All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

9780062333469

by Leslie Connor
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Perry’s mom was pregnant when she came to Blue River Correctional Facility. Because it’s a minimum security prison, she was allowed to raise Perry beyond the 2 years sometimes afforded to incarcerated mothers (he’s now 11). Now the new District Attorney has caught wind of his unusual upbringing and is trying to stop it. However, Perry’s mom is up for parole soon and her case seems to be slowed up by something. It turns out that the DA is keeping her from reaching parole. Perry is trying to fill in the holes in his mother’s story and also reunite with her as soon as humanly possible.

I appreciated learning Perry’s observations of his life both inside and outside the prison, and what was surprising to him. He’s gone to public school since Kindergarten, so he’s been out in the world plenty, but it sounds like he’s never been inside a house or lived a normal life on the outside. He’s met his best friend, Zoey’s, mom, but neither she nor Zoey have met his mom. As part of a school project, Perry is determined to learn his mother’s story, and share it, along with the stories of some of his other friends who are also “residents” of the prison.

I was really hoping we would learn the full truth about Perry’s family, especially who his father was, but on balance it is more realistic this way. One thing that bugged me was a stiffness to the writing, especially a distinct lack of contractions in the dialogue. (There were some, but not as many as would be realistic.) Also funny was that Perry sometimes refers to Zoey by her full name, Zoey Samuels, and I wasn’t quite sure why. But those were really very minor. Overall this is a gripping story and when the plot hit its stride it was hard to put down! (It’s not really a mystery, but there is a very compelling situation that needs to be discovered, so that’s why I tagged it mystery.)

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Crush by Svetlana Chmakova

9780316363242

by Svetlana Chmakova
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Chmakova has done it again. I devoured most of this graphic novel on my lunch break and it had me blushing and laughing along with the characters (ok, mostly blushing). I don’t know how she does it, but Chmakova perfectly captures the awkwardness of burgeoning middle school relationships. Jorge, who we’ve seen before as a minor character, stars in his own story of realizing he’s crushing hard for Jazmine – so hard, in fact, that he can’t even talk to her. He’s a big guy, and athletic, and quiet, which tends to hide his kindness. His mere presence acts as a deterrent for bullies, and he uses his power for good. When his friend Garrett gets in with the football team, a clique led by James, Garrett is psyched, but James gets Garrett to do mean and thoughtless things to others, including his best friends, Jorge and Liv. It culminates in some online bullying that Jorge is wrongfully accused of participating in. It all ends well enough, and even though they’re in middle school I could easily see Jorge and Jazmine staying together forever. There were also some awesome feminist tidbits that caught my eye: Jazmine talks about physically handling her own tormentor, which is awesome itself, and Jorge thinks she’s awesome for it, which is even more awesome (did I win for most uses of that word in one sentence?). The girls band together and really stick up for each other. One of the teachers (the drama teacher, I believe) brings her wife to a school event, the gym teacher wears a hijab, and there’s a character whose gender is unknown. I love all the representation in this series so far, and I hope she keeps writing it!

You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino

9780545956246

by Alex Gino
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

When Jilly’s baby sister, Emma, is born, they learn that she is hard of hearing. While her parents hang back and investigate their options, Jilly throws herself into learning American Sign Language. Bolstered by her friendship with a Deaf boy through an online forum for fans of her favorite fantasy series, she tries to contribute to her parents’ decisions. Her bull-in-a-china-shop approach alienates Derek, who she knows by his online handle Profound, and who she has a crush on. Meanwhile, racial tensions in Jilly’s extended family come to a head at Thanksgiving, when her uncle and grandmother show their racism, overtly and subtly, respectively, and alienate Aunt Joanne’s wife, Aunt Alicia. Joanne and Alicia storm out of Thanksgiving with their two Black children and do not return for Christmas. These events, alongside two murders of Black teens by police, kickstart conversations between Jilly and her parents, who admit that they had sought to protect her from worry by not talking about it. Jilly wisely (with Aunt Alicia’s counsel) advises them to talk about things – with her and with others. Jilly herself stands up when her family continues to say hurtful things even in Alicia’s absence.

I really appreciate seeing the conversations and the language that I’m seeing in my circles reflected in a more national platform. Ideas such as white allies stepping in and educating other white people when they commit micro-aggressions (or macro ones, for that matter), not avoiding talking about race with our white families, apologizing when you make mistakes (and you will make mistakes). Aunt Alicia is amazingly patient with Jilly. Derek is less patient, but the micro-aggressions that affect him are perhaps more realistic and detailed, and also hit on both misunderstandings around Deaf culture and deafness and on racial bias and racism and micro-aggressions. He informs Jilly that her sister’s cochlear implant is not her decision or his so he couldn’t weigh in on it and she can’t either. In the end, her parents have to make the decision for her, and for themselves. (They do end up going with the implant but also embracing ASL. I appreciated the two codas at the end so we can see how things turned out.)

Of note is that the first audiologist they visit views hearing loss as something near catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. They are advised to proceed as soon as possible with surgery on their newborn and to not “confuse” Emma by signing to her. Jilly’s parents are going through a lot and overwhelmed so their reaction to this audiologist isn’t clear until a while later, when they reveal that they had “differences of opinion” with her and sought a new audiologist. Gino’s author’s note states that, sadly, audiologists like her do exist, but that Deaf culture is to be celebrated and encouraged. Teaching children ASL does not confuse them or inhibit them. There are more details in Gino’s author’s note about that and about white allyship, and they detail all the people they consulted when writing this book, and asking forgiveness from people of color in having two Black people murdered as part of the story.

Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

9780062665867

by Cindy Baldwin
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Della Kelly’s mother is going back down the the dark road to schizophrenia again, like she did four years ago. Della blames herself because her mother’s symptoms first started after Della was born. Now she has a baby sister and things are getting bad again. It becomes too much for Della as her father becomes increasingly stressed while also trying to save the family farm and adjust to the absence of Della’s grandparents, who moved about an hour a way after a health scare. Della’s best friend and next-door neighbor, Arden, whose parents are northerners who homeschool their brood and aren’t quite fully accepted by their small town. But the town comes together to support Della and her family as they learn that it’s not always better to pretend everything is fine. Though Della desperately wants to heal her mother with the Bee Lady’s magical honey, even the Bee Lady is savvy enough to know that her honey won’t heal what ails Mama, and never leads Della to believe that it will but, rather, wisely urges her to seek her own healing.

My book club did not like this one and mostly thought it was just blah, but as a kid with a parent with mental illness, this struck a chord. I think these characters will stay with me for a long while; they’re the kind that became friends. My book clubbers especially took issue with the role of the grandparents, who seemed mostly to be a device conjured for just one poignant scene near the end, but I appreciated them in that scene and all that they lent to the story as a whole. I also was interested to watch Della’s father balancing everything, including (mostly) maintaining heroic patience with Della when it would have been completely understandable for him to lose his temper.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

9780062795250

by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Arthur and Ben have the cutest of the meet-cutes, at the post office. Arthur is running a coffee errand at his summer internship and Ben is trying unsuccessfully to mail his ex-boyfriend’s stuff back to him. They chat a bit, there’s a spark, and then they’re separated. Arthur, ever the optimist, is determined to find Ben again – a small-town boy in the big city – and succeeds. (How he succeeds is part of the charm of the story, so I won’t ruin it for you.) But the story doesn’t end there. They have a series of awkward do-over dates as they fumble over each other. Arthur’s fumbling is to be expected; he’s new to dating, but Ben isn’t. Their not-clicking gave me serious pause about whether they had long-term potential, but sometimes life is like that. There’s a scene where the boyfriends and their parents have dinner together and it’s about the cutest thing.

There are some interesting aspects to this story. It’s written in alternating chapters from Ben and Arthur’s perspectives, and because it’s written by two authors, they each took a main character and then wrote the best friends of the other character. Sometimes it was hard to tell the narrators apart, but for the most part I liked the best friends. Arthur’s best friends spend most of the story trying to tell him something fairly obvious but Arthur’s too wrapped up in his own problems to figure it out. Ben’s best friends include his ex, and another couple who recently broke up, most of whom he’s in summer school with. His main best friend is a straight guy who’s SO okay with Ben being gay that it reminded me of Openly Straight.

I heard Silvera and Albertalli talk at the Boston Book Festival about this book as I was just diving in; they clearly are besties who work well together, and it was delightful to see their affection for each other. Silvera addressed the autobiographical aspects of Ben’s story (both are Puerto Rican but often “pass” as white), and they talked about how they just wanted to write a sweet, hopeful love story. There’s one scene on the subway with a homophobic man who gets in their faces and really shakes Arthur up, which might be upsetting to some readers, but overall I think the story is just as idyllic as the authors intended.

Hey Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka

9780545902489

by Jarrett Krosoczka
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

You wouldn’t know Jarrett’s somewhat tumultuous childhood from the lighthearted books he’s known for, like the Lunch Lady graphic novel series and Platypus Police Squad. His mother struggled with drug addiction and was in and out of his life. When Jarrett was five, his grandparents successfully gained custody of him. Though they were salty, smoking and swearing and fighting with each other, there’s no doubt that he was better off in their care than with his mother. As they gained custody, she began drifting in and out of his life, in and out of prison and rehab. He recounts eventually meeting his father and half siblings, and the power of his first real art class with a teacher who encouraged him and believed in him. He shows us a school visit from Jack Gantos and how that impacted him. I would give this to a high schooler who either enjoyed Jarrett’s work when they were younger or someone going through some of the same things (absent parent, drug addiction, prison, being raised by grandparents).

Illegal by Eoin Colfer

9781492662143

by Eoin Colfer
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

A very timely story about contemporary illegal immigration and refugees, this book tells the fictional story of Ebo, who runs away from his alcoholic uncle to follow his brother, who is following their sister, to Europe. Ebo’s gift is that he can sing, and he uses this to earn money and favors from others along his way. The story is told in flashbacks; “then” is when he realizes that Kwame is gone too and “now” is when they are together on a raft in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

For kids who have heard of refugees, especially crossing the Mediterranean from Africa, this will explain what their lives are like, why they make the decision to leave, and how hard it can be to make the journey. (It’s not explicit where Ebo is from, but supposedly Niger, from the city of Agadez near the beginning of the story.) It’s alternately devastating and hopeful, and the extra bits at the end (“end matter” in libraryspeak), such as a map of Ebo’s journey, a note from the creators, and a real refugee’s story, help give context to the narrative.

Scary Stuff Happening in Boats like: Refugee by Alan Gratz