Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Tilted Sky

Emei, Yao and Zhang, Emily (trans.) Tilted Sky 
May 7, 2024 by Levine Querido
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Bai Jian is eleven, and is being raised in China by his father, Hei Jian. His mother abandoned hiim when he was very young, and he was raised for a while by his grandmother, until she passed away. Hei Jian was in college when Bai Jian's mother, Jie, got pregnant, and has had trouble keeping jobs. There is rarely enough money, and the two often eat nothing but noodles or rice, even though there seems to be enough money for alcohol. The father also has trouble staying in relationships, although his last girlfriend, Jing, was very kind to Bai Jian. When the father doesn't have the school fees, Bai Jian is sad that he can't go to school, but when he finally starts, he is worried that his father is leaving him at a boarding school. When students are supposed to leave for the weekend, he's told to go to Jing's. This works for a while, since Jing is truly fond of him, but she is looking to move on, and is dating men who don't necessarily want to deal with an eleven year old boy. He makes contact with his mother, who isn't quite sure what to do with him. Over Christmas, his father goes on holiday with his new girlfriend, Wei, Jie is not home, and Bai Jian catches Jing and her new boyfriend just as they are also heading out. He manages to stay in Jing's apartment by himself for an entire week, eating ramen and spending most of his days playing games in an internet cafe. When Jing comes back, she is so upset that she says she will see if she can adopt Bai Jian. When school fees are due again, Bai Jian is forced to get money from the aunt who is living in his grandmother's old house, as well as from Jie. Jing is engaged to marry a blind man who is working at a massage clinic. Bai Jian is enthralled, and asks to have an apprenticeship there. His unsettled life continues as his father gets a job traveling and working on films. Will he ever have the warm bed, full stomach, and stability afforded to the other children are his school?
Strengths: I'm a huge fan of books that are translated from other languages and show what daily life is like in other countries; what better way to find out how children in other countries live? There are good details about the various dwellings and food, and Bai Jian's school. Bai Jian's predicament of not having anyone care for him, and of being severely neglected, might resonate with readers who want to feel better about their own life situations. 
Weaknesses: This had several f-bombs, and the language definitely felt more adult, which perhaps just shows a cultural difference. Several phrases strike me as ones that wouldn't appear in a US publication: Bai Jian talks about how people at his school call him a "girly wimp" and at one point opines that he wouldn't have chosen to give birth to a baby under the circumstances his parents had him but "would have strangled him to death" first! There is also not a lot that happens, except for the horrible back and forth as the adults in Bai Jian's life try to pawn him off on someone else. 
What I really think: This reminded me strongly of Tanaka's 2012 Nobody Knows in the horrible circumstances that Bai Jian has to struggle through. I wish there had been another plot in addition to Bai Jian's struggles to find a home, and more details about ordinary, every day life. This did make me wonder that perhaps some Chinese child rearing methods are even more concerning than British ones! 

Ms. Yingling

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Fantasy Round Up

Beck, Miya T. Through a Clouded Mirror
May 28, 2024 by Balzer + Bray
E ARC provided Netgalley

Yuki Snow moves to Santa Dolores, leaving behind her best friend Julio. Yuki's father passed away, but was a professor who taught philosophy classes based on Alice in Wonderland and put together a poetry event for the local schools. Yuki's mother, Hana, has remarried a kind man named Doug, who gets Yuki a "magic mirror" with a tiger on it from a local store. She is so enthralled with it that she visits the shop to buy one for Julio, and meets the owner, Momo Fujita, who tells her the story of Sei Shōnagon, famous poet and author of The Pillow Book. Since Yuki is also fond of making lists, she is intrigued, and interviews Ms. Fujita for a school project, spending some time in the shop. When Yuki has a falling out with Julio, she has to deal with a mean teacher, Ms. Ghosh, and she finds out that her mother is pregnant at 41, Yuki escapes into the magical world of the mirror, where she meets Sei Shōnagon and finds out that even though she is from the Land of A Merry Cat, she is in the running to become the next priestess of poetry.
This was an interesting twist on Japanese folklore and would be a good choice for readers who enjoy portal fantasies like Bedard's The Egyptian Mirror, Giles's The Last Mirror on the Left, or Abu-Jaber's Silverworld.

Brosgol, Vera. Plain Jane and the Mermaid.
May 7, 2024 by First Second
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Interesting mash up of a lot of oceanic folklore; selkies, evil mermaids, shipwrecks, and more. There's also several strong social messages, made even more pronounced by the Victorian setting. I can see readers who enjoyed Ostow's The Girl From the Sea liking this one. Pick this one up if you like Brosgol's style in Be Prepared

From the Publisher:
Jane is incredibly plain. Everyone says so: her parents, the villagers, and her horrible cousin who kicks her out of her own house. Determined to get some semblance of independence, Jane prepares to propose to the princely Peter, who might just say yes to get away from his father. It’s a good plan!

Or it would’ve been, if he wasn’t kidnapped by a mermaid.

With her last shot at happiness lost in the deep blue sea, Jane must venture to the underwater world to rescue her maybe-fiancé. But the depths of the ocean hold beautiful mysteries and dangerous creatures. What good can a plain Jane do? 

Weinberger, Justin. Dead in the Water (Zombie Season #2)
May 7, 2024 by Scholastic Press
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

After their adventures in Zombie Season, Ollie Wachs and his sister Kirby are staying with their parents in a college dorm, so feel a little more secture. When he hears from Regina, who needs his help, he convinces his aunt to take him and his friends back to Redwood. There, he meets up with Regina and finds that she wants him to help her hide a zombie, Nix, for a couple of days! The kids have uncovered more evil doings by HumaniTeam and are trying to get proof against them lined up. In Alaska, the zombies have arrived, and they're not just any zombies: they are giant zombies that have been made stronger, and the kids fear that the new and improved weapon, the Cloudbuster, will not destroy the zombies, but empower them. Anton, whose cousin Alek was killed in a zombie attack, manages to work his way to California and meets up with the group. Jeule is in New York, but when zombies attack a beach there, she also makes her way to Redwood. Regina's mom takes control of Project Cloudburst, and Nix becomes a pawn in the struggle between HumaniTeam and other forces. There is sure to be a third book in the series, as Nix needs to be rescued before he is once again subjected to intrusive testing. 

This is a great zombie adventure, but I was not feeling zombies when I read it. There is some sort of video game attached to this online, so has that 39 Clues element. It also has a paper over board cover. 

