Sunday, June 16, 2024

Invisible Isabel

Pla, Sally and de Regil, Tania (Illus.) Invisible Isabel
July 9, 2024 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Elementary school aged Isabel Beane comes from a large family that includes older brother Ian and sisters Irene and Iliana, as well as younger twin siblings Ivy and Isaac. She is not fond of the hustle and bustle of her household, preferring quiet and solitude, but her mother brushes off her concerns. She is also uncomfortable at school, where Mrs. Pickel, her teacher, is a brusque, demanding woman who has no time for Isabel'd delicate constitution because she wants all of her students to work nonstop on preparing for testing, on which she expects they will get perfect scores. All of these things make Isabel have "worry moths" in her stomach, not that her mother believes that she is really ill. Isabel used to have friends, but they have all moved on, urged in part by Monica to avoid Isabel because she is too quiet and sensitive. Monica's mother is gone, and her busy father isn't coping well, so Monica's life is all TOO quiet for her. When she is allowed to have a birthday party, her father insists that she invite all the girls in her class, but Monica gets around inviting Isabel by talking to her and encouraging her to say that she doesn't like parties. Thinking that this conversation was a friendly overature and that if she drew pictures of all of the girls, they might be her friends, Isabel works hard on these and puts them on the girls' lockers. She forgets to sign her name, and Monica is dismissive, but it does make a difference to the other girls, who are becoming weary of Monica's abrasive personality. When Isabel doesn't feel well on the day of testing, her mother and Mrs. Pickel once again tell her it is all in her head (where Isabel is quite sure the pain is NOT), but once testing is over and she is found curled up in a ball under her desk, with a high fever, it turns out that she has appendicitis. The doctor who operates turns out to be Monica's father, and her ruse about inviting Isabel to the birthday party is uncovered. After talking to Isabel, he tells her parents that having worry moths is not something to be taken lightly, and suggests that maybe Isabel is neurodivergent. Her parents finally listen to her concerns, and she gets some help with coping strategies from Counselor Wanda. At the end of the book, Isabel is referred to as autistic. 
Strengths: There are many students in middle school who exhibit symptoms of anxiety, and I'm sure that there are many at the elementary students as well. Isabel seemed to be in second or third grade, so it is very likely that she has not yet been identified as needing to be evaluating for her neurodivergent qualities. The girl drama is very true to life, and being the only child not invited to a birthday party is very disheartening. The illustrations by de Regil are a nice touch. 
Weaknesses: The combination of the "worry moths" of anxiety and the physical symptons of appendicitis might confuse some readers and cause them to worry that their psychosomatic pain, as real as it is, might be more serious. While I'm glad that Isabel's symptoms were eventually taken seriously, I almost wish that the precipitating event hadn't been apendicitis. Also, I think few elementary teachers who support testing as much as Mrs. Pickel.
What I really think: This is a bit too young for middle school, but would be an excellent addition to an elementary library for students who enjoyed Gennari's Muffled, Mackler's Not If I Can Help It, or Kapit's Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen!

Ms. Yingling

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Camp Sylvania: Moon Madness

Murphy, Julie and Maldonado, Crystal. Camp Sylvania #2: Moon Madness 
May 14, 2024 by Balzer + Bray
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After a disastrous summer with vampires in Camp Sylvania, the campers are given not only a voucher to attend the new and improved camp, but also a voucher for a friend. Maggie is thrilled to be able to bring her best friend Nora, who is in turn happy to be getting a break from her new stepdad Steve and stepbrother Darren, even though things are going fairly well with the new family. The two are prepared for a great camping experience, but upon arrival find that they are in separate cabins. One is bunking with Kit and Evelyn, and one has a cabin with just Claire, the daughter of Luna, the new camp director. Instead of a weight loss camp, Luna is running a earthy/crunchy holistic healing experience, and one of the first things that is done is to take all of the campers "synthetic" food and toiletries. Several of the campers do hang on to their acne cream! There are breathing workshops, sound baths, primal scream therapy, organic food, and Respectful Sage Burning. Luna's insistence on "moon water", a glowing water used for just about every purpose, gives Maggie and Nora pause, and even Claire admits that there were a few side effects, although none were particularly serious. When counselor Birdie starts to exhibit some odd symptoms, and these eventually spread to the campers, the campers know that this is yet another paranormally connected summer camp, and must work to wrestle control back from Luna. Will junk food and acne cream be their saviors?
Strengths: This is a perfect level of horror for late elementary school students, who might not have had a chance to go to summer camp but are very much looking forward to it. While Luna is not as evil as Sylvia, the director of the camp from the first book, there are still plenty of horrific things occuring that I don't want to spoil. The packing list that included different gems was a good indication of how this camp would work, and was a different approach than the "fat camp" setting in the first book. Maggie and Nora have realistic struggles with their friendship, and the secondary characters are pleasant and helpful. This isn't a graphic novel, although the cover might draw in fans of Sedita's The Pathfinder's Society.
Weaknesses: Chapters were from alternating points of view, and I had some difficulty telling Nora and Maggie apart. Also, it seemed odd that the girls would bring decorative lights, posters, and Squishmallows to camp for just a couple of weeks. There was also a lot of attention to fashionable clothing. Must be a posher camp than I ever attended!
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed Parker's The Devouring Wolf, LaRocca and Baron's The Secret of the Dragon Gems, or other summer camp stories with supernatural elements.

