Category Archives: Reviews

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed

9780062937049by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Rising seniors Jamie Goldberg and Maya Rehrman were once childhood friends who reconnect when Maya’s mother signs her up to canvass for a political candidate, Jordan Rossum. Jamie’s cousin Gabe is a muckety muck in the Atlanta campaign, and his little sister Sophie is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Maya’s parents are getting divorced and her best friend is mentally already at college (and finally moves there and officially leaves her behind). As she and Jamie grow closer, her mother’s bribe of a car in exchange for volunteering falls to the side.

It’s not surprising that Jamie and Maya fall for each other, though it takes Maya longer to realize it. I loved the subplot with Sophie’s sexuality, and how Jamie handles it. I loved everything about Jamie, except that he seemed a little *too* perfect. Albertalli, I assume, wrote the Jamie chapters, and Saeed wrote the Maya chapters. One thing that bothered me about Maya is that she was not up front with Jamie about her not being able to date. Though on balance maybe it was more of a reflection of how deeply in denial she was about her feelings for him. In the Jamie chapters, it is clear how much she is flirting with him, even if she thought of him just as a friend. It reminded me of Does My Head Look Big in This? in which the main character sticks to her convictions to wear hijab and not to date. But then, those are her convictions, whereas in Maya’s case it’s her mother’s conviction that she’s trying to follow. Maya also doesn’t wear hijab, but her mother does, and the proposed passage of a bill to ban head coverings while driving really ramps up both her and Jamie.

Social media and white supremacy both play big roles in this story. Rossum’s opponent is the one sponsoring the bill, and his supporters vandalize cars with Rossum bumper stickers by putting their own over them, which are impossible to remove or cover up. But Jamie and Maya figure out a clever way to deal with them. Jamie’s grandma, inexplicably some sort of Instagram celebrity, uses her platform to promote Rossum. At one point, someone posts a photo of Maya and Jamie, and there’s also a campaign video of them, that garners a lot of comments, both negative and positive. Teens today have quite a lot to deal with in terms of internet harassment, it’s really very troubling to me. But Jamie and Maya manage to get through it and the ending is sweet and hopeful, but also realistic. Jamie even overcomes his immense self-consciousness and makes a sweet speech at his sister’s bat mitzvah party. Another interesting note is that their father is largely absent from their lives, and they are largely okay with it.

 

The Cool Bean by Jory John

thecoolbeanby Jory John
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Our hero once had a tight group of friends, but something happens and the other three somehow become “cool.” Our hero (who is unnamed but who I will call Garbanzo) isn’t sure what happened or how to also be “cool.” Garbanzo becomes so self-conscious and distracted that they do embarrassing things. Finally the other beans step in to help Garbanzo, and Garbanzo realizes that helping others is what really makes you cool – not sunglasses or swagger – and gets their friends back.

Sweet message, and way better than The Bad Seed, but still a bit didactic and not quite as good as The Good Egg. I was wondering who the target audience for this picture book would be. It talks about being “cool” which I don’t think the typical picture book audience would be quite tuned into. But you could probably use it with kids as young as third grade, and as old as fifth grade, depending on the class dynamics. It might even make a good all-school read to kick off the year, though again, I’m not sure the younger kids would fully grasp it, and the older kids might be too deep into the throes of coolness to listen.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

9780141312422by Jean Craighead George
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

A good lean-in read right now for those in survivalist mode. My partner and I read this aloud to each other. He had read it so many times as a kid that he could often tell me what was about to happen next or even quote me the line verbatim! I also read it as a kid but didn’t remember it well at all.