Cooper, Abby. True Colors
May 7, 2024 by Astra Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Mackenzie has long dealt with the fact that she radiates colors that mirror her emotions, and when she was made fun of for that, her parents moved the family to Serenity, where everyone has to be nice to one another all the time and consistently happy. Since it's clear with Mackenzie is not in a good mood, she starts to struggle in Serenity as well, especially when other people in the town of 1,000 start to also have mood colored auras. When Stella Scott arrrives in the town with her two children, Rayna and Benny, tensions start to mount in the idyllic community. This is a great choice for fans of Haydu's Eventown,  Redman's Quintessence, or Collins' The Town with No Mirrors. I think Serenity sounds like a great place. The problem with all of these dystopias seems to be that the children are forced to live in them by their parents, and they are not young enough to appreciate how nice it would be if everyone just kept their thoughts to themselves and were polite. This is on trend with the current philosophy that it is "okay to not be okay". I found Mackenzie's descriptions of the colors of the auras (and there were a lot of them) a little confusing. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

MMGM- Capitol Chase

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 
Landis, Matthew. Capitol Chase (National Archive Hunters #1)
May 14, 2024 by Pixel+Ink
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Twins Ike and Iris Carter are very different. Ike is a huge history buff, and Iris is a select athlete. Both get along with their parents; ex-Army dad works in security at the children's Montessor school, K Street Academy, and their mother is in charge of the small Americana museum. The family, who lives in Foggy Bottom, often does training runs on the Rock Creek Trail at 5 a.m. to the Lincoln Memorial and are very supportive of the mother's work. When she has a new installation, Fashion of the Founders, Ike and Iris both help out, circulating hors d'oeuvres while the father tries to cover security. When checking out the miniature display, Iris sees a girl acting suspiciously, and when she breaks the glass and steals a miniature of George Washington. Hoping to be able to catch the girl, the twins take after her, but are unable to catch her due to a man in spandex who slams into them. The miniature is not worth much, so Ike suspects that the thief is trying to amass a collection. They consult with Ruby, who works at the National Archives Research Center where their mother has taken a part time job. They get some good information, and when they suspect that another theft will occur, they go with their mother on a trip she takes to Philadelphia to try to shore up the poor reputation of the Americana. They again run into the girl, who manages to steal a ring that had belonged to Alexander Hamilton. Since they are present at a second robbery, they are questioned by the FBI. It looks bad, and they retain Stu, a lawyer who operates out of a deli. He tells them not to answer questions without him. When Ike and Iris find out that a French book is going to be viewed in Boston, they think it is the net item that will be stolen. They try to stop this heist, are unable to, and are now in BIG trouble. Their names are all over the news, and their mother is fired. Not only has Ike worked out that there is a French connection to American history, and determined what items are likely to be targets, but he has even figured out the most likely culprit. It's not someone who wants to steal things, although she is quite good at it, and there seems to be an evil organization involving Cincinnatus behind the plot. Will Ike and Iris be able to catch the thief, retrieve the items, and somehow manage to save the Americana museum so their mother can keep her job? 

I'm a big fan of a good art heist, like Salane's Lawless, Wells' Eddie Red, McLean's  Catch Us if You Can (Jewel Society#1), Ponti's Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery,or Carter's Heist Society, and this does have a decided National Treasure feel to it that even Ike and Iris acknowledge. There haven't been as many new spy and heist books as I need lately, so it was great to see this one. 

It's also very clear that Landis knows his history. He's a social studies teacher who clearly has a good sense of humor and knows how to engage kids. He's also invented an interesting small museum, the Americana, which the Carter family is quite attached to. There is a lot of Revolutionary War history conveyed through the artifacts, and even more about the various repositories of artifacts that was fascinating. Ruby is a fabulous character, and so knowledgeable that I was pretty sure at several points that SHE might be the thief. (Is she? I won't tell.)

There's plenty of action and adventure, and the Carter's training with their ex-military father comes in handy. One of the things that I enjoyed the most was the fact that they got in trouble with the FBI and got a lot of negative press. I've read a lot of stories where children are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but any repercussions always seem to magically go away. The fact that Ike and Iris had to prove that they weren't the thieves tickled me and also moved the plot along quickly. 

I wasn't as big a fan of the kids' personalities and attitudes, but that might be because I have to deal with similar sassiness from middle school students every day. Ike's mother knows that he has a tendency to talk down to people and to be rather brusque, and even punishes him for it. I'm hoping that as the series continues and the twins identify and fight against Cincinnatus that they both grow as characters. 

Like Gibbs' Spy School series, this involves parents, which I always find delightful. With mom's antiquities skills, you know they won't be putting lemon juice on the back of the Constitution to look for clues, and when we find out more about dad's army service, I see a lot of opportunities for connections from the past to surface, some of whom might have access to exciting forms of transportation or secret locations. I would be all for a return visit to Camp David, which I first got to visit in Garretson's Wildfire Run and could have imagined a great chase scene in The Cozy Restaurant, which sadly closed in 2014. This is a fantastic title to have to encourage middle grade readers to understand the impact on history on the present day. 

Sunday, May 19, 2024


Gow, Robin. Gooseberry.
May 14, 2024 by Amulet Books
E ARC provided by Netgalley

**Slight spoiler in What I Really Think* 

 B has been in foster care since the age of five, when their parents died, and has struggled to find a permanent placement. Currently, they are living with Mandy and Rick, who "smell like chicken broth and dead roses" and do not always correctly gender B, who identifies as non-binary. At a block party, B sees rescue dog Gooseberry, and is immediately drawn to him, being very emotional when told that there is no way the family can adopt a dog. After the foster parents return B to Haven House, a group home, B is placed with Eri (who is trans) and Jodi, a lesbian couple who are very understanding. Despite a rough start with B, who also evidences some neurodivergent qualities, they decide to adopt Gooseberry. Gooseberry has been traumatized, is very leery of humans, and spends a lot of time under the kitchen table. Despite this, and despite being told by Eri and Jodi to give Gooseberry the kind of space that B themselves often wants, B is obsessed with training Gooseberry so that he can be a service dog who visits Haven House. Gooseberry does not do well with the training. While living in his new foster home goes fairly well, school is still a struggle. B has a good group of friends, including Clementine, who uses ze/zero pronouns, but is also made fun of frequently by Cody and Zane, who pick on just about every aspect of B's personality. The teacher tells B to ignore them. Eri and Jodi don't like that, and offer to call Cody and Zane's parents, but also suggest that perhaps B should pick out a name to help solidify their identity. A crisis occurs when the class is on a camping trip, and Jodi brings Gooseberry. Gooseberry runs away, as he has been wont to do, and B reconciles a bit with Cody when the two are helping to find the dog. Will B be able to choose a name for themselves and remain at their new home?
Strengths: It is good to see a variety of experiences in foster care, since this is something that an increasing number of students are seeing or living. The inclusion of a rescue dog, and a description of his plight, was interesting, especially since B wanted to train Gooseberry as a service dog to visit the Haven House. The LGBTQIA+ representation was well done, and the problems B faces definitely occur in some settings. There's a happy ending.
Weaknesses: While it was good to see that Eri and Jodi wanted B to be happy, there was not enough consideration given to Gooseberry's well being. B was not kind to the dog, did not respect the dog's boundaries, and repeatedly endangered the animal. It seemed hard to believe that Jodi would bring the Gooseberry to the camping trip, having witnessed how poorly B read signals from the dog. This reminded me a bit of Arnold's A Boy Called Bat, where Bat really wants to keep a skunk as a pet even though it is not the best environment for the skunk.
What I really think: It was completely apparent to me that B was on the autism spectrum, given the description of the emotional states B experiences, but there is no official diagnosis until the end of the book. This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed Riley's Jude Saves the World or Taylor's Starting from Scratch.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

#MGLit Theme: Water!

