Monthly Archives: May 2019

Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord

9780545914246by Cynthia Lord
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Emma is about to start fifth grade at her local public school, which she has never attended before. She’s been homeschooled, as had her brother until recently. Emma misses her brother and laments how he’s changed, though they are clearly still close. On her first day of school, Emma is put in a group with two girls who she wants to befriend and Jack, an autistic boy, who she sort of wants to befriend and also sort of doesn’t. Emma is not put off by Jack’s unusual mannerisms and, though she would prefer to work with the two girls, she enjoys working with Jack when they devise a plan to force Emma and Jack to do their part alone. Emma’s internal conflict arises when she feels she has to treat Jack poorly in or attempt to get to know the other kids. She eventually figures out that she can both stick up for him and make new friends in a new school, which seems tragically idealistic and didn’t quite ring true to me.

Despite that, I really enjoyed this book. I had it as an audiobook over the long weekend here in the U.S. and zipped right through it on my road trip (as opposed to You Go First which I had to stop listening to because the reader’s voice was way too annoying when she was voicing the annoying girl). I read it at the request of my boss and we agreed that, as the parent of an autistic child, Lord seems to have found a groove there, but we are wary of parents-as-experts not necessarily being the best resource. Our basis for this is the Light it Up Blue autism awareness campaign, run by Autism Speaks, which has come under scrutiny for not including voices of actual autistic people. The critique is that it’s an organization made of parents and other people who have autistic people in their lives, but do not include autistic people in their leadership and, more than that, sometimes say hurtful things. In contrast, the Autism Self-Advocacy Network is just what it sounds like, and their tag line is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Keeping in mind that sometimes even parents of autistic children can make missteps, the boss and I were wondering how an autistic person would review this book. Until that happens, I’ll rank it high, with caveats.

YA Graphic Novels like whoa, part 2

9781596436206Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman
Overall: 1 out of 5 stars (unfinished)

I had to stop reading this one because it gave me a headache. I mostly picked it up on a recommendation from a colleague, and because Roman was married to Raina Telgemeier (not just gossip – this GN spree was brought to you by a spunky 8-year-old who loves Raina so I’ve been looking for other graphic novels that she could read while she waits for Raina’s next book HURRY UP RAINA). Anyway, plot. Was there a plot? I’m not sure. A kid starts school at Astronaut Academy. There are other kids. There are teachers. There are dinosaurs you learn to ride…? There are magic flying buses that join up Power Ranger / Transformer style to create Metador. I couldn’t really follow what was going on because it reads like a little kid wrote it and makes no sense. But maybe some kids would like that? Probably kids who like Captain Underpants. I feel no need to finish this.

9781608868988Goldie Vance, Volume 1 by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Goldie Vance has been compared to Nancy Drew, and very rightly so, but with a modern feel. Goldie still lives in the 1960s, but is interested in (and holds hands with) a girl. She is very precocious and also a very good detective. She gets into far more action-movie sequences than Nancy, which were exciting to read (if you like suspending belief). Goldie is also in high school (she works as a valet at the hotel her dad runs) and has a vendetta with the daughter of the owner of the hotel. She races cars like in Grease, which was also fun. I liked that the mystery wasn’t straightforward and took actual brainpower and observational skills to solve.

9780375865909Peanut by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Peanut tells the story of Sadie, who wants to stand out at her new high school and decides to tell everyone that she’s deathly allergic to peanuts. However, her lie soon gets much more complicated than she imagined, having to lie about epi-pens and reading ingredients carefully and even keeping her boyfriend away from her mother. Eventually, as you might guess, she gets caught in rather a dramatic way when someone catches her eating something suspected to have nuts in it. EMTs are called and the school nurse and teachers are panicked. Sadie, who has wanted to come clean at least with her close friends, is left a laughingstock, especially by the popular girls she had once wanted to befriend. The story ends with hope, though, of her earning back her boyfriend’s trust, if not exactly all her new friends. I thought this made for an excellent cautionary tale about the very likely outcome of a lie like this. The flipside, where real allergies are not taken seriously, is not really addressed, which is too bad. I was right with Sadie as she made every decision and felt for her desire to fit in, even as I knew where this was heading. We squirmed uncomfortably together as she realized how much she had to lose by confessing her lie, and just had to sit and watch it play out.

YA Graphic Novel Reviews like whoa

After repeated requests from a very picky second grader for “books like Smile and Drama” (full-color, realistic, about girls), I decided it was time to get more acquainted with our YA graphic novel section so I could more easily pull out things for her (we have a couple of second graders who read in that section). So far I’ve only read one book that I would give her, but I already knew the author’s work and would have taken a chance on it. I will persevere – and the results will be here! Four for today:

9780062851062Just Jaime by Terri Libenson
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Oh how I felt for Jaime. Libenson has a way of hitting the nail on the head with middle school emotions. I was very impressed with Invisible Emmie, her first book in what appears to be this series, but this one lacked the same twist at the end. Nevertheless, it’s a solid read and also solidly in the Drama/Smile camp, all about those middle school friendships that change on you and the popularity games that take over your life. Jaime, who is kicked out of her friend group by stereotypical mean-girl Celia for not being mature, turns out to be more mature and eloquent than Celia. She stops gossiping and becomes friends with some of the kids they used to make fun of. Eventually her best friend, Maya, also leaves Celia and joins her, and they all live happily ever after. I also loved the small storyline with her mom reuniting with an old friend, and one teacher who is very nice to her, which was also lovely. There’s a fair amount of narration in the Jaime chapters (as opposed to the Maya chapters; the narration alternates between the two, in echoes of Invisible Emmie), making it a nice choice for patrons whose parents favor more text.

