Middle Grade Monday: Summer Reading Picks 2016

Whether you’re lakeside, poolside, or inside, summer is the best time to read. Silly, spooky, thought-provoking and engrossing; here are some new(ish) books guaranteed to keep you or the middle grade reader in your life occupied this summer.

Wolf Hollow

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We all have those keystone books in our lives, the ones so deeply affecting that we remember exactly where we were when we finished them.The Giver, The Sky is Falling, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are some of mine. These books transcend the joy of the reading experience and forever alter how you look at yourself, the world, and the importance of a book. Many readers will feel this way about the taut, tense Wolf Hollow.

Set in the grim aftermath of the first world war, the relative peace of a small American town is upset when a bully named Betty sets off a chain of life-altering events. Annabelle is one of Betty’s favourite victims, but she feels compelled to speak up after a gentle but misunderstood war vet is blamed for Betty’s disappearance. This is the moonshine of poignant-coming-of-age stories; straight up, potent, and guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.

Perfect read for the deep thinker, or the kid who wants to make the world a better place.

You may also like Raymie Nightingale  and Pax 

Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts

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The Fitzgerald-Trouts are a family of loosely related siblings living in a car on a tropical island full of (delightfully) terrible adults. They are fully capable of looking after themselves, but the one thing they would love is a house to call their own. This first book in a new series does a great job setting up the world of the Fitzgerald Trouts, which is just the slightest bit fantastical. The story is lovingly told by a narrator who walks into the story as a character about half way through the book in a delightful twist.

Spalding’s storytelling is effortless and breezy. Her adult characters would be at home in a Dahl novel but the reader never worries about the Fitzgerald Trouts, who are just too darn resourceful and and devoted to each other to raise any alarm bells. I adored their ingenuity and devotion to each other. Sydney Smith’s accompanying illustrations are spare and whimsical, like the island itself. This book is as summery as sand between your toes and sticky, melty-popsicle hands. 

Perfect read for free-spirited, independent makers or the kid who likes a subversive giggle.

You may also like The Fantastic Family Whipple or The Box Car Children.

The Inn Between

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The Inn Between reads like The Shining for middle grade readers. Quinn and Kara are on a cross-country road trip when Kara’s family decides to stop over at hotel called The Inn Between, located in the middle of the desert. The hotel is described as an ornate Victorian building with a pool, incredible pizza and limitless breakfast. But Quinn feels uneasy and soon the creepier things about the hotel come to the surface. Like how some people are allowed on the elevator and others are not. Or the angry-eyed man who keeps showing up. And when Kara’s parents and her brother disappear, Quinn takes a good hard look at the hotel and what it means to be “in between.”

Cohen’s pace and timing is excellent. There are some deeper implications here- letting go, moving on, grief- but this isn’t a realistic contemporary fiction book about loss, it’s a horror story with shades of realism in it. Cohen does not get caught up in blocks of description or too much philosophizing. Realizations dawn on the reader just as they dawn on Quinn.  This is a satisfying, page-turning horror story with just enough gravitas to elevate it out of campy Goosebumps territory.

Perfect read for lovers of scary stories and devoted BFFs.

You may also like Flickers  and The Swallow 

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel

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It was a dark and stormy night. So begins a true classic of children’s literature, A Wrinkle in Time. Science fiction in its various forms (sci-fi lite, speculative fiction, epic space opera) seems to be popping up everywhere, thanks to the omnipresence of The Star Wars franchise. A Wrinkle in Time is likely the most famous sci-fi novel written for children, featuring frustrated Meg Murry, her mind-reading little brother Charles Wallace, and gangly, endearing love interest Calvin O’Keefe. Adapting this beloved story to graphic novel form is a stroke of genius worthy of Mr. Murry himself. The time-bending and scientific theory may be mind-boggling for some readers, who will appreciate a pictorial rendition of these abstract concepts. Touches of blue lend an otherworldliness to the illustrations. At nearly 400 pages, this is a hefty book and will keep readers engrossed into the wee hours of the night.

Perfect read for sci-fi novices or kids who are looking to try something beyond the Star Wars universe.

You may also like Wonderstruck or  the graphic novel adaptation of Coraline

The Gallery

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1928, Brooklyn. Martha is the daughter of a housekeeper who has started working in the home of newspaper magnate Mr. Sewell. Martha accompanies her mother only to get caught up in a mystery surrounding his wife, Rose. In her youth Rose was a charming party girl, but now she spends her days ranting and raving about paintings in a locked bedroom. What happened to Rose? Why is she obsessed with the paintings? And who is leaking stories about the Sewells- some of them untrue- to the tabloids?