Tracy, Taylor. Murray Out of Water
May 21, 2024 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Murray lives with her parents, baby brother Sean, older sister Kelly, and the shadow of older brother Patrick, who doesn't speak to the family, in Lavalette, New Jersey, along the shore. She loves being in the water, and seems to feel she has magic that can control the water and help her save creatures from it. Her mother doesn't understand why she wants to be a marine biologist, and hopes that she will be a doctor or lawyer, even though her grades are mediocre. When a massive storm approaches, the family evacuates inland to stay with an aunt and uncle from who they are estranged due to the circumstances with Patrick. The family is welcoming, especially older cousin Laura, who has a funky sense of fashion and wants to be called Blake and use they/them pronouns. Murray is worried about this, mainly because her mother is very religious, and is critical even of Murray's desire to read Stonewall Honor books. After the storm is over, the family finds out that their home is badly damaged, and they will have to rebuild. Kelly decides to go back home and live with a friend, and the mother and father are taking baby Sean to stay in an apartment the father has for his work. Patrick has reconnected with the family tentatively, since he was checking in with the aunt and uncle during the storm. The father seems glad, but the mother is still not happy, as the fact that Patrick is gay doesn't align with her values. Murray enjoys being with her aunt and uncle, even though she misses the sea, and makes a friend at her new school, CJ Hooker Middle School. Dylan is bullied by the other students, but the two enjoy being at the local roller rink, where the owner is supportive of all of the teens and tweens who come there to skate and practice roller derby. Murray starts to realize that she doesn't like to dress in the girly way her mother makes her, but Dylan would like to wear dresses. This conversation leads to a drag show at the roller rink. Will Murray be able to live her own authentic life while keep ing the peace with her parents?
Strengths: This was an interesting novel in verse that addresses the problem of being forced out of one's home by a natural disaster, and the author's note that this was based on Superstorm Sandy was intriguing. Murray is a very typical tween who is both wanting to please her parents but also rebelling against their unreasonable stances on many issues. Her aunt and uncle, along with her cousin, are more supportive, and it was good to see that Patrick also had support from family members even if he didn't have it from his parents. The local skating rink was a fun setting, and the LGBTQIA+ community shows the importance of found families.
Weaknesses: There was a lot going on in this book, and it would have been a fine story without the magic, which seemed to take me out of the story a bit and was confusing. For the record, the name of the school has nothing to do with TJ Hooker, the 1980s police drama with William Shatner.
What I really think: This will be a popular book with the fans of the work of Lisa Bunker, A.J. Sass, and Kyle Luckoff.

Manzer, Jenny. Picture a Girl
May 14, 2024 by Orca Book Publishers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Adelaide and her brother Billabong live on the coast of the Pacific Ocean where their mother is very invested in surfing, hence their names. Addie and Billy often have to take care of themselves, since their mother often self-medicates with alcohol when depressed and their father lives in Australia. The three live in a small rental cottage in a tourist community, and their mother finds enough work waitressing or working in other service industry jobs to support them, but they still have to shop at thrift stores and get food from the Food share pantry. Addie hopes that she can register for a local surfing contest and win the big prize to help out her family, and her friend Pokey, who has a supportive home environment, tries to help her out with this. When the mother goes "off for a little adventure" so she can return briefly to being "Jeanie Bean, girl surfer", Addie and Billy have to take care of themselves. Addie is injured during the surfing competition, their landlord demands payment, and Addie's teachers are concerned about her. When her mother returns, will anything change? 

This had some similarities to Walter's The King of the Jam Sandwiches and Rudd's How to Stay Invisible, and included some interesting things about British Columbia surfing culture that I hadn't seen before. This author also wrote My Life as a Diamond.

Wolo, Mamle. Flying through Water
May 14, 2024 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Sena has a fairly stable life in Ghana. He lives with his mother, sister, and brother, and well as his grandfather, who loves to tell stories. He goes to school, and is stressing about his exams, especially when his grandfather's health worsens. Sena's friend, Bright, has despaired of school and decides to take a job fishing some miles away. Sena, missing his grandfather and concerned that his continued education will cause hardship for his family, decides to run away and join his friend. When he gets to Volta Lake where the boys will work, he is dismayed to find abysmal living conditions, very poor food, and an abusive environment. Being in the water and fixing boats leaves his skin open to wounds and infections, and he sometimes halluncinates and thinks he sees the spirit Mami Wata. When a tragedy occurs, Sena gathers his resolve and swims away from the overseers. He manages to make himself a small shelter and gather food for himself, which is a better life than he had fishing. He would like to get back home, and when he sees men from the Ghana Wildlife manatee protection unit, they help him. He finds out that the men who hired him and Bright to fish were human traffickers, and that what he thought was Mami Wata was actually a manatee. 

Like this author's The Kaya Girl, this is an interesting look at life in Ghana, and when Sena is living on his own, reminded me a bit of George's My Side of the Mountain

