Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Katarina Ballerina and So Jelly

Peck, Tiler and Harris, Kyle. Katarina Ballerina
May 5th 2020 by Aladdin
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Katarina lives with her hardworking father in the city. She loves to dance, and has been watching flat screen televisions with videos of ballerinas on her way to school. When her friend Grant encourages her to join the talent show, she hopes that if she wins, the money will be enough for her to take lessons. She constructs a costume out of a bathing suit and tissue paper, and does an enthusiastic dance. Her father decides she deserves lessons, since her mother was also a dancer. She has a rough start at the dance school because her father didn't tell her there was a uniform of black leotards and pink tights, but she makes a good friend in Sunny, who gets her up to speed. Sunny also fools around a bit too much in class, and the teacher tells Katarina that if she really wants to be good at ballet, she needs to buckle down. When there is a competition for a summer dance camp, Katarina and Sunny put together a dance involving them both. There is some drama, but Katarina gets encouragement from dancer Tiler Peck and feels confident enough (with the help of some friends) to do her dance even after Sunny is injured right before the performance.
Strengths: I really liked the format of this book-- the font was pleasant and large, and the illustrations were exceptionally nice. Katerina works hard, and appreciates the fact that her father is paying for her lessons. There are some interesting supporting characters, and lots of information about ballet. The celebrity connection (Peck is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet) might appeal to readers as well.
Weaknesses: I was concerned that Lulu, Katerina's dog, was allowed to go with her to school and then walk unaccompanied to a corner bodega to spend the day. It seemed dangerous! And are dogs allowed on subways? (Clearly, I am not a city dweller!)
What I really think: This is too young for my readers, but would be great for elementary students who are interested in dance.

It's such a fine line-- what is going to be interesting to middle school students and what is not. Katarina involves more play (making the costume, and the attitude toward it seemed very elementary), and a different relationship with parents and teachers; The Donut Dreams books have more of a work and school focus, with more distance being put between parents and the girls at the same time that they sort of want to spend time with them. Since these books are similar in length and appearance, it's a tough call. 

Simon, Coco. So Jelly! (Donut Dreams #2)
December 10th 2019 by Simon Spotlight 
Library copy

Kelsey is glad that her family can be there for her cousin Lindsay, who lost her mother, but she is jealous as well. Since her mother is an accountant for the family restaurant and her father teaches wood shop at the local high school, she's used to spending a lot of time with her extended family. Her adopted sister Molly plays more sports than she does, and older sister Jessica is starting to obsess about college. Kelsey, who loves their small town, doesn't want anything to change, but of course it does. She starts to work more at the donut shop under the supervision of her grandfather, and this cuts down on the socializing that she can do with her friends. She's worries about Jessica leaving, and irritated when her mother starts including Lindsay in all of the special family get togethers. After the Fall Fest requires a lot of work from everyone, Kelsey is glad to accompany her mother to the big city for a presentation, and the time alone together for the two of them helps her put things into perspective. 
Strengths: While authors love to pile on the tragedies in middle grade lit (parents die, siblings die, towns are destroyed by hurricanes, and the Forces of Evil that want to take over the world can only be thwarted by tweens), I think it is the small set backs that hit more students. Worries about finances, dealing with divorced parents, balancing school and social activities, and becoming independent from parents can weigh so heavily on tweens minds, and I think that we forget this as adults. It's good to see books that address these difficulties, because a steady diet of "dad died and now mom's boyfriend abuses me" books can make young readers think that their own problems are too small to matter. These short, fast-paced books where girls have interests, ambitions, and small problems that they must learn to deal with constructively are great for readers who might struggle a bit with comprehension or who aren't quite as mature, or who have DAYS where they just aren't able to cope with Bigger Issues. Plus, donuts!
Weaknesses: There were a lot of friends and relative mentioned early on, and I had some trouble keeping them straight. This is a peril of making each book from a different character's perspective. 
What I really think: I adore Coco Simon's series, but wish they would be a bit shorter. The Cupcake Diaries series is 32 books long. I just can't buy that many. For these shorter books, ten is about all I can handle. And then someone always loses book five of the prebind when it's out of print!

