Book reviews of new fiction for kids and tweens from our own youth services aide!
96 Miles by J L Esplin
Wow, if you like survival stories and suspense, this Maine Student Book Award novel, 96 Miles, is the book for you! Once I started reading it, I seriously couldn’t put it down. The story takes place in the desert of Nevada, during a severe power outage that has knocked out the grid in several states. Thirteen year old John Lockwood and his eleven year old brother, Stewart, are alone at their home when the power outage occurs; their father is off in the Carolinas on a job. They have been raised to be survivalists, and have stores of food and water. However, thieves arrive, hold them at gunpoint and steal all their supplies. Their only “close” neighbors, with a baby due any day, have left. The boys have chosen to wait for their dad to come back; except the borders are closed and he can’t. In order to survive, they need to walk to a friend’s ranch that is 96 miles away – in only three days.
The characters in the story are very real, with believable conflicts. John and Stewart, like most siblings, do not always get along, but John is fiercely determined to save his brother. Just as they are scooping water out of an old toilet to try to fill a canteen before they leave, they meet Cleverly, a thirteen year old girl, and her little brother Will. Although they do not have enough food and water for themselves, let alone two more kids, Stewart looks at John and states, “Dad would do both,” and John ends up taking them along. Cleverly turns out to be an excellent ally, and the suspense builds as they try to survive in burning sun, without enough water, and walk 33 miles a day. John struggles with trying to take care of everyone, despite Stewart’s stubbornness and acting out. Later in the story, you understand the absolute necessity of the three day race to find help at the ranch, and why Stewart is not himself. As the story progresses, the four act together to help each other, and you cheer for them all as they call themselves the Battle Born club, after the state motto on the Nevada flag. The story shows how adversity can bring out the best, and also the worst in the people they meet. It’s a thriller that I can highly recommend.
Kodi by Jared Cullum
This week, I chose Kodi, one of the Maine State Book Award nominees, an absolutely beautiful graphic novel written and illustrated by Jared Cullum. His drawings are gorgeous watercolors, often peaceful and full of light. Many of the panels do not require words – he is an expert at conveying emotions and storytelling with his drawings alone. This is not to imply that there are no written words – his human characters certainly speak. But their feelings are so clearly drawn, and of course, Kodi, our giant Kodiak bear, manages to convey everything he is thinking with only his facial expressions and bear body language!
The story is a simple, fun tale of unusual friendships, starting with that between Katya and Kodi. Katya is staying with her slightly crazy Grandmother in Alaska; she is a solitary girl who hesitates to make human friends since they tease her about her large ears. She comes across Kodi, and realizes he is injured by a tree across his leg – she gets her grandmother to help her rescue him, brings him into the house and cares for him. They become best friends, reading and playing and snuggling together. She unexpectedly has to go back to Seattle, and leaves him a satchel with a drawing of the two of them. The sad and lonely bear then sets out to find her, stowing away on a boat, and carrying the satchel around his neck. His journey is silly and fun, and he makes it to Seattle, where he meets Joshua, a handicapped sailor with a heart of gold. Joshua decides to help Kodi in his search for Katya, and in the meantime, Kodi helps him on the ship. You have to smile at the drawings of them in matching red and white striped shirts! Needless to say, after a number of trials and tribulations, everyone ends up together and happy. It’s a feel good story, and you will fall in love with this big, sweet bear and his kind-hearted friends. The author is both a cartoonist, and a traditional painter, and this novel is really a work of art. I loved it.
The Seventh Handmaiden by Judith Pransky
This week’s Maine Student Book Award nominee is a fascinating, beautifully written historical fiction novel, The Seventh Handmaiden, by Judith Pransky. The story begins in Persia, in 485 BCE, and is based upon the history behind the Book of Esther in the Bible. Esther is one of a number of beautiful young women from all over Persia, brought to the palace in Suma to meet King Xerxes. Each young woman is assigned seven handmaidens, and Darya, our heroine, becomes Esther’s seventh servant. Esther is chosen to be Queen, and eventually is able to use her position to help save the Judean people from genocide.
Although the history of Esther is the background for the book, the main plotline centers on Darya, who is kidnapped as a five or six year old child and sold into slavery. Sick and near death, she has no real memory of her wealthy family and twin sister. The horrors of slavery are realistically depicted through her experiences, when she is at times beaten and starved, and a collar is placed on her neck. Luckily, she is bought by a widowed Captain, who wants a companion for his daughter Monir. The cook, Jaleh, and her daughter Parvaneh are free servants that befriend her. Darya learns to read and write with Monir, skills which later essentially save her life. When Darya is twelve, the Captain dies in the war, Monir has to leave with her uncle and aunt, and once again, Darya is sold. She is sent to the palace, along with Jaleh and Parvaneh. However, Darya is set to cleaning chamber pots, and is nearly beaten to death. Parvaneh, who is a handmaiden to Esther, gets her mistress to save her, and because of Darya’s ability to read and write, she, too becomes a handmaiden. From there, the story revolves around the palace life and intrigue, woven into the history of the Judean culture in Persia at the time. When Darya is seventeen, she falls in love with a quiet Jewish boy, David, who works for Esther’s friend Master Mordechai. Mordechai is another real historic figure, who had saved King Xerxes’ life and is thus in favor. The King’s evil minister Haman hates him, and manages to get a decree to wipe out the Judean people; Darya plays an important role in helping Esther to save them. And don’t worry, she does find her family, and happiness, at the end of the book – after a plot twist I didn’t see coming. It’s a wonderful book, and I highly recommend reading it.
My Wild Life: Adventures of a Wildlife Photographer by Suzi Eszterhas
Well, summer is nearly over and kids are going back to school, so I am going to concentrate more on the 2021 – 2022 Maine Student Book Award list. There are some really interesting looking books this year, and I already read a few. This week I picked a short, nonfiction book that is aimed at younger readers (an informational picture book, ages 7-10, per the Kirkus review). The stunning photographs will appeal to readers of all ages, however. Ms. Eszterhas previously wrote a book that was on the 2018 MSBA list, called Moto and me: my year as a wildcat’s foster mom that documented her time fostering an adorable serval kitten before releasing him into the wild. I loved the photos in that book, and the wildlife shots in this current book are just as striking and engaging.
The author focuses on what it is like to be a nature photographer, starting with her dreams as a child, through traveling all over the world, and living for months in the wild. Travel sounds pretty cool – until she describes waking up in Uganda with ticks and beetles in her nose! She talks about how to stay safe, and how to respect the animals; she sometimes spent months living around them in order to get them comfortable enough to allow photos. I especially love the endearing pictures of the mothers and babies. She discusses the importance of animal rescue, and of working with scientists and local guides. I am impressed by her work with conservation groups, in particular Cheetah Conservation, Sloth Conservation, and lions in the Wildlife Conservation Network. Finally, she talks off and on in the book about the difficulties she faced as a woman photographer, and she has actually started a program for girls interested in becoming wildlife photographers. Overall, the book is a quick read, but it is fun, interesting, and important, and it’s a good resource for younger kids interested in wildlife and in photography.
The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Okay, I totally enjoyed this new MSBA book, The Inheritance Games, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. I think I would describe it as Cinderella Story/Mystery Novel, with some endearing but pretty dysfunctional characters that you can’t help loving. It is such a fun read – I couldn’t put it down. There is not a murder, but there is a mysterious death that is integral to the plot. I would recommend the book to older middle school/high school readers, since it is 372 pages long, and the protagonists are high school and college age kids rather than middle schoolers.
Our heroine is Avery Kylie Grambs, a high school junior who has a deadbeat dad, and a mother who died while awaiting a transplant. She lives with her older half-sister, Libby – except that Libby has an abusive off and on boyfriend, so Avery sometimes lives in her car. She waitresses, goes to school, and is a brilliant student who just tries to get by and stay invisible. Then the incredibly handsome nineteen year old Grayson Hawthorne arrives to bring her to his family home in Texas, where his grandfather’s will is to be read. Of course, she finds out that Tobias Hawthorne left her the majority of his billions. And she has absolutely no idea why…
You meet the four Hawthorn brothers, all with the same mother, Skye, but different fathers: happy go lucky Xander; risk taking Jameson; straight-laced Grayson, the “heir apparent;” and Nash, the biker boy who wants to save everyone in trouble. They are all handsome, utterly brilliant, and have been solving intricate puzzles created by their grandfather for their entire lives. Oh, and let’s not forget the evil Aunt Zara who wants to get the estate back from Avery; or Zara’s niece, Thea, the popular but nasty cousin who warns Avery about the Hawthorne boys. And then there is beautiful Emily, the girl who died under very mysterious circumstances. The plot revolves around the mystery of why Tobias Hawthorne left his billions to Avery, and all the puzzles and clues hidden in the enormous mansion full of secret passageways. I admit, once again, I did not figure out the multiple secrets discovered by Avery and the boys. If you are a fan of mysteries, particularly those with lots of brilliant, interesting characters – and maybe a tinge of romance – you will absolutely enjoy reading this book.
History Smashers: The Mayflower by Kate Messner
This week I picked up an MSBA book that I chose initially because I like the author, Kate Messner, who also writes the Ranger in Time series. It also simply looked fun, like a hybrid graphic novel, and promised to be an interesting view of history. The book actually does live up to that promise, and it proceeds to debunk a good number of myths that we all learned in school about Pilgrims. I admit, I was already prepared for the fact that Plymouth Rock is just a small stone – I saw it a number of years ago and was totally unimpressed.
I thought the history behind the Separatists was fascinating – for example, I had no idea they initially fled to Amsterdam, and that the first group was arrested and imprisoned as they tried to escape England. And how about the first Thanksgiving, which was really a harvest festival in September or October, and did not include cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie! The Pilgrims weren’t called Pilgrims until many years later, and didn’t wear black outfits and hats with buckles on them, despite all those crafts we did as kids. The book includes great illustrations by Dylan Meconis, with very funny graphic novel panels and sketches. There are also some fascinating photos, as well as information from first-hand accounts written by people who were really involved, such as William Bradford.
But most importantly, she carefully points out all the misinformation around the relationship between the settlers, and the Wampanoag people who had lived there for thousands of years. It is sobering to realize that 90% of the native population had already been wiped out by an epidemic that spread down from Maine, where a group of European fishermen had landed. Or that in 1614, prior to the Plymouth landing, a Captain Thomas Hunt had captured over twenty Native Americans and sold them into slavery – “Squanto,” real name Tisqantum, was one of those men. The author states that one of the reasons that she wanted to write the book was so that kids “could learn the truth about history and hear all the different perspectives on what happened.” This book is one step towards that goal.
The Longest Night of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge
I often have kids ask me for mystery novels, and it’s not always easy to find them – other than, say, the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew! I therefore picked up The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, since the book jacket describes it as a “thrilling mystery/adventure that will leave readers breathless.” Honestly, I think that description might be a little over the top, but it is a good, rather spooky mystery novel that will appeal to upper middle grade readers. Along the way, you learn a bit about a variety of secret codes, and how to break them. The plot even revolves around Time, and Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Interesting…
The story, set in 1933 England, is told by Charlie Noon, who has just moved to the country with her parents. Her best friend Dylan, known as “Dizzy,” has found stick patterns in the forest that seem to suggest a code, and Charlie is convinced that they may have been left by spies. Johnny, the class bully, makes fun of them and tells them of Old Crony, the monster in the woods who eats children. Charlie becomes determined to go into the woods with Dizzy; they follow the first set of stick directions, only to have Johnny jump out and scare them. But then, they all get lost, and start finding more codes: trail markers; Morse Code signals; the Freemason’s code; an Enigma machine; and even semaphore symbols. They decode messages such as “the storm is coming,” and “the way forward is the way back.” As the story progresses, unnatural early darkness falls, and strange, creepy things happen that require the three of them to depend upon each other to survive. There is a definite eerie twist to the plot, especially at the end, all tied up in the concept of time. As the book states on the very first page, “But what exactly is a time?… Can I tell you a secret? Once upon a time doesn’t exist.” I will stop there, since I don’t want to give away the plot – but if you enjoy mysteries, and especially those that are a little bit strange and eerie, you will enjoy reading this book.
Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap
This week I picked up one of our new books, a quirky fairy tale written by an author from the Netherlands, and translated into English. The story revolves around Emilia, or “Lampie” as she is called, since she is the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Her mother has died of a terrible wasting illness, and her father, a drunkard who has lost his leg, depends on Lampie to light the flames in the lighthouse. Except, she forgets to buy matches, and a ship crashes. Life rapidly goes downhill, as her father is barricaded into the lighthouse and she is sent to the Black House, where she will be indentured for seven years to pay off the debt. There are rumors of a terrible monster living in the house, and the house is dark, dirty and dreary. Indeed, the day she is left there, there is a funeral, and she is forgotten in a dank room. But as the story progresses, you meet Martha, the weary housekeeper with Lennie, her special needs son; Ned, the old caretaker; and most of all, Edward, the monster in the tower. You start to see them through Lampie’s kind eyes, as she gets to know and befriend them all. So many secrets and story lines weave through the novel, and eventually come together. Edward is not a monster, but a boy with deformed legs, nearly abandoned by his father, the cold and unfeeling Admiral who visits only rarely. Lampie befriends him, slowly winning his trust. Along the way, you meet many other minor characters who are integral to the story, such as the puritanical schoolteacher, the kind lighthouse neighbor, and the “freaks” in the fair – a bearded lady, a dwarf, and others I can’t mention without spoiling the plot. You even grow to understand her father, his pain, and his love for Lampie despite his drunkenness and bitter depression.
Lily is a gentle, but brave girl who befriends the “monster,” the “simpleton,” and the “freaks,” and they in turn love and help her. A plot which initially seems simple, becomes more and more complex as pieces all come together. The story is a combination of Pirate Tales, Beauty and the Beast, and the Little Mermaid, but overall is a story of courage, family and friendship. I would absolutely recommend it to those of us who enjoy fairy tales where things finally do end happily ever after.
Science Comics. The Digestive System: A Tour Through Your Guts by Jason Viola with art by Andy Ristaino
Okay, for the home schooling parents out there, we actually have some pretty fun non-fiction graphic novels. We recently had one of the Science Comics come in, and I decided to try it out. The Digestive System: A Tour Through Your Guts is probably not a graphic novel the kids may not pick up for pleasure reading, but it’s a very fun way to learn! In my pre-library life, I worked in the medical field, and I was very impressed with the accuracy of the science facts, diagrams and explanations. The story is told by a little bacteria named simply “E,” who travels from the mouth, all the way through the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum. Along the way, you also learn about the gall bladder, liver, pancreas and appendix. E meets all sorts of other bacteria during his tour of the gut, often with accurate names. But if this sounds kind of dull – it’s not!
The dialog and the art is fun, with a lot of tongue in cheek humor. Yes, you learn about enzymes, but you also learn about why you burp, pass gas, vomit and poop. All important topics for middle schoolers. You learn about snot and mucus, with pictures of food on a slip and slide, and bacteria caught in the mucous saying, “I have a bad feeling about this…” The liver is pictured as a factory with assembly lines, where worker molecules – wearing hats – shoot cans of nutrients up a hepatic vein that looks like the pneumatic tubes at the bank. One of my favorite quotes: the cecum says to the appendix, “Do you ever wonder what your purpose is,” and the appendix replies, “all the time, Cecum, all the time.” Actually, it turns out the appendix does have a purpose – I had no idea. I would strongly recommend this book to kids who want a fun way to learn, either for home schooling or traditional school learning. Now I kind of want to read some more of the Science Comics in our collection!
All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat
This week I picked up a fascinating non-fiction book, which also happens to be one of the new Maine Student Book Award nominees. The book details the rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team that was trapped deep in a cave after an unexpected rainstorm flooded the exit. The incident took place in July, 2018, and I remember following the story, as the whole world prayed that the boys would be rescued safely, and alive.
The author is Thai-American, and does not speak the Thai language, but her father and cousins traveled with her and translated. She interviewed many of the people involved in the rescue, including the expert cave divers; the Thai SEAL team; the US Air Force major who commanded the Special Tactics Squadron called in to help; and the water expert who supervised draining the ground water. She spoke with scientific experts, and with the kids and their families. She wove all this material together to create a gripping story of these twelve boys and their coach, and of the many, many people who were involved in rescuing them.
The author includes information about different Thai customs and religion, as well as very understandable scientific explanations of the cave geology, the water issues, and the engineering challenges. Above all, she draws you into the human elements of the story. You sympathize with the grieving and terrified family members, who wait at the cave entrance for days. You learn of the courage of the boys, normal young kids trapped for days with no food, who find strength in their strong bond as a team. As the story progresses, you meet so many of the people who worked to rescue them, against incredible odds, and you feel their determination to save all of the boys even at the risk of their own lives. The photos are absolutely stunning, detailing the Thai countryside, the cave, and most of all, the people involved with the ordeal. One SEAL team member died, but all the boys were safely rescued. It’s a truly amazing, real life story of heroism.
The Leak by Kate Reed Petty and illustrated by Andrea Bell
This week I picked out one of our new graphic novels, The Leak, and I was quite impressed with how the author managed to create a storyline that combined serious issues with some very relatable middle school drama. Ruth, our heroine, struggles with seventh grade teasing about her relationship with her friend, Jonathan, and you can’t help but groan a bit at the awkwardness of a first crush. She also deals with typical feelings that adults don’t listen to her, including her parents. All normal 12 year old concerns!
However, the novel addresses some important current affairs, such as pollution, trustworthy journalism, and corruption. Ruth wants to be a journalist, and publishes a weekly school newsletter online. She goes fishing with Jonathon and discovers black goop in the water, as well as a dead fish. This starts her on a crusade to discover the source of the toxic substance. Along the way, she learns to avoid sensationalist journalism and to write factual articles; she learns investigative skills (although breaking into the Country Club was not a great idea); and she learns to search for all sides of the story. Most of all, she learns to stand up for what is right, despite pressure from corporations and the well-meaning adults who underestimate her. Her brother’s girlfriend, Sarah, is a reporter for the New York Times, and guides her towards responsible journalism, helping her to move from a story about possible alien sludge, to a well-researched newsletter that attracts national attention. The novel teaches kids about the Flint Michigan water crisis, including both the associated serious health problems, and the political corruption and cover-up. The artist’s excellent illustrations were an integral part of the storyline, often carrying along the plot with graphics that needed no written words. This book is definitely a worthwhile graphic novel for middle school kids to both learn from, and to enjoy.
Wink by Rob Harrell
This week, I picked out one of our newest novels, and realized that it is also a Maine Student Book Award choice for the coming school year. I know I tend to say “I loved this book” a lot, but I really, really loved this book! The author, Rob Harrell, is a graphic novelist, as well as the cartoonist who writes and illustrates the comic strip, Adam@Home in our Sunday newspaper. He based the book on his own experience as an eye cancer survivor, although he went through treatment as an adult, not as a seventh grade boy.
The story starts with our hero, Ross, beginning his 8 weeks of radiation treatment, but includes flashbacks such as Bad Day #1 – his first symptoms, and Bad Day #2 – finding out the diagnosis, and so on. His story is very real, as he goes through the ups and downs of his cancer journey, documenting his fears and hopes, his anger and courage. The author sprinkles the books with illustrations, such as the Batpig comic strips that Ross sketches in his journal. These drawings are funny, yet help you understand his feelings as he navigates middle school, changing friendships, and cancer treatments.
The characters are wonderful, well developed and believable. Take Ross, who desperately wants to be a normal seventh grader despite his surgical scars, the goop he has to put in his eye, his hair loss, and the cowboy hat he needs to wear to protect his eye. Then there is his best friend, Abby, with wild hair and clothes, who loves vampire music, and refuses to baby him just because he has cancer – which is exactly what he needs. You fall in love with Frank, the crazy radiation technician who teaches Ross about rock music, and eventually helps him learn to play the guitar. Then there is his Dad, desperately trying to help, despite his tendency to tell dad jokes, and his stepmother, Linda, who tries way too hard but cares for him deeply. And of course, there are the middle school kids such as Isaac, the best friend who faded off because he couldn’t handle Ross’s diagnosis; Sarah, the popular girl Ross has crushed on since fourth grade; and Jimmy, the big bully who turns into a friend and bandmate. To quote Terri Libenson, one of the reviewers on the back of the book, “Wink has all the right elements: humor, heart, and a Batpig.” I couldn’t put it better!
Wild River by Rodman Philbrick
This week I chose Wild River from our new fiction collection. I really enjoyed reading one of Rodman Philbrick’s other middle school novels, Wildfire, which was a Maine State Book Award nominee last year. However, I have to admit that although I thought Wild River was an okay survival story, I honestly didn’t find the story to be as engrossing as that of his previous book.
The book is told from the point of view of Daniel Redmayne, who describes himself as “a pale, skinny kid with glasses,” who doesn’t really understand why he was one of five kids chosen to go on a free whitewater rafting trip in Montana. In addition to the two guides, one of whom is a famous woman soccer star, there are four other kids: Deke, the nasty bully; Tony, who desperately wants to be cool like Deke; Mia, the smart and resourceful leader; and Imani, the girl with quiet courage. Maybe that was part of my problem – the kids were all just a bit too stereotyped, so I never felt very emotionally invested in their characters. Plus, right from the prologue, you know really bad things are going to happen, since its closing sentence is “But he had no way of knowing how it would turn out, or how many of us would die.” Which meant I spent a lot of the story worrying about who would die…
Everything rapidly goes wrong, starting when the river dam breaks, flooding their campsite and sweeping the adults away. The five kids have to survive on their own, and split into factions – Deke and Tony, versus Daniel and the girls. Things get really nasty, and I found that Deke’s bullying in the face of their need to survive was kind of unbelievable. I did like the fact that Mia was such a strong, courageous character, and that Daniel discovered hidden strengths and courage. As the story progresses, the kids experience life changing tragedy, develop significant survival skills, and eventually forge unexpected friendships. After a surprising plot twist, the story eventually has a pretty satisfying ending. And no, I am not going to tell you who dies – you will just have to read the book!
Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica by Rebecca e. F. Barone
This week I chose one of our new nonfiction books to read and review. We have so many fascinating nonfiction books, and they often get overlooked – I would encourage you to check them out when you come in to browse.
Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica meshes the stories of two historic races: the contest between Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, and the competition between Captain Lou Rudd and Colin O’Brady to make the first unaided, unsupported solo crossing of Antarctica in 2018. The narration switched between the two stories throughout the book, which was just a bit confusing in the beginning chapters. However, as the story progressed, the timelines became clearer. The history of the months to years of preparation for theses expeditions was fascinating, and the backstories of the adventurers made them seem very relatable and human. You started really cheering them on as they battled incredible odds, both weather and terrain, to traverse the ice to the South Pole. The photos of the expeditionary groups, especially the ones from the early 1900’s, were especially compelling. I have to ask, WHY would anyone want to explore a land where temperatures dip to -60 F or lower? Where the weather is so bad, you often travel in complete white-outs? Where you may lose 20 to 30 pounds because you burn so many calories just trying to survive, and you can only bring so much food with you? Where you sometimes have to kill and eat your sled dogs (that really bothered me)? I, truly, have no answer. However, these brave, somewhat fanatic men were passionate about their goals, despite great danger and tragedy. This book is a real life account of courage and endurance, full of science and history, all rolled up as an excellent adventure tale. I would definitely recommend it to the more advanced middle school readers who enjoy survival stories.
Brightly Woven: The Graphic Novel by Alexandra Bracken and adapted by Leigh Dragoon; Art by Kit Seaton
Graphic novels are not just comic books, and our collection includes fiction, biographies and non-fiction. An excellent guide to Graphic novels by Scholastic Books states: “Graphic novels powerfully attract and motivate kids to read…In fact, graphic novels are flexible enough that often the same titles can be equally appealing to both reluctant and advanced readers. Providing young people of all abilities with diverse reading materials, including graphic novels, can help them become lifelong readers” (1). Having said that – I picked up one of our newer Graphic Novels, Brightly Woven, because the cover illustration appealed to my love of fantasy and magic, and I ended up enjoying it for both the story and the illustrations.