Friday, June 14, 2024


Williams, Alicia D. Mid-Air
April 23, 2024 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Book
ARC provided by Follett First Look

Isaiah has been friends with Darius and Drew for a long time, and the three often try to break world records, often involving their skateboards. Both Drew and Isaiah have to deal with fathers who frequently travel; Isaiah's father is a photographer for National Geographic while Drew's is in the military. While he gets a long with these friends, Isaiah doesn't tell them everything about himself. He collects vintage concert t shirts from heavy metal groups that his friends consider "too white", he enjoys helping his mother with plants for her business, and he secretly enjoys wearing nail polish. His father thinks he should "toughen up", but sometimes the stunts that his friends want to pull are too much for him. When the three try to break a record for wheelies, they head to a neighborhood with better street surfaces and encounter someone who yells at them to leave. Tragedy occurs when the melee ends with Drew not seeing a car approaching. Both Isaiah and Drew are devasted by their friend's death and think it's their fault. Drew becomes very quiet, leaving Isaiah to suffer alone. During the summer, Isaiah is sent to live with relatives and help on the farm, which is very therapeutic. He meets a girl, Kiana, who accepts his "softer" side and even gives him black nail polish to wear. When he returns home, he has a better grasp of who he is, connects more with Darius, and gets ready to start high school as his authentic self.
Strengths: Like Williams' Genesis Begins Again, this is a great exploration of personal identity, a very important topic in middle grade literature. It's interesting to see her embrace the novel in verse format. I particularly enjoyed Isaiah's relationship with both of his parents, which was close but somehow detached in the way that parent-child relationships tend to become when children get into high school and have to decide who they are in the world at large. The grief is certainly there, but I appreciated that Isaiah was working at overcoming his guilt and really trying to figure out how to move forward. The difficulties with Drew are also well portrayed, and the fact that Isaiah is concentrating on his own issues and not really understanding what his friend is going through is absolutely true to life. There's a lot of healing and understanding that goes on, leaving this book with a hopeful ending as Isaiah starts high school unafraid to show the world his interests.
Weaknesses: This is a rather contemplative and long novel, which would probably appeal very much to Isaiah himself, but doesn't have as much action as the cover would indicate. On the bright side, it is a book that involves skateboarding without involving the characters in building a skate park.
What I really think: This is not quite as philosophical as Rhodes' Ghost Boys, Draper's Tears of a Tiger, or Alexander's Rebound, and is equal parts dealing with grief and finding personal identity. This is a good choice for readers who want to read about more well rounded male friendships, like those in Jung's The Boys in the Back Row, Lucas' Thanks a Lot, Universe. or Craft's New Kid.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

The (Mostly) True Story of Cleopatra's Needle

Gutman, Dan. The (Mostly) True Story of Cleopatra's Needle
June 4, 2024 by Holiday House
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

A mother, who is a storyteller, is hanging out with her kid, and the two end up in Central Park near the Cleopatra's Needle obelisk. The kid isn't really interested in the impressive monument, but the mother proceeds to tell a story about it. Starting in about 1425 BCE, we meet Zosar Zubeir, who likes in Aswan, Egypt with his family. They are enslaved people from Syria, but the father is a talented stonecutter who is approached to work on constructing the obelish. It is promised that after the obelisk is done, the family will be freed, but after 621 days of backbreaking work, they are instead retained to work on another monument. There are lots of interesting details about how the stone was cut and made into its shape.

From there, we travel to Heliopolis in 1459. Thurmosis III is the pharaoh, and the drawings of young Lateef Jabari (that his mother had thrown out into the street) come to his attention. He wants Lateef to draw the hieroglyphics proclaiming all of his wonderful accomplishments so the carvers know what to inscribe. Later, Lateef witnesses the construction of a hill of sand and the installation of the needle.

In 1879, Panya Hassan is dismayed to find that Egypt is giving the needle to the US, hoping it will encourage more tourism, although she's not entirely happy to have so many Americans already in her country, looking at the Suez Canal and planning on taking artifacts home with them. She joins protests about this, and is also angry that the Statue of Liberty is being given to the US by France, instead of to Egypt.

Thomas Brighton of England has run away from home and stowed away on a ship. Finding himself in Egypt, he witnesses the efforts to get the obelisk onto a ship so that it can be carried to the US. He keeps a diary, and details how Commander Gorringe cuts a hole in the cargo hold so the needle can be carried there. Thomas has some good engineering ideas, and helps the crew, so he is able to sail with them, although the 39 day voyage is rough and includes a storm.

When the ship arrives in New York City, we meet Rebecca Watson, who is a young inventor aspiring to be the next Thomas Edison. She watches the progress of the needle from the harbor to its home in Central Park with interest. It takes a long time, and meets many difficulties. At one point, Commander Gorringe dines at her house, and after witnessing her invention to make it easier to pass dishes (a rudimentary Lazy Susan with marbles to move the boards), decides to adopt the same design to help with some tricky movements of the monument. It turns out that the storyteller's great grandmother was Rebecca, which is why she is so interested in the story and wants her child to know about it as well.

This was a very unusual format, but it worked. Mr. Gutman lives not far from Cleopatra's Needle, and has often biked by it. During the pandemic (when he wasn't filming delightful readings of his books to share with homebound students), he researched the background, and thought it would be more engaging to see the history through the eyes of young people who might have been involved. He is very clear in the end notes as to what he has made up and what is real; the children are all fictional, but everything that happened is based on some historical backgrounds. This addresses issues of modern concern, like the plight of enslaved people in Ancient Egypt, the theft of antiquities, and the way some groups of people are unfairly treated. There is even mention of a time capsule from 1880 that is under the obelisk; we may never know what was placed in it!

Gutman's work always has a nice mix of humor and history, evident in fictional books like The Flashback Four, Houdini and Me, and the Baseball Card Adventures, and even in nonfiction titles like his Wait! What? series. This is an unusual book, nicely mixing historical details with an engaging story, and would be a fun book to read aloud in a social studies class studying Ancient Egypt. A debate about whether or not antiquities should be returned to their home countries would be a logical offshoot, but perhaps we should just let Cleopatra's Needle stay where it is, given the difficulties in transporting it!