Friday, May 17, 2024

Linus and Etta Could Use a Win and With Just One Wing

Huntoon, Caroline. Linus and Etta Could Use a Win
May 7, 2024 by Macmillan Publishers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Linus and his family have moved from New York to Ohio to be near his grandmother, who is getting older and need support. He is apprehensive about his new school, but glad for a fresh start. He has recently come out as trans, and was tired of answering questions that people had. At his new school, he can just be himself. On the first day, he meets the outspoken Etta, who has died her hair green and wears black nail polish. Her former best friend, Marigold, accuses her of being "anti everything", but Etta is just tired of middle school and looking forward to next year, when she hopes to get into the Nova alternative high school. When Marigold points out that she'll need extra curriculars, Etta brags that she could get anyone elected to a student council position, and Marigold dares her to get Linus elected. Linus is struggling with having to see his grandmother twice a week; his dead name is the same as his grandmother's, and she is unwilling to see Linus as a boy. Wanting to make his only friend happy, he agrees to run. Eventually, the fact that he is trans is shared, and Etta is okay with this fact, even though she doesn't react to it in an optimal way. She's more upset by the fact that Linus is friendly with Marigold. After he is even more friendly with Marigold at a party, that fact that Marigold dared Etta to get Linus elected comes out. Will the two be able to repair their friendship, and will Linus use the platform of student council to promote LGBTQIA+ acceptance at his new school.
Strengths: This addresses the issue of transitioning in a way similar to Salazar's The More and More or medina's The One Who Loves You Most; those are the only two I can think of that address boys getting periods, as well as the use of chest binders. Although Etta is prickly, and is very hurt by her friendship with Marigold coming to an end, she has a good heart, and welcomes Linus to the school. Linus' parents are very supportive, and his grandmother eventually comes around. There is other diversity as well; Linus' friend Olive in New York has two fathers, and there is a math teacher, Mx. B., who identifies as non-binary.
Weaknesses: I always have trouble with books that feature school elections, and found it odd that the school would state that there would be two girls and two boys elected to serve as 8th grade representatives. Middle grade books also seem to have more school assemblies than I have ever seen; my school doesn't have its own auditorium, so that only assemblies we have are twice a year behavior assemblies, and pep assemblies.
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed Gino's Green, Polonsky's Gracefully Grayson (which came out in 2014!), or Riley's Jude Saves the World, but also would like the intrigue of middle school politics and elections.

Woods, Brenda. With Just One Wing
May 14, 2024 by Nancy Paulsen Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss

Coop was left at a hospital as an infant under the Safe Haven law, and was adopted into a loving family. His father plays trombone with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his mother is spending the summer in San Francisco teaches piano at the university level. Coop spends a lot of time with his Nona and G-Pop, and enjoys being able to see his friend Zandi, who lives nearby. There is a nest of mockingbirds that G-Pop and the kids are watching. Once the eggs hatch and most of the birds leave the nest, there is still one bird remaining. Coop climbs the tree to investigate, but falls from the tree and breaks his arm. Later, they realize that the bird has not left the next because it only has one wing. They manage to get the bird down and keep it safe, feeding it every 45 minutes with an eyedropper. It's against the law to keep wild birds, so they find a rehabilitation facility willing to take the bird, whom they name Hop. Coop, however, feels sympathy for the animal and doesn't want to abandon him the way that he was abandoned, but knows that the bird needs friends who can help him learn to sing. He runs away to visit the facility on his own, and finally makes peace not only with giving up Hop, but with the fact that his birth mother faced a similar difficult decision and did what she thought was best.

Woods always manages to work music into her books in a very interesting way, like in her Saint Louis Armstrong Beach or When Winter Robeson Came. This also reminded me a little of Williams-Garcia's Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, with the bus adventure to the bird sanctuary. There were also good details about taking care of wild animals properly.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Spy Ring and Puzzleheart

Durst, Sarah Beth. Spy Ring
May 21, 2024 by Clarion Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus


Rachel and her best friend Joon are eleven, and live in Setauket, Long Island, New York. Rachel's mother is planning on marrying her boyfriend, who has been living with them for a year, and whom Rachel likes. Rachel and Joon have recently been obsessed with the Culper Ring during the Revolutionary War, and have been practicing their spying just like Anna "Nancy" Smith Strong, a local woman long thought to be the first woman spy for George Washingon. When they eavesdrop on Rachel's mom and Dave, they hear them talking about a silver ring that Dave wants to give Rachel so she feels included in their wedding, even though they haven't asked very much for her input. The ring apparently belonged to Nancy, even though it doesn't have enough provenance for the local museum to accept it. Rachel is so excited by this prospect that she and Joon rifle through her mother's things, find the ring, and clean it up. There is an inscription in it that says "find me", and the two decide that this must lead to a treasure, which would come in handy, since Joon's father has lost his job and the family is looking for affordable housing, most of which is located hours away from Setauket. They start at the local cemetary, where they find Nancy's tombstone and decipher a clue that gives them "stone". From there, they go to Patriot's Rock, see a 300 year old church, and inquire there. A woman suggests they look at the mural in their school, and the janitor kindly lets them in and helps them determine where Devil's Rock is. Later, looking at the local mill, they find numbers in the millstones on the ground around the 1930s reproduction. They get info from the library, and also from Linda, an elderly docent at the local museum. They even manage to get a key from an antique clock by setting it to the time 3:55! The portrait they saw at the library of Nancy and her husband gives them more clues, and the kids eventually have to ask Dave for help. He calls family members who have Nancy's family Bible, and by using a blow dryer on the pages, uncover another clue. This takes them to the attic, where Terry, who has not been happy with having kids wandering around historic sites, helps them uncover a box in the steeple of the church. Will this box hold the treasure? And will it help provide a way for Joon's family to stay?
Strengths: Ah, summer. Wouldn't it be great to have a day to bike around a picturesque portion of Long Island with your best friend and solve a 250 year old mystery about a strong and courageous woman who never got her due? Rachel and Joon do just that. All of the places in the book are based on really places in Setauket, where the author lives. There's clearly a lot of love for the area, as well as for local history in the writing. As someone who was eleven during the US Bicentennial, this story reminded me very strongly of the books and articles in Cricket Magazine that were prevalent at the time. Youngsters were always investigating historical events and finding out information that 200 years of adults couldn't uncover. This also had a bit of the feel of some 1950s series books set on the East Coast (which seemed VERY exotic to my Ohio sensibilities!) where kids would roam around the historic sites and sandy shoreline solving mysteries with the help of friendly old people. This is perfect summer reading for a rising fourth grader, but be prepared for a lot of pleas to travel to Setauket and the East Coast to see more Revolutionary War history.
Weaknesses: As an adult, it stretched my credulity that the children were able to intuit all of these clues so quickly, but as a youngster, I would have believed it completely.
What I really think: This is a bit of a departure from Durst's fantasy books, but is a great exploration of little known US history that will appeal to readers who enjoyed Gutman's Flashback Four or Beil's The Swallowtail Legacy. It would make a great read aloud to go along with a Revolutionary War curriculum. 

