Category Archives: In the news

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

9780763690496

by Meg Medina
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I was able to snag this one on Monday, right after it was announced as the Newbery winner but before it headed out on its rounds to all the librarians and other people who keep tabs with such things, and was able to finish it by last night. Phew! Merci Suarez is a 6th grade scholarship student at a swanky private school where she doesn’t always fit in. She lives in a small house right next to her aunt’s house and her grandparents’ house. Intergenerational living was part of Medina’s inspiration for this story, and it was really cool to see this portrayed in a kids’ book. I think it’s something that not many white Americans get to see, and in our blind allegiance to individuality, we can look down on it and not see the benefits. As Medina says, and Merci echoes, sometimes the loss of privacy between more distant family members can be hard, but what’s true at least in Merci’s case is that her overall extended family is a rock solid unit, which serves them well when times get hard.

Some of those times include helping take care of her twin 5-year-old cousins, which Merci resents, especially as she is trying to save up money for a new bike and wants to try out for the soccer team. But some of those times are about her grandfather Lolo’s decline into Alzheimer’s. I most appreciated Merci’s deep breath and taking the plunge into naming it with her new friends when they come over, instead of hiding it and being miserable and, as she says, leading to lies. Her family has a firm belief in telling the truth, which it turns out only Lolo is willing to break – to keep Merci from knowing about the Alzheimer’s. My heart broke for Lolo, wanting his beloved Preciosa to stay innocent and their relationship to go unchanged, and for Merci, who like many sixth-graders, is on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, and is very hurt by being treated like her 5-year-old cousins. Her older brother, Roli, is in on the truth, and is the one who finally tells her, after a particularly bad episode with Lolo shatters any illusions she may have had about what was going on.

I think this will be a hugely important book to kids whose families are grappling with Alzheimer’s disease. Issues of class difference are also dealt with very well; Merci’s parents are not well-off, but you’re not beaten over the head with it. Merci also deals with a mean girl at school, Edna Santos, who gets her just desserts without Merci having to rat her out. Merci has been on the edge of the popular group, led by Edna, despite being poor and having a lazy eye, but over the course of the book she finds some unexpected new friends and comes out stronger than ever.

Merci has a Sunshine Buddy at school, a new kid she’s supposed to befriend and help out. Her Buddy is a boy, which is already awkward at 6th grade, and doesn’t really seem to need her help. But she finds a way and it’s rewarding. There are some scenes with the group that includes her Buddy, Michael, and mean girl Edna, that also show them all straddling that line into adulthood extremely well. The other very realistic thing I liked was that Merci was frequently chastised for being late to school when she is being driven by her mother or brother. I completely empathized with her level of frustration with being punished for something out of her control, and I think a lot of kids will, too.

My one complaint is that the secret way she comes up with to help Lolo remember might just realistically set her up for disappointment. When he forgets, nothing will help him remember. For now, he comes back to himself and remembers her, but eventually he won’t. So her project is really more for her, in the end, though it’s portrayed as some sort of gift or cure for him, and I hope other kids don’t take it that way.

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

9780062414151

by Erin Entrada Kelly
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

This year’s Newbery winner is solid but also didn’t knock my socks off. It’s the story of painfully shy Filipino-American Virgil Salinas; his friend and visionary Kaori Tanaka; his crush, Valencia Somerset, who is hearing impaired; and local bully Chet Bullens. Chet throws Virgil’s backpack, containing his beloved guinea pig Gulliver, into an old well. When Virgil goes to rescue it, he gets trapped in the well. Meanwhile, Valencia shows up for her appointment with Kaori, but Kaori is preoccupied with Virgil’s missing his appointment hours ago. [Spoiler] The two, plus Kaori’s little sister Gen, set out to find him and eventually rescue him from the well. At the end, Virgil is finally able to stand up to Chet, tell his mother to stop calling him Turtle, and finally talk to Valencia.

It’s a sweet story, and definitely ticks the boxes for diversity, especially in #ownvoices. I can see why they chose it, and it will be a book I recommend to kids. I’m really curious to hear what my 4th and 5th grade book club kiddos think of it (next year – it’s still too new to choose for this year). I really appreciated the description of hearing aids on a hearing impaired person, and what reading lips is really like. I was upset to learn that Valencia’s parents didn’t think she “needed” to learn American Sign Language; first of all, she had trouble reading lips and also just wanted to, and I felt for her and the injustice of it. I also really enjoyed Virgil’s grandmother, Lola, and all of her stories of Filipino folklore. There is a presence named Ruby who comforts Virgil in the well and I missed where she came from (whether folklore or not) but I enjoyed her too, and her role in Virgil’s rescue.

Book and Movie: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

9780375869020  wonder_28film29

by R.J. Palacio

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I think it’s fair to call Wonder the biggest sensation in children’s lit in quite some time, but I’ll do a brief summary just for posterity. This is the story of 10-year-old August Pullman, who was born with a genetic craniofacial abnormality. Due to the dozens of surgeries he’s had in his life, his mother has homeschooled him, but now the family decides he’s ready to start school and they enroll him in a private school in Manhattan. Mostly the book consists of following Auggie through his first year of school, enduring the stares and the social outcast status, until he makes friends and ultimately wins a school award for character and strength.

I first read Wonder when it came out, and years later I’m still getting kids who want readalikes for it. While most of the book is incredibly touching, even five years after its publication it already seems so trite and just an “issue book” (where nothing really happens, it’s just about the main character having his unique feature). Especially the award – even Auggie says in the book that he doesn’t really get why he won it, that it seems like he just got it for being himself and living his life of challenges – seems so trite that I docked it a star. My adults-who-read-kids-books book club leader chose this one knowing we’ve all read it and I’m sure this will be a lot of the focus of the discussion on Thursday.