12-year-old Sam Gribley is tired of life in his cramped New York apartment with 7 siblings. Like many kids, he dreams of running away and roughing it on his own. Unlike most kids, though, he makes it past the afternoon – and in fact stays out in the Catskills for over a year. He strikes out for Delhi, New York, and the old Gribley farmstead, so he has some claim to the land, though he also lives in fear of being discovered and sent back to the city. He has learned a lot about living off the land from his father and grandfather and has a relatively easy time of it. The one thing that helps a lot is that he is able to capture and train a baby falcon, whom he names Frightful and who ends up being his closest companion and fellow provider as she hunts food for them both. Sam describes making his home in a hollowed out tree, learning to make campfires, befriending his local animal neighbors, and hunting and gathering.

At times Sam’s descriptions sound more didactic and adult, and that is likely George’s own experience showing through, as well as the aesthetics of children’s literature in 1959, when the book was written. Sam share his thoughts through both narration and in readings from his diary entries, which were written on tree bark (though not sure what writing implement he used). I enjoyed learning vicariously through Sam about how to live off the land and I especially appreciated George’s introduction where she spoke of the inspiration for the story (her own failed attempt at running away) as well as where her own expertise came from. I also liked Sam’s visitors, the librarian in town, his description of how busy and not at all boring winter is, and how he came around to returning to the city. My partner and I discussed our own theories of social and political events that would have shaped George’s world, such as McCarthyism and the Cold War, and made an escape from humanity desirable. Sam also gets into trouble for domesticating an endangered species (and therefore removing her from the breeding pool), in addition to being hounded by people and reporters chasing rumors of the “wild boy.”

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

mlg-colorfixedby Stacy McAnulty
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Lucy Callahan has been homeschooled since she got struck by lightning at age 8 and became a super math genius. She’s academically ready for college, but her grandmother, who is her guardian, is insisting that she spend a year in the seventh grade to help her social skills. Lucy resists, of course, but eventually makes friends: an assertive, gossipy girl named Windy and a quieter, insightful boy named Levi. Windy actively recruits Lucy from day 1, despite being labeled an outcast because of her OCD, and Levi is put into their community service project group, for which they decide to help a local animal shelter. Lucy’s grandmother also gets her an interview at rigorous high school boarding school a couple of hours away, reasoning that high school feels like a compromise between seventh grade and college. Lucy’s friend situation, and her love of a dog at the shelter, finally come to a head.

I was a little surprised at how easily Lucy made a friend, but Windy had her own background issues going on with her fragile friendship with the popular girl, which plays into her revealing Lucy’s math-genius secret. One thing I look for in middle grade novels is how realistic is the protagonist’s decision to keep information from their parents/teacher/friends and solve their problem independently. It can be hard to justify well, and Lucy’s justification makes perfect sense. I love that she feels more comfortable talking to Levi and telling him her secret than Windy, and how their friendships develop and are tested. I also especially love that Lucy decides in the end to stick out the year in middle school instead of transferring to the boarding school. And the sad, sad story of the dog she falls in love with at the shelter has a semi-happy ending that wraps up neatly. Satisfying!

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

poetx-hc-1-678x1024-1by Elizabeth Acevedo
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Xiomara, age 15, is many things: defender of her sensitive twin brother, writer and budding slam poet, Catholic-about-to-be-atheist. Her mother, a fierce Catholic with a tough life history, sees Xiomara’s body taking shape – literally, curves – and tries to force her into what she sees as “safe” but in reality looks a lot like body shaming. When Xiomara gets a crush on her lab partner in science class, she knows she has to hide it from her mother.

My heart broke for Xiomara. I’m sure her mother thinks she’s doing the best thing for her, but from Xiomara’s point of view, it’s wholly unfair. It’s a kind of slut-shaming that reminds me very much of my own early adolescence, when a girl in my fifth-grade class developed earlier than everybody else. There were rumors that she had her period, that she was dating boys in the class, basically that she was acting promiscuously, based solely on her appearance. I realized as an adult how hard that must have been on her, and I see it in Xiomara too – just because she’s got this fully developed body doesn’t mean she knows what to do with it, wants to do those things, or wants the attention it brings.