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Vega's Piece of Sky

Torres, Jennifer. Vega's Piece of Sky
June 11, 2024 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus 

Vega lives in Date City, near the desert, with her brother Felix, who is taking classes at the local community college, and her mother, who runs Tia Clara's market. Her cousin, Mila, is spending the summer with the family, since her parents have decided she needed a change of scenery. Because Vega's grandfather is struggling after an injury, the mother is thinking of selling the store to developers who want to build a cottage community. When there is a fireball and a meterorite falls in the desert, there are a lot of tourists who come looking to find pieces of it. Two of these are Jasper and his dad, who is bound and determined to find pieces and sell them. Vega sells them a map, but decides to head out into the desert on her own in order to find them. She sneaks out at night into the Bobcat Mountain Wilderness, and runs in to Jasper, who has the same idea. The two are fairly prepared for their adventure, but when they happen upon Mila, who followed Vega out, they are dismayed that she is in pajama pants and flip flops, and has brought a telescope and book in her pack instead of food, water, or a flashlight. Things don't go particularly well, especially when Mila falls into a crevice. They manage to get her out, and even find a piece of meteorite, but their progress is definitely impeded. They have to deal with coyotes, rain, a hurt ankle, and even a scorpion that bites Jasper. Luckily, his father has followed the group, but he is only willing to take Jasper back. He's also determined to keep the meteorite, even though Jasper has given it to Vega. Will the girls be able to make it home and save the store? 
Strengths: Vega's desire to save her mother's business, which has been in the family for a long time, is understandable, especially when we learn about more of her motivation concerning her grandfather. She is fairly prepared for her trek into the desert, and I love that she has a scientific bend. Jasper is an intriguing character; his father is a complete jerk, but Jasper ends up being particularly nice. The trek through the desert is well described, and the different obstacles that the children face add to the feeling of suspense. There is a feel good ending to this one, but I don't want to give too many details and spoil it. 
Weaknesses: Note to young readers: Do not sneak out at night. It's a very, very bad idea. Your parents need to know where you are. Do not do this, especially if you are living in the desert, because there are scorpions. Or on Mars. (Think In the Red!)
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed the outdoor adventure of Greenland's Scouts, Bowling's Across the Desert, or Lambert's Distress Signal. Also, I am never, ever going to go into the desert unless I can bring a whole wagonful of supplies!

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Waking the Dead and Other Fun Activities

Lyall, Casey. Waking the Dead and Other Fun Activities
May 28, 2024 by Greenwillow Books
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Kimmy is learning from her Grandma Bev how to bring people back from the dead, albeit briefly, so they can fulfill their last wishes. This is a service above and beyond what most funeral homes offer, and Kimmy is doing fairly well. She knows to have low lights and a soft voice, and to do what she can to assure the recently departed that all will be well, even if it means adopting Mrs. Waters' cat. Her mother knows about this, and Kimmy's father was killed by his own powers, so she is worried. When Granny Bev passes away suddenly, Kimmy is devasted at the loss of her beloved grandmother, and also at the loss of training which she still needs. She has her father's journals and some other family books to consult, but it's not the same. When a boy her age, Devon, dies in a local park unders suspicious circumstances, Kimmy gets involved with trying to solve his murder when she brings him back. Something goes wrong, however, and he stays alive. Not only that, but his family has no idea who he is. This is a huge problem, and Kimmy doesn't have the information she needs to solve it. When Mr. Kingsley and Mrs. Manning pass away at nursing homes, she brings them back as well... and they also stay alive! Tamsin, who works at the funeral parlor, has some insight into why this is happening, which has to do with families putting caps on magic, and Kimmy blowing right through those with her powers. Not only that, but there is an evil witch trying to take the three recently departed people! Kimmy at least knows she is over her head and seeks the help of her mother and stepdad Alex. Will Kimmy be able to break the connection with the people she has raised from the dead before it works to her detriment? And will she find out why she hasn't seen a spark from her grandmother?
Strengths: I loved the beginning, when Kimmy was learning from her grandmother, and I really wished we had been able to spend more time with the two of them. For purposes of the plot, however, it was important to move on. Tamsin worried me at first, but ended up being a good ally. Even Devon, Mr. Kingsley and Mrs. Manning were surprisingly okay with having died and been resurrected, and prove helpful in many ways. There is a good back story for the family powers, and a satisfying mystery with them. This moved along quickly.
Weaknesses: The publisher's blurb describes Kimmy as a witch, but her powers didn't seem very witch like. I'm not sure what labeled I would have used, but since she was battling an evil witch, I would have picked something different.
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed Ursu's Almost There and Almost Not, Yi's A Sky of Paper Stars, or Jones' Six Feel Below (but with a bit more paranormal twists).