Brightly Woven is a recent middle school adaptation of a YA book written ten years ago by Alexandra Bracken. The story is set in the mythical kingdom of Palmarta, and centers around a fourteen year old girl named Sydelle Mirabi, and the fifteen year old wizard, Wayland North, who suddenly whirls into her life. Literally, he can use his magic cloaks to whirl them around and transport them. He has information vital to the kingdom (of course!) and needs Sydelle to help him get to the Sorceress Imperial in the capital, Provincia. She is no damsel in distress sidekick – as the village’s best weaver, she has the ability to repair his many magic cloaks, and she also becomes his navigator on their journey to the capitol city. Along the way, they run into the evil young wizard, Dorwan, who is trying to stop North from proving that it was Dorwan who poisoned the king. We find out that North’s family is cursed, and that he doubts his ability to control his sickness and his magic. Sydelle begins having odd dreams, and as the story progresses, she also discovers magical powers. Honestly, it’s a fun tale of magic, good and evil, with plot twists and a bit of romance. So I was completely drawn in… The illustrations were delightful, and really added to the story. If you are looking for a graphic novel take on a new fairy tale, and don’t really care if there is a lot of deep meaning, this is the book for you.
A Dog-Friendly Town by Josephine Cameron
I often have kids ask me for mysteries, and I would definitely recommend A Dog-Friendly Town, by Josephine Cameron, to the more advanced middle school readers. It’s a really fun read, and if you are a dog-lover, you will be especially entertained by the plot. There are also themes of family, friendship, growing up, and facing fears of change, all woven in with some terrifically wacky characters. Oh, and there is a mystery to be solved, and a jewel thief to be caught – I mean, what more could you ask for!
Set in Carmelito, CA, which has just been named America’s #1 Dog Friendly Town, the story is told from the point of view of Epic, whose parents own a dog friendly Bed and Breakfast. He is the responsible one in the family, who has to look out for his younger brother Rondo and his little sister, Elvis, while his parents run the B&B. He is quietly stressed by changes to come in the fall, when he transitions from a tiny alternative school to a mainstream middle school, and there are themes of coping with new and/or changing friendships throughout the book. One of his chores is walking the adorable little Pico, owned by a wealthy couple who came to visit a year ago and stayed. Pico, an Italian Greyhound, has an anxiety disorder, and in some ways mirrors Epic’s worries; both become more confident and braver throughout the story.
But the main plot is woven around Sir Bentley, the famous St. Bernard sleuth from TV, who is staying at their family B&B along with her entourage–yes, Sir Bentley is a she! Chaos ensues as the media hits town, and the three famous TV Labradoodles stay at the rival B&B next door. A mysterious blogger starts writing gossipy misinformation that makes Sir Bentley look bad, and her TV show is threatened with cancellation. Then Sir Bentley’s bejeweled collar gets stolen, and Rondo decides to become a detective, pulling Epic way out of his comfort zone as he tries to keep him out of trouble. Add in the background story of a famous jewel thief, and everything gets way more complicated. Epic, Rondo and his friends end up trying to solve the mysteries of the stolen collar; the mysterious blogger; and the jewel thief – getting into all sorts of trouble along the way. It’s a fun mystery novel, with an entertaining cast of characters and adorable dogs – I would definitely recommend reading it.
Sisters Ever After: Thornwood by Leah Cypress
I love fantasy, so this week I chose one of our new fantasy novels to read just for fun. Sisters Ever After: Thornwood, by Leah Cypress, is an enjoyable retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Only this time, the story is told by 11-year-old Briony, the not so beautiful, but much more interesting younger sister. I thought at first the sisters might both be equally strong heroines, similar to Elsa and Anna from Frozen, but honestly, Briony is a much more admirable character than the stunningly beautiful Rosalin; kind of an Anna with a pale version of Elsa. The story begins on Roslin’s sixteenth birthday, the day that everyone knows she is cursed to prick her finger and fall asleep for 100 years. Indeed, for sixteen years, all life in the kingdom has centered around the fear of this spell (the kingdom is even in financial straits, since with no spinning wheels, all cloth has to be imported. I never thought of that before). Briony, the sister with frizzy brown hair, the one who gets into trouble and stains her dresses, has spent her life as the second-class princess. But it’s Briony who is the practical one who has to save her family when, of course, Rosalin manages to prick her finger on a spinning wheel.
Along the way, you meet Varian, the handsome prince – except is he really a prince? Because when the supposed prince kisses Rosalin, she wakes up, but the thorny vines are still there… And how about Edwin, the blacksmith’s apprentice and village dolt, who was so bullied and abused that he crept into the palace in hopes that he would fall asleep for a hundred years and escape his tormentors. Oh, and let’s talk about the fairy godmother and the fairy queen, who are definitely not sweet little Disney fairies. The thorny vines start growing and invading the castle, and Briony has to figure out a way to break the spell and save the few remaining castle folk (most had fled to avoid the curse before Rosalin pricked her finger). It’s fun to watch the fairy tale unfold in a whole new way, and to observe the major characters as they develop. Our spunky, courageous heroine, Briony, learns to see and care about everyone in the castle, not just her family; Edwin becomes her staunch and brave supporter; and even Rosalin seems less of a spoiled princess as you start to understand her fears, and her courage. And okay, I admit it, I did not figure out the plot twist at the end – read the book, and see if you can guess who is ultimately evil! Good luck, and have fun reading this excellent, updated fairy tale.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
Starfish, by Lisa Fipps, is a beautiful new book in our collection. Written in free verse, it is one of the most meaningful, heart-wrenching, and powerful books I have read in a long time. The story is told by Ellie, an eleven year old obese girl who is mercilessly bullied by most of her family and classmates. Ever since she was 5 years old, when her sister and brother teased her at her birthday party, Ellie has felt humiliated about her weight. She has created Fat Girl Rules, such as “Move slowly so your fat doesn’t jiggle, drawing attention to your body.” These rules, and her terrible feelings of worthlessness because of her weight, define her life. Her mother has put her on countless diets since she was only 4 years old, and is talking to her about bariatric weight loss surgery, even though her aunt almost died from the procedure. Her own mother won’t even buy her new school clothes because she is afraid Ellie will just keep getting bigger; this honestly made me want to cry. No wonder Ellie feels as though her mother will never love her unless she loses weight.
Luckily, her father supports her, and despite Ellie’s misgivings, he brings her to a therapist who helps Ellie realize her own self-worth. She gradually learns to accept that she is smart and talented despite her weight, and she begins to face her feelings and stand up to some of the bullying. Thankfully, a new girl, Catalina, moves in next door; she accepts Ellie as she is, and Catalina’s whole family takes her into their loving, nonjudgmental circle. With the support of her father, Catalina, her therapist, and the librarian who recognizes her poetic talent, Ellie slowly works at shattering stereotypes. She begins to see that Catalina’s family is bullied for being Mexican Americans in Texas; her Enemy Number 3 is a poor boy, with ragged clothes, who bullies her since kids bully him. By the end of the book, she has gained the courage to face the absolutely horrible bullies at school, and more importantly, has made her mother and her sister realize how much hurt they have caused. There are so many beautiful verses in this book, and the story ends with strength and hope: “I deserve to be seen. To be noticed. To be heard. To be treated like a human. I starfish. There’s plenty of room for each and every one of us in the world.” The author writes from personal experience, and at the end of the book, she addresses bullying as follows: “know that no matter your size or who you are, you are lovable and deserve for people to treat you like you’re a valuable person. Because you are.” What an amazing, must read story.
Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles
The 2020 – 2021 Maine Student Book Award cycle is done, and the new list is out. But I decided to wait until September to start the next round. Instead, I am going to review some of the new middle school books in our own Lithgow collection – we have so many really great fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels that I would love to promote.
I started with a book that I found when I googled “best new middle school novels,” Take Back the Block, by Chrystal D. Giles. A debut novel by a Black author, the story highlights themes that all middle schoolers can understand, such as the complexity of friendships, family, change and loss. But it also ties in some really relevant themes, such as social activism, gentrification, segregation, and the power of community. It emphasizes the idea that even an eleven year old can work to bring people together for a cause that he believes is vitally important.
The story is told in first person by Wesley Henderson, or “Wes,” as he prefers, since that name has way more cred. Wes has a core group of friends, but as they enter 6th grade, the group dynamic is already changing. Kari, a bit older, has had a falling out with one of the girls, and Wes is torn trying to balance his loyalties. In addition, Kari is struggling with poverty after his parents divorce, his family is displaced, and then his apartment building is bought out. Wes feels sorry for him, but Kari’s plight hits home when suddenly, a development company similarly wants to buy out the homes in Wes’s own neighborhood, Kensington Oaks, and redevelop it. The company offers a lot of money to the lower income families, which fuels the conflict between families willing to stay no matter what, and those who want to take the money and move. This theme of gentrification, where neighborhood improvements can lead to lower income families moving out, and wealthier families moving in, raises the issue of segregation. In this case, years before, the Oaks used to be predominantly White; then Black families started to move in and White families moved to the suburbs; and now, with the urban renewal and expensive shops and condos planned by the development company, this pattern may once again reverse.
Wes’s mom is director of the Community Board, and is very involved in social activism. Wes, who has always been a bit embarrassed by this, suddenly finds himself working towards uniting family, friends and neighbors to try to save Kensington Oaks. Along the way, he works with teachers, tries to keep up his grades, and is torn by conflicts in his close group of best friends. The characters are well developed, and you can empathize with them all; the challenges are real; and the ending is satisfying. I enjoyed the book and definitely recommend reading it.
Dictionary for a Better World by Irene Latham & Charles Waters
Today is the last day of National Poetry Month, and I have officially been converted to a Poetry Lover. Much to my surprise…
I absolutely loved Dictionary for a Better World: Poem, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z, by two poets, Irene Latham and Charles Waters. This book is not a dictionary in the true sense of the word, but features words from the alphabet: Acceptance, Ally, Belonging, Compassion, Courage, Create and so on through the final word, Zest. As you read, the left page features the poem, with a small annotation about the poem’s form. On the right page, there is a quote about the word, generally from a well-known author or individual; followed by a very personal paragraph from the poet about what each word means to them. Finally, at the bottom of the right page is a “Try It” paragraph with suggestions of how the reader can use the word in their own lives.
Okay, that may sound confusing, but it is wonderful. For example, take the word “courage.” You read the poem:
courage can be
getting up to face life’s
stormy world when you’d rather hide
That poem is called a cinquain, a term which is explained. Next, there is a wonderful quote about courage from an author, Geraldine McCaughrean, which ends, “So I decided that maybe if I started in a small way, I could gradually work my way up to being brave like the others.” This is then followed by Charles Waters, the poet, talking about days when he felt worried about life, as a kid and as an adult, and learned to tell himself to “get on with it,” a quote from Monty Python! Finally, the “Try It!” section simply urges the reader to start their day with positivity by telling themselves, “I got this.”
Charles Waters is a black poet, and some of his poems deal with racial issues he has faced, and with diversity, but some are as simple as finding courage. Irene Latham is a white woman, who also talks about relatable issues such as her multiple moves as a child and worries about fitting in. Top this all off with glorious illustrations by Mehrdokht Amini, who uses collages and colors like an Eric Carle, and this book is just a beautiful, meaningful, read that middle schoolers, teens, and adults can all enjoy.
And if you want to top off your April poetry experience, read Amanda Gorman’s stunning inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb. Better yet, click HERE to watch and listen to her read it – she is a 23 year old immensely talented National Youth Poet Laureate, and her reading will take your breath away.
Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes edited by Tabatha Yeatts & Technically, It’s Not My Fault: Concrete Poems by John Grandits
I am back from vacation, and reviewing more poetry for National Poetry Month. As I mentioned before, I have never read a lot of poetry, but guess what – I am really enjoying it! This week I chose an anthology titled Imperfect, and subtitled Poems About Mistakes: an Anthology for Middle Schoolers. The premise of the book is that we all make mistakes, and we don’t need to feel embarrassed or upset; we just need to patch ourselves together and learn from them (read the story of the Japanese art of kintsugi in the explanation of the book cover). The anthology contains 70 poems by 50 authors, some short, some a bit longer; some funny, some more serious; but all thought-provoking. For example, here is a short one, titled “Once Upon a Time,” by April Halprin Wayland:
Once upon a time,
there was a girl
who never made a mistake.
