Monthly Archives: January 2018

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman


by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Emily Crane and her family are on a quest to live in all 50 states. Well, her parents are on a quest, and she and her older brother are mostly along for the ride, whether they like it or not. When their next moving truck takes them to San Francisco, though, Emily finally makes a friend who’s as into puzzles and games as she is. It’s also the home of her hero, the great Garrison Griswold, creator of the website Book Scavenger, which is part Little Free Library, part geocaching game. But Griswold suffers an attack that lands him in the hospital and his next game reveal is put on hold indefinitely – or is it? When Emily and her new friend, James, find a book they believe it is the first clue in the next game and Emily is determined to win it, even if there are two men after them to get hold of the book.

Emily and James have help from a local bookshop owner named Hollister. There is a part near the end where they walk through a park past a homeless man in a sleeping bag and Emily comments in her head about staying away from there for safety, and it turns out the man in the bag was Hollister. He has graying dreadlocks and I appreciated the nod to race/class stereotypes that was turned upside down. On other interpersonal fronts, Emily and James have a fight about being a good friend, and Emily and her brother fight because he has stopped caring about book scavenging and being her friend and is more into his new favorite band. (Matthew is 15 years old.) Her teacher, Mr. Quisling, is rather inexplicably short with her on her first day of school, and he gets in the way of her plan to solve Mr. Griswold’s new game, though he turns out to be a good guy. Her parents also realize how much Emily would love to stay in one place for a while and end up putting the next moving plans on hold.

For fans of: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli


by Becky Albertalli
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I swore I was going to stop reading these gay teen love stories! Ugh. So much angst! So much lust! All the feels! This one had everything, and with a twist – our hero did not know the true identity of the boy he was falling in love with over email. Sure, he knew that Blue attends his school and is a fellow junior, but they’re both fine with (and in fact prefer) not knowing.

Chapters alternate between emails back and forth and straight narration / dialogue. I loved that Albertalli did not include absolutely every email but rather plopped us down into the middle of the exchange. I had to work a little to infer what the previous email had said and it was just great showing-not-telling. Also, once we do find out Blue’s true identity, I rejoiced in flipping back through to find snippets of description of that character, so that I got to experience the magic again.

I especially appreciated the character development. Not just the protagonist, but also his friends (who have their own drama going on, literally and figuratively as some of them are in the school musical with Simon), his antagonist (the classmate who blackmails him about Blue) and his family (two sisters and “cool” parents). Simon’s friend Leah was mostly irritating, but his other friends were lovely diversions from the main storyline. I also loved that Simon and Blue encouraged each other to start coming out, and the way in which the bullying was addressed. Totally delightful. Can’t wait to see the movie!

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy


by Bruce Handy
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

My Adults Who Read Kids’ Books book club had a good time dissecting this one, and especially making our own list of books and authors that could have been included. I did notice, however, that neither our list nor Handy’s was especially diverse, except for gender-wise (ours had more female writers; Handy’s had few). Overall, it was fun – not only a trip down memory lane, but Handy apparently did a lot of research. I found it a bit technical at first, but eventually got into it. I liked that each chapter had a theme (like Christianity or Death) and fit a few things together into each. I was prepared for it to be total fluff, but was pleased that there was a bit more thought put into it (though he mentioned and completely dismissed an entire book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, out of hand, which irked me because I thought it had important things to say, and white people dismissing claims of racism really irks me. But other than that, this was a well-researched trip down memory lane, with a few surprises.

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue


by Emma Donoghue
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Sumac Lottery comes from a large family – 7 kids (she’s #5) and 4 parents. The parents, two homosexual couples of various races and ethnicities, were already close friends when they won the lottery and decided to buy a mansion and acquire all their kids (some through adoption, some through other means – IVF? it’s a bit unclear). Despite their wealth, they are very environmentally-minded and don’t buy a lot of extra things just because. The story starts when one of the grandparents, the one living that none of the kids knows, comes to live with them. He is very conservative and racist and clashes a lot with his son’s family and quickly earns the nickname Grumps. He displaces uber-helper Sumac from her room and thus begins her internal struggle. Grumps is deeply unhappy about all the changes in his life and takes them out on the family, but also comes around eventually (even being rescued from the airport where he’s attempting to get back to his old home).

From the beginning, I was expecting this one to be too over the top about the hippy-dippy diversity, but it actually worked. I had a really, really hard time connecting to the fact that this book took place in Toronto – I had gotten it into my head that they lived in Hawaii! (I think because their house sounded a lot like the 13-Story Treehouse.) The kids are all homeschooled and are named after trees; eventually they mostly crystallized but I felt like some details were missing (like Sic’s name came from a tree somehow but I missed how – maybe Sycamore? And another kid is just straight up named Wood?). Probably details of their births and races and even intellectual abilities/disabilities were omitted to show that they’re not really important to Sumac, but it didn’t help me understand her family.

The one thing that irked me was that the four-year-old sibling, whose original name was Briar, decided they wanted to be called Brian and not be called a girl throughout the story (though at the end they claimed to be a brother and a sister to their siblings), and the rest of the family kept referring to them as she. While this seemed necessary to create confusion for the grandfather and make one particular scene work, it seemed both insensitive generally and also out of character for this family in particular, which is so diverse and perfectly accepting in all other ways.

It reminded me of The Family Fletcher in noise level and busyness, too, so if you liked that one, you’ll probably like the Lotterys! I spent a while looking to see if this was the second book in a series, since it seems to jump right into an established story, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. (Though the author’s website indicates it’s to be the first in a series, so I guess stay tuned!)

Popular by Maya Van Wagenen


by Maya Van Wagenen
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Eighth grader Maya’s dad finds a vintage (1950’s) etiquette book for young ladies and her mom encourages her to find some kernels of truth in it. Maya decides to challenge herself to follow the book exactly, no matter how silly or outdated, for her entire 8th grade year, and keep a journal. After all, she figures, she’s already at the bottom of the popularity pyramid; what does she have to lose?

I was prepared for this one to be terrible at worst, and saccharine at best. But it turns out Maya is a gifted writer (or, if I’m being cynical, had a lot of help – but I suspect most of it was natural talent) and also had some interesting insights into the nature of teenage popularity and what are enduring pieces of wisdom. For example, the girdle seems unnecessary and very of-its-time, but the idea of grooming your body and pushing yourself to be outgoing and engage new people in conversation seems pretty solid. Her transformation into a well-liked and, yes, popular, kid was gradual enough to be realistic (there are some setbacks) and yet the month she spent reaching out to other people held the most change. I also loved at the end of the book when she interviewed all the kids at all levels of popularity and no one seemed to think they were at the top. It seemed very much like a “grass is always greener” situation.

Spoiler alert: About halfway through the year, you learn that Maya’s family is moving in the summer, and of course her risk-taking only increased, but I also couldn’t help but wonder if some of the responses to her changed when kids knew she was leaving. Her relationship with her best friend also changes a little bit and we get some insights into other things going on in her life in this year (a favorite teacher gets terminally ill; some stuff about her adorable family, etc), which add to the depth. Maya shares some probably deeply embarrassing details relevant to her insights, which charmed the hell out of me.

Maya is probably a senior in high school now, or maybe out of high school, as it looks like she was 15 in 2014 (so born in 1999). It looks like she’s worked on the screenplay for turning her book into a movie, so I’m interested to see how that turns out, if it does (looks to have been in development for a while now so who knows). I’m also curious how her life turns out, and how high school has gone for her in a new town. Our teen librarian chose this book for the middle school book club and I think it would pair nicely with Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli for an interesting discussion on the nature of popularity and socialization.