Reese, Jenn. Puzzleheart
May 14, 2024 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Perigee and her father are traveling to visit her estranged grandmother, Savannah Ecklund, who lives in the puzzle house that she built with her husband, Herbert. After he died suddenly when Perigee's father was young, Savannah sent her son to live with relatives because she was so consumed with grief. Perigee hopes that by bringing their father to visit, it will help him with his depression after losing his job and reconnect him with his mother. The house on Enigma Lane was supposed to be open to the public, and never was, so the puzzles Savannah and Herbert had planned never got to be operated. Savannah is in the house with Lily, whom she is watching while Lily's mother is doing search and rescue training, and the two have to sleep in the library because the rest of the house is so dangerous. Lily and Perigee are determined to solve the puzzle and make the house safe, but the House is not happy, and we hear from it in alternating chapters. The two children are able to find some coins that operate some of the puzzles, like a waterfall behind glass, but get lost in some of the secret passages, which is dangerous. They make some good progress, but Savannah is not happy at all, and threatens to raze the house because she wants to be left alone. This hurts the House's feelings, which makes things more dangerous. Will Perigee and Lily be able to solve the puzzle and reconcile Perigee's father and grandmother?
Strengths: Perigee's desire to help their father and reunite their family is admirable, and the idea of a puzzle house is enthralling. The details of the house are endlessly fascinating, and I sort of want a wooden puzzle version of the house to make, complete with tiny squirrel statues! Lily is a good foil for Perigee, and willing to go along with all of the plans while having ideas of her own. This has a happy ending, which is not always the case when a sentient House is angry with you.
Weaknesses: I always have a hard time believing that parents are so affected by grief that they abandon living children who need them, but I suppose it does happen. The father's depression is hinted at, but since it affects Perigee so much, more details about how the two deal with this might have been instructional for younger readers.
What I really think: This is very similar to Currie's The Mystery of the Locked Rooms (4/2/24), which had a puzzle house that had long been abandoned until children break in and solve the puzzles. This will be a big hit with fans of this author's Every Bird a Prince and A Game of Fox & Squirrels or books with sentient houses like Funaro's Watch Hollow or Josephson's Ravenfall.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Cruzita and the Mariacheros

Granillo, Ashley. Cruzita and the Mariacheros
April 2, 2024 by Carolrhoda Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Cruzita lives in Pacoima, California, where her great uncle has had a panaderia, Lupe's Bakery, since 1978. After his death, her grandmother, Mamá Vincenta, has inherited it, and she, along with Cruzita's mother, father, and Tia Pocha, are trying to keep it in business. None of them are as good at baking, so business is dropping. Often, her father ends up driving their food truck (aka "The Flamingo") to the homeless shelter to donate more product than they sell. Cruzita, who envisions herself a famous pop star if she is just given the chance, knows the way out of this dilemma: she and her best friend Kelli are going to enter the Rising Star Contest at the Encore Island Amusement Park and win enough money to save the bakery. When her parents tell her that a trip there is out of the question, she is devastated, especially when Kelli tells her of her own plan to go to the Encore Island in Nashville and enter. To make matters worse, Cruzita is not allowed to enjoy her summer vacation, but must work in the bakery, running the cash register. She tries a few times to drum up business by singing, but the word has spread that the baked goods are not up to their previous quality. Her cousins don't have to work because they are visiting relatives in Mexico. Cruzita doesn't do a great job, and Mamá eventually comes up with a plan. If Cruzita takes violin lessons from a mariachi studio run by Jaime, she won't have to work such long hours. This is a hard ask, because the kids at the studio speak a lot more Spanish than Cruzita does, and even though her great grandfather, whose violin Mamá gifts her, was a great player, Cruzita has never played. She does meet Araceli and Marcus at the studio, and they are very supportive. As the bakery's fortunes worsen, Cruzita becomes more and more determined to win the Encore Island prize. There is a new contest for Latin music that groups can enter by submitting a video rather than going to the park, so Cruzita and Araceli round up the students and come up with a performance for Mamá's birthday. When Kelli offers to pay the costs of Cruzita's trip to Encore Island Nashville, she jumps at the opportunity to go, since she has had a difference of opinion with her new friends. Will Cruzita be able to stay true to her family and also save the bakery?
Strengths: Cruzita's absolute belief that she can be a pop star by winning a contest perfectly embodies the magical thinking that many middle grade students embrace. Her distractibility as she "performs" for imaginary crowds is both painful and hopeful. The bakery's struggles are realistic, and the family's efforts to save it are heartbreaking. Cruzita's struggles with Spanish, a language spoken by her family, will resonate with readers who may themselves not speak the language that other members of their families do. Kelli was an interesting foil, and seeing her life through Cruzita's eyes underlined the differences between their family cultures. After reading this, I felt like I needed to do a deep dive into the music of Selena, so having a playlist included was very helpful.
Weaknesses: There are a growing number of tweens trying to save family businesses, so this isn't a new idea, although the inclusion of mariachi music sets it apart.
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed the family bakery setting in Meriano's A Dash of Trouble, Hirandani's How to Find What You're Not Looking For, or Wang's The Many Meanings of Meilanor the food truck family business in Torres' Stef Soto, Taco Queen. I can't think of any other middle grade novels that include mariachi music! 

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Finn and Ezra's Bar Mitzvah Time Loop

Levy, Joshua S. Finn and Ezra's Bar Mitzvah Time Loop
May 14, 2024 by Katherine Tegen Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Ezra has experienced his bar mitzvah several times, and know that he is stuck in some kind of time loop, but isn't quite sure what to do about it. Every Sunday at 1:36 p.m., he gets sent back to Friday morning.A couple days in to this, he meets Finn, who is also stuck in the same weekend, and is also having a bar mitzvah celebration at the Bergenville Hotel and Convention Center. Other than those similarities, the two have little in common. Finn is an only child with parents who dote on hi; Ezra is from a large Orthodox family that seems to forget he exists.  Finn has approached this experience very scientifically, trying to take notes and research how a time loop can be interrupted. His best hypothesis is that each boy needs to live a "perfect" day to make time start to progress again. Finn spends a lot of time insinuating himself into Ezra's life to figure out what would be perfect in that situation, and has already tried to delineate that kind of day in his world. The two boys do try to ask Rabbi Neumann for help with the time loop, but it's hard to get anyone to take them seriously. There is a convention of physicists in town at the convention center, and the boys think that the time loop might have something to do with that. And, who better to help them with their problem? They identify Dr. London as someone who might have the knowledge to help them get unstuck, and they work on ways to help the scientist remember her work as each day repeats. At one point, she needs a lot of gold to build a cage so that the data stays the same in each plane of existence, and the boys take several days to architect a bank robbery! As the boys go through the same day multiple times, they do undercover secrets about their lives that they didn't quite see on the first pass through. When Dr. London's research is sabotaged, is it possible that there is a third person stuck in the loop who wants to stay there? Will Finn and Ezra be able to get to 1:37 p.m., move on with their lives, but also learn to appreciate each moment more?
Strengths: Finn and Ezra were unlikely allies who got along really well and were game to try any number of different approaches to get the time loop to stop. There's a very good balance of repeating days that are interesting, but briefly recapping days that don't add as much to the plot. The family dynamics are intriguing, and I did not see Finn's crisis coming; it's hard to surprise me, so that's always great! While this includes a bar mitzvah, there is a solid reason for it, and it's also used in a completely different way than other middle grade books I've read. The boys' realization that life is greener on the other side of the time loop is a good one. 
Weaknesses: While I love the life lesson that we should appreciate each day because we never know what fresh hell the next day could bring, I'm not entirely sure that middle grade readers will have reached the developmental milestone necessary to take this to heart. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoy Levy's engaging writing, or who like goofy time paradox books like Wilson's Me vs. the Multiverse, Ormsbee's Vivian Lantz's Second ChancesMlynowski and Soontornvat's Time After Timeor Thayer's The Double Life of Danny Day

I'm always very conscious of not wishing away the days; today is as good as it gets. I love the Stefan Pastis Pearls Before Swine comic with Rat counting down to the "great dirt nap of nothingness". 