Monday, June 10, 2024

MMGM- The Cookie Crumbles and Lonely Planet's National Parks

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Badua, Tracy and Dow, Alecia. The Cookie Crumbles
June 11, 2024 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Laila is bound and determined to enter the Sunderland Academy Golden Cookie competition so that she can win a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school, since her best friend Lucy has been accepted into their journalism program, since the two would not be districted to the same school the next year. Laila's mother is a busy nurse, and her father passed away from cancer several years previously, so the academy would be out of the question without a scholarship. Laila has participated in contests before and done well, although a fellow competitor at Sunderland accuses her of cheating in previous ones. The weather is bad, so there is no leaving the premises, and even phone service is sketchy, so Laila and Lucy (who has been allowed to attend so she can write a story) hunker down with contest runners. Polly Rose is a sweet, supportive British baker, Chef Remi is unbelievably nasty to everyone and bitter about being involved, and Noah is Remi's sidekick. Contestants include future debutante Philippa, Micah, son of restaurant owners, Maeve, and Jaden. All have some connection to Chef Remi. The first challenge is a cookie based on a chocolate truffle, and there are many details of Laila project. There is a cookie showcase involving a display at least two feet tall. When Laila's cookie seems to cause Chef Remi to pass out and be in physical distress, the EMTs are barely able to get through but do manage to get him to the hospital, where he remains in a coma. Lucy, who has compiled dossiers on everyone in the competition, starts investigating. Laila has to keep cooking, but the others seem to blame her for the attempted murder of the star chef, based on little evidence. Noah even says that Remi was taking medication for a rather serious heart condition. Tensions are high, and the flour flies, but will Laila spend the next school year on scholarship to Sunderland... or in jail for murder?
Strengths: This collaborative effort from Tracy Badua (Freddie vs. the Family Curse, The Takeout) and Alechia Dow (Just a Pinch of Magic) is a fun, Agatha Christie style murder-lite story (Chef Remi survives). There's plenty of baking, lots of journalistic investigation, some friend drama, and a murder attempt that doesn't involve someone actually dying. The setting of the posh boarding school in the storm adds to the English country manor estate feel, and it's fun to see both Laila and Lucy's perspectives in alternating chapters. 
Weaknesses: There were a lot of recipes that seemed awfully advanced for tweens. I wouldn't have thought that Laila's struggling mother would have been willing to pay for French butter (There IS such a thing? I mean, outside of France.). I'm definitely overly cheap and pragmatic in my cooking, so readers who desperately want to bake (and have watched baking shows) will probably adore these fancy details. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who can't get enough of cooking competition titles like Alice Fleck's Recipe for Disaster (to which this is rather similar), LaMotte and Xu's Measuring Up, LaRocca's Midsummer's MayhemNelson's  A Batch Made in Heaven, the Marks'  The $150, 000 RugelachNegron's  The Last Super Chef, Faruqi and Shovan's A Place at the Table, but want the cooking garnished with some rainbow sprinkles of mystery. 

Ward, Alexa. Lonely Planet Kids America's National Parks
May 21, 2024 by Lonely Planet
Copy Provided by the Publisher

Starting with Yellowstone National Park, the US has been adding spectacular places to its list since 1860. This Lonely Planet Guide is a great introduction to young naturalists to the various parks that are scattered throughout the US and its territories. I love that this starts with suggestions for visiting a park in a responsible manner, a map that lists all 63 parks, since it makes it easy to see what parks might be close enough to readers to visit. I've taken a train through the Cuyahoga National Park and even visited the Indiana Dunes! 

The parks are listed in alphabetical order. Each entry starts with the state or territory where the park is located, and is accompanied by spectacular photographs as well as humorous illustrations that will appeal to young readers. There is the acreage of each park listed, as well as other statistics about miles of shoreline or heights of mountains, along with a good description. There are lists of Things to Do and Things to See so that young readers can start making their wish list of parks to visit. In between the park entries, there is supplemental information about animals, history, and other items of concern. This finishes with a glossary as well as a complete index. 

The photographs are stunning, and make this a book that will be well thumbed by children who would like to be out hiking but are stuck at home or in a car! While I wasn't as big a fan of the illustrations, this was mainly because I have friends who loves national parks so much that they got married at Zion, and I wanted to give this to them! These illustrations will, however, entice the target demographic, and are cute and engaging. Of course, now I wonder if Lonely Planet does have an adult version I need to investigate!

Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet Kids America's National Parks Activity Book 
May 21, 2024 by Lonely Planet
Copy provided by the publisher

This is a great accompaniment to Ward's Lonely Planet Kids America's National Parks guide. It is arranged in the same fashion, with a map at the front showing the location of various parks in the US and territories. The parks are arranged in alphabetical order. A wide variety of activities are shown, and each park gets a two page spread complete with fun facts. There are mazes, pages with lists of items to spot, pictures to color and drawing prompts, as well as word scrambles and searches. There's even flower matching, and a template for an acrostic poem proclaiming DESERT FUN. My favorite was the National Park personality quiz, and it's not a surprise that the park I was matched with was Acadia National Park in Maine, which I visited with my family in 1977. I even remember the bright green t shirt I got there! This ends with a "design your dream park" activity as well as a National Park wish list, which will probably include most of the parks, if young readers pay attention. For those who prize accuracy, there are answers at the back of the book as well. 

Some children adore activity book, and this one was particularly educational. While I wasn't entirely pleased with the crossword puzzles, which were the rangey, computer generated type where only one letter might overlap with the cross grid, the other activities looked appealing, and they were alternated nicely. I can see the two books together sparking a lot of conversations with an older person who was tremendously interested in parks, and perhaps has pictures to show the child and travel memories to share. 

My books came with stickers, but that might be a special promotion. I suppose I'll have to share!

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Asking for a Friend and The Body Confidence Book

Riley, Ronnie. Asking for a Friend
June 4, 2024 by Scholastic Press
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Eden Jones is a white, nonbinary tween who has social anxiety, something their mother thought might be lessened with a move to a new school. Eden has been lying to their mother, telling her that they have plenty of friends, so when the mother makes plans for a 13th birthday party, Eden panicks, since their are no actual friends to invite. Duke Herrera, a Filipino trans boy with ADHD, does make some overtures and is nice to Eden, who is very wary of anyone, given experiences from the past. When Eden came out as nonbinary at their previous school, best friend Nikki scoffed and said that it wasn't a real thing. Eden, who identifies as asexual and biromantic, tries to make friends with Tabitha. Tabitha is in foster care, and no one knows that she is a lesbian, so she welcomes a queer friendship. The three spend a lot of time at a bookstore, and are always glad to see books that mirror their own experiences. Soon Jackie, a genderqueer boy, is joining their group, but when Eden becomes friendly with Ramona, who plays volleyball, Duke warns against her. There are some problems that the tweens face, such as Tabitha having to move to a new foster home, but even that turns out well, when Tabitha finds out that her new foster parents are also queer. Duke and Eden squabble over whether to include Ramona, who identifies as cisgendered and pansexual, in their group, since Ramona has exhibited some mean tendencies in the past. With their birthday party fast approaching, and their mother making financiial sacrifices to host it, will Eden be able to confindently invite true friends to the party?
Strengths: Even though Eden has a lot of anxiety, this is a book that centers queer joy, and Eden has a lot of support. Even Duke knows the techniques for dealing with panic attacks and helps navigate them in a really helpful way. All of the characters are sensitively and thoroughly identified, even while there is a strong message that these identifications can change as one grows. Pronouns are always shared, and even though the characters attend a "very white, very cisgender, heterosexual school", there are efforts to have a petition for a gender neutral bathroom, and there are not a lot of problems with bullying portrayed. Like the situations in  this author's Jude Saves the World, the problems that Eden faces are eventually resolved in satisfactory ways. 
Weaknesses: The characters spend a lot of time having philosophical conversations about their identities, which slows down the book in spots. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like books with a variety of queer characters,  like Sass's Ellen Outside the Line or medina's The One Who Loves You Most. 