Tuesday, August 04, 2020


Van Otterloo, Ash. Cattywampus
August 4th 2020 by Scholastic
E ARC provided by Edelweiss

Katybird Hearn and Delpha McGill have very different lives in the twon of Howler's Hollow in Appalachia. Katy's family is fairly well to-do. Her grandparents run a local folk museum, and her mother uses plant magic occasionally, although she is reluctant to discuss Katy's nascent powers. Delpha's family is struggling; her father left when she was young, and her grandmother recently died, leaving her and her mother, who is a midwife, to try to scrape together a living. When Delpha gathers some of her grandmother's quilts to sell to the Hearn's, she finds her grandmother's book of magic. She has trouble with one spell, and ends up animating a disused outhouse! It runs off with her wand and the book inside. Katy hears about the outhouse and goes investigating. The two girls are not friends, so Delpha is not at all pleased when Katy runs off with the book, especially since their familes (the only two with magic in their community) have been at war for a long time. Katy runs off with the book despite the warnings that another family's magic won't work for her. The two have an argument that ends with Delpha casting a "Wend-to-War" spell that ends up raising an army of zombie grannies from the cemetery for "wise women" (aka witches). Neither girl wants to ask for help from their mothers, so the two, along with their classmate Tyler, try to figure out the magic on their own. They run into a number of complications, such as a secret about Tyler's relationship to magic, a secret about Delpha's father, and difficulties about both girls' magic abilities. Unfortunately, there is a festival going on in the town, so it is imperative that the zombies be stopped. There is some help from the ghost of Katy's cousin Echo, from Tyler's uncle, and from a friend of Delpha's grandmother, but when Katy asks her mother for help, she is turned to stone by the zombies! So is Katy's brother, Caleb. As added complications, Katy's pet raccoon, Podge, is missing, and the outhouse is still running loose. Will the girls be able to muster enough power to turn things around before disaster befalls their town?
Strengths: This was certainly an action-packed, creepy novel that is unlike anything I have ever read. There are also a lot of nice touches to the characters; Katy is androgen insensitive, which means that she presents as female but is genetically male; this doesn't bother her except for the fact that it is interfering with her magical powers! Caleb is Deaf and communicates through sign language, and Tyler has two mothers. The real winner here is the zombie grannies, though, and the fact that the magical feud is feeding their tirade. There is a very strong flavor of mountain culture to the characters and the setting as well.
Weaknesses: There are a lot of difficulties with the magic and a lot of sadness in the lives of the girls, and my students generally prefer magical to be a bit more fun.
What I really think: This is really growing on me, but books set in Appalachia are a really hard sell in my library. Will have to feel out my students to see if there is an interest in magical powers that often go awry and in zombie grannies. (Which, seriously, are going to give me nightmares!)

And now I can't get a made-for-t.v. movie out of my mind. It is from the 1970s, and involved a teacher who moved to Appalachia. She was constantly trying to get her students to not shuffle their feet, but when the picked their feet off the ground, they flew. I wasn't allowed to watch many movies in the evening, but this one has stuck with me, but I can never remember the title or any more details!
Ms. Yingling

Monday, August 03, 2020

MMGM- Our Dogs, Ourselves

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 
Horowitz, Alexandra. Our Dogs, Ourselves -- How We Live with Dogs: Young Readers Edition
August 4th 2020 by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Ms. Horowitz is a scientist who studies dogs and who has written several books about dogs and their behavior, including Inside of a Dog. This current volume is more concerned with the interactions we have with our dogs. This was quite interesting to me, since I read it during the stay-at-home portion of the pandemic, so my dog Sylvie and I had just spent just about every second of six weeks together, so the first chapter about the human-dog bond? It hit home.