Which is why
a fairy tale.
At the end of the book, the editor teaches us a bit about some of the poem forms in the collection, including acrostic, diamante, double dactyl (complicated!), and double voice poetry. I can really recommend this anthology – it is fun, meaningful, and hopeful, and really speaks to the insecurities and emotions prevalent in middle school. Or frankly, in all stages of life. To quote the last phrase of the anthology, “Out of difficulties grow miracles” (Jean de la Bruyere).
And for another fun, quick poetry read, try the book Technically, It’s Not My Fault, by John Grandits. These concrete poems, all voiced by a middleschooler named Robert, are both written and illustrated by Grandits. The book jacket defines concrete poems as those “in which words, ideas, type, and art combine to make pictures and patterns.” The illustrations are as important as the words, and sometimes, you actually find yourself turning the book around to follow the verses. It’s a totally fun book that kids will laugh at and enjoy.
Hard-Boiled Eggs for Breakfast: and Other Tasty Poems by Jack Prelutsky
Well, it turns out that April is National Poetry Month, and I decided once again to go outside my comfort zone and try reviewing some poetry books. I admit – other than reading Shakespeare in my youth, and Shel Silverstein as a mother, I tend to avoid poetry. But guess what – poetry can be fun! And Jack Prelutsky’s newest poetry book is really entertaining. Yes, the title is odd, but take a chance and start reading it – it’s rather like reading Dr. Seuss for older kids. I found myself laughing by page 4, when he describes his pets trying to play instruments, and the poem ends: “I wish my pets were talented – apparently they’re not.” My pets certainly are not…
The poems are short, entertaining, and frequently include imaginary animals such as the Kangarooster (half rooster, half kangaroo), the Revolving Doormouse (poor thing is stuck in a revolving door), Skigulls (yes, seagulls that ski) or even a Rubber Bandicoot (you will have to read about that one!). Although silly, the vocabulary is not juvenile and I noticed the author sneaking in a lot of more advanced words, such as “berserk,” “disconcerting,” and “enthralls,” just to name a very few. Most of the poems are traditional rhymes, but a few use shapes such as a figure 8 to create an infinite poem; or verse that looks like water going down a drain; or popping bubbles. The illustrations are fun, and really add to the poems’ stories. And mixed into the silliness are a few rather wonderful, more serious poems, such as “I am Lighter that a Feather,” a poem about being yourself, or “We are the Oceans,” about the Earth.
Jack Prelutsky was deservedly the first US Children’s Poet Laureate, from 2008 to 2010. According to the Poetry Foundation website, “the Young People’s Poet Laureate aims to raise awareness that young people have a natural receptivity to poetry and are its most appreciative audience, especially when poems are written specifically for them.” I would recommend reading this book with your kids – it’s a great way to involve them with poems you can enjoy together. Let me end with the closing lines from “We are the Oceans” in honor of the upcoming Earth Day: “We are the creatures with feather and fin / we’re every last being that ever has been. / We’re all of these things on the world of our birth / this wonderful planet, our beautiful Earth.”
Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker
Well, I hate to admit this, but I didn’t really enjoy this week’s MSBA choice, Scary Stories for Young Foxes. I have to face the fact that I am not a fan of the horror story genre, and I have a hard time when truly awful things keep happening. This book uses the premise of seven fox kits who want to hear scary stories, so they go to the old storyteller in Bog Cavern (of course, after their mother warns them not to go because they will “hear a story so frightening it will put the white in your tail”). The old storyteller warns them that scary stories have two sides, bright and dark: if they stay until the end, “the stories can shine a light on the good in the world,” but if they don’t, the darkness can “swallow all hope.” As she tells her tales, one by one the kits become afraid and run home, until only the smallest one stays to hear the end.
And yes, if you make it to the end of the book, there is a pretty neat plot twist, and the story actually resolves reasonably well. But along the way, a lot of terrible things happen to Mia and Uly, our fox protagonists. Mia loses her siblings to a rabid fox, then loses her mom, then gets trapped by a truly scary Beatrix Potter (really – the author of Peter Rabbit is evil?!). Uly is crippled with a useless front leg, and is teased by his mean sisters; then his vicious father returns and wants to kill him because he is imperfect. Uly runs away, and the stories start to intertwine when he meets Mia and manages to save her from being killed. They become friends and travel companions, but they just get into more and more trouble. Every time you think things are better – nope, something rather horrible happens. Think Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books, but not as fun.
The story is clever, and I found myself becoming more involved as the stories interwove the fox characters. At the very end, things work out okay, but there is so much heartbreak and loss for the foxes along the way that I had a hard time with the story line. I didn’t totally dislike the book, but I would give it a “meh” rating. However, kids who enjoy scary stories will probably enjoy the book – it’s just not my favorite genre.
Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game by Rachel Poliquin and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
Sometimes, you just need a simple book that is fun, interesting, and informative. This week’s MSBA choice Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game, is definitely aimed at younger readers, but I enjoyed it! The author challenges you to look at a puzzle of bits and pieces, and then to try and guess what animal could be created with these parts. Once you make your guess, you lift a flap (and who doesn’t love lift-the-flap books) to read the answer. I am not going to lie: I only figured out four of the thirteen creatures! And in the process, you also learn some pretty fascinating facts. For example, I had no idea that a mother kangaroo could carry a baby and an older joey in her pouch, and produce two different kinds of milk for them at the same time. Or, did you know that polar bear hair is clear tubes, but that the fur looks white because the transparent hairs reflect light? Or that a sloth has green fur because “algae turn it green in rainy season, and moths and beetles make a cozy home in it” – yuck!
The illustrations are absolutely marvelous, and are an integral part of the story telling. MSBA books are aimed at Fourth to Eighth graders, and this book is clearly for the younger crowd to enjoy. The book inspires creativity while teaching science, and it’s a clever, interactive way to learn (or for homeschooling parents, to teach).
Written by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
This week’s MSBA book, Genesis Begins Again, is a thought-provoking realistic fiction novel that I would definitely recommend for the more advanced middle school readers, or even young adult/teen readers. The story tackles so many difficult topics, ranging from racism, to alcoholism and gambling, to broken families.
The story is told by a 13 year old girl, Genesis, and begins in Detroit when she brings home some school friends, only to find all the family furniture in the yard because they have been evicted – again. Her father is an alcoholic, and a gambler, and keeps lying about paying the rent, so they have been evicted several times. She and her mother have to stay with her maternal grandmother briefly, and her grandmother is hypercritical of her mother trying to hold the family together. Her father somehow finds a house to rent in an affluent, mostly white suburb, and Genesis once again has to start in a new school. Throughout the story, there is a heart-breaking conflict between the love both Genesis and her mom have for her father, and the anger and disappointment when time and time again, he lies about going to AA, or even about getting a job promotion.
Next is the issue of racism, and the biggest problem for Genesis is racism (more specifically, colorism) within the Black community itself. She, like her father, is very dark – and she desperately wants to be like her light skinned Black mother. When she was a child, she heard her father talking with friends about how he wanted her to be light like her mom, and she carries that in her heart for years. At one point, her grandmother admits that their family tried to keep lighter skinned Blacks in the family, because they thought they would have an easier time and go further in life professionally. There was even a paper bag test: if you were darker than a brown paper bag, the family didn’t approve of you, which is another reason Grandma didn’t want Genesis’s mom to marry her dad. Genesis tries desperately throughout the story to make her skin lighter, trying lemons, scouring pads, bleach, and creams. Her dark skin is just one item on a long written list of things she doesn’t like about herself, a list started by mean girls at a previous school, but added to by herself. She eventually comes to accept herself, but it is gut wrenching to read.
And then, of course, are the almost mundane issues of trying to fit into a new school, and make friends. That she manages pretty well, and she has the sense to stick with her real friends and not the popular, mean girls. Her wonderful music teacher helps her to find strength and confidence in her amazing voice, and this helps her begin to believe in herself and her own worth. The story does end with hope, and Genesis realizes that she needs to stop hating herself, and the way she looks; she just wants, in her own words, “to look in the mirror and be okay with myself.”
Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee
This week’s MSBA book choice, Maybe He Just Likes You, by Barbara Dee, tackles the difficult issue of middle school sexual harassment and bullying. It is not an easy topic to address, but the novel is well written, and the author skillfully addresses the fear and humiliation caused by such behavior. The story is told by Mila, a seventh grade girl who does not understand why, all of a sudden, a group of boys starts trying to hug her, and touch her, and make her feel uncomfortable. Initially, she is unsure as to whether she is making too much of it – and one of her closest friends tries to tell her it is just flirting. But as the book progresses, she continues to be hassled, and groped, and she has no idea how to stop the behavior. Although she had previously convinced her close friend Max to go to the principal about the bullying he experienced for being gay, she does not feel she has that option. The principal is the boys’ basketball coach, and she is too embarrassed to really talk to her male guidance counselor. Her single mother is under a great deal of stress at work, and actually gets fired, so Mila doesn’t want to cause any more anxiety at home.
Mila also has to deal with changing friendships, particularly when one of her four closest friends, Zara, is hot and cold about supporting her. Omi, her best friend, finds out that the group of boys considers the whole thing to be a joke, with a scorecard based on touching different parts of her. Mila is, understandably, furious and mortified, especially when she realizes that other classmates are aware of the “game.” Mila joins a karate class, and starts to gain some confidence, especially when a friend in the class talks to the Sensei, who then teaches the kids some self-defense. Subsequently kicking one of her tormenters was not perhaps the wisest move – but you can’t help cheering her on. Things come to a head at a band concert, and Mila finally is able to confide in an adult teacher, and eventually confront the boys. (Oh – and don’t worry, her mom finds a job, and is incredibly supportive when Mila finally confesses what has been going on). Not necessarily an easy read, but the topic of sexual harassment is relevant, and important, and yes, can occur even in Middle School.
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
I am back to reading Maine State Book Award Books, and this week’s choice, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart, is indeed a remarkable book. Full of love, and fun, and odd friendships, this is the kind of book that left me crying – in a good way – at the end.
The story is narrated by a 12 year old girl, Coyote, who is traveling in a renovated school bus with her father, Rodeo. They have been traveling for five years, ever since Coyote’s mother and two sisters were killed in a car crash. Her father, devastated, deals with the tragedy by burying it, never talking about them, and not letting Coyote even call him Dad. Actually, they even legally changed their names. Rodeo is a sweet, lost hippie, whose kindness shines out of his eyes; Coyote loves him fiercely and takes care of him. The story starts when she adopts Ivan, a tiny, amazing kitten, and she admits to herself that she needs more than just her dad. Then, she talks with her Grandmother and learns that the park in her old hometown is going to be bulldozed in just five days, and her world suddenly tilts. It turns out that literally days before her mother and sisters were killed, they put together a memory box, buried it under a tree in that park, and swore that they would dig it up in ten years. When her little sister Rose worried about finding it, Ella (Coyote’s given name) promised to remember – and now, five years later, that promise becomes her goal.
Of course, she has to figure out how to Rodeo to drive the bus from Florida to Washington State. In five days. Without telling him why, since he refuses to return home. She starts recruiting people along the way, all of whom become invested in helping her as much as she helps them: Lester, the broke musician trying to get to Boise to his girlfriend Tammy; Salvador, a boy just a bit older, and his mother, running from an abusive father to find a new home; Valerie, a 19 year old girl kicked out by her family for coming out as gay; then Salvador’s aunt; then a goat…all on a school bus to Washington state. Coyote makes close friends for the first time in years, and they all commit to helping each other out. Even Gladys the goat plays a minor, but important role. Eventually, when her dad finds out that she wants to go home, she confronts him with her need to remember her family, and for him to become a father again. The hilarious adventures along the way, the wonderful characters, and the amazing climax of the race to save her memory box, combine to create a remarkable story of love, kindness, and courage.