Monday, May 13, 2024

MMGM- Mountain of Fire

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Barone, Rebecca E.F. Mountain of Fire: The Eruption and Survivors of Mount St. Helens
May 14, 2024 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

I have to admit that I still have Volcano : The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens by Patricia Lauber from 1986 in my school library, mainly because I remember this happening. Obviously, after 40 plus years, the details are fuzzy, so it's good to see this major environmental event given a thorough nonfiction treatment.

Barone, who has a science background, does a good job at outlining the history of the volcanic activity in the area, and explains how modern scientific record keeping has changed over time. Sure, we know that there was an eruption in 1853 that killed fish, but there isn't the kind of seizmological information that can be gathered now. Even in 1980, the information wasn't necessarily computerized; the readings would come out on paper. The most astonishing thing to me was that there was a lot of data gathered, but because some of it was able to be printed over the weekend, it wasn't able to be used to warn people!

Earthquake tremors began to be felt in March of 1980, and scientists were very concerned. Weyerhauser loggers and scientists were the only ones who were supposed to stay in the area, but as time wore on and Mt. St. Helens made the news, tourists started coming in to the area to see what was going on. This caused a lot of safety hazards, especially on the narrow, winding mountain roads. A lot of people were evacuated, but there were some hold outs; one of the more memorable characters who was on the news a lot was Harry Truman, who was determined to stay in his lodge that he had run with his wife. He was 83, and felt he had prepared for the disaster, which wouldn't really effect him. He eventually perished.

While most of the Spirit Lake Residents left, and the YWCA and Boy Scout Camps got permission to remove equipment from their camps, there were a number of hikers, photographers, and scientists who flocked to the area. The book even talks about Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, geologists who decided to charter a helicopter to fly over the mountain and were practically on top of the volcano when it erupted! There was also a family who narrowly escaped. In all, 57 people died, including David Johnston, who was the one remaining scientist at one of the observation points.

There's lots of interesting scientific information about what was occurring with the volcano and also about the aftermath. I was fascinated by the fact that grass seed was scattered over the area to try to get things to grow. All that it did was to attract a large number of mice, who ate the seeds, and when they ran out, gnawed on the emerging trees! Had nothing been done, the area would have recuperated more quickly.

My only quibble with the book is that the cover made it seem like this would be a fictional book; it's somewhat similar to the Lauren Tarshis 2016 I Survived the Eruption of Mount St. Helens, 1980 cover, right down to the anachronistic skinny jeans. I also wouldn't have minded a list of the 57 people who were killed; it would be a fitting memorial, although I'm sure the information is available online.

Like Barone's Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica and Unbreakable: The Spies Who Cracked the Nazis' Secret Code, this is a well researched and appealing written book that will get a lot of use. It's great for pleasure reading, but has enough details to make it a good choice for research as well. It reminded me a bit of Walker's 2011 Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 in its combination of facts and personal stories.

We have eight days of school left, and I'm not entirely sure I'm going to make it. Didn't post my statistics because I was in D.C. with 110 8th graders, and have undertaken a textbook removal project that ended up being much more daunting than I suspected. 

So we'll see. So far there are 650 overdue books still. (5/13 update: 250.) Maybe next week I'll post about the textbooks. 

Spaces that have no supervisor end up being trash pits in schools. Highlights included math overhead transparencies and notebooks of handouts from a teacher who left in 2004. 

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Lily Xiao Speaks Out

Chen, Nicole. Lily Xiao Speaks Out
May 7, 2024 by HarperCollins/Quill Tree
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In the early 1990s, Lily Xiao is heavily into grunge rock, and wants to be like Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam. This is something of a struggle, since her Taiwanese family is much more concerned with her academic success. While Lily does fine in school, her cousin Vivian, who has just moved to the US, is struggling with assignments because she is still improving her English language skills. When Lily finds a "Camp Rock Out" summer camp that promises to held her learn guitar, Lily really wants to attend with Vivian, who plays drums. The families make a deal with the girls, thanks to Lily's supportive grandmother, Ah-ma; if the girls do well in school, they can attend the camp. Lily even contacts Vivian's teacher to ask for help, and when he tells her that since California's 1986 Proposition 63, there are no ESL services. Since Lily is a model student, she even takes her concerns to the principal, who not only tells her there is no money in the budget for services, but also insinuates that since Vivian's family chose to come to the US, they are the ones responsible for her language challenges. Lily works with other students, including Marcos, a "skater boy", to tutor students and to gather signatures for a petition asking for services. With the help of Keiko, who words at the local record store and performs with an all girl grunge band called Pandora's Box, Lily works on her grunge music skills but also starts to find her own voice to speak up for the oppressed. If grunge music is about "shining light into the dark corners that people don't like to see", will Lily and Vivian be able to use the power of their music to instigate change in their family and community?
Strengths: If you have students who are super into the grunge rock of the 1990s, this is definitely the book for them! Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and other groups are all mentioned. The role of women in rock music is discussed in a way that will hopefully make young readers take a closer look at music today, and perhaps encourage them to take a deep dive into their parents' music! There are plenty of good details of the 1990s, with fashions and other cultural touchpoints that took me right back to my first years of teaching, when my students showed me how to peg my pants! The family dynamics in Lily and Vivian's family are interesting, and I loved that Ah-ma wanted them both to do well but was more lenient than their parents. Lily's combination of music and social activism, while rooted firmly in the 1990s, will certainly resonate with today's young readers.
Weaknesses: There is a lot about grunge music, and this might slow the story down for readers who are not as interested in it.
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed retro music themed books like Acampora's Confusion is Nothing New or Perez's The First Rule of Punk, or who want to take a look at the troubling racial policies of California in the 1980s and 90s, as depicted in Cho's Troublemaker, Yang's Three Keys, or Tang's Parachute Kids.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Saturday Morning Cartoons- Baseball!