The various chapters hit on high interest topics that should appeal to young readers. Starting with a chapter on dog names is perfect, since that is one of the first ways we interact with pets, even before we get them. I loved the overview of the history of dog names, and the array of names that Horowitz has seen in her work. It's also interesting when Horowitz mentions her own pets and their names. There are some chapters that address the ethics of pet owning in a way that will be accessible to younger readers; is a pet property or part of the family? What are humans' obligations to dogs? Most importantly, what is the correct way to breed dogs, adopt dogs, and deal with medical issues relating to them, such as spaying and neutering as well as breed specific surgeries?

Lighter chapters include one on how people talk to their dogs, statistics about different observations Horowitz has had in her lab, pets as a force in consumerism, and the science behind the "guilty look" that dogs often exhibit, which I have long suspected is just a reaction to being reprimanded. Horowitz agrees.

I've read a number of books on the history of human/dog interactions, but I can't remember the titles because they were adult books and I didn't buy them for my library. It's a topic that I find fascinating, but haven't seen well represented in middle grade literature. There are some good historical overviews, like Sarah Albee's Dog Days, but this is the best book I've seen on every day interactions with dogs as pets. Or, as Horowitz points out, members of our families that just happen to have four legs.

Whipple, Annette. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide
August 4th 2020 by Chicago Review Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Disclaimer: I don't have an answer for how the US should address the fact that our entire country wouldn't exist if it weren't for the fact that most of our history involves stealing land from indigenous people and treating them badly. That was standard behavior for countries for some time (Alexander the Great, Roman Empire, British Empire, etc.); it is no longer acceptable. Westward Expansion happened at the expense of Native Americans, but it happened. Pioneers changed the western landscape. Those of us who grew up during the 1970s were not told about the horrible parts of history, and many of us were drawn to Wilder's stories (including Linda Sue Park). The ten-year-old me would have worn a copy of this book to rags; the present day just doesn't know what to do with it.

I talk a lot to my students about what their "essential fandom" is. There are Star Wars geeks, Whovians, Tolkien Readers, and a lot of speculative fiction communities. My essential fandom is Little House of the Prairie. I was nine when the t.v. show appeared, and had just finished the first couple of books. I was enthralled. I had a prairie dress. I wanted to churn butter.

I needed this book.

Whipple does an absolutely amazing job at going through all of the books-- chapter by chapter, really-- and picking out the most interesting bits of information and most amusing recipes and crafts. How badly did you want to poor maple syrup on snow to make candy, and how disappointing was it to find that pancake syrup did not have the same result? Now you know why that failed. There's an impressive amount of research into all manner of things, and there are some nice pictures of family homes and people that are nice to have in one place. I learned a lot-- Mary probably didn't go blind because of scarlet fever, but that made more sense to readers; Wilder skipped parts of family history in writing the books. There was even a discussion of why The First Four Years is so different in tone. There are even discussion questions at the end of each chapter about themes in the books as a whole.

The issue with Native Americans is addressed; there's really no way to do this properly and still be able to take joy from the books.

I haven't bought many of the Chicago Review Press books for my library (like Rasmussen's World War I for Kids: A History with 21 Activities or  Pitamic and Laidlaw's Modern Art Adventures: 36 Creative, Hands-On Projects Inspired by Artists from Monet to Banksy) for several reasons; most are an odd size (this is not), they are paperback, and they deal with very specific passions that don't interest the majority of my students. They would make fantastic gifts.

I thought a lot about my mother while reading this. While she was generally supportive of my interests (one family trip included a journey 100 miles out of our way to see DeSmet, South Dakota!), she wasn't one to get excited about doing crafts or cooking projects with me. I would have wanted to do every single project in this entire book, and I can imagine her hiding it at some point to get some peace! Should I buy a copy in case I ever have grandchildren?

