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.
by Ashley Herring Blake
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
The story opens just minutes before a tornado levels 12-year-old Ivy’s home. She and her family join the other victims in the school where Ivy’s extremely personal art journal goes missing. When they take a room at the inn, it’s like sardines in a can – Ivy, her older sister Layla, twin baby brothers, and mom and dad. Eventually Ivy’s parents send her to stay with her best friend, Taryn, where she feels like a burden to her family. On top of all this, she is trying to figure out her feelings for her friend June, and reconcile that with the fight she overheard between Layla and her best friend, where Layla was upset that she had learned of her friend’s girlfriend from someone else. Ivy interprets this to mean that Layla was upset that Gigi was gay, and infers that she can’t tell Layla about her own emerging sexual orientation. Ivy also is feeling distant from Taryn, who can’t possibly understand any of what she’s going through.
Ivy and June, and even Taryn, seem extremely mature and self-aware for 12-year-olds. I liked that Ivy has a trusted gay adult she can talk to and who is kind to her. I also liked that her parents made mistakes and then apologized. Most of all, I appreciated getting into the mind of an artist and hearing how she worked. This book was a lovely read, and gentle, despite its turbulent (emotionally and elementally) subject matter.
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Aster lives with his large extended family in a big old house at the edge of the woods. He and his cousins are all homeschooled, mostly in the ways of witchcraft (for the girls) and shapeshifting (for the boys). These roles are strictly adhered to with recent evidence of disastrous outcomes if the lines are blurred. The problem is, Aster wants to study witchcraft instead of shapeshifting, which his cousins all tease him for and his parents, aunts, uncles, and grandmother strictly forbid. He runs away and finds a new, non-magical friend, a girl named Charlie. When his male cousins start disappearing, Aster uses his ability to shapeshift and do witchcraft, combined with Charlie’s physical femaleness, to save the day.
My book club read this one along with Drum Dream Girl and Boy and the Bindi. (While none of the characters in these books are transgender specifically, I used that tag because it’s about gender roles.) The overwhelming feeling was that Boy and the Bindi could have used more explanation about what a bindi is (and why it’s used, officially); I mostly stayed out of that but feel guilty at not raising the idea of the explanatory comma, which I first learned about through NPR’s Code Switch podcast. But I’ll give my two cents here: I think if you know what a bindi is, this book is for you. If don’t know what a bindi is, go learn, and then this book can be for you too. And also, it’s okay if not everything is for you. I think it’s important for kids with minority identities have things that are just for them and don’t get into too much explanation for delicate white palates.
Jane, by Aline Brosh McKenna and Ramon K. Perez; Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This graphic novel is based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but Brosh McKenna took some liberties with the story in making it believable for a modern era. Jane is orphaned and raised by her aunt, but very few pages are dedicated to this. A modern Jane would not write away for a job as a governess, take the job and move away sight unseen, so in this telling she just moves to New York City for art school. Upon registering she is told that she must acquire a job by the end of the week in order to keep her scholarship, so she takes a mysterious job as a nanny for a wealthy single father. She is told never to go to the third floor, which is where the “single” father’s wife is in a coma, but their daughter, who is 6, doesn’t know. Jane falls in love (and sleeps) with the father, but it turns out that the wife’s brother is out to get the father because he’s in love with his own sister and wants her husband dead. So that was weird. But ultimately it gets the essence of Jane, an orphan who finds a place in another family. The art is incredibly well done and easy to follow and I enjoyed most the relationship between Jane and Adele (the little girl) and the twist at the end.
A Year Without Mom, by Dasha Tolstikova; Overall: 3 out of 5 stars
Dasha (yup, it’s memoir time) was 12 the year her mom went to the United States from Soviet Russia to get her master’s degree, leaving her to live with her grandparents. This graphic novel chronicles the ups and downs of her friendships and romantic interests that year, and ends with her going to the U.S. to be with her mom for the second year of the program.