The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
My last review for Black History Month is on The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, a Newberry Award winning book by a Black author, Christopher Paul Curtis. Although the novel is set during the Civil Rights movement, the plot primarily revolves around the Watsons, a Black family living in Flint, Michigan. The story is told from the point of view of Kenny, a ten year old boy with a little sister, Joetta, and a 13 year old brother, Byron. Poor Kenny is doomed at school by being smart, and having a “lazy eye;” he is both bullied and protected by Byron, the “god” of Clark Elementary. You can’t help but laugh at the whoppers Byron tells poor gullible Kenny and Joey; but you laugh even more when vain Byron kisses the car mirror when he is supposed to scraping the ice off – and his lips get stuck! The family relationships between the kids and their parents are the focus of most of the book, particularly as Byron, now a teen, gets into more and more trouble. Therefore, his parents make good on a long term threat and decide to drive to Birmingham to leave him with the dreaded, scary Grandma Sands for the summer. Thus the name of the book – Momma’s journal for the trip. The plot continues to center on family as Kenny, disgusted that his brother is behaving, gets into trouble himself. For example, when Grandma Sands warns them not to swim at Collier’s Landing, Byron spins a tale of the “Wool Pool” that can kill you; Kenny tries to be brave, goes to check it out, nearly drowns, and is saved by Byron. Byron’s emotions at the near loss of his brother helps you realize how much he loves his family, despite the “cool kid” bravado.
Woven into the story are references to the racism that Black people experienced in the 60s. Initially just an undercurrent, the examples of prejudice build to the real climax of the novel: Joetta goes to Sunday School, and her Church is bombed – a fictional occurrence, but based on the real Birmingham bombing in 1963 which killed four young girls and blinded two others. Kenny walks into the Church looking for his sister, but becomes terrified and leaves. Joey does not die, and the whole family immediately heads back to Michigan. Kenny becomes withdrawn, and tries to cope with his trauma by hiding behind the couch. Ultimately, it is Byron, again, who saves him and slowly gets him to come out; Kenny is finally able to break down in grief, asking “Why would they hurt some little kids like that?” Byron’s response demonstrates his growing maturity: “Kenny, things ain’t ever going to be fair. How’s it fair that two grown men could hate Negroes so much that they’d kill some kids just to stop them from going to school…it ain’t. But you just gotta understand that that’s the way it is and keep on steppin’.” The novel is a testament to family, love, and the courage required to face the injustice of racism.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
One Crazy Summer is an award winning book, by a Black author, set in 1968 during the Civil Rights movement. It is a beautifully written book, although not an emotionally easy one, and chronicles a story within a story: that of three sisters meeting the mother who had abandoned them, and that of the Black Panthers and the struggle for Civil Rights in the 60’s.
The main narrative revolves around Delphine, a sweet, capable Black girl almost 12 years old, who is in charge of her 9 year old sister Vonetta and her 7 year old sister Fern. Their mother, Celeste, left them when Fern was just a few weeks old, and they have been raised in Brooklyn by their father and by their grandmother, Big Ma. Their father declares it is time they meet their mother, and the three girls are sent to Oakland, CA (by themselves) to meet her. As expected, they are not met by a warm and loving mother. Instead, she barely acknowledges them, sending them that night into a strange neighborhood to buy takeout food, and refusing to let them into her workspace in the kitchen. She remains unwelcoming and unattached, and seems to care only for her poetry. The morning after they arrive, she sends them out to walk to the People’s Center to get free breakfast, and to attend a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. Throughout their month in California, you watch as Delphine takes care of her sisters, acting, as always, as their mother figure. They slowly make friends, get used to a whole other lifestyle, and start to learn more about peaceful protests for civil rights. As a mother, I had a hard time with Celeste’s treatment of the girls; but as the story progresses, and you learn of her past, I could at least understand her better.
Which brings us to the second part of the story, that of the Black men, women, teens and children involved with the Black Panthers of the 60s. Once again, I was prompted to research the history behind the book. I had only a vague impression of the Panthers as a violent group of Black militant protesters. And yes, there was violence. But the movement was started to help protect Black people from police brutality, and the group also became involved in community social programs such as free breakfasts for children and medical clinics. There are always two sides to a story, and a book that makes you want to go and learn more is a special book indeed.
Mighty Justice: The Untold Story of Civil Rights Trailblazer Dovey Johnson Roundtree by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe, adapted by Jabari Asim
As I said last week, I decided to review books for Black History Month during February. This week, when previewing our new materials, I saw a non-fiction book called Mighty Justice, the Untold Story of Civil Rights Trailblazer Dovey Johnson Roundtree. I was intrigued because frankly, I had never heard of her name. And after reading this book, I don’t know why I never heard of her – except, I do know why. Most of us learn about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and maybe even Ruby Bridges. But there are so many other really important Black women and men that we never learn about in school. And that is why Black History Month is so essential.
The story begins in 1920, when Dovey Johnson is 6 years old, living in Charlotte, NC. Her Grandma Rachel takes her for her first trolley ride, and the little girl sits in the front row. The driver yells at her, calling her a “pickaninny,” and Grandma Rachel stops the trolley; they then proudly walks all the way to town. The book includes D
ovey’s writings and memories, and she remembers her grandmother’s words from that day, “words that lifted me up and made me forever proud: ‘My chillum is as good as anybody.’” Dovey overcomes great hardship and poverty, working multiple jobs, but is determined to attend Spelman College in Atlanta. When the Great Depression hits, and she cannot fund her senior year, Miss Neptune – a white woman who came to teach at a Black school – arranges a scholarship and loans her money. When she tries to thank her, Miss Neptune says simply, “pass it on!” Throughout her life, as the book notes, she is “lifted up by strong, brilliant, and
fearless women.” After college, she goes moves north and ends up working for Grandma Rachel’s friend, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune – another amazing Black woman in history. Dr. Bethune was president of the National Council of Negro Women, and advised President and Eleanor Roosevelt. Dr. Bethune encourages her to become one of only 40 Black women allowed to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She subsequently goes on to law school, and works tirelessly for many Black people wronged by discrimination. In her later years, she focuses her legal practice on the protection of children; and to top it all off, she becomes a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Her story is inspirational, and this middle school adaptation beautifully combines history with Dovey’s own words. It is an engaging and important story of a Black woman and her courageous commitment to the Civil Rights Movement.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
I decided to take a break from the Maine State Book Award choices in February, and read some middle school novels for Black History Month. This week, I chose Stella by Starlight, written by Sharon M. Draper. The story takes place in 1932, in Bumblebee, North Carolina, and is told Stella Mills, a young fifth-grade Black girl. The book opens with Stella and her younger brother, Jojo, coming upon a Ku Klux Klan meeting in the woods. Terrified, they run home to their parents, who call in the neighboring Black adults for a meeting. As Stella says to her friend, Tony, “I think when we get scared, they feel strong.” Wow – that sums up bullies of all kinds. Stella has a hard time writing her thoughts on paper, but she is amazingly thoughtful, and as the story progresses, her journal writings improve and becomes almost poetic.
The book is beautifully written, and it brings out both the love and support of family and friends in a close knit Black community, as well as a glimmer of hope in the few white people who do quietly help out. But it is appalling, even now, to realize how unfairly Black people were treated in the segregated South. For example, the Black children in the story share a one room school house, while the white children have a better school and new books. Stella’s community has a Black doctor, thankfully, but there is also a white doctor who treats only whites – in fact, at one point, the white doctor refuses to treat Stella’s mom for a snake bite, and she nearly dies. A central plot line involves Stella’s dad, as well as the pastor, and one other neighbor, Mr. Spencer, who have the courage to go register to vote in the presidential election. I am ashamed to admit that I had no idea that at one time, the South required a literacy test, a poll tax (they had to pay to register, unlike white voters), and a test about the constitution in order to register. The men are treated like trash, and derogatorily called “boys” by the ignorant town registrar. And after these three brave men calmly insist on their right to vote, the KKK burns down the Spencer family’s house. The story is lifted up by how the whole community comes together to put out the fire, and to help the family (who have 13 children) – and even some members of the white community pitch in. These sorts of things really happened, and it is so important that kids read about these injustices, in hopes that this will never happen again.
The World Ends in April by Stacy McAnulty
I have to say, this week’s MSBA book choice was really hard for me to put down. Yes, it’s another story about middle school angst, trying to fit in, and finding friendships where you least expect them. But the plot manages to be both both funny and poignant at the same time, and you end up caring so much about all the characters. The story is told from the point of view of Elle, a 12 year old girl who has only one close friend, Mack, who is legally blind. You never really know why she is the loner left out of the popular group, or why she just wants to disappear. Mack is a funny, likable, and supportive boy who does not let his vision impairment hold him back. But to Elle’s dismay, he is considering moving to a different school the following year, the Conrad School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and she desperately wants him to stay. Throw in Londyn, Elle’s evil nemesis who turns back into a close friend; plus Elle’s widowed Dad, doing his best, and her crazy survivalist “prepper” Grandpa Joe, and you have an endearing cast of characters.
In brief, Elle reads an article on line about an asteroid that is going to hit earth in April. It is written by a Harvard astrophysicist, and although he is fired due to his theories, he develops a huge following online. (Side note: this could be a good way to discuss the difficulty of evaluating the credibility of online news.) Elle becomes seriously concerned about what will happen to her family and Mack, and as they discuss it at school, a group of kids listen and join in. They start a club called the “Nature Club” – since they can’t call it “The End of the World Club,” and Elle teaches them the survival skills she has learned from Grandpa Joe. As they prep for TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It), Elle becomes president of the group, and Londyn joins in. Things begin to spiral out of control as the girls write an anonymous newsletter and the whole school gets involved. And when the world doesn’t end…Elle has to do some serious soul searching. The story is funny, and touching, and I would highly recommend reading the book.
Homerooms & Hall Passes by Tom O’Donnell
I love reading fantasy novels, and I was really looking forward to reading this week’s Maine State Book Award book choice, Homerooms & Hall Passes. I ended up giving it a “Meh” ranking, but I say that with the understanding that kids who love Dungeons and Dragons will almost certainly give this book rave reviews.
The premise of the book is amusing – our five protagonists are truly heroes of Briandalor, where they fight goblins, disarm poison traps, answer magic riddles and defeat demons. Once a week, they get together to play Homerooms & Hall Passes, a game set in J. A. Dewar Middle School, where they face challenges such as science quizzes, essays, band recitals, and algebra! Of course, on one of their quests, Devis the Thief steals a ruby – despite the curse forbidding the treasure be touched – and the five adventurers get transported to Middle School. All of a sudden, they find themselves inhabiting their game personas, but with no idea how to fit in. Thromdurr the Barbarian – has to try to be Doug, the smart class nerd – but is used to solving everything by crushing things with a hammer; Sorrowshade, the assassin, is Melissa the Loner – but gets invited into the popular girls group; Vela the Valiant is Valerie, the class overachiever – but has no idea how to play the flute or manage her myriad of activities; Devis the thief is the class clown – and gets into trouble stealing; and Albiorix, as the Hall Master, has no game persona, so has to create an identity and live in a school closet. They have to adjust their flowery speech and clothing, and figure out how to pass their classes so they can return to Briandalor. Along the way, they deal with middle school problems, and befriend a new girl, June, who becomes an adventurer with them.
Despite the fun plot, I just had a hard time getting into the story, especially in the beginning. As the book progressed, I started to enjoy it more. There are no great themes other than dealing with middle school angst, but it’s okay just to have fun with a storyline. I suspect that kids who enjoy role-playing games – and there are many who do – will really enjoy the book!
Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
This week I read Roll with It, by Jamie Sumner, a thoroughly enjoyable realistic fiction novel from the Maine State Book Award collection. Yup, the cover shows a girl in a wheel chair – but that wheelchair has racing stripes, and Ellie is a 12 year old full of courage and a drive to be as independent as possible. She was born 3 months premature, and has cerebral palsy; she and her mother have each other, since her father left them when she was an infant, and now has a new family and new kids. Like any middle schooler, she wants to fit in, despite the enormous challenge of being the girl in a wheelchair, who needs an aide to help her to the bathroom (which is understandably mortifying at any age). She dreams of being a professional baker, and her letters to some of these chefs are both funny and endearing.
