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Book Spotlight: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

Being a sixth grader isn’t generally the easiest thing in the world, but, for Carter Jones, this year is really shaping up to be a pain in the glutes.  And it’s only the first day of school.  His dad is deployed in Germany, his mom is super sad but trying really hard to keep it together, and his three little sisters, are, well, three little sisters.  Ned the dachshund won’t stop throwing up, the Jeep is on its last legs, it’s raining really hard, and the milk has turned.  Which is when the Butler shows up.

If you’re a kid living in Marysville, New York, you certainly don’t expect to inherit a butler.  Certainly not a Bentley-driving, tea-drinking, cricket-loving, real live British butler in a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella the size of a satellite disk.  But sometimes, that’s what you get.  Even if you’d rather have your dad back instead.

Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, it seems, has come to stay for the duration.  And despite Carter’s initial vow to resist the British invasion, he finds that, even though he now finds it his responsibility to walk Ned more times a day than seems strictly necessary, even in the rain, and having to attend the ballet and weird art exhibits with his sisters, the Butler just might have the right idea about a few things.  Like how to write school essays.  And figuring complicated family stuff out.  And cricket.  The glorious, marvelous, sportsmanly game of civilized countries.  Which, it turns out, might just be the thing to pull him back together again.

Laugh-out-loud funny and so, so full of heart, this story of how Carter figures out how to put himself back together after life throws him a googly (or twelve), keep the bails on, and introduce the Butler to pizza is another winner from one of my favorite authors, Newbery honor winning Gary D. Schmidt.  If you love a good story of family, friendship, sports, and don’t mind getting odd looks from your friends because you’re cracking up on your lunch break, Pay Attention, Carter Jones is a must-read!

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Iris is having a tough year.  The only Deaf kid in her school, the only person she really has to talk to during the day is her interpreter, Mr. Charles, despite her classmate Nina’s extra-annoying attempts to show off her fake sign language (and her teacher’s even more annoying refusal to acknowledge that Nina is a faker).  Iris really wants to go to Bridgewood, a school with a big Deaf education program across town, but her parents don’t seem to understand why she would want to be with other kids like her.  And, to make everything worse, her grandpa recently passed away, and Iris misses him like crazy – but her grandma misses him even more.  Lately, it seems like Grandma is sad and lonely all the time – kind of like how Iris feels about school, but worse.  And, to top it all off, after a lunch time disaster with Nina, now Iris is grounded from her beloved antique radio repair business.

So, when Iris learns about Blue 55 in science class, she knows she has to figure out a way to help him.  A hybrid blue and fin whale, Blue 55 sings at a different, completely unique frequency than the other whales in the ocean, which means no one can understand him – no matter how often, or how loud, he sings his song, the other whales can’t send it back to him.  After she reads a blog post about a failed attempt to attach a tracker to Blue 55 by a nature sanctuary in Alaska, Iris starts to talk with one of the scientists working to track the lonely whale.  With her knowledge of frequencies, radios, computers, and a little help from her school’s music class, she designs a song for Blue 55 to let him know he’s not alone in the ocean.  Iris knows she has to play it for him – but how can one twelve-year-old girl get herself, and her song, from Texas to Alaska, especially during the school year?

With a little ingenuity, a lot of determination, and one wily grandma, Iris sets out on a journey to show a whale he’s not alone in the dark – and, along the way, she discovers that she might not be so alone either.

Based on a real whale, 52 Blue, Song for a Whale is a gem of a novel.  Fierce, smart, and very stubborn Iris is still trying to figure out how to navigate her world and communicate with a world that often seems to be vibrating on a very different frequency than she is.  With her good friend Wendell, loyal big brother Tristan, and sign language karaoke queen grandma by her side, though, she’s a force to be reckoned with.  With tons of science (and whales!), this story about family, friendship, and finding your place in the world is sure to strike a chord with tech and animal lovers alike.  Check it out!

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

Coyote and her dad, Rodeo, are always on the move.  It’s just the two of them and their retro-fitted school bus, Yager, rolling down highways and back country roads, heading wherever the mood strikes them.  Never looking back, only forward to the next truck stop, gas station, campground, or sandwich shop.  Sometimes they stop long enough for Coyote to take swimming lessons or make a new sort-of friend, but they never stay anywhere for long.  It’s open road, all kinds of sunshine, and freedom – but it’s also kinda lonely.

So when Coyote sees the box of free kittens in the gas station parking lot, and the smallest one, the quietest one, looks at her just so, she just knows he’s coming with her, no matter what Rodeo has to say about the matter.  She names her new kitten Ivan, after her favorite book, and after a rough start, even Rodeo’s in love.  But the thing is, Ivan is only the beginning of the story.

A few days later, when Coyote learns that the park in her home town is being torn down – the same park where she, her mom, and her two sisters, Ava and Rose, buried a memory box five years ago – she knows she has to figure out a way to get Rodeo, Yager, and Ivan from Florida to Washington State before the park, and the box, disappear forever.  Even if there is no way, no how Rodeo is going to agree to hit the trail home on his own.  But sometimes, fate has its own way of bringing you home.  With the help of a whole host of new folks, including an unlucky-in-love blues musician, a rescuer-from-overly-well-intentioned-people and maybe-best friend and his mom, and one very loyal goat, Coyote and Rodeo are on the road to Washington – because sometimes, going back is the only way to move forward.

This book broke my heart and stitched it back together again in all the best ways.  Reading this is like settling in with a big box of fortune cookies, where each one holds a small but profound truth – and just the right amount of sweetness.  With big and small adventures, kindnesses, misunderstandings, stories, and plenty of love, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is a middle grade must-read this summer.  Author Dan Gemeinhart has a number of other books, and you better believe I’ll be adding them to my reading list too!