Monthly Archives: November 2020

Becoming Brianna by Terri Libenson

by Terri Libenson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I had been so sure that the twist in Invisible Emmie was that Brianna was not real, but it seems she is very real in this fourth installment in the graphic novel series! Brianna’s seventh grade year is told in flashbacks from her Bat Mitzvah day in June back to 8 months earlier, and moves chronologically up to the big day, mostly exploring how she prepares and also the friend/classmate drama that leads up to it. Basically, rumors start to fly about what her party will be like, and some of the “cool” kids try to get on her good side to get an invite. Two of the popular girls manage to get invited but Brianna finally comes around to the realization that they are just using her. Mostly she resists this because her former best friend says it, and they are going through a rough patch since her BFF is starting to become close with someone else.

I liked watching how Brianna changed over the course of the year. I did think that the two popular girls coming to the party and feeling sad and left out was a bit of a stretch, but otherwise loved how maturely Brianna dealt with the whole situation. She also really grapples with her relationship with Judaism and why she’s doing the Bat Mitzvah in the first place, if not just to please her mother. (Brianna’s father is not Jewish and she has not gone to Hebrew school consistently; her parents are also divorced and fight about the Bat Mitzvah a lot.) In the end, Brianna and Emmie make up and are friends again, and Brianna learns to accept Sarah a little more too.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

by Kelly Yang
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

5th grader Mia Tang and her family move to yet another town in California. As Chinese immigrants in the 1990s, they are stuck in low-paying, unskilled jobs and the instability that accompanies them. But this time will be different – they will manage a motel together, as a family. But their boss, Mr. Yao, is cheap and pays them very little, even though (or maybe because?) they live at the motel rent-free. It doesn’t help that Mr. Yao’s son, Jason, is in Mia’s class at school and is well on his way to being a terrible person like his father. Mia’s new friend Lupe is the daughter of immigrants as well and the two hit it off fast. Lupe even helps Mia enter a contest to win a motel in New Hampshire.

Then there are the weeklies – the residents of the motel, who pay by the week. One weekly, Hank, is an integral part of Mia’s story, as they help each other. Over the course of the school year, this motley crew becomes a family, and Mia’s English improves to the point of actually helping people with her writing: a letter of recommendation for Hank to get a job, and a threatening letter to another immigrant’s boss who is trafficking immigrants to his restaurant and then confiscating their passports. She proves her mom wrong, that she’s not a bicycle among cars when it comes to competing with her classmates in English.

I loved the author’s note that most of the story was autobiographical. Even the harder parts, like when Mia’s mom gets beaten up by a thief. I was sort of glad that the motel giveaway didn’t really happen, because that, and its resolution, seemed pretty unrealistic. I was still moved by how it all came together, though, and I think young readers will love it (I would have, at age 10). Even Jason seems not to be quite as much of a lost cause as he did at the beginning, and it appears that he, Mia, and Lupe become friends in the sequel, Three Keys. Not much is made of the economics of the weeklies, and in fact they seem to have, if not plenty of money, at least not the bone-scraping poverty outlined in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Racism toward Black people is an important part of the storyline, but the racism and discrimination that Mia experiences is similarly brushed aside, which was disappointing but understandable.

Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

by Jonathan Auxier
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Nan Sparrow was raised by a chimney sweep in 1800s London. One day he leaves and she is on her own, finding her way to a master sweep with other child sweeps to manage. The Sweep had left her with a lump of coal that is somehow always warm, and is her prized possession and constant companion. But now Nan is big, almost too big to sweep, and one day something happens to waken the char who, it turns out, is a golem, a fabled Jewish monster. Nan must escape from the master sweep, Mister Crudd, and go underground with her beloved golem, whom she names Charlie. For a while this works, but then Nan and her fellow sweeps get involved in the labor reform that changes the landscape. Golems, it turns out, have a purpose in life, and once that purpose is fulfilled, they… expire. So too with Charlie.

I don’t know much about chimney sweeps, or this period of London’s history, so I was very grateful for Auxier’s note at the end about what was true and what wasn’t. Nan gains some guidance, especially about golems, from Miss Bloom, a teacher at a school where she swept the chimneys and where the incident that woke Charlie happened. There are many beautiful, lovely lines, especially about how saving someone else is what saves us. There were a couple of times where I thought the story would turn into something tidier, something happier, more akin to a rags-to-riches type story, but it didn’t. Nan remained resourceful and mature beyond her years, and grew and matured even more along the way. Her relationships with her sweep family deepened in ways I wasn’t expecting, and it was lovely. They learn from each other, and in particular she learns the truth about, and comes to terms with, what happened to the Sweep.

The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann

by Jennifer K. Mann
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Ernestine, maybe 5-7 years old, is excited for her first camping trip with┬áher aunt and cousin. Cousin Samantha is a pro, but to Ernestine, fish in the lake, heavy hiking backpacks, and tofu hot dogs aren’t exactly what she was imagining. The last straw is that she can’t fall asleep and misses her dad. Finally she wakes up Samantha and Aunt Jackie and they all go look at the stars until Ernestine is sleepy, and falls asleep no problem.

Ernestine is so completely relatable! It’s easy to romanticize camping and then recoil at the reality if you’re not used to it. But she grows over the course of the story, which is a picture book but almost a graphic novel hybrid. I also loved that Ernestine and her family are Black; since there is a history of outdoor spaces, especially swimming facilities, being off-limits to African-Americans, it is extra important to have representation there. The only reason I docked it a star is that the illustrations didn’t wow me. But overall a solid story and sorely-needed diversity.