Resau, Laura. The Lightning Queen
October 27th 2015 by Scholastic Press
Mateo looks forward to his yearly visits with his mother's family in Mexico, in a small village known as the Hill of Dust. His grandfather was a doctor and his mother is a scientist, but on the latest visit, his grandfather tells Mateo a magical tale of a Roma girl named Esma who changed his grandfather Teo's life by declaring their undying friendship. In these story flashbacks, we learn how Esma's community traveled around showing movies from their caravan in exchange for money or small wares. Esma was partially crippled (due, she says, to being struck by lightning), but was a fabulous singer who had offers to be made a star. Teo helped his grandfather, the local healer, and his mother, who was so grief stricken after the death of his sister that she couldn't take care of Teo. The residents of the Hill of Dust welcome the Romani, with the exception of Teo's Uncle Paco, who had gone to the city but returned a failure. Teo wants to learn to read so that he can teach Esma, so he ventures to the village school, even though the teacher is very mean to the students because they speak Mixteco instead of Spanish. Esma improves the teacher's behavior by putting a Gypsy curse on her, and Teo and his grandfather help "remove" it. In time, Esma makes her way to the city and connects with a talent scout who offers to help her with her career. Teo eventually goes to school. In the present day, Mateo helps his grandfather locate Esma in the United States.
Note: While this has some "magical" elements, they are the kind that aren't really magical-- the fortune teller admits that she really doesn't know the future, she just tells people what they want to hear. I would categorize this as realistic fiction about a culture that occasionally believes in magic even though no actual magic occurs.
Strengths: Interesting look at village life in rural Mexico, as well as a compelling investigation of cultural, ethnic and economic differences and how they effect relationships. I liked how Teo managed to get an education against the odds, and how the teacher's attitude was softened. Even though I kind of knew where the story was going, this book kept me turning the pages.
Weaknesses: The mother remains depressed about the death of her daughter to the point of doing nothing more than poking through her treasure box for over fifty years? Even after the grandfather dies and Teo has no one to take care of him? Unacceptable. This was also a bit wordy for middle grade-- don't know that I've ever read an author so fond of metaphors and similes. Seriously. One every page, almost.
What I really think: I have a copy, so will put it in the collection for my readers who are avidly interested in any books with Latino culture, but I wouldn't buy a copy.
Hitchcock, Shannon. Ruby Lee and Me.
January 5th 2016 by Scholastic Press
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline
When Sarah's younger sister is hit by a car when Sarah is reading a library book instead of watching her, Robin ends up in the hospital, and Sarah feels guilty. It doesn't help that her family, hard hit by the hospital bills, moves from their small Southern town out to the country to be near grandparents. Sarah loves being in the country but misses her room, and is worried about starting a new school. Her friend Ruby Lee will also attend the school, but since she is black, Ruby Lee doesn't think that the two can be "school friends". Sarah feels odd about the whole thing-- she's friends with Ruby Lee, but sees that Ruby Lee's mother and her grandmother have a different kind of relationship, one where the grandmother is always in charge. The community struggles with the school integration as well, and Sarah must figure out a way to deal with her grief about her sister's hospitalization as well as the changes in her relationship with Ruby.
Strengths: This is set in 1969, and I had no idea that schools in the South were still not integrated at that point. In Ohio, there was a lot of busing in Cleveland in the late 1970s, but that was because neighborhoods were uneven, not because black children were not allowed to go to certain schools. In fact, there was a black child in my father's first grade class in 1940 in Akron, so this surprised me. The author based many of the characters and the setting on people and places that she knew well.
Weaknesses: I wasn't sure at first when this book took place, and there could have been more information about the state of Civil Rights at the time. I was glad the author mentioned the "inaccuracy" involving the broadcast dates of All My Children, because I did catch that! I would have liked a few more period details about food, etc., and would have preferred the cover showed 1969 fashions-- girls' skirts weren't this long until about 1976, having been fairly short for a long time, and the pinafore... I just don't know what went on here. The Gone Crazy in Alabama cover depicts fashions at the time much better!
And look! The cover on the left is the one that was actually published! I'm not the only one that thought the first attempt didn't get the outfits quite right. Short overalls are too long, though, as is the dress. Better than pinafore!
My daughter would like everyone to know that I am just a crazy person and that these things don't matter. I once complained that a book referenced Pop Tarts two years before they debuted. If my own life is going to be "history", I want it to be correct!