But there are so many other themes in this story, and it is really a story of family, friendship and love. Ellie and her mother need to move from Tennessee to Oklahoma to help out her fiercely independent grandmother, Mema, with her beloved Grandpa, whose Alzheimer’s disease is worsening. Ellie has to face starting over in a new middle school, much smaller and less prepared for physically disabled students. Her mom is terribly protective, so of course can be embarrassing; but really, all middle schoolers are embarrassed by their mothers! Mema and Grandpa live in a trailer park, where Ellie meets Coralee, her first real best friend. Coralee is a big, brassy girl with a wonderful voice, entering beauty pageants to promote her dream to be a singer. They also befriend a sweet but awkward boy, Bert, with mild autism, and become a group of three in the middle school world of popular girls and basketball boys. It doesn’t help when Coralee explains that they are trailer park kids, and the townies look down on them. But they persevere, and Ellie’s very real emotions, including frustration and hurt, as well as strength, pride and love, are wonderfully and realistically portrayed throughout the story. The author is the mother of a son with CP, and she clearly has a deep understanding of the added trials faced by people with physical, but not intellectual, disabilities. Read the book – it is fun, and heartwarming, and a really worthwhile novel.
To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer
The holidays are over, and it’s time to get back to reviewing the rest of the Maine State Book Award Books (turns out there are 40 books, and we’ve looked at 24 of them so far.)
This week’s choice was a lot of fun, while still managing to focus on the themes of family and friendship. Non-traditional family, but family nonetheless! The story is told in a series of emails, mostly between two 12 year old girls, Bett and Avery. This type of back and forth writing can be tricky, but it really worked for this story – I suspect because there are two authors, close friends who live in CA and NYC, as do Bett and Avery. You can imagine the authors writing back and forth to each other, and playing off each other, and it’s really a great way to tell the story. In brief, the girls’ dads are gay, and single, and meet at a conference. Bett and her dad live in CA, and Avery and her dad live in NY City. The dads decide their daughters should meet each other, and send the girls to summer camp together in Wisconsin; to the girls’ dismay, the dads then go off to China on a motorcycle trip. Needless to say, our heroines are appalled, and start emailing back and forth. Turns out that Bett likes dogs and fish, and Avery likes owls – thus leading to the email names Dogfish and Night Owl.
The two girls are very different, and at first they are determined to dislike each other. Luckily, that doesn’t last long, and they start to become friends, initially over email, then in person at camp. The story traces their journey to becoming sisters because they choose each other; and when their dads’ relationship goes sour, the girls go to hilarious lengths to bring their fathers back together. Toss in a wonderful, funny grandmother, and a birth mother finding herself drawn back into the family unit, and the story gets more and more complicated. There is a lot of love, and growing up, a little tween drama, and finally a happy – but not necessarily expected – ending. It’s an enjoyable read, and I would definitely recommend it.
Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson
This week’s MSBA book is another excellent survival story, Dog Driven, written by Terry Lynn Johnson. The author herself ran a dogsledding business, and taught dogsledding in Ontario, so the writing feels very authentic. The heroine is McKenna, a fourteen year old girl whose younger sister has Stargardt’s disease, a genetic condition that leads to central vision loss. Her sister Emma, now eight years old, was only six when she was diagnosed, and McKenna has watched her mother become way too overprotective, while her father tries to deny the extent of the disability. McKenna has just recently realized that she, too, is losing vision. She has been hiding her problem from her family and friends, isolating herself in her effort to avoid losing her own independence.
But then, Emma begs her to enter a dog sled race that is following the path of the Great Superior Mail Trail; competitors carry bags of special mail, and Emma has written a letter about Stargardt’s disease, hoping to bring attention to the condition and raise money to look for a cure. Despite her misgivings, McKenna agrees, knowing that she is taking risks due to her own vision problems. During the course of the 3 day race, she makes friends with Guy, who is racing to help save his dad’s business so he doesn’t have to sell his dogs. McKenna discovers that Guy’s lead dog, Zesty, is blind, but is still able to lead his team. This realization helps her reexamine her own life: “Zesty is not disabled. Her differences make her better.” Guy figures out McKenna is having vision problems, and they start to work together even as they are competing to win the race. Which, don’t forget, is a grueling race through storms and below zero weather, over rugged and dangerous terrain. Threaded throughout the story are letters Guy found in a book written by his great-great grandfather, bringing in some history of what it was like to run dog sleds to deliver mail in real life.
I really enjoyed this book, which is as much a chronicle of family relationships, friendship, and facing inner fears, as it is a story about teens working together to survive in the wilderness.
Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed, and Murdered Through History by Serah Marie McMahon and Alison Matthews David
This week I reviewed an MSBA book entitled Killer Style: How Fashion has Injured, Maimed & Murdered Through History. And this review may be my shortest yet: I really didn’t like this book. Of course, if an adult is turned off by the book, middle schoolers may well find it fun to be grossed out; and at least they will learn some historical facts!
This is a non-fiction selection that talks about the horrid things that have happened to people over the years, so called “fashion victims” harmed either by making, or wearing, different articles of clothing. The stories are pretty disturbing, as are the accompanying pictures. For example, the authors talk about the facial disfigurement and paranoid personality changes created by the mercury poisoning of hatters – mercury was used to make felt for hats. Or how about the young women who died in the early 1900’s of radium poisoning from painting watch dials? Or people dying of typhus due to the body lice in clothing (I really didn’t need to see the pictures of the lice). Okay, yes, it is important to learn of the 146 factory workers who died in a garment factory fire in NYC in 1911, leading to increased safety rules in the US. But that case didn’t help the 1,134 people who died in Bangladesh as recently as 2013 when a known unsafe building collapsed.
Personally, I found this to be an uncomfortable book that left me feeling vaguely nauseated, and certainly appalled, at some of the horrific fashion related tragedies. Even the cover is pretty unsettling. I am honestly surprised it is an MSBA book.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
This week’s Maine State Book Award choice is a somewhat difficult read. Not because it’s overly long, or uses difficult vocabulary – but because it addresses real-life, heart wrenching issues for children. It’s a beautiful, realistic fiction novel about four children living in the slums of India, working together to survive. According to the author’s notes, the characters are based on real life homeless children that she met while visiting schools and shelters in India, a fact which only adds further emotional impact to the story.
The heroine is Viji, who takes her sister Rukka and runs away from their alcoholic, physically abusive father. To further complicate matters, even though Rukka is the older sister, she is a sweet, simple special needs girl. Viji feels responsible for her and loves her fiercely. They arrive in the city with little money, and look for jobs to survive. They adopt a little dog, Kutti, and then meet up with two boys, Arul and Muthi and become a sort of family. The boys teach Viji how to be a “ragpicker,” sifting through mountainous, awful trash heaps to find recyclables to sell. Rukka is actually talented at making beaded jewelry, which brings in more money than the trash. The children live first under a bridge, and then in a cemetery, building tarp shelters to survive. Despite this, they maintain a sense of pride and independence, rejecting charity, and finding moments of joy together. Although they are understandably wary of authority, when Muthi and Rukka get sick with dengue fever, the children finally end up asking for help from Celina Aunty, the director of the Safe Home for Working Children. Life begins to slowly change for the better, despite loss and tragedy. The book chronicles a way of life that we can barely imagine, yet imbues the story with the strength of love, friendship, family, and hope.
The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett
Oddly enough, the Maine State Book Award book list includes a picture book. My initial reaction was that it must be aimed at the younger age group – or honestly, that it was a mistake. However, The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, written by Mac Barnett and gorgeously illustrated by Sarah Jacoby, is not really a picture book for little kids at all. Frankly, it might be best read by a child and parent, in order to discuss some of its ideas.
Margaret Wise Brown lived to be 42 years old, and the author utilizes 42 pages to answer the question: “What is important about Margaret Wise Brown?” Personally, I had simply thought of her as an author who wrote many children’s books, including Good Night Moon, a story I can still quote more 30 years after reading it to my first child. However, this book starts out describing her life as a child, with many pets, including thirty-six rabbits. And when one of the rabbits died, she skinned it and wore its pelt. Okay, right then and there, I thought this book was strange. But the author addresses this by stating, “And isn’t it important that children’s books contain the things children think of and the things children do, even if those things seem strange?” He goes on to talk about Anne Carroll Moore, the Children’s librarian at the New York Public library, who was very influential and liked only “darling and innocent” books. She stamped all other books as not recommended. She didn’t like Margaret Wise Brown’s books, and banned them from her library because she felt they were strange (this despite the fact that Ms. Moore herself oddly kept a wooden doll named Nicholas Knickerbocker with her – even at her dinner table). An excellent lead-in to talking about censorship and banned books.
There are some really thought provoking passages in the book. And I admit it, I did find the book to be strange, but that is the author’s point: “Lives are strange. And there are people who do not like strange stories, especially in books for children. But sometimes you find a book that feels as strange as life does. These books feel true. These books are important. Margaret Wise Brown wrote books like this, and she wrote them for children, because she believe children deserve important books.” Talk with your family about this – it’s important.
Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters by Carlyn Beccia
Not gonna lie – I picked up this week’s Maine State Book Award choice, and groaned when I looked at the cover. I thought that Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters, by Carlyn Beccia, was going to be just another creepy Bigfoot book. But wait – it’s a GREAT book that combines silly humor with excellent scientific facts. In short – it’s a (mostly) nonfiction, entertaining science book. Kids – get your parents to use it for home schooling/remote learning! Parents, do so! And laugh as you learn.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to learn about electricity by reading about Frankenstein? The author discusses various real experiments with static electricity and electric current in the 1800’s; gives some history about Mary Shelley, who wrote her book about Frankenstein as part of a challenge to see who could write the most bloodcurdling story; and discusses atoms, protons, neutrons and electrons. All while tossing in the history of people who actually tried to reanimate corpses, and genetic experiments that resulted in glow in the dark pigs! Let’s move on to Dracula, and learn about the myths and history behind the stories; as well as how to tell the difference between the Dead and the Undead. There is an excellent discussion of where a vampire should bite – which ties in the vascular system and Blood Typing, and even vampire bats, whose saliva contains an anticoagulant. Then move on to the chapter about understanding flesh-eating zombies – and learn about which parts of the brain work and which do not when you are a zombie. For example, the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of impulse control and personality, no longer works if you are a zombie. The zombie virus life cycle is compared to real viruses and plagues. But never fear, you can still learn the best way to kill a zombie – a chainsaw, according to the Mythbusters show – and you can check the map of where you are most likely to be eaten by a zombie. Next, learn about volume and the square-cube law while discussing King Kong, and do the math to determine that he would need 10,769 bananas a day to survive.
Werewolves, the Kraken, Godzilla, and, yes, Bigfoot, are all used to introduce fairly high level scientific facts in a truly original and hilarious book. Oh – and the illustrations, done by the author, are amazing. She describes herself as an “author, illustrator, and graphic designer with blood type B+ (in case any vampires are reading this).” I found the book to be fascinating, fun, and a fabulous way to learn some science!
The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz
This week, I felt the need to read a book that was simply fun – and the MSBA book, The Dark Lord Clementine, fit the bill nicely. The story centers on Clementine, the only child of the Dark Lord Elithor. Dark Lords are expected to do dastardly deeds, and terrorize their villagers. Clementine, as heir apparent, lives a solitary life, where she is expected to be very quiet, and to obediently learn dark spells. However, as the story begins, she can no longer ignore the fact that her father is slowly being whittled away by the Whittle Witch, also known as the Witch of the Wood – indeed, he has lost his nose, and his fingers are turning into spikes of wood. She starts having to do more and more of the chores and farm work around the castle – since the animated scarecrows aren’t managing well as her father’s power wanes. Next, she is required to figure out a qualifying Dastardly Deed in order to remain in the order of Dark Lords. Along the way, she starts to meet other people such as Sebastion, a village lad who wants to be a Knight; Darka Wesk-Sarzec, a huntress bent on revenge against the unicorn who killed her lover; and the black sheep who begins to talk to her (he is a transfigured village boy who prefers being a sheep). Her world expands to include the villagers that her father has long terrorized, and the hedge witches of the forest who fear and despise him – and she starts to realize that in her heart, she doesn’t really want to be a Dark Lord.