Diedrichs, Phillippa and Wilkinson, Naomi (Illus.)
The Body Confidence Book: Respect, accept and empower yourself
June 4, 2024 by Frances Lincoln Children's Books
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this brightly illustrated nonfiction book, Dr. Diedrichs outlines techniques for living a happy and healthy life free of societal expectations to adhere to unrealistic norms. Many topics are covered, including body activism. There is a glossary of terms at the end of the book, and well as resources. There resources include not only books, but websites such as one that has academic photo galleries of different private parts so that young readers who fear they are "different" can see a wide array of what is considered "normal". This would make a great gift or a purchase for a public library and embraces the current zeitgeist surrounding body positivity. 

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Saturday Morning Cartoons- Sink or Swim

Agarwal, Veronica and Durfey-Lavoie, Lee. Sink or Swim
June 4, 2024 by Random House Graphic
E ARC provided by Netgalley

This companion novel to Just Roll With It can be read independently of that book. It centers on Ty, who suffered a broken arm that kept him from competitive swimming, an activity that he shared with longtime best friends, twins Max and Heather. Feeling sad and overwhelmed by his injury and unsure how to keep up his friendship without the common activity, Ty has retreated a bit. Even after the cast is off, he finds it difficult to answer texts from his friends, since he feels fat and generally miserable. All three go to the same summer camp after school is out, something they had been looking forward to. Swimming, canoe building, and other activities now hold no interest for Ty, who often ignores the attentions of his cabin mates in favor of staying in his bunk. He does do some exploring with Dan, who is interested in finding a stag beetle to take home, but this just seems to anger Max even further. Heather has confided that they were both sad at being ghosted, but didn't know how to reconnect. Max and Ty have constant tense interactions, but after their squabbling results in their canoe for the competition being damaged, Heather insists they talk it out. They come to an uneasy truce, and Ty agrees to participate in the swimming competition. The day of the even, however, finds him in the laundry room, washing clothes and spiraling into a depressive episode that involves him resorting to some self-harm, scratching his stomach and arms. He asks a counselor for help, and has another talk with Max, admitting how severe his situation is. Max confides that he has been so reactive because he thinks of Ty as more than a friend. Ty returns the feelings, and the two kiss. Heather admits that she has also been dealing with some troubling emotions after Max shared a song with a friend without her permission, but at an end of camp event, she sings the song and dedicates it to her girlfriend. Upon returning home, I hope that all three participate in some counseling to help regulate their emotions.
Strengths: This does pick up the thread of role playing games, with campers trying out a tabletop game, so readers of Just Roll With It will appreciate that. Summer camp is always a popular topic, so readers who enjoyed Be Prepared will be drawn to this. The artistic style is pleasant, and the camp scenes make ME want to go back and sleep on a cot in a leaky tent and swim in a lake. The idea of recovering from a sports injury will resonate with many young readers. The friend drama is intense, and again, always a popular topic. Books about anxiety and stress are on trend.
Weaknesses: I often refer to books that include a lot of sadness as "soggy", and Ty's emotions are shown as water engulfing him and making it hard for him to breathe, so he is definitely soggy in a lot of the book. Young readers might enjoy this more than I did; I find that swirling anxiety and constant bickering, while true to life, often slow down the plot of books.
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed graphic novels like Ogle's Four Eyes, Page's Button PusherSattin and Hickman's Buzzing. or Greene's A-Okay.

Friday, June 07, 2024

Poetry Friday- Red Bird Danced

Quigley, Dawn. Red Bird Danced
4 June 2024 by Heartdrum
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this very lyrical novel in verse, we meet Ariel and Tomah, who both face struggles in an Intertribal housing complex. Ariel, who lives with her baby brother Misko and mother who provides childcare for the community, are dealing with the fact that her Aunt Bineshiinh is missing. Tomah, who is bigger than many students his age, struggles with reading, and acts the role of class clown to get out of having to read aloud. His father, who works a security job, doesn't quite understand his son. Ariel loves taking ballet lessons, but money is too tight to continue them, and her mother encourages her to take up jingle dress dancing as a way to help her community heal, especially when her aunt's body is found. Tomah's learning disability is finally uncovered, and he is able to work with a teacher on coping strategies, but has a set back when a heart problem lands him in the hospital. When the community has its yearly pow wow, the children use it as an opportunity to contact their local representatives to highlight the plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, symbolized by the empty red dress.
Strengths: This short novel packs an emotional punch, and sheds some light on the important topic of #MMIW. The supportive Intertribal community was something I hadn't read about. There is a great author note about city dwelling Indigenous people, and the apartment complex was a setting I had not seen before. Ariel and Tomah support each other, and also get help from older members in their community. This will be a very informative book for many middle grade readers.
Weaknesses: There were many of the pages that were filled with vertical lines of text (one word per line) instead of horizontal text that I found hard to read. I wonder if the arrangement of the lines was meant to mirror the difficulties that Tomah had reading. I could have used a longer book, with more information about many facets of the story, since it was so interesting.
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed the portray of Indigenous culture in Day's We Still Belong or the role that music and dance play in Kim's Make a Move, Sunny Park!

