Book reviews of new fiction for kids and tweens from our own youth services aide!
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.