Cartaya, Pablo and Rivas, Miguel Díaz (illus.). Curveball
May 7, 2024 by Disney Hyperion
E ARC Provided by Netgalley

Elena Rueda's mother Marissa is VERY invested in her daughter's baseball career, since she faced obstacles in her own. There's not time for fun, since Elena doesn't get to hang out after games with her teammates, and instead must train and attend camps to help her performance. Not only that, but if she blows a play on the field, her mother loses it publically. Elena's father and grandfather just want her to have fun, but have little say in the matter. Her brother Benji is more interested in casual Live Action Role Playing, and spends much of his time in a dinosaur costume. When Elena trips, falls, and injures her knee, she is secretly glad that she doesn't have to play baseball. Bored, she asks her brother about playing with him and his friends, who called themselves the Band Of Renegade Kinfolk, or BORKs. It takes a while for her to understand that there is no "winning" at LARPing; it is just a way to exercise her imagination and have fun, two things she has no practice at. Elena meets Toni, who is a bit mysterious, and who turns out to be the granddaughter of a wealthy local women who is living with her grandmother after the recent death of both of her parents. Eventually, Elena convinces the other LARPers to play "Borkball", and her competitive spirit comes to the fore. Her mother, a realtor, manages not only to sell the abandoned lot where the kids have been playing, but registers the group as a Little League team. This increasing pressure causes Elena to finally come clean to her mother and to try to find a way that she can enjoy sports and friends in a more childlike way.
Strengths: I'm always glad to see sports stories, and the idea of parental over involvement is certainly a reality for many children. The mother's issues with girls playing baseball rather than softball certainly would have been a huge consideration thirty years ago. I've not seen too many book addressing LARPing, so Benji and his friends enjoying themselves in a vacant field certainly is an appealing choice. I'm always glad to see Kids Doing Things, and this was certainly fun and fresh.
Weaknesses: The grandmother looks a little like Cruella deVille, and wears a black, Victorian style long dress. Considering most grandparents are now around my age, I can't imagine that a well to do business woman would dress this way. Just an odd choice. Also, killing off BOTH of Toni's parents?
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like Speed Racer style illustrations and want a story that carries the emotional weight of Morrison's Coming Up Short and Bishop's The Distance to Home but in the graphic novel format of Spangler's Fox Point's Own Gemma Hopper.

Sax, Sarah. Tryouts (Brinkley Yearbooks #2)
May 7, 2024 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Al has played baseball for years, but when she is old enough to play on her middle school team, there is some reluctance because she is a girl, at least from the athletic director. The new coach doesn't seem to mind, especially since he hopes to lead the team to its first victory in many years and is glad to have Al's expertise. Al's large family is supportive, and her mother, who is a long distance trucker, checks in often from the road. Al's friends are all trying new things; Milo, who loves to sew, attends art club, and helps revamp an old school mascot. The boys are the team have a few problems with Al, especially when there is a big television news interview with her, but in general just want to win their games. Will the team, accompanied by a new mascot, be able to recapture the glory of the 1970s successes?

This book is set in the same school as Sax's Picture Day and involves the same characters, making the graphic novel series similar to Libenson's Emmie and Friends books or Chmakova's Berrybrook Middle School collection. I enjoyed the author's note about the importance of trying out a variety of activities in middle school, and how the social aspects of sports teams are helpful even if kids aren't particularly successful at the sport. This is definitely true; my daughter enjoyed being on the cross country team even if she didn't necessarily enjoy RUNNING cross country.

Newman, Joshua. Out of Left Field
May 2, 2023 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

This was a very interesting, but decidedly Young Adult, look at how the author tried out and made his school baseball team even though he had no previous playing experience, and how the homophobia on the team affected him. This would be great for high school, but had a lot of f-words, on page sex, drinking, and a lot of negative language.

If you are looking for a middle grade book that combines sports with LGBTQIA+ issues, I would take a look at the novel A High Five For Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner. 

Friday, May 10, 2024

Guy Friday- The Truth About Triangles

Leali, Michael. The Truth About Triangles
May 21, 2024 by HarperCollins
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Luca Salvatore lives in a suburb of Chicago where his parents are currently running Mamma Gianna's pizza parlor, after his Nonna Zaza has moved to Florida. Even though the restaurant has been in the family for generations, it is falling on heard times, and Luca has to rush there after picking up his twin younger siblings from school so that he can help out. He loves cooking, and loves the restaurant, but is tired of the responsibility, especially since his parents have been fighting more about broken refrigerators, watching the children, and paying the bills. When Luca and his best friend June meet a new student at school, Will, Luca thinks he is cute and wants to befriend him. Will reciprocates, and Luca manages to hang out with him, even though it means not telling the truth to June and getting in trouble with his parents for not helping at the restaurant. When Luca finds out that Trevor Parker, his celebrity crush and host of Luca's favorite show, Pizza Perfect, is ending the series, he is devastated. When the opportunity to apply to be on the show arises, Luca jumps on it, putting together a video with June and asking his parents to submit it. Will is interested in guitar, and is trying to find members to join him for the local Battle of the Bands. With a school dance coming up, Luca is worried that June might be interested in Will romantically, mainly because he is as well. The fact that he is gay hasn't really mattered to anyone, but he doesn't know how to bring up the subject with Will, and is glad to be friends, if nothing else. When Mamma Gianna's is accepted to be on Pizza Perfect, the family shifts into high gear, cleaning the restaurant and fixing things that have long gone unattended. Unfortunately, the parents' fighting has continued to the point where the father has moved out and taken his own apartment. Luca feels that it is his responsibity to save not only the restaurant, but his parents' marriage. When the Pizza Perfect film crew arrive, things go fairly well, but when his father show up late, and clearly a bit drunk, Luca is worried. Channeling his anger into pounding on Pizza dough, he has a heart to heart with Trevor, and bakes one of his unusual, gourmet pizzas that his mother won't let him put on the menu because of the expense. Trevor thinks the pizza is fantastic, and gives Luca some good advice about surviving middle school. Things are rocky with June, who has gotten the lead in a musical, and when Will needs a new lead singer for his band, she agrees to step in. Luca would like to ask Will to the dance, but knowing that June has a crush on him, suggests that Will invite her. This causes some confusion, but eventually the three friends communicate and work things out. The family also takes a long, hard look at what is going on with the restaurant and the parents' marriage, especially after a disastrous babysitting event that lands Luca's brother in the emergency room, needing five stitches! In an epilogue, we find that Luca starts therapy, starts to date Will, and is no longer as responsible for the restaurant's daily operations, after some money from Trevor Parker, and the publicity from the show, puts Mamma Gianna's back on its feet. 
Strengths: There have been so many books about middle grade characters with anxiety that it is always good to see a character who faces struggles with hopefulness and resilience. I've had students whose parents have run restaurants, and it is a hard life, but a tween pitching in to help instead of sinking into worry and despair is always more interesting to read about. Luca certainly struggles, and it was good to see him benefit from therapy at the end of the novel. The younger siblings who bicker make this VERY realistic, despite the national television show filming. Luca's struggles to remain good friends with June will resonate with young readers, and the romantic triangle with Will is well done and age appropriate. Luca getting to learn how to throw pizza dough from his idol is just the perfectly caramelized goat cheese on top of a heavenly slice of literary pie.
Weaknesses: This is definitely a wish fulfillment novel, with Mamma Gianna's being on a television show. Older readers might find the romance at the end a little cheesy, but hopefully in a good way, like Luca's tortellini pizza.
What I really think: This was a very fun book; the daily life of running a restaurant was very interesting, and good for students to read about. It's not easy, but so many middle school students who love to cook have thoughts of running restaurants when they grow up! Luca is such a positive and resourceful character who works so hard for his family that it is good to see him have some happiness at the end. This will be perfect for fans of cooking tales like Stamper's Eli Over Easy, Negron's The Last Super Chef,  Richardson's Pizza My Heart: A Wish Novel, and Chari's Karthik Delivers, or gentle romances like Taylor's The Language of Seabirds or Levithan's Answers in the Pages.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Cats of the Silver Crescent