From the first chapter we understand that Martha is a girl with modern ideas. She talks back to her teacher (a rather unforgiving nun), is suspicious of Mr. Sewell’s charm and intentions, and takes the side of woman most people have dismissed as mad. Her dialogue is saucy and her devotion to the truth is inspiring, which will speak to readers’ strong sense of justice. There is a cinematic quality to the narrative and Fitzgerald uses visual and historical details to paint a clear portrait of 1920s New York. There is glitz in the form of Sewell’s mansion , but there is also poverty- represented by Martha’s own crowded apartment and her mother’s dashed optimism. But perhaps the most impressive feat is how Fitzgerald deftly handles a narrative that is essentially about involuntary confinement and turns it into a caper. Rose’s story has parallels to the suffragette movement and is a grim reminder of the challenges women faced at the time. This historical caper feels fresh and exciting, thanks to a breezy writing style and excellent pacing. 

Perfect read for history junkies, especially those interested in hidden histories.

You may also like Under the Egg and Chasing Vermeer.

Middle Grade Monday: Sunny Side Up

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With that bright blue cover, bouncy font and beach-y theme, Sunny Side Up looks like a typical summer read. But looks can be deceiving. Sunny Side Up is a moving story about coming to terms with difficult secrets disguised as a typical summer read. So-called ‘typical’ elements include a summer spent away from home, steamy days spent by the pool, and adventures with a new friend. It is not surprising that tween-whisperer Jenni Holm makes the elements atypical– instead of camp or a cottage Sunny is sent to stay with her grandfather in a retirement community, the local pond has Big Al, a resident Alligator, and adventures include a cat-rescue business Sunny and her new friend Carl start up, a which provides a fantastic sequence of the two of them sniffing out a whole list of cats with great names.  But half the book is comprised of Sunny’s flashbacks to the months leading up to summer, at home in Philadelphia, chronicling the decline of Sunny’s older brother, Dale.

You will know Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm from the wonderful Babymouse series. Nineteen books later, Babymouse still remains one of my favourite chapter book heroines, a sort of sassy cross between Ramona Quimby and Bianca from The Rescuers, but still her own mouse. Jennifer has also written a number of middle grade novels, three of which have been Newbery honour winners: The sublime Turtle in ParadiseOur Only May Amelia, and Penny From Heaven. And don’t forget about The Fourteenth Goldfish, which now lives in my permanent middle grade top ten.

A delicate balance is struck between Florida fun-times and the darker flashbacks. Sunny’s backstory unravels like a mystery, which adds a nice pace to the read. This is an astute and gentle treatment of children who are dealing with substance abuse in their families. In an author’s note, the Holms’ refer to their own experiences and explain that they wrote the book so children in this situation could learn not to be ashamed and that it’s important to talk about feelings. It also strikes me as a good way to introduce the topic of family struggle (with or without substance abuse) in general.

The Holms are trail-blazers in middle grade graphic novels, a genre which has been given a huge boost by the popularity of Raina Telgemeier’s books. Sunny Side Up will appeal to Telgemeier fans but at 216 pages it is a slimmer novel with less text. It is a nice step up for fans of Babymouse and chapter book readers in the 8-11 range, though older children will find much to love here as well. Learn more about the book and how it came to be by tuning into the brand new children’s literature podcast The Yarn, hosted by middle grade champions Colby Sharp and Travis Jonker, and available on iTunes.

Sunny Side Up is available now from Scholastic Canada.

Middle Grade Monday: Goodbye Stranger

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A Rebecca Stead book is always unexpected and always a delight. I very much enjoyed her Northern fantasy First Light and remember hand-selling the heck out of it to die-hard City of Ember fans in my bookseller days. Then I read When You Reach Me and was struck by how timeless it felt, despite being very rooted in a time & place. Liar & Spy was a quieter character study, very much setting up the reader for the meditation on friendship and contemporary adolescence that is Goodbye Stranger.

My favourite Judy Blume novel is Just As Long As We’re Together, which is essentially about girls navigating the politics of being a trio of best friends. In a way, Goodbye Stranger is a post modern meditation on Just As Long As We’re Together, exploring a spectrum of relationships, from downright cruel to occasionally toxic to fair-weathered to remarkably strong. It sounds unbelievable to say that Stead touches on all the questions of adolescence in one novel (friendships, first romance,  changing relationships to parents, finding your tribe, identity), but not only does she manage it, she does it so deftly it left me stunned and unable to pick up another book for days.