There are underlying plot lines of an evil curse that requires sacrifice to break it. There are unicorns; Vivienn, The Lady of the Lake; and a Grimoire (spell book) that got changed into a chicken who lays eggs with spells in them. There are themes of friendship and betrayal, and family and forgiveness. Above all, it is a fun, magical fairy tale and a coming of age story that is thoroughly enjoyable.
The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy
One of the nice things about the Maine State Book Award list is that I find myself reading–and enjoying–books I might not have picked out otherwise. It’s good to get out of my comfort zone of fantasies and mysteries every once in a while, and I would encourage you all to try the different genres of MSBA books.
The Best at It, by Maulik Pancholy, is a really fun and thoughtful realistic fiction novel about Rahul Kapoor, a 7th grade boy trying to take his grandfather’s advice to be “the best” at something, as he hopes to fit in better in middle school. He has a loving and supportive Indian family, and he simultaneously loves them and is a bit embarrassed by some of them. Every kid knows that feeling… You can’t help but love the Aunties who are arranging an International Bazaar, and it’s fun to learn a bit about Indian family life and customs. His dad, an ER physician, has started a band to play Bollywood music. His mother, the CEO of a company that makes satellite parts, still enjoys Indian dancing. Meanwhile, Rahul has to cope with the bully who makes fun of “his people”, and his own confusion about trying to fit in while honoring his heritage at the same time. He even finds himself dealing with some mild OCD.
But more of the story centers on Rahul’s attempts at trying to be really good at something–he tries out for the football team (a disaster); auditions for a commercial, where he is told that they want a “white family;” and eventually joins the school math team. He had tried to avoid the math team due to fears of being labeled a geek, but comes to realize that it’s better to play to his real skills. Woven through the story is his grappling with the fact that he thinks he may be gay, and the effect that has on some of his friendships. The story deals with that issue really well–it honestly wasn’t the major focus, just a natural part of the pains growing up, and his family and friends are very supportive. The book is semi-autobiographical, and the author manages to deal with all these important issues with grace. It’s a very worthwhile, feel-good book that I can strongly recommend.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
I loved reading this week’s Maine State Book Award choice, Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga. I try to avoid including quotes from the book jacket blurb, but I am going to quote one sentence: “This lyrical, life-affirming story is about losing and finding home and, most important, finding yourself.” The book follows Jude, a 12 year old girl from Syria, as she and her mother go to the US due to the war in Syria. Although not an actual poem, the prose is written like a poetic description of her thoughts. The story begins in their little town on the seacoast of Syria, where Jude lives with her older brother, Issa, her Baba (father) and mother. Issa, a university student, becomes involved with the dissidents protesting against the Syrian president, to the dismay of his parents. Due to the increasing violence, when Jude’s mother discovers she is pregnant, she and Jude are sent to Cincinnati to stay with her physician brother and his family – leaving half their family, and Jude’s best friend behind.
What follows is a thought provoking description of the fear, hope, and courage involved with immigrating to a new country. Jude faces not only the challenge of starting a new school, but that of starting with a language barrier and cultural differences. She speaks English, but does need the help she gets through her ESL class; and she bonds with kids from other countries, facing the same feelings of loss and change. Her uncle’s wife is not Arabic, but is well meaning and honestly tries to help her feel at home; her cousin Sarah initially wants to distance herself from a not cool immigrant cousin. Over the course of the book, Jude slowly makes friends, such as the sweet, “weird” boy, Miles in her math class; Layla, another American born girl whose parents came from Lebanon; and eventually even her cousin. Yet she does not lose sight of her heritage; I love it when she tells her ESL friends, “I don’t think you have to forget in order to learn.” The book points out the issues she faces from anti-Muslim neighbors after a bombing – far distant, but in the West, so people noticed it; they don’t take note of bombings in Syria or Lebanon. What a sobering observation. I could list so many other compelling quotes, but will end with Jude’s comment when her friend Layla asks her if she is afraid to try out for the school musical. Jude’s reply: “I left home, I flew across an ocean. My brother is missing, in the middle of a war zone. What is there left to be afraid of?” So much wisdom in a 12 year old girl.
ghost by Illustratus
Halloween is coming, so the MSBA book ghost seemed like an appropriate choice for this week’s review. And if you like really creepy ghost stories, then this is the book for you. I don’t – and I really did not enjoy reading this book. The book is actually a collection of short stories and poems, written by two different authors and illustrated by two different artists, members of a design collective named Illustratus. There is a prologue, and of course, 13 ghost stories. Two boys, Thomas and Skeeter, sneak out at night from Camp Champlain and travel deep into the forest to find Old Man Blackwood, who is rumored to know “all the best ghost stories, the ones that were too scary or too gruesome for the counselors to tell the young campers around the campfire.” Yup, I would agree with the scary and gruesome description.
In its favor, the illustrations are amazing, and are as much a part of the story telling as the written words. One illustrator is an Academy Award winner, and the other works for Pixar – the quality of their work is outstanding. The stories are very well written – but for me, they were creepy and depressing. Remember, I don’t even like books by the hugely popular Stephen King, or the master Edgar Allen Poe, so my review is somewhat biased. If you ARE a fan of the horror fiction genre, and enjoy the macabre, this is the Halloween book for you. If you don’t – be like me and stick to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
New Kid, by Jerry Craft, is a great graphic novel that has actually won numerous awards, including the 2020 Newberry Award. It just goes to show that graphic novels are NOT simply comic books! The story is semi-autobiographical, according to the author, and chronicles a school year for 12 year old Jordan Banks. Jordan is a Black kid from Washington Heights in NYC with an immense talent for drawing. He wants to be an artist, but his mother is entranced with the idea of him going to Riverdale Academy, a wealthy private prep school.
The first line of the book sums up Jordan’s feelings: “This is how I feel every single day of my life, like I’m falling without a parachute.” In addition to the usual stress of being a new kid in school and not knowing anyone – which is hard enough – he faces the challenge of being one of the few kids of color in his class. The story gently points out that even well- meaning people can be unintentionally offensive: for example, the teacher who worries that he might say something wrong, or the teachers who assume that all students of color are from poor backgrounds (even though one student’s father is CEO of a Fortune 500 company). Jordan’s home room teacher, in particular, cannot seem to remember his friend Drew’s name and mixes him up with a previous student of color. Then there is the usual middle school bullying, and the concerns about being looked down upon for being on student aid. Conversely, Liam, one of Jordan’s best friends, is actually worried that he will be judged for being too rich, and he just wants to be normal. Mixed into the narrative are humor and wonderful illustrations that keep readers of all ages engaged. Jordan’s black and white drawings, interspersed with the story, are laugh out loud funny. The novel as a whole manages to mix up the perils of middle school – including how one’s race and class affect one’s experience – as well as adolescent awkwardness, with friendship and the courage to stand up for yourself and others. It’s an excellent read, and I would highly recommend it. Consider checking out the author’s website, it’s worth it: https://jerrycraft.com
We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey
I, Cosmo by Carlie Sorosiak
This week, my Maine State Book Award choice was I, Cosmo, by Carlie Sorosiak. Told from the point of view of Cosmo, a 13 year old Golden Retriever, this story is sweet, and funny, and you can’t help but fall in love with this amazing dog. It can be tough to tell a tale from the point of view of a dog, or any other animal, but the author does it well and believably. Cosmo was adopted as a puppy by Dad and Mom, and when he was one year old, they had Max. Cosmo “vowed to protect Max – and my family – doggedly, for the rest of my life.”
The story takes place when Max is 12 years old, and Max and Cosmo are inseparable best friends, although Cosmo is getting older and more arthritic. The plot centers around the tension and anxiety caused by Dad and Mom’s increasing fights and unhappiness; they try to hide this from the kids, but Max and his little sister Emmaline overhear the “divorce” word. Cosmo does his best to keep the family together, although he occasionally slips – witness the day he ate the Thanksgiving turkey. Mom’s brother Benji, a dog trainer back from Afghanistan, instructs Cosmo to “protect their hearts…promise me that you’ll protect their hearts.” Okay, I teared up at that. But there is a lot of fun mixed into the story as Cosmo faces his fear of the evil neighboring sheepdog; is horrified by his turtle costume at Halloween; and loves watching Turner Classic Network movies. His favorite movie is Grease, and he has the soul of a dancer. Uncle Reggie talks Max into going to a class for canine freestyle dancing, and the grand prize is the chance to be in a movie. Max convinces himself that if they can win that chance, he and Cosmo will never have to be separated, and maybe the family will come back together. You will fall further in love with Cosmo as he does his utmost to dance with his boy, and to protect and love his family.
Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation by Stuart Gibbs
This week’s Maine State Book Award choice is honestly just sheer fun! The book is a spy novel, centered on Charlotte “Charlie” Thorne, a 12 year old girl genius. And I mean a genius: her IQ is just below that of Albert Einstein; she is already blowing through college, showing up only for the exams. She is also – sort of – a wealthy thief, having hacked into a company that stole the computer program she sent them at age 8. Believe me, you are on her side.
But the story focuses on Charlie’s forced recruitment into the CIA. Turns out, the CIA and many other intelligence agencies have been trying for 70 years to find Einstein’s last equation, known as Pandora. This equation has the potential to create great good, but, of course, could also lead to terrible weapons of destruction if it fell into the wrong hands. Charlie, with her genius mathematical skills, is recommended and compelled into joining the CIA by Dante Garcia, the 28 year old brilliant agent who turns out to be her half-brother. Since they had only met three times before, in between the non-stop spy action across several countries, you get a developing family relationship story. The book has obvious good and bad guys, as well as a mysterious evil leader. But the plot also contains some questionable gray areas: Charlie has to deal with the question of whether anyone, even the US, should be trusted with an equation with such power. Toss in a bit of fun history about Einstein; some great descriptions of Jerusalem; a little romance (very little) between Dante and Milana Moon, the other CIA agent; and you have an exciting and fun read!
Wildfire by Rodman Philbrick
I admit that I had already read this week’s Maine State Book Award book, Wildfire, by Rodman Philbrick. We read it in our Rockin Readers book group several months ago, and the kids unanimously enjoyed it. I reread it for the review, and liked it just as much as before. The topic of the book is quite timely, since it focuses on a raging wildfire in Northern Maine, similar to the wildfires currently burning out of control in California, Washington and Oregon. The author skillfully conveys the ferocity and the speed of the uncontrolled fires, and the action is nonstop.
The story focuses on Sam, a 12 year old boy who is at summer camp in Maine, and gets separated from the evacuation busses when he (foolishly) runs back to his cabin to get his cell phone. In his defense, his mom is in rehab for addiction to painkillers, and he wants to assure her that he is safe. But he isn’t… Luckily, Sam’s dad had taught him a lot of wilderness survival skills prior to his death in Afghanistan, so Sam is able to stay clear headed and focused on outrunning the fire. He finds an old army jeep, and the race begins. He also meets and rescues a 14 year old girl, Delphy, lost from the girl’s camp. Although injured with a sprained ankle, she adds her courage, knowledge, and friendship to the mix. Along the way, they discover, and subsequently fight off, the dangerous arsonists who set the fire. The story is a non-stop thriller that has you on the edge of your seats as they fight to survive.
The Oddmire: Changeling by William Ritter
For this week’s Maine State Book Award review, I chose Oddmire, by William Ritter. I absolutely loved this story, and if you are a fan of magic and fairy tales, you will love it, too! The plot draws upon the classic tales of changelings, “creatures spoken of in many folklore, fantasy and fairy tales from across the world – they are regarded as creatures that are placed into mortal homes by fairies or demons, who proceed to kidnap the original child of the home.” (1) In this book, a goblin named Krull brings a goblin changeling to a small town near the Wild Wood, hoping to exchange the boy and restore magic to his horde. Except he mixes them up, can’t tell them apart, and ends up leaving them both in the cradle. The boys are raised as twins, with everyone knowing that one is a human and one is a changeling – but no one know whether it’s Tinn or Cole.