Noel, Caela. The Cats of Silver Crescent
April 30, 2024 by Greenwillow Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Elsby MacBride has to spend the summer with her Great Aunt Verity, an archaeology professor, in Snipatuit, Rhode Island when her mother, an art curator, needs to go to Los Angeles. It's a big change from New York City, and Elsby is apprehensive about staying in a cottage and fending for herself. It doesn't help when she catches sight of a cat in Beatrix Potter style clothing, and is later approached by four cats... who talk! The owner of Verity's, Rose, passed away suddenly, and the cats are living in her house. They are running out of food, and Rose, who was a librarian at the local Atheneum, told them to seek out a child if they ever needed help. Horatio, Clarissa, Marzipan, and Tapioca were all rescued by Rose, but they are vague about how they can talk, saying only that magic was involved. Elsby agrees to help, and manages to get to the local market to buy inordinate amounts of meat without Verity finding out. She does meet Penelope Perez at the Atheneum, and the two strike up a friendship. Elsby tells Penelope about the cats, and brings her to meet them. Marzipan is a poet who quotes T.S. Eliot, Tappy is grief stricken by Rose's death, Horatio seems content to just hang about, and Clarissa is evil. Really evil. She not only demands that Elsby help the cats, and never says thank you, but is engaged in studying dark magic. Elsby is leery of Clarissa's plans, so Clarissa manages to talk Penelope into helping the cats with a renewal spell. This spell might have hastened Rose's death, but Penelope is so enthralled by the thought of doing actual magic that she is willing to help. This causes the girls to have a fight, but when Elsby uncovers information about just how bad this magic is, she tries to save her friend. Luckily, help comes from an unexpected place. Will it be enough to keep Clarissa from hurting the girls?
Strengths: This had a great sense of place, and the cottage filled with antiques and old books, along with the cats in pinafores makes you think "Oh, how cute! Let's have tea with the cats!" BEFORE THEY KILL YOU. Whew. Elsby has some anxiety about her mother being away from her, but seems to do okay with this weird occurrence. I was glad that she had Penelope to help her, although that didn't work out too well. That dynamic tracks very well with middle school friendships, though. Verity was a great character, and used quite well. Despite the overall cute feel to this, it takes a dark, dark turn, with evil magic. Like this author's Coo, this is definitely an original middle grade novel! 
Weaknesses: I would have liked to know more about Rose and the magic instead of Elsby's anxiety. There could be a whole novel about Rose and the cats in the 1970s. I'd read that. 
What I really think: I thought this would be a bit like Waugh's The Mennyms (1993), which is one of my favorite magical realism titles, but it got dark in a way I didn't expect, rather like Saunders' 2013 The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop.

For fans of Kate Saunders' work, I'm sorry to say that she passed away in April of 2023.

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

The Secret Library

Magoon, Kekla. The Secret Library
May 7, 2024 by Candlewick Press
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Dally (Delilah) Peteharrigan is grieving the death of her beloved grandfather, especially since she has already lost her father, who was Black, and her mother, who is white, is very busy managing the family's company. Her mother is determined that Dally learn a lot, so she is not only enrolled in a private school, but also has lessons in subjects like economics afterwards. Her free time is limited to one hour, so even after Dally makes an impressive plea to join the school Adventure Club, she is not allowed. After this, Dally is determined to get the envelope that her grandfather left her, and breaks into his office. There's a puzzle and a map involved, and Dally pins to location to a bakery too far from her home to walk. She enlists the aid of a car service the family often uses, and when she arrives at the location, a magical library appears. She is greeted by the librarian, Jennacake, who tells her that the library houses secrets, and that Dally is allowed to see one a day. There are a wide variety of secrets, and Dally sees some about how her parents met, and small lies that people tell. Nothing too earth shaking happens at first, and her time spent in the vesions of the past is short, but she eventually ends up in a rousing adventure on the high seas, along with well-meaning pirates Pete and Eli, as well as a boy about her age, Jack. She can't really figure out what the secret is, but the more she pops into various timelines, the more she finds out about the history of her family, and the reasons why her mother is so cautious with the family finanaces. She also learns that Jack is using the library to travel into secrets as well, but he is from 1960. Her mother's controlling behavior doesn't stop, and when Dally learns that her own future might be very circumscribed, she has to think about the path she should take. The library just holds the secrets, but how those secrets effect Dally and her family can be earth shattering. (Don't want to give away too much!)

The Secret Library is right up there with Shulman's The Grimm Legacy (2021) and MacHale's The Library (The Curse of the Boggin, 2016) or Wexler's The Forbidden Library (2014) in terms of good use of magical books. I know it was important for Dally to travel into secrets, but I would have been content to spend a lot more time with Jennacake touring the facilities. 

It's good that the book ended with a family tree, so that we were able to see how all of the different ancestors that Dally met figured into the story. There's a lot of different points in time shown in Dally's travels, and the chart really helped me tie together all of the different bits of information. There is also a bit of a surprise ending, so be prepared! 

This is definitely on trend with a lot of current sociopolitical topics. There are several instances of Dally's father experiencing racism in college, and the history of racism as it effects Dally's family goes back into the mid 1800s. There is a very important instance of "passing" that has lasting ramifications and is not a topic I have seen much addressed in middle grade fiction. Pete and Eli have LBGTQIA+ ties in unusual ways that also form the family's history. 
Readers who liked Shawl's Speculation (2022) or Coles' Black Was the Ink (2021), and prefer their history presented with some fantastic flourishes will enjoy Dally's exploration of her family's past in The Secret Library.