There are essentially three story lines about friendship that overlap- though the plot told entirely in second person feels relatively separate until all is revealed in the end. Bridge, Tab and Emily represent the healthiest possible kind of friendship. Even when dealing with little betrayals they stick to their promise of no fighting and when they DO argue, it is remarkably mature if not a touch idealistic. This is contrasted by a second-person anonymous storyline chronicling the ups and downs in another group of girls that is heartbreaking and at a times chilling (THE CINNAMON)!)

This is also a book about the first stirrings of romantic relationships. Much of the narrative is taken up with a photo Em sends to her maybe-boyfriend that is seen by a group of boys and eventually the whole school, threatening her reputation.  Stead handles this murky and topical scenario carefully and dare I say gently, addressing the issue and its implications but choosing for the best-case scenario. To me this makes perfect sense for the age group, some of whom will be scared silly by the idea of sending a photo of themselves to a boy, and others who have already done so and may relate to the stinging repercussions.

While Em is getting into kissing and embracing her burgeoning sexuality Bridge is moving at her own slower pace with Sherm, who is the cutest of cute and quite possibly my favourite tween love interest since Thomas J in the movie My Girl*. Bridge and Sherm clearly have a mutual interest but neither is ready to take it past spending time together and conversation. Adults are terrified by the desires and awakening romantic appetites of tweens but the truth is that they exist and deserve to be addressed. I love that Stead has two characters of the same age in very different places, romantically speaking. But romantics are rewarded with a truly gorgeous epilogue that I will refrain from re-typing word-for-word except for the following sentence, my new favourite line about love:”Kissing Sherman was like saying “And. . .and. . .and. . .”

The book is not just about girl relationships. Bridge’s older brother Jamie is embroiled in a competitive and toxic friendship of his own with Alex, a frenemy who is bent on tricking Jamie out of his beloved possessions in a cat-and-mouse game involving a limited number of steps per day that seems rigged to make Jamie fail. Sherm, Bridge’s not-quite-love interest, is also present in a series of letters written to his absentee grandfather who he hasn’t quite forgiven for up and leaving him. There is much to be gleaned here about the complications of tween and teenage friendship, male or female.

I haven’t even mentioned Tab and her glorious indignation at injustice and her strong moral code, or the cat ears that Bridge has seemingly inexplicably started to wear and what they represent. This book is an embarrassment of riches and I don’t want to waste your time praising them here- go read it yourself! I will say there are coincidences and twists of fate one has come to expect from a Stead novel and the uncanny dialogue that feels not only authentic but also transcends time and place to feel timeless, like dialogue in a play. This book begs for multiple readings and each time the reader will come away with new insights and a deeper appreciation for Stead as a middle grade magician.

Goodbye Stranger has vaulted into my all-time top ten and I can’t recommend it enough. Rebecca Stead is now the Golden Standard that I personally aspire to as a middle grade writer and belongs in the ranks of Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume and E. L. Konigsburg. Give this book to a tween in your life and take a peek yourself to get a glimpse of the complicated world contemporary tweens are navigating which is perhaps not so different from what you experienced, but likely has not been so deftly or eloquently expressed as by Stead.

Goodbye Stranger is available now from Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

*For  proof of my undying love for Thomas J and his impact on my own writing, please see Benji in my books Words That Start With B; Love is a Four-Letter Word and Days That End in Y

Middle Grade Monday: The Fourteenth Goldfish

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This is one of those deceiving middle grade novels that seems straight forward and charming but is so deeply layered that the minute you try to examine it you are left with the conclusion that Jenni Holm is a genius and mere mortals should not try to dissect her work.

Ellie does not know what to think when a fourteen year old boy shows up at her door sounding exactly like her grandfather. It turns out he IS her grandfather, a scientist who has discovered T. Melvinius (named after himself, naturally) which has reversed the process of aging. Because he appears to be a teenager he can no longer live alone, drive a car, or access his lab. Ellie and her mother (a wonderfully colourful drama teacher) adjust to having him in the house and Ellie agrees to help him break into his lab, recover the formula, and change the world. But is growing old really so bad?

There is so much to love here I’m not sure where to begin, but let’s start with Mevin himself. Melvin acts like an old man but looks like a teenager, a premise that provides endless comedy. He is forced to go to school where he finds the curriculum lacking, wears a combination of Ellie’s cast-offs and old man standards, and scolds his daughter as if she is the teenager instead of him. Ellie’s observations are wise but age appropriate. Melvin shows up right at the time in which she is growing apart from her former best friend Brianna and trying to find out what her own passion is. Her parents want it to be drama, but could it be that like her grandfather, she likes science? Her mother is struggling with having her disapproving father under the same roof again- even if she is technically the adult. Ellie gets a glimpse of her mother as a girl which opens a whole new world of possibility.