Thursday, June 06, 2024

A Place to Shine

Arnold, Marie. A Place to Shine
June 11, 2024 by Versify
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Ten-year-old Sundae "Sunny" Williams and her brother Milan have been living with their grandmother, Nanna Jo, in their Chicago neighborhood since the death of their parents in a car accident. Sunny has a best friend, Folake, who lives with her large and supportive Nigerian family, but also has to deal with mean girls like Tessa Graves at school. When she accidentally runs into Tessa, she is challenged to a fight, but manages to avoid one when she tells Tessa that she must have a "battle bracelet" to go through with the challenge, or she will lose someone close to her. This isn't the worst part of Sunny's day. When she gets home, she finds the police outside, and sees Nanna Jo being taken away to the Shady Glen Nursing Center because she has been wandering around and seems to have diminished mental faculties. Somehow, the children are overlooked by social services, so with Folake's help, sneak into the basement of the school to avoid foster care. They run into a new music teacher, Mr. Evens, who is setting up his classroom, but manage to spend the night in the basement. Sunny tells Milan a story that Nanna Jo had told her, The Girl of Fire and Light, and realizes that she must have been told that story because she needs to go on the same quest as the protagonist, Luna. This will cure Nanna Jo's dementia and allow her and her brother to return home. This involves getting a seashell kissed by a mermaid, a hair from a manticore, and Gorgon tears. Folake is willing to go along with this quest, but when Sunny and Milan are once again discovered by Mr. Evens, the children worry that they won't be able to fulfill it. There's no one in the foster care system who can take both children, and when he hears that the two will be split up, Mr. Evens, who had taken the training to be certified as a foster parent with his wife Maya, hears this, he reluctantly agrees to take the children. The school has been chosen to participate in a fall music festival, and Sunny hopes to get a good role. She manages to approximate the quest, getting a seashell from someone at the community pool and a hair from Folake's brother Abeo who is wearing half of a lion costume for Halloween, but when Sunny and Folake fall out, the quest is in jeopardy. Will Sunny be able to help her grandmother return to her former self? If she cannot, what will happen to her and Milan?
Strengths: There are an increasing number of children being raised by grandparents, so Sunny's plight will resonate with young readers who might also have a grandparent with memory problems. Mr. Evens is a complex character, and his gruff demeanor is explained by his past, which he is able to overcome in order to take care of children who need him. The friend drama with Folake, who starts to hang out with classmates who have bedeviled Sunny, is realistic. I loved how well Sunny tried to look out for her younger brother. 
Weaknesses: The idea that Sunny believed that she could cure her grandmother by completing a quest made her seem very young. Middle school students might not believe this, although some elementary students might. This is more like this author's The Year I Flew Away than her upper middle grade I Rise
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who are interested in books involving children in foster care, like Lackey's All the Impossible Things, Hennessey's The Echo Park Castaways or O'Shaughnessy's Lasagna Means I Love You

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

The Legendary Mo Seto

Chan, AY. The Legendary Mo Seto
June 4, 2024 by Aladdin
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Modesty "Mo" Seto is twelve, and hugely involved in Taekwondo. She is especially small for her age, so finds it hard to compete with people like Dax, who is larger. When she is momentarily distracted by her father stepping outside during her competition, Dax exploits her weakness, and she ends up with second place in the tournament. This is all part of a downward slide that has her worried, but when she finds out that there is an open audition for a role in a film starring her idol, martial arts expert Cody Kwok, she thinks that it is a way to redeem herself. With her father having to go to China for work, she knows that her busy mother will not sign the permission form, so she and her best friend Ingnacio "Nacho" Garcia, try to sneak in and get an early audition. Mo is distraught to discover that she doesn't meet the heighth requirement, but the casting director thinks Nacho would be perfect and gives him an audition folder for a call back. Using memory foam and Play-Doh in her shoes to make herself taller, swathed in a number of sweatshirts to make her seems bulkier, and wearing a ballcap to disguise herself, she shows up for the next call. At home, tensions are high because her mother wants her to pursue more feminine pursuits like embroidery or maybe ballet. Mo has also uncovered some old documents when cleaning out the basement, and begins to realize that an ancestor was a practioner of xiaoxi fu, a martial art based on a mythical small female warrior that includes many elements of dance. In a phone call, her father warns her that this is not for her, and her m other tries to take away the book. This doesn't stop Mo from making a copy and practicing a lot of the moves. When she needs a parent at the audition training, she manages to finagle Nacho's grandfather into coming. Things don't go well; she's accused of putting itching powder in equipment, and the set has several accidents, including some with Cody Kwok, whom Mo is thrilled to meet. Despite all odds, Mo manages to advance, and starts to work with her nemesis, Dax, on figuring out why bad things are happening. She finds out secrets about the planned film, as well as some about her family and their involvement with martial arts. Will she be able to overcome all of her shortcomings and get a role in the film? 
Strengths: It was fun to see a tiny twelve year old portrayed, especially because I once was one myself! There are many girls this age who are under five feet tall, like Mo, and it can lead to some difficulties. Mo's interest in martial arts is good to see, and I love how Nacho supports her even when her mother (for reasons that are later revealed as solid) does not. Many middle school students would love to be in films and meet their idols, so Mo's interactions with Cody Kwok are fascinating, especially when she learns that he is not necessarily everything the media have purported him to be. There's a decent mystery with the father and the family secrets as well.There are very few books about martial arts, except for Dutton's Jiu-Jitsu Girl,  and many students who are involved in the sport, so this will have an audience. 
Weaknesses: It stretched credulity a bit to think that Mo could add four or five inches to her height by putting things in her shoes, and I wasn't too thrilled with her mother not knowing about what she was doing, but younger readers won't mind. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed books that include martial arts, like Tashjian's My Life as a Ninja, or stories where children engage in subterfuge to follow their passions, like  Kim's Stand Up, Yumi Chung