I loved watching Xiomara, or X as she prefers in writing poetry, develop emotionally. She comes into her own about religion, slam poetry, and her brother’s sexuality, not to mention her own.

Savvy by Ingrid Law

9780803733060by Ingrid Law
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Mississippi “Mibs” Beaumont is approaching her 13th birthday, when all other members of her family (save her non-magically-endowed father, Poppa) come into their particular magical power, or savvy. Mibs’ brother can create storms with his temper; her mother is perfect at everything (including being imperfect). Mibs is excited, until her father is in a serious accident and hospitalized miles away, taking away her mother and eldest brother, leaving them unguarded and swept up into a pity birthday party thrown by the pastor’s wife (whose son Will, incidentally, Mibs has a bit of a crush on). But when her powers descend during the party, it’s time to grab her remaining two brothers and hit the road – literally. They stow away on the pink bus of a bible salesman visiting the church, along with Will and his 16-year-old sister, Bobbi, hoping that he’s heading toward Mibs’ parents.

This one was recommended to me by a new 9-year-old friend. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but I love to take kids’ recommendations seriously so this time I actually picked it up (well, downloaded it to my e-reader; same diff). The story of the adventure they go on with Mibs’ savvy (telepathy, specifically if a person has ink on their skin) and the other characters they meet, is delightful and tidy and I loved watching them all grow and change. I especially liked how Mibs handled not being ready to kiss Will, and his response. Perfect. One spoiler note, on top of the burgeoning heterosexuality: Mibs’ Poppa doesn’t entirely recover from his head injury, and I did appreciate how it was handled very realistically.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

bk_long_walk_200pxby Linda Sue Park
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I picked this one up because it’s been on our 6th graders’ summer reading list for a while and I’ve never read it. I was also looking for a quick easy read because it’s been a while since I’ve posted, which leads me to a quick update: I’m away for the majority of 2020 and while I’ll try to keep posting regularly, my book access seems limited to what I can snag as an e-book. I’ll still try to get to newer stuff, but might have to rely on whacking through the huge to-read list of older titles.

However, this book was hardly easy – sure, it only took me a little while to read it, but Salva’s story is a tough one. I did not realize, going in, that this was based on a single true story; I thought it was a composite story. Park knows Salva and had read his written accounts of his life to write her book. The story opens in 1985, when Salva is almost 11 years old and war comes to his village in southern Sudan, and is told alongside the story of a girl in Sudan in 2008, Nya, facing the same water struggles from when Salva was young. War comes to Salva, finally, and all at once, while he is at school and the teacher sends all the young boys into the bush – run away from the village, he says, fearing that the boys would otherwise be forced to become soldiers on one side or the other.

Salva, on his own, meets up with a group of people walking east toward Ethiopia. He meets his uncle along the way, who helps him come to terms with the fact that his family is likely all dead. His uncle and his new friend both die along the way, in pretty gruesome ways that are described quickly and pretty matter-of-factly, but still disturbing especially once you know that this is a true story. Salva’s story includes accounts of life in refugee camps, but at that point the story picks up a lot in pace and much of the interesting narrative elements are lost as we speed through the years to the end of the story. Salva moves to a few different refugee camps, in Ethiopia and then Kenya (when the Ethiopians kick them out), becoming a leader of a group of Lost Boys, and then gets sent to the US to live with a family in Rochester, NY, even though he is no longer a minor. He goes to college and returns to Sudan to help build wells – including the well that Nya’s community gets. Salva is eventually reunited with his father and learns that most of his family survived as well.

I appreciated that there was a note from Salva and an author’s note, both from 2010/2011, and then an updated note from 2015 about the publicity that the books has generated for Salva’s organization, Water for South Sudan. The book is so short that I would have loved more fleshing out of the second half of the story, instead of nearly straight narration. However, the shortness of the book means that a lot of kids choose it for summer reading, and I think it describes a world so utterly unfamiliar to most kids in my community that I really appreciate its inclusion in the curriculum.