9781250068163Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I felt the title was misleading, because other than her brothers (who arguably don’t count as boys who are friends), Maggie’s main friendship in this story is with a girl, Lucy. But let me back up. Maggie has been homeschooled her whole life and is entering high school with her three older brothers, who have each entered as freshmen. Part (or all?) of the reason is that their mom, who did the homeschooling, has left. Maggie is surprised to learn that her brothers are well-established in school, something that is both to her benefit and has surprising repercussions in complicated school drama. Her oldest brother has some beef with some other guys, but being his sister gives her some street cred. Even Lucy, whose older brother is tied up in some of the drama, is aware of him. Maggie’s twin brothers are also well-known and have their own storyline of going through growing pains of establishing individuality. To round out the storyline, Maggie sees a ghost. Her and Lucy’s attempts to get rid of the ghost land them in trouble and mixed up with the older boys. I wouldn’t exactly call the boys friends though (hence feeling misled). Eventually, Maggie rounds up her brothers and they resolve things, and she and Lucy go on their merry way.

Homeschool-to-school transition like: All’s Faire in Middle School

9781416935858Mercury by Hope Larson
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I found the story a little hard to follow, and not just because it jumped back and forth between two time periods. I was intrigued to re-read my review of another of Larson’s graphic novels, Chiggers, from 5 years ago and see that I also had trouble following that story, which possibly has to do with it being black-and-white (I tend to have more trouble with those than comics that have even one additional color). One story line is of Josie in 1859 in Nova Scotia whose family is taken in by a con man, Asa Curry, who discovers gold on the family’s farm. He intends to marry Josie and when her father won’t allow it, apparently kills him. He leaves Josie with a necklace with something inside it that acts as a metal detector. Meanwhile, in 2009, Josie’s descendant, Tara, finds the necklace. Tara had been homeschooled for a couple of years until her house burns down and her mother moves elsewhere to work, leaving her with her aunt and uncle, who are a little weird about her mom, and same-aged cousin, Lindsay. Tara re-enters school with a bunch of kids who all know her story and joins the track team, which allows her to get to know Ben better, who she apparently looks like and has a crush on. Josie’s story ends with her father’s funeral (and Asa’s death as he is shot trying to escape from jail for the cons and murder) and Tara’s ends with finding some gold, with a touch of magic/magical realism.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

9781368022828by Carlos Hernandez
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This book starts with a bang and never looks back or slows down, which is partly due to a forward by Rick Riordan, though beginning the story with Hernandez’s skillful first chapter would be plenty gripping. Our hero, Sal Vidon, is always at the center of the action, of which there is plenty. Sal is able to reach through some sort of wormhole to other parallel universes and bring things or people through to our universe. Sometimes they come with things that then disappear back with them when they return, which is inconvenient (or in the case of food already in your tummy, very sad). Sometimes it’s your dead Mami or a sick baby you’re trying to make better and you wish you could keep. Sal’s father works on fixing wormholes.

There’s a lot to love about this book. We open on a scene with new-kid-at-school Sal, bully Yasmany, and Yasmany’s “lawyer” and student council president Gabi (like a 7th grade Cuban Hillary Clinton). The relationships between the three of them are very rich. Gabi’s family is fascinating and includes many adults she refers to as Dad, some of whom are male, plus a mom, and Sal doesn’t make a big deal of this when he learns it, so we never learn more. Gabi also has a baby brother who is in the NICU, so a fair amount of the story takes place there. Sal himself has type-1 diabetes, which is one reason my (also type-1 diabetic) boss shoved it in my hands to read. The information about diabetes is skillfully, if not own-voices-y, presented, not really didactic. Sal is a magician, which is how he gains entry into his performing arts magnet middle school in Miami, and magic plays a large role in the story, not just a quirky thing about him. Sal’s mother passed away several years ago and his dad married his vice principal – again, not incidental to the story. Sal loved his mother and loves his American Stepmom (which is how he refers to her almost always). He also has a habit of bringing back his mother from other universes (part of why they moved). Finally, Yasmany’s home life is, predictably, rough – and it’s his mother who is the abuser (unclear if his father is in the picture).

There are also relationships with teachers and other kids, as well as the same cast of characters from other universes with whom Sal and Gabi interact, all of which add richness and depth to the story. There’s also a fair amount of Spanish and spanglish, and some interesting slang (apparently in Sal’s world, being called a “sandwich” is an insult?). Altogether very well done and I’m looking forward to book 2, which should be out next year!