This is the kind of book you need to press into the hands of everyone you know and say “read this so we can talk about it.” It is warm, reassuring, ridiculous, poignant, and totally weird. At times I was reminded of the movie Big,  but it says a lot about the book that I cannot think of a specific comp nor can I think of someone who would not love it. Like the humour of Diary of a Wimpy Kid? You’ll love The Fourteenth Goldfish. Prefer stories about friendship and growing up ala Wendy Mass or Rebecca Stead? Look no further! Only like books about magic or fantastical things? Voila!

At 190 pages and featuring short chapters and largish font, this is a feat of brevity, especially considering how rich the book is. Without giving too much away, I was worried we were veering into Flowers for Algernon territory, but Holm gracefully skirts an explosive or maudlin  conclusion in favour of a mysterious one. I cannot express how skillful this ending is. Not quite science fiction, not straight up contemporary realism, this is contemporary fiction with a twist- a woefully inadequate way to describe a unique and compelling book. When all else fails, turn to Rebecca Stead, who says of this book “Awesomely strange and startling true-to-life. It makes you wonder what’s possible.”

The Fourteenth Goldfish is available now from Penguin Random House.

Nina LaCour, Patron Saint of California: Everything Leads to You Review

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This blog is in danger of becoming a Nina LaCour fansite, but I can’t  help gushing about her books. Her latest might just be her best one yet.

When Emi’s senior year ends, her brother gives her the keys to his sweet apartment for the summer, telling her to use the space and the time to make something extraordinary. Two opportunities arise, the first when Emi is offered her dream job as a production designer on an indie film, a project she truly believes in, and the second when an estate sale at the house of a reclusive Hollywood legend leads her to his secret granddaughter.

The love story, between two women, is tender and engaging, fraught with tension but without a lot of drama. The book isn’t about being a lesbian in love, but about love full stop. The more books we have where issues of diversity are seamlessly woven into the narrative and not singled out as “other” the  better. The novel is also about Emi growing into herself as an artist and a young professional. I particularly enjoyed the moment where Emi butts heads with her boss only to realize that her boss was right and she was wrong. Who hasn’t had that moment of creative righteousness, only to be humbled later on? This is a lesson we all can learn, particularly a young generation of people who have been told that everything they do is miraculous.

It is fitting that this book is about the magic and fantasy of the movies. The narrative unfolds like a fantastic indie film, the kind of movie I am always seeking but can never seem to find: funny, warm, character-driven, and gorgeous to look at. And nary a manic pixie dream girl in sight! It is a particular accomplishment to create such a lasting visual impression considering this is a novel with no visuals to speak of, only the ones LaCour conjures with her pristine language.

Everything Leads to You is about details, something I have always thought LaCour does better than her contemporaries. Just as Emi scours flea markets and auctions for the perfect couch or markets for the perfect botanical, one gets the feeling that LaCour has been just as careful in how she selects her words. There is something deliciously meta in the way that we get to experience LaCour creating a world in which Emi creates worlds.

I hope California adopts LaCour as their state laureate. In all three of her novels the topography and spirit of California is so strong it transcends setting and becomes a character. Francesca Lia Block made a name for herself as a sort of poet laureate or voice for LA, and I’ve come to associate LaCour with California at large. More, please!

Everything Leads to You is available now in hard cover from Penguin Canada.

 

What to Read This Summer: Middle Grade

Here are some great recent/upcoming middle grade titles for the tween in your life, or, if you’re like me, your own inner tween:

 

The Glass Sentence

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Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series gets comped  a lot in fantasy, but this is the only book I’ve read in recent memory that lives up to it in terms of richness, ingenuity, and political intrigue. This is a gorgeous literary offering about a world that has been split up across time after the Great Disruption, meaning that different time eras are living next to each other. The various time zones/states have been living in relative harmony, although paranoia and suspicion has head to the borders being closed. I could just as easily have included this in the YA list, though technically it is middle grade. The finished copy of this book has all the wondrous trappings that book fetishists like me crave: maps, a velum slipcase, and embossing!

 

The Night Gardener

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Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? The latest book from Canuck Jonathan Auxier offers Irish orphans, a derelict Victorian mansion, a ghostly gardener and a potentially evil tree. Auxier’s language is perfect for reading aloud- though make sure your campers/children/friends are not faint of heart.

 

The Circus Dogs of Prague

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I was totally charmed by Rachelle Delaney’s first book about JR and the embassy dogs and the second is just as fun. Readers who prefer their middle grade fiction gentle, funny, and classic will love this series about dogs who travel the world and solve mysteries in exotic European capitals. This would make a great family read aloud, particularly for a reader adept at doing doggie voices.