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Jerry, Let Me See the Moon

Ebbeler, Jeffrey. Jerry, Let Me See the Moon
May 7, 2024 by Holiday House
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Jerry and his father have led a peripatetic life, living all over the world. When their most recent move takes them to a boring, cookie cutter, gated community, Fort Phylum, in the middle of nowhere Ohio, he's very confused. The residents all seem a bit quirky, and have all just moved in. They call his father "professor". When Jerry ends up having to babysit new neighbor, Pearl (who has been burying all of her family's possessions in the back yard), her mother tells Jerry not to let her see the moon. When she does, it uncovers the secret of the town. It's a planned community, masterminded by Jerry's father, and includes the were-creatures that he has met in his travels. He wants to help keep everyone safe, but when there is a community gathering, tensions arise between the different types of animals, and the predators, including the mayor (who is a lion) make things deeply uncomfortable for Pearl, who is a were-squirrel. The town hall is wrecked, and for some reason, people don't shed all of their animal qualities even when the sun comes up. The Professor is devastated, since he rescued many of the community members from experimentation and exploitation. Jerry and his new friends try to figure out what is going on even as Falcon Storm descends on the town to try to report on the unusual news. Will he be able to save the day and settle in to his new, not-so-boring community?
Strengths: I loved the format of this one, with Ebbeler's 1950s style drawings strewn about the pages in the most engaging fashion. There is even a "How Not to Get Eaten" handbook excerpted that is particularly delightful. It gives us a great idea of what all of the werepeople look like, and how their human forms and animal forms are alike. Jerry is a resilient character who is thrown into an usual situation but does his best to help his new community. There's an understandable backstory to the creation of Fort Phylum, and the descriptions of it are very amusing. There's plenty of action and adventure, an excellent villain, and a satisfying ending. 
Weaknesses: This was a tiny bit young for middle school, although sixth graders will enjoy it immensely. 
What I really think: This is a great choice for readers who want a quirky, funny fantasy adventure book like Lubar's Monsterific Tales, Thomas' Malamander, Woodrow's Curse of the Werepenguin, or Krosoczka's Platypus Police Squad, which also has some delightful illustrations. 

Monday, June 03, 2024

MMGM- Not If You Break Up With Me First and Charles & Ray: Designers at Play

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 
Miller, G.F. Not If You Break Up With Me First
June 4, 2024 by Aladdin
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Eve and Andrew have been friends and neighbors most of their lives. They know each other's quirks, likes and dislikes, and favorite activities. When Andrew's family spends the summer in Florida, they both feel like things are a bit odd between them as they start 8th grade. Eve has spent the summer hanging out with the cross country girls, who are much more interested in boys and make up than she is. Andrew, who is in the marching band, also finds that his friends have a different attitude toward girls. Last year, they were interested in Legos and video games. He is especially dismayed when one, Holden, makes comments about girls being "hot", but isn't sure how to challenge him. Eve's parents have been fighting constantly, adding to her feeling of unease. When the girls on her team mention that another drummer, Madison, seems to have a crush on Andrew, Eve is surprised to feel a bit jealous. The others tease her, and dare her to ask Andrew to an upcoming dance. It's hard to say no when they are egging her on, so she breaks away from practice and approaches Andrew during marching band practice to ask him to the dance. Andrew is suprised by the nature of the invitation, but because HIS friends are watching, can hardly say no. From there, things just get weird. Andrew and Eve stop hanging out, but text a lot about the upcoming dance. Eve notices that her mother, who is best friends with Andrew's mother and has long thought that the two kids would get married when they grew up, seems happier and fights less with her father now that she and Andrew are "dating". After a disastrous dance, which includes golden hour photos by moms "taking pictures like it was their actual job", Eve is sure she has to break up with Andrew, but doesn't want to hurt his feelings. Andrew feels the same way. Both independently come to the conclusion that they have to make the other person break up with them, and each set up on a course of annoying behavior designed to irritate. Eve demands Andrew's hoodie, sits at his lunch table and calls him Andy, and embodies the clinging, smothering girlfriend she knows Andrew despises. Even this doesn't dissuade him, but he manages to mastermind an embarrassing Halloween costume that is even worse when Madison joins the group in a costume that coincidentally coordinates in a horrible way. There are some quiet moments when the two are alone that are very sweet, and they clearly care about each other. The dating and even the plan to break up are driven primarily by the pressure of the friend groups. When this all comes to a horrible confrontation in public, the two have to find a way to deescalate the situation. Will they be able to return to their casual but deeply caring friendship?

Clearly, Miller has spent a LOT of time with middle school students. There were so many situations that could have come out of my own life, or the life of my children or students. That 24 hours when my friend Brad and I "went out" because our friends in Latin class pushed us to was... something. My proudest parenting moment was when I did NOT go with my daughter to a friend's house to get ready for homecoming and join the throng of mothers and grandmothers with cameras. And my other daughter's first summer on the high school cross country team? Revelatory. All of the swirling emotions, new experiences, and embarrassing moments are so perfectly captured, and the amount of clever, chortle worthy lines was positively Sonnenblickian.

The way that the struggle of Eve's parents affects her, and the way that Andrew's mother deals with it, is quite well done. It's great that when they see how much it is affecting Eve, decide to go to counseling. The way this mirrors the troubles that Eve and Andrew are having because of lack of communication is an important lesson in how relationships need work, no matter what one's age, or the duration of the relationship. Instead of killing off most of the parents, I really with that middle grade literature would explore how troubled family dynamics affect tweens every day lives.

It was sweet to see how much Eve and Andrew cared about each other, and how they felt bad about annoying each other, but felt it was for the best. Madison was an intriguing character, and it was great when she tells Eve she would love to be friends with her. I loved that while Holden was a complete jerk, his friends didn't let him get away with being that way for long. There's definitely jerkiness out there. Middle school has so many confusing emotions, and they are laid painfully bare on the pages of this book. Eve's relationship with Andrew's hoodie almost deserves a book to itself!