There are some wonderful themes of family and friendship: the boys are totally bonded to each other, and would do anything to save the other. Their mother, Annie, my favorite character, loves them both fiercely; she puts up with their mischief, yet becomes a mother bear when they are threatened. Speaking of mother bears, you meet one in the book, as well as her cub – they are, of course, magic. You come to like Krull, the goblin, who has an odd, comical sense of honor. Add all this together with a creepy dark Thing that waits in the forest; an odd forest girl, Fable, who helps them; the Queen of the Deep Dark; Hinkypunks; and the need to save magic, and you’ve got an epic fable that you can’t put down. It helps that the author is clearly having fun writing this story, and you can’t resist laughing as you read. All in all, one of my favorite MSBA books yet. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series!
The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown
I admit it – I do not like horror stories, so I was a bit dubious when I picked up The Forgotten Girl, by India Hill Brown. But this book is actually a ghost story, mixed in with themes of family, friendship, and with racism/segregation in the South.
Our heroine, Iris, is dealing with wanting to be noticed, and remembered; she is an eleven year old Black girl in a primarily White school, and gets “accidentally” left out a lot. She also has a four year old sister, Vashti, who tends to get more attention from her parents. She is brave, but secretly afraid of the dark, and of nightmares. Her best friend, Daniel, is trying to cope with the loss of his father; he lives with his mother, and his grandmother, Suga. He is embarrassed by Suga’s oddities, but Iris loves her stories. Together they sneak out in a snow storm, and make snow angels. Turns out, Iris makes a snow angel over a forgotten grave, belonging to an 11 year old girl named Avery. This sets off more nightmares for Iris, but she becomes determined to find out about this lost girl. She and Daniel start researching the forgotten graveyard for a school project, and along the way, they discover the history of segregated burial sites, as well as the story of their Middle School’s first nine Black students.
Meanwhile, the ghost story starts to twist around the two friends, Iris’s sister, and Daniel’s grandmother, becoming spookier as Avery the Ghost reveals her need to be remembered. Spooky – but not grisly or gory – and all ends well. Overall, the book is an excellent ghost story that I enjoyed, and can recommend reading!
Captain Rosalie by Timothee De Fombelle (translated by Sam Gordon)
This week’s MSBA book choice is a hauntingly beautiful short story, Captain Rosalie, written by French author Timothee de Fombelle, and translated into English. The heroine is a five and a half year old girl, who lives in France during World War I. Her father is away at war, and her mother has to work long hours at a factory, so Rosalie is allowed to sit in the back of the one room schoolhouse for hours. She has a secret mission of her own, which you discover by the end of the book. The writing is beautiful, and the illustrations are gorgeous. In just a brief narrative, the author manages to get across the pain and fear, as well as the courage and love, associated with wartime. Rosalie is brave, and wise beyond her five years.
I would suggest reading the book together, child and parent, in order to discuss the topics of war, family, love and loss. I think both youth and adult could benefit from talking about the history behind the story; how the themes could relate to today; and what feelings are evoked by the tale of Rosalie’s mission.
Caught! Nabbing History’s Most Wanted by Georgia Bragg
This week, I decided to pick a non-fiction book from the MSBA shelf. I chose Caught! Nabbing History’s Most Wanted, written by Georgia Bragg and illustrated by Kevin O’Malley. It is such a fun read! The author writes in a very “tongue in cheek” style, but manages to sneak in some pretty interesting historical facts at the same time. She tells stories of fourteen different historical figures who got caught, and her subjects range from Joan of Arc, to Blackbeard the Pirate, to outlaws like Jesse James, to spies like Mata Hari. In addition to some pretty fascinating tales, she ends each chapter with fun facts about the time period, and some interesting vocabulary words. Okay, that may sound boring, but really – did you know that Blackbeard never actually killed anyone? Or that “Bootleggers” jammed bottles of liquor into their boots to hide them during Prohibition (a time in the 1920’s when alcohol was illegal). Or that Billy the Kid was a short little guy who started his career as an outlaw at age 15 (he was spanked the first time he was caught stealing), and who was only 21 years old when he died?
But the writing really makes the book. For example, when describing New Mexico, she states “Billy [the Kid] headed for the middle-of nowhere Lincoln County, New Mexico. It was west of Where is Everybody? and south of More Cows than People…” Or how about Sir Walter Raleigh, who was “tall, dark and handsome;” he was part of Queen Elizabeth’s court, a “palace full of cute guys, because her advisors had been holding an endless Mr. Universe pageant of men”! Add in fun pen and ink drawings on most pages, which totally catch your eye and add to the story. It’s not a graphic novel, but the illustrations really keep you fully engaged. Such a great way to hook kids into reading about history – I would absolutely recommend this book, especially for readers who enjoy non-fiction.
Lily the Thief by Janne Kukkonen and This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
Yes, MSBA books include Graphic Novels! I decided to try one this week, and actually ended up reviewing two books. Both novels had excellent illustrations, and I found the graphics really were enjoyable and added significantly to the storytelling.
The first book, Lily the Thief, honestly did not seem to have a lot of plot. It started out with a great “hook” to grab your interest: Lily is a young thief, and she begins by talking about the fact that “amid all the chaos and confusion, we [the thieves] have our honor.” Yet truthfully, in this story, they weren’t really honorable at all. Lily and her mentor, Seamus, were honest thieves, but otherwise, you didn’t care about the others – they were downright mean. Lily gets involved in trying to prove herself, which gets her into more and more trouble. There are three different groups trying to get treasures (I won’t get into that in detail), all of whom are nasty, and take advantage of her skills. She eventually ends up breaking the thieves’ code to the point of grave robbing and murder. Actually, a lot of people die in this story, which I found sort of needless by the end. Oh well, she survives, saves Seamus, and they ride off together for more adventures. Enough said.
The second book, This Was Our Pact, was a much more enjoyable read. It’s an entrancing story that focuses on friendship. Briefly, at the beginning of the story, you find out that Ben’s townspeople release hundreds of lanterns in the river each autumn equinox. Ben and four friends make a pact with two rules: No One Turns for Home, and No One Looks Back, as they ride their bikes along the river to find out what happens to the floating lanterns. Ben’s nerdy friend, Nathaniel, follows, and Ben doesn’t want to include him (he’s not in the cool group); but the other friends quickly do turn back, and he and Nathaniel embark on an adventure that brings them together again. Along the way, they meet creatures out of fantasy, such as the fisherbear, who follows the lanterns since to him, they are fish making their way to the stars; Madam Majestic and her giant dog, Sebastian; and Margaret the Crow, who makes them a map when they get lost. Ben and Nathaniel (and the bear) learn to work together, and eventually complete their original mission of discovering the mystery of the lamps. The boys then head off to circumnavigate the earth. It’s really a neat fable centering on friendship and teamwork. I enjoyed it and would recommend it, especially to those readers who enjoy magic and fantasy.
Blood Mountain by James Preller
I would recommend this MSBA book to readers who enjoy survival stories. I bet a lot of you read Lost on a Mountain in Maine for school. In this book, eleven year old Carter and his thirteen year old sister, Grace, forge ahead of their father on a hike – mistake number one of many others to follow. Accompanied by their dog, Sitka, they stray off the trail, and the book then follows their struggle to survive over the next 6 days. Grace gets injured, and Carter leaves to find help. And the complications just continue to pile up. Let’s see: there is the ex-marine/hermit who eventually finds Carter and saves him from the bog – but he has severe mental illness after his tour in Afghanistan. Then there is the mountain lion who escaped from a collector of exotic animals. And their dad had a heart attack. That’s just for starters.
The story flicks from one point of view to another, allowing you to get into the minds of all the major characters. It is interesting to see how they all think about, and deal with, their situations: not just Grace and Carter, but also their dad; John the ex-marine/hermit; Makayla, the incredible park ranger who searches for them; and even Sitka, the dog. As the story progresses, you get more involved with the characters and their complex relationships with each other and with the wilderness. You see how Grace becomes closer to nature, and how Carter tries to cope with John after he is both saved and captured. John is probably the most complex and tortured character, as he deals with his personal demons and mental illness – and I could have done without the vivid description of how he skinned a squirrel… Thankfully, things work out, and you are left with the knowledge that the kids learned some very important lessons about life and survival, and were fundamentally changed by their experience.
Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy
Good Enough, by Jen Petro-Roy, is such a thought provoking novel that I had a hard time putting it down. Written by an eating disorder survivor, the story focuses on Riley, a 12 year old girl with anorexia. The book uses Riley’s journal writings to follow her thoughts and feelings, and the journal draws you right into her fears and hopes as she goes through an inpatient hospital treatment program for eating disorders. You learn why she changed from a normal 12 year old into a child obsessed with running and dieting to unsafe levels. You come to care for her so much, as she struggles with her feelings that she is inadequate – not good enough – compared to her sister, her friends and her teammates. You feel her sadness, and her anger, when trying to get her parents to understand. You understand her fears about meeting other girls with eating disorders, and her worries about making friends and fitting in. You experience her reluctance and anxiety at trying to explain her feelings to her counselors. And luckily, by the end, you come to believe that she, at least, can make it, even though her recovery is not the quick fix that her parents hoped for. She finally starts to feel as though she is, indeed, “good enough.”
Many years ago, when I was in medical school, I did a psychiatric rotation, and my assigned patient was a young woman with anorexia. I still remember her, and I remember how difficult it was to try to get through to her. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are very real, very difficult problems, and they are far too common – and often unrecognized – in today’s society. This book can help both young readers, and adults, to understand how eating disorders become tied up with attempts to control something in a person’s life. Those affected are not just trying to be skinny, but the dieting or purging becomes a way of dealing with a sense of inferiority, of needing to fit in, of reacting to jeers about being “fat.” This truly is a “must read” book, and I highly recommend it to tween readers, teens, and their adults.
Fireborne by Rosaria Munda
This week, the MSBA book that I chose to read was Fireborne. I loved a series I read years ago, the Dragonriders of Pern; and I really liked the Wings of Fire book we read in Book Group, so I had high hopes for Fireborne. I tried very hard, but honestly, I just didn’t enjoy reading it. In its favor, the book was well written, with engaging characters: a heroic 17 year old dragonrider, Lee, and his best friend Annie, an equally strong female dragonrider, who ultimately prevail – sort of – at the end. And there were a lot of well-developed secondary characters that I cared about, such as other dragonrider teens and their families.
But the story was so dark and depressing, all the way to the very end of the book. It was really more of a dystopian fantasy than a thrilling tale of dragons and their teen riders. In case you don’t know the meaning of that term, google it and you will find the definition is as follows: “a dystopia is an imagined community or society that is dehumanizing and frightening.” A good example of a dystopian society that many of you may know about is the world of The Hunger Games series. In Fireborne, there are flashbacks to Lee as a child, the son of the Dragonlord, whose entire family is slaughtered by the downtrodden rebels. He is sent to an orphanage, and befriends Annie, whose entire family was burned to death by flames from, you guessed it, Lee’s father’s dragon.They befriend each other, and spend their time trying to sort out right and wrong under the new regime. Along the way, the good guys are forced to do bad things, supposedly for the betterment of the people, and the plot becomes bleaker. You start to question who is good, and who is bad – which is honestly probably the point of the storyline, so I guess I shouldn’t complain!
Older kids, particularly those who like novels similar to the Hunger games, will probably enjoy this novel. Even though it is not “my favorite cup of tea,” it is a well written and complex story. I would not recommend it for younger readers; it is a difficult read with some disturbing scenes.
The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel
Okay, for my first Maine State Book Award review, I read The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane, by Julia Nobel. This is actually her first book, and if you like mysteries – and I do – it was really a fun read! The story follows Emmy, an American girl from Connecticut, whose mother is a parenting expert that is, of course, too busy to parent her own child; and whose father disappeared when she was 3 years old. She is sent to a boarding school in England where she feels like the awkward new person until meeting friends, in particular Lola and Jack. There are typical middle school themes about fitting in, as well as the theme of finding close friends to be a kind of family.
However, the part of the plot that grips your imagination is the mystery around why Emmy’s father disappeared, leaving her a box of secret medallions. She, Jack and Lola end up working together, and discover an evil, power hungry secret society based at the school. Was Emmy’s father good or bad? Is he dead or alive? Who are the bad guys, and how are the kids going to expose them and survive? And I have to say, I did not see the end of the book coming – I totally missed out on guessing who was evil and who was good! It is an excellent mystery, with characters that you care for, and of course the ending leaves you waiting for the sequel. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mystery.