The Sad Little Fact by Jonah Winter

9780525581796by Jonah Winter
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Oh man. I am conflicted about how many stars to give this book. If we are looking at it purely as a picture book story for kids, then I would rank it maybe a 3 out of 5 stars. But if we are seeing it as part of this moment in time and a reaction to the political climate, I would say 5 out of 5 stars! I read this aloud to my “adults who read kids’ books” book club last night and we were all in stitches. We agreed that it earns the award for “least subtle picture book” – it stole the crown from The Wall in the Middle of The Book!

The eponymous fact in this story gets ignored and then worse, the Authorities claim it is not a fact and that it must say it is a lie! But the fact cannot do that, and so they lock it up in a box and bury it underground. But there it finds the other facts that have been buried, and together they break out. When they emerge, they find that the authorities have been producing lies and calling them facts. Even more heavy-handed are the actual facts, ranging from the benign “two plus two equals four” to “humans are descended from apes” to the blatant “humans are causing the earth to get warmer.” This book is not for the politically sensitive!

Up for Air by Laurie Morrison

9781419733666by Laurie Morrison
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Annabelle is looking forward to another summer of competitive swimming and hanging out with her best friends Mia and Jeremy. But her school year ends harder than she thought, even with accommodations made for her learning disabilities (ADHD?), Mia is busy with her new lacrosse friends, and Jeremy is leaving for camp in Boston for a month. When Annabelle gets recruited to the high school swim team and gets to spend more time with cute Connor Madison, things start to look up. But it turns out that Annabelle isn’t really mature enough for high school shenanigans and makes some bad choices that get her injured enough to be off the swim team. After an adventure into Boston to track down her newly-back-in-the-picture dad (who turns out to have a new family and be in recovery from alcoholism), she comes to be more comfortable with where she is and stop rushing to grow up.

This book is rich in relationships and the reader is really inside Annabelle’s head. I thought it was extremely realistic to how kids can know what the right thing is and still be conflicted and want to fit in, and therefore make bad decisions. All the parts of dissecting a boy’s texts and actions felt exactly right and yet I could see, from an adult’s point of view, that Connor was just a player. Even once Annabelle is off the team, her teammates want to hang out with her and try to help her through this in an amazing show of female solidarity, which was another excellent piece of wisdom imparted with this story. I also liked how Annabelle’s mother and stepfather, Mitch (with whom she is close), relate to her not just as parents but as people at the end of the story. That seems like a huge piece of growing up and navigating changing relationships and I was very pleased to read it. Annabelle also makes peace with Mia and Jeremy, though things don’t go exactly back to how they were before, which was also satisfying.

One note on race is that Annabelle’s summer tutor, Janine, is black, which we learn through a comment on her hair and then on her outsider status, which could have been handled differently. The other social issues of note are that Jeremy’s older sister, Kayla, who is on the high school swim team with Annabelle, was treated for an eating disorder the previous year, so note that as a sensitive topic. (The author thanks Jen Petro-Roy for her assistance in understanding and representing eating disorder aftermath accurately.) And finally, Annabelle, Mia, and Jeremy are all day students at the private school on Gray Island (which is I think supposed to be Martha’s Vineyard?), so neither fully fit in with the other boarding students or the public school kids who are there for the summer. Annabelle’s learning differences make her feel even more like she doesn’t belong – but that’s another issue that gets resolved over the course of the story.

Adventure like: Nest by Esther Ehrlich
Relationship growth like: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

The Dollar Kids by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

9780763694746

by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Lowen and his family apply for a Dollar Home in a former mill town, presumably somewhere in the northeast United States. He is eager to escape their city, Flintlock, and start fresh where they could own property. Lowen in particular is escaping haunting memories of his neighbor Abe’s death, shot in a robbery of the convenience store down the street. Lowen feels responsible and holds a lot of guilt around that, because he was frequently annoyed by Abe’s incessant energy and questions and had sent him to the store to get some peace. Lowen’s working through that guilt is the real story, but it’s obscured a bit by his family’s immersion in fixing up their Dollar Home in time to meet the deadline. Complicating things is that many people in the town don’t really want the Grovers or the other families there, so they thwart the families’ business efforts, which is really like cutting off their nose to spite their face. By not supporting the businesses, they are not only failing to revitalize their town, but also making it so that the families can’t afford to fix up their homes, leaving them in states of ruin.

I ended up caring more about the characters and story that I thought I would at the beginning. This book clocks in just over 400 pages and I was annoyed at the beginning because there was a LOT of telling, not showing. But with the size of the book, it’s easy to see why – it’s daunting enough, no need to add more pages. There wasn’t really a part of the book where it lagged and I thought she could have cut that, or parts to the story that felt extraneous, or characters I could have done without. It was just a big story, hard to shoehorn into one middle grade book. Yet middle-grade it is, with a nice, tidy, feel-good ending and everything. The other thing that grated on me was that every chapter began with a header of exactly how much time had passed since the end of the last chapter – again, showing, not telling. I suspect that it was necessary in some spots and so they forced it onto all of the chapters, but it resulted in feeling not very well written. Overall, though, I thought there was a lot in here about relationships and grieving, and a pretty epic journey for this family.