Another reviewer mentioned that this book was very heteronormative, and while I can see this, there is a fantastic moment when Madison is approached about her interest in Andrew (or lack thereof). One of the girls says something to the effect of "Or are you ace or aro? It's okay if you are." Madison has a fantastic response, saying that she is 13, and she just wants to be able to figure herself out without having labels placed on her. The simplest explanation is that Eve and Andrew's friend group is mainly heteronormative. I've seen in middle school that friend groups not only fall along gender lines, but identity lines as well. Even five years ago, students were much more heteronormative and are, in general, straighter than recent middle grade literature would have us believe. Could some LGBTQIA+ characters have been included? Absolutely. But was it realistic to not include them in this story that focused its lens on Eve and Andrew and their small circle of friends so closely? Also absolutely.

I loved this one SO MUCH. At its heart, it was such a sweet romance, with so many clever, funny lines. It had me alternating between snorting out loud and wiping tears from my eyes. I wanted to have a copy in my hand right now to give to my students, and might have mentioned it to patrons who were checking out Richards' Stu Truly or Acampora's Danny Constantino's First Date, two titles that are never on the shelf. This is the best middle grade romance since Heldring's The Football Girl.

Yang, James. Charles & Ray: Designers at Play: A Story of Charles and Ray Eames
May 21, 2024 by Viking Books for Young Readers
Copy provided by the publisher

The design team of Charles and Ray Eames was essential to the look of Mid Century Modern design. So many of the elements that we think of when this design style comes to mind-- molded plywood chairs, whimsical coat racks and lighting fixtures, and blocky color panels-- were their innovations. Charles was an architect, and Ray was a painter, and their disparate disciplines worked well together. They worked together to solve a variety of problems, even using their plywood molding techniques to creat splints for soldiers. They wanted to make a chair that felt organic and was comfortable, and the Eames chair was born. We see echoes of this in the stacking school chairs of today. They also designed small tables, toys, and innovative artwork.

I enjoyed how Yang framed this career biography in terms of the problems that the Eames tried to solve. This adds a good message for young children and will hopefully inspire them to think about ways to approach challenges in their own worlds.

The artwork is exquisite, and unless I am mistaken, a lot of the scenes are set in the Eames House (Case Study House No. 8) in Los Angeles. Yang does a great job of reproducing the style of 1960s picture books (mine are all in my attic, or I would cite specific titles!) while including elements of the Eames' aesthetic. There are many subtle nods to the time period; even the text is Eames Modern Century. The book is even dedicated to George (born 31 July 2022) and Jane Jetson! There could have been a tiny bit more turquoise in the book, but that may be my own personal color palette rather than that of the Eames, who did use a lot more beige than I recall. 

This is a stunning tribute to the influential Mid Century designers, and clearly shows a love of their work. The pictures echo their patterns and designs, and have a great feeling of FUN. This is also a good overview of their work as an introduction to young readers who might not know anything about Mid Century Modern. I loved Yang's note at the end and am envious of his dining room table! While I have read a lot of picture book biographies, there are few about artists and designers of this time. Covering a slightly earlier period, there's Going and Stringer's The Shape of the World: A Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, and for art, there's Bryant and Sweet's A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin and the Kuglers' In Mary's Garden, but I would love to see other biographies about Florence Knoll, Hans Wegner, or Eero Saarinen!

For related picture book information, check out this article! 

Sunday, June 02, 2024

The New Girl

Calin, Cassandra. The New Girl: A Graphic Novel
June 4, 2024 by Graphix
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Lia and her family move from Romania to Montreal, leaving behind grandparents. It's a tough transition for Lia, although her younger brother seems to have fewer problems. The language is a barrier, and while Lia understands more French than she can speak, some of her school day is hard to navigate. She shares a locker with Ivana, who doesn't even talk to her. There are lots of students from other countries at her school, and she's thrilled when Bogdan arrives from Romania and they can talk to each other at lunch. He quickly moves on, and Lia must go back to a table of girls who thought she had dumped them for a boy. As her language skills improve, she makes more and more friends, and even applies to be on the school newspaper, where she meets the very cute Julien. However, Lia suffers from excruciatingly bad menstrual cramps that cause her to miss school or go to the nurse's office because she can't even stand upright because of the pain. Unlikely help comes from Ivana, who gives her some suggestions for period products that might help. Lia and her friends have a good Halloween, and she manages to suggest an article for the newspaper on favorite snack foods from different countries and where to buy them that is well received. There is a misunderstanding between Lia and her new friend Wan Yin over Julien, but the two work things out, even though Wan Yin has a crush on Lia that is not reciprocated. When Julien drops off a Christmas present for Lia, she feels that she is making good progress on her new life in Montreal.
Strengths: The illustration style is very appealing, and a little different from many of the ones I see; there's more detail in the hair and clothing and looks more like Tessier and Amandine's Chloe than Holm's Sunny. This makes it seem a bit older, although the content is pure middle school. Navigating friend drama and crushes isn't easy when language isn't a barrier, so seeing Lia persevere in school despite this is encouraging. I love that she got involved in school activities and had friends from many different backgrounds. The problems with her period cramps is nicely done, and is definitely not something I have seen portrayed in literature before. Having known some girls who would pass out in school from cramps, this is probably something we needed, although it would have been a great inclusion to have her visit a doctor and get some better coping mechanisms. Girls used to be told that cramps were all in their head, and I'm sure that medical thought, as well as treatment, has changed in the last forty years!
Weaknesses: This is based on the author's own experiences moving to Canada 20 years ago, so is an odd mix of new (phones, FaceTiming people back home) and old (clothing styles, school newspaper). I'm not sure my students will notice, but I would have liked this to be more historical, like Rodriguez and Bell's Doodles from the Boogie Down.
What I really think: Add this to a growing number of graphic novels that address the challenges of being an immigrant student that includes Misako's Bounce Back, Tang's Parachute Kids, and Castellanos's Isla to Island.