Thank you to the Cybils Awards creators.  I was honored and excited to be a small part of this year's process!  For more about the winners of each category, click here.


  1. "At first, I didn't think we were going to come to an easy agreement." I was thinking the same thing, Holly ... especially as we started whittling away and the list seemed to be going in all different directions. So glad I got to *meet* you.

  2. So wish I could have been a fly on the wall for the discussions. :) It was my first time judging experience too and was so much fun, but hard to wait for the winners announcement! Wonderful reviews for each of the books.

  3. I'm deeply grateful for this honor, even more now that I've read about all the other wonderful finalists. Happy to be in their company!

    1. You wrote a wonderful book, and my students will love having it in my classroom library! :-)

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