Fellow book clubbers liked this one overall, though there were some in my camp who didn’t really get why it was written. One book clubber had studied abroad in Russia and gave us a little background. The spare use of red tended to highlight the perpetually-embarrassed cheeks of middle school girls. I suggested it would be good for kids who might not want a story with any conflict in it. That’s about all I’ve got for you. I didn’t love it.
The Talking Eggs
by Robert San Souci; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
At book club last month, we each were tasked with bringing in a favorite folk tale or fairy tale. (I brought Clever Beatrice, because it features a strong female protagonist outwitting a giant, and also because it comes from my native Michigan.) One reason I love my book club so much is that I’m constantly learning new things just listening to them talk, and this month was no exception. While I did know some of the grim originals behind the Grimm tales, I was all ears as they talked about doing folk/fairy tales in storytime. Two debated which was better: A Story A Story (because you can get them making Spider-man noises) or The Talking Eggs. The first librarian attempted to prove her case by treating us to an impromptu storytime, but I had to do my own research on the second book.
The Talking Eggs is a sort of version of Cinderella, but only vaguely. Rose is the mean sister, along with the mother (notice they are not step-family), and Blanche is the kind sister who is treated as their servant. One day she runs away and finds an old woman whom she helps; in return the woman takes her to her own magical house for the night. Stew comes from one old bone and rice from one small grain; sweet milk from the two-headed cow in the morning – all because Blanche is kind and also keeps her promise not to laugh at anything. Also for her kindness, the old woman lets Blanche take any of the eggs that say “take me!”, warning her against the ones that say “don’t take me!” It is tempting to disobey since the ones yelling “don’t take me” are the pretty, bejeweled ones, and the others are plain, but Blanche keeps her word and sets off with the plain eggs. As instructed, she tosses the eggs over her shoulder as she walks and is rewarded with beautiful clothes and jewels and even a carriage. When she arrives home with her new possessions, her mother and sister are so jealous that they scheme to get their own eggs. However, Rose is so greedy she takes the fancy eggs that turn into wolves and snakes and chase her and her mother, and Blanche starts a new life in the city with her riches.
Snow White and Rose Red
retold by Kallie George; illustrated by Kelly Vivanco
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
I was likewise unfamiliar with this story, having assumed that it was just some version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It’s not! Snow White and Rose Red are perfect, loving sisters, making it one of the few fairy tales where siblings are not pitted against each other (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters; Cinderella). They and their (equally perfect and loving) mother help a talking bear, and in return he rescues the daughters from a mean, rude dwarf and then turns into a prince who had been bewitched by the dwarf. Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother and they all live happily ever after.
by Sue Halpern
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Sasha’s life, until recently, has revolved around her brother. She spends her time waiting for him to do something odd, to provoke the Conversation with any new person, to disrupt her day, to ruin her life. Life has somewhat returned to normal now that he’s away at a special school, but not completely. It turns out that Sasha’s new teacher is her old babysitter, who her brother scared away. Her reappearance in Sasha’s life helps her come to terms with her brother’s needs and heal a bit.
My book club chose as a theme one month books with kids (or someone in their family) with a physical or mental illness, and this was mine. Sasha’s attitude toward her brother’s difference is pretty hands-off and vague so it’s a while before you know what it is, just how it affects her. (Spoiler alert: he has Tourette’s Syndrome.) If you are not from such a family, I think Sasha’s story helps you understand what it’s like to be part of one, especially as the typically-developing sibling whose needs are often secondary and whose life often feels disrupted and unfair. Sasha also sees a therapist who understands her (and gets her to talk about her feelings) more than she thinks he does, despite her best efforts to the contrary. Overall, very solid.
by Varian Johnson
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
8th grader Jackson Greene is done with getting in trouble – or is he? When his crush, Gaby, decides to run for student council president, she is challenged by slick Keith Sinclair. Jackson overhears Keith bribing the principal to rig the election in his favor and Jackson just has to step in.
