Levine, Deborah A. and Riley, JillEllynn. The Saturday Cooking Club
February 3rd 2015 by Aladdin
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline
Liza and Frankie have been friends forever, and always work together on their school projects. When they have a family history/immigration project that requires three people, Liza asks Lillian to partner with them. Lillian is new to the Brooklyn school and very quiet. Frankie is disappointed, because she wanted cute Evan to work with them. Three three decide that a good topic for the project would be food, and when they find a cooking class focusing on the melting pot of American food, led by Liza's favorite tv star, Chef Antonio, they decide to take it. The one catch? An adult has to take it with them. All of their mothers are too busy, but the girls rope them in, and all three mothers end up in the class. Lillian's mother is a master cook (and a very controlling one), but only in her native Chinese cooking; Liza's mother is a good cook but very distracted by the demands of being a high powered magazine editor and single mother; Frankie's mother is a disaster in the kitchen, burning everything in sight, and her father, a fireman, is the one who keeps the household in food. As the girls learn about different sorts of foods and how they came into the American mainstream, they have interpersonal problems with each other as well as their mothers, but they keep working on their project and persevering even when things don't go as planned on the day of their final presentation.
Strengths: Cooking is a good way to tie together a multicultural group of friends-- Lillian is Chinese, Frankie is Italian, and Liza is half Jewish and half African-American. Their differences come up in the project, but don't really affect their friendship or anything else, so the book is about differences in general rather than particular cultures. The problems were realistic, and the families were great and supportive, even when they weren't perfect.
Weaknesses: There isn't much about Lillian's family, and her mother is the most static character-- she does thaw a little at the very end, but spends most of the book being really controlling and rather nasty. Also, it's risky to assign any sort of family history/immigration project because so many students have NO idea what their family background is, often knowing nothing about their great-grandparents. Still, a better choice than yet another bully, school election, or school dance themed book!
What I really think: I love books like this that are just easy and enjoyable to read, don't have any horrible, sad problems, and are just well and solidly written. I'd take twenty of these over one horrible, angst-ridden tear-jerker about a child who is grieving a parent any day, and so would my students. Go, M!X books!
Sonnichsen, A.L. Red Butterfly
February 3rd 2015 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline
Kara lives in China with Mama, who is an elderly American woman. Kara has a deformed arm, and was abandoned as an infant; Mama takes her in, but fails to get proper documentation for her, so when her husband goes back to Montana, she stays illegally in the country, subsisting on very little money. Kara does not speak Chinese very well or go to school, but strikes up an uneasy friendship with a neighbor boy and teaches him English. This comes to an end after Mama's daughter comes to visit, and has a pulmonary embolism. She is in the hospital for quite some time, the police are involved, and Kara ends up in an orphanage after Mama is sent back to the US. There, she works with a physical therapist from New Zealand and gets to know some of the other children. She is placed fairly quickly with a family from the US who have two sons and two daughters, who were adopted from China. It takes Kara quite some time to feel comfortable with the family, and she longs for Mama, who was too old to be allowed to file for adopting Kara. Eventually, Kara learns to play the piano, and adjusts to life in the US.
Strengths: This gave an interesting perspective of Chinese orphanages and some of the children who end up there due to political policy and physical disabilities, as well as that of a young girl who is forced to move from China to the US.
Weaknesses: Novels in verse don't do well with my students, and this was a very sad book. It also could have had more information about what it is like to live in China. I would love to see a book about an average middle grade child in China-- Kara had too many US influences.
What I really think: I think the author really wanted to share her experiences in China, since she lived there and has a child who had a similar beginning to Kara's, but I don't know if this book will resonate with middle grade readers due to length, format, and content.