 

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek 

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I’ve already raved about this teen memoir (which is technically YA), but I think in the hands of a 12 year old girl this funny, warm and smart treatise on what it means to be popular could work miracles. An ideal graduation gift for kids moving from middle school to high school.

 

A Snicker of Magic

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Author Natalie Lloyd does some fun things with language and description in this quirky read about magic lost and found. Readers who revel in words and their bookish-ness will have so much fun with this book. A little bit Chocolat (minus adult themes and Johnny Depp), a little bit fairy-tale, you really can’t go wrong with a town called Midnight Gulch and a protagonist named Felicity Pickle.

The Thickety

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What a great title! This complex middle grade tale has two of my favourite things: witches and a mysterious forest. In fact this is the second book on this list alone that features a spooky wood (The Night Gardener has The Sour Woods). Kay and her brother Taff have grown up shunned by their community after their mother is convicted of witchcraft. And when I say shunned I mean shunned. Some of the discrimination they face is cruel and upsetting. The only thing people fear more than witchcraft is the strange, dark wood that seems to be slowly overtaking the island. But Kay has always felt that the forest has called to her, and one day she ventures in…

Don’t be misled by it’s fairy-tale themes, this is a dark, harrowing tale that is more Brothers Grimm than Frozen.

Happy Reading!

What to Read This Summer- Picture Books

I have a soft spot for (and two entire bookshelves dedicated to) picture books. This summer reading list was probably the most fun to prepare. Whether you like mermaids, food, Jill Barber, cats, dinosaurs or meta-fiction, there is definitely a picture book out there for you and the wee ones in your life. Here are a few of my recent favourites:

The Mermaid and the Shoe

The Mermaid and the Shoe

Just about everything in this gorgeous book makes my heart explode. I love the sheer quirkiness of a mermaid (who, like all mermaids, has no feet) falling in love with a shoe. Poor Minnow seems to be the least talented of her 50 sisters, until an unusual object sends her on a quest and it turns out her talent is being an adventurer. There are echoes of the traditional Little Mermaid story, but K.G. Campbell‘s story has a much lighter and modern touch. IE: no one dies, no one gives up her voice for a man, King Triton is a real stand-up guy. If you’re a fan of fairytales, you’re going to love this subtle and lovely treat.

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Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde

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This hilarious book was pointed out to me by a dear friend and colleague who found it funny even though she claims to “not be a cat person”. Puss is loving, gentle and sweet. Cat is moody, prone to hunting, and destructive. Anyone who has lived with a cat will appreciate the humour in this story, which describes the duality of the internet’s favourite pet. The Puss/Cat dichotomy also presents some fun opportunities for read- alouds, ie someone reads Puss, someone else reads Cat, hilarity ensues!

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If You Happen to Have a Dinosaur

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Canadian treasure Linda Bailey is a skilled and funny writer of picture books. Colin Jack is up to the challenge of illustrating this very funny list of the various household uses of a dinosaur. This book belongs to that category of picture books where the reader is encouraged to think outside the box. Reading it brought to mind a favourite camp game of mine, “This is not a pencil, this is…” in which the group goes about re-imagining the pencil and its endless uses. This one will spark a lot of fun and multiple readings.

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Music is for Everyone

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I love Jill Barber’s music so it follows that I would love her picture books as well. But what makes this exploration of the breadth of music special are the illustrations by Sydney Smith (most recently of the Sheree Fitch picture book re-issues from Nimbus). He captures a folksy, 1970s vibe that seems appropriate for the spirit of the book- think School House Rock, but with a wider colour palette.

Julia, Child

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Oh what a difference punctuation makes! If the combination of Canadian gems Julie Morstad and Kyo Maclear doesn’t fill your heart with joy I don’t know what will. As she did in Virginia Wolf and Mr. Flux, Maclear takes a real life figure (in this case, Julia Child) and imagines a whimsical moment in her life. This book will instill a love of food and kitchen play as readers join a young Julia and her amazingly hip friend Simca on various food adventures. As a side note, I would wear every single one of Simca’s outfits IRL. Every. Single. One.

Open This Little Book

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No picture book list is complete without at least one title from Chronicle Books.  They are the Anthropologie of publishers, offering crafty, unique books as art titles that somehow bear the Chronicle stamp despite being vastly different. At first glance I thought, ‘Here we go, another book about books, how many of these do we need?” I should have paid more attention to the fact that the innovative Suzy Lee was at the visual helm. Open This Little Book consists of a a series of books that introduce colours while getting successively smaller. It goes beyond the story within a story motif and will be treasured by adults and children alike. Check out the trailer below to get a sense of the magic:

 

Happy reading!