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Harvey Holds His Own

Nelson, Colleen. Harvey Holds His Own (Harvey #2)
August 4th 2020 by Pajama Press
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Now that Austin has had to return Harvey to Maggie, he is spending more time at the Brayside Retirement Home where his grandfather works, although he is missing his friend Mr. Pickering, who passed away. However, Maggie's school requires her to do community service, and even though her friends laugh at her interest in old people, she decides to return to Brayside. Austin is thrilled to see Harvey, and feels horrible about not returning him in a timely fashion. Maggie gets assigned to help a new resident, Mrs. Fradette, settle in to her apartment and unpack, which she enjoys just as much as organizing the facility library. Mrs. Fradette slowly unrolls the story of her life, starting with the 1950 flood of Manitoba, which caused her and her mother to move in with her grandparents. Her grandfather ran a garage, and she loved to help, which was unusual at the time. Austin is worried that Brayside is going to force his grandfather to retire because they have posted his job, and he gets all of the residents to write letters supporting his grandfather, and plans a party for his "work-iversary". There is also an abandoned puppy that Harvey has found in the alley that Austin has had to turn over to the humane society, since his mother still feels they can't support a dog. Maggie's interest in Mrs. Fradette's history motivates her to write an essay for a contest, and she also starts to feel that she is outgrowing her friends at school. With all of this going on, Harvey manages to get out of the house and have a run in with a raccoon. Everything manages to end well, and the residents of Brayside not only keep Austin's grandfather employed, but surprise Austin with a gift as well.
Strengths: Brayside is portrayed as a positive environment for older residents, with activities, parties, and lots of socializing. The reality of residents ailing and dying is not glossed over, but I appreciated especially that the smell of the place was described as clean and pleasant; Maggie had thought it would smell like moth balls! Harvey is a great dog, and his interactions with the residents is very touching. Maggie's friendship with Mrs. Fradette (and Mrs. Fradette's vintage car!) really shine in this book, and her story is much happier than Mr. Pickering's.
Weaknesses: It would have made more sense for Austin to ask his grandfather about the issues at work, but that wouldn't have been as dramatic.
What I really think: I liked this better than the first book, which had some violent moments. I liked the combination of dogs with history from senior citizens, so will probably purchase the series.

Ms. Yingling

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Seven Clues to Home

Polisner, Gae and Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Seven Clues to Home
June 9th 2020 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

It's Joy's 13th birthday, but it doesn't feel like a celebration to her; it's also been a year since her best friend, Lukas, died in an accident. Told is alternating viewpoints, we see Lukas planning a birthday scavenger hunt the previous year, and Joy going through the clues a year later. From the pizza restaurant where they ate frequently, to the second hand shop where Lukas' family sold family items to make ends meet, to a park where they had a particularly fun time, we, along with Joy, revisit places that give her fond memories of her friend as she comes to terms with his death. We also get a glimpse into Lukas' life, which was complicated by things like the death of his father, a boyfriend of his mother's who ended up having trouble and left the family, and his brother's behavioral problems. Through it all, we get a good sense of the depth of their friendship, and an inkling that Lukas' nascent romantic feelings would have been returned if he hadn't passed away.
Strengths: This is certainly a lyrical and poignant tale of love and loss. Akin to The Ethan I Was Before , Haydu's, The Someday Suitcase, or Benjamin's The Thing About Jellyfish, this is one of the few books that work through the process of grieving a friend rather than a parent, grapndparent or sibling. It's nice to see the connections that the two had, and the tender regard in which they held each other. There's a bit of action in following the clues, and the story moves along quickly.
Weaknesses: There was a mention early on that Joy's parents had thought she should see a therapist other than the one at school, but she doesn't seem to have. It would have been nice if Joy was seeing someone; she clearly needed more help than she was getting dealing with this trauma.
What I really think: I don't have a lot of students ask for books such as this, but it is a great choice where there is a need for books about the grieving process.
Ms. Yingling