One fellow book clubber agreed that this one was hard to get into, especially because there was clearly an entire (very interesting) back story about Jackson’s last heist. As a group, we agreed it might be more believable if the characters were high schoolers. So, reviews were mixed but we generally liked it (though we realized we were analyzing it on a grownup, pragmatic level). We thought kids would take it at face value and enjoy the adventure. Johnson counts Ocean’s Eleven as an inspiration and it definitely has that feel – you know (mostly) what the outcome will be but revealing the exact way it goes down is the real crux of the story. Good for Tech Club geeks who want to be the hero of the story for once, tech geek girls who need to hear that they can be popular too, and kids who can relate to the incompetence of the grownups in charge.
Simliar to: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Platypus Police Squad by Jarrett Krosoczka
by Esther Ehrlich
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Chirp (Naomi Orenstein) is an 11-year-old girl living on Cape Cod in the 1970s with her parents and sister. Chirp’s world is turned upside down when her mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and withdraws from the family into her depression. Chirp’s mother is sent to McLean Hospital, a mental institution outside Boston. After what seems like forever, she comes home, only to become even more depressed and (spoiler alert!) eventually commit suicide.
I was not expecting such a sad ending for Chirp’s mother, so this book socked me in the gut. But that aside, it is a beautiful and real look at physical and mental illness and ways people cope. Chirp’s relationship with her snotty teen sister rings achingly true, and their psychiatrist father adds a new dimension to their relationships. Chirp is also a birdwatcher and befriends a neighbor boy whose home life is at least as challenging as hers is, and they run away to Boston together. I especially liked their friendship, and also the way that she doesn’t shy away from describing the delicacy with which people treated Chirp and her family when they finally resume their lives after the funeral. I also enjoyed the historical aspect of using pay phones and not being able to reach someone.
by James Patterson (yep, that James Patterson) and Chris Grabenstein
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Jamie Grimm wants to be a stand up comic. Too bad he’s always sitting–in a wheelchair. (Don’t blame me, that’s one of Jamie’s jokes.) But his beloved Uncle Frankie and his two best friends keep encouraging him and one day he finds himself competing to be the funniest kid on Long Island. What I liked about this book, in addition to Jamie being someone you can really root for, is that Patterson and Grabenstein actually get into Jamie’s backstory. At first I thought they were going to just mention it in passing – that he was in a car accident recently that is the reason he is in a wheelchair and lives with his aunt’s family – but they really get into what happened and how Jamie covers it up sometimes with humor. “Cool Girl” (whose name I hope gets revealed in one of the other books in the series; it bugs me that we don’t find out her name) does a great job with forcing Jamie to be serious at times, though she also appreciates his humor. I was a little surprised to see that nothing much is made of the bullying and harm done to him by his cousin, and I was curious to know why he wasn’t allowed to live with his Uncle Frankie – but I hope those issues might be tackled in the other books. This would be good for a kid who likes Captain Underpants and other silly books but are a little older and starting to be more empathetic (or need a little shove in that direction).
by Kristin Levine
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
In Birmingham, Alabama in 1958, the year after the Little Rock Nine attended their first year at the white high school, the schools went on strike rather than integrate by federal order. This is the fictional account of one family whose older daughter is sent away to school in another town, and the younger daughter who stays behind to attend middle school and becomes friends with a girl who, it turns out, is passing for white. The girls know they’re in trouble but don’t realize they’re in danger until the situation escalates.
I was going to wait until after my book group met to post my thoughts, but it’s been postponed so here we are. (We also read What Was the March on Washington and Josephine: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.) I really loved this book. I think what I liked best was that they became friends because they both loved math. I was right with them when their parents all insisted they had to stop seeing each other, but they needed each other too much. The way that Liz encouraged Marlee to overcome her shyness, and eventually stand up to the girl who had formerly been one of her only friends, but was really just a bully was particularly touching. I was just so rooting for these two to stay friends but wanted to see how it would unfold. The story touches on lots of different issues, including a little bit about liking boys (especially Marlee’s older sister) and sibling relationships (the sisters and their older brother are very close) as well as historical events, explained in a very easy-to-understand way.