But enough Debbie Downer, onto the comparison. This book/movie comparison will be a little different because I may have more trouble than usual keeping apart what happened in the book vs. the movie. I was halfway through re-reading the book when I found myself on a long flight recently and I watched the movie to pass the time, then finished the book. But here goes, my best attempt!

The book switches voices frequently to show the same event from different perspectives. The movie does this too, but just once per character, since it’s a lot easier to tell who the focus is on visually. They did a great job getting into the minor characters’ back stories, like Via’s friend Miranda and Auggie’s classmates Jack and Julian. As always, they omitted some details and changed others around in ways that don’t add to or simplify the story in a meaningful way. Notably, they eliminated the storyline of Auggie getting hearing aids, changed up Summer and Jack’s befriending of Auggie, and took out Julian’s suspension in the movie. Also, while Via’s boyfriend, Justin, is racially ambiguous in the book, he is described as having “long hair” (which to me suggested he was not black) while in the movie he is black and has short hair. He is also given as the reason she joins the drama club and tries out for the school play in the movie, and I liked that development.

I was pleased to see that they did not really change the death of the family dog much at all, and that they added more to Via’s backstory, especially with her grandmother, in the movie. When I first saw the trailer, I was annoyed that the film did not portray Auggie’s facial features as drastically different as I’d imagined, but I got over that. Overall, solid performances and a script that stays very, very true to the original story, with chunks of dialogue lifted right from the book.

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

9781451609950

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.

Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

9780525426813

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.

 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

9781481438254

by Jason Reynolds
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Before he was killed, Will’s brother taught Will The Rules: No crying, no snitching, and get revenge. Those are the guidelines for survival in their neighborhood, and Will takes them literally, until the morning after his brother’s death. In the elevator down to take care of the third rule, ghosts from Will’s path enter on each floor to tell him something he didn’t know about their death and how it is from the other side. In the 60+ second elevator ride, Will finally learns there is another way to deal with his brother’s death.

It took me two tries (and a pep talk from our teen librarian) to get into this one. As with many books, by the time my hold came in I’d forgotten what had actually hooked me about it, but she helped me remember. (Also the device of the 60-second elevator ride composing most of the narrative doesn’t kick in until after dozens of pages of backstory.) Once I was into it, though, this novel in verse slowly and subtly and then all at once left me agog with the topic fitting snugly into a hugely important gun violence discussion happening on the national level. There were several times when Reynolds’ mastery of language and mirroring had me gaping at his brilliance. (Spoiler: I fully expected Will’s mind to have been changed in 60 seconds but the ending made me unsure and I had to double-check with the teen librarian.)

This one is thematically more like All-American Boys than As Brave As You, but less like either of them than like, say, Booked or The Crossover.

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

9780451478290

by Jay Asher
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

There’s been a lot of buzz about this one, especially with the tv adaptation. Principals have sent notes home from school about not letting your teen watch it without talking about it with them, and being especially aware of kids who might be susceptible to suicide. Adults everywhere are weighing in on how they think the suicide and rape and bullying were handled, mostly in the tv version but also in the book. So, I thought it would be wise to capture my own thoughts immediately after inhaling the book. (I haven’t seen the tv version and I’m not sure I will, but I will refer to things I’ve heard about it.) Here is an example of an article where some of these issues are discussed.

The full summary (SPOILERS), for those who haven’t yet read it: The story opens when 16-year-old Clay receives a shoebox full of cassette tapes in the mail a week or two after the suicide death of his classmate, Hannah. As he listens to the tapes, he learns that they are a sort of suicide note from Hannah, an explanation of why she took her life. She says that there are 13 tapes, and 13 reasons why she did it – and therefore 13 people implicated. Those people will receive the tapes in order. When Clay is done, he is to send them to the next person mentioned on the tapes. Clay snags his friend Tony’s Walkman to listen (yes, this takes place in present day, aka 2007) and takes all night. He remembers receiving a map of town with several places starred and a note saying to keep it and that he would need it soon. Clay digs out the map and wanders town, remembering many of the events through Hannah’s eyes. He seems to have had a crush on her, but didn’t make a move because of the reputation she had, which she claims was unwarranted and based completely on rumors. The person who started the rumors is on her list, as is the guy who raped her, and finally the teacher/guidance counselor who did not try hard enough to get her to talk and know her options.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t do a traditional review, like whether it was well written or not (it was, if you’re curious, and well-paced) – this book is so controversial that almost doesn’t seem to matter. There’s been much talk about how there are some generally-followed conventions about depicting suicide in the media, and the tv show especially bucks them all. The basic story is one of suicide as a sort of revenge, which it seems people don’t think teens are capable of understanding is not the main reason most people try to take their own lives. There is a risk of copycat suicides as a result, but I do think most teens understand that’s not how real mental illness, depression, and suicide risk works. As a teen, I would have read this as a vicarious tale – I would never have done it myself, but would have been curious as hell about how the people left behind, the ones she’s seeking revenge on, felt afterwards. There has been a lot of response to the very violent nature of the rape and the suicide as depicted. One thing I’ve heard is that the producers changed it from pills that are mentioned in passing to a scene of slit wrists for the shock value and to take it out of the realm of fantasy “suicide is easy” land and force teens to deal with the terribleness of it.

Which brings us to the rape scene. I do want to be careful about not victim-blaming – for whatever Hannah was going through, the guy who rapes her should not have done it, and the other girl who looks the other way is complicit, and neither of those things is okay. But. Hannah, in typical, risk-taking teenage fashion, seems to understand that this is what will happen if she enters the situation and does it anyway. She seems to be self-sabotaging to up her martyr status, and so part of me felt like she brought it on herself in part. But at the same time, rape is hardly ever clear-cut and she should have been safe being in a hot tub with another person and not been violated.