Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Raven Heir

Burgis, Stephanie. The Raven Heir
September 14th 2021 by Bloomsbury Children's Books
ARC provided by the publisher

Cordelia lives deep in an enchanted forest with her mother, family friend Alys, older brother Connall, and fellow triplets Giles and Rosalind. Cordelia has always been "wild"; she can change into the shapes of animals and can't bear to be cooped up inside. Her older brother is working on harnessing his magic, but Giles would rather be a troubadour, and Rosalind practices knightly techniques of fighting. They've never questioned their isolated existence, but when soldiers come into the forest and demand to see the heir to the throne, family secrets emerge. After trying to mount a defense, their mother gives surrenders, hoping this will give the triplets time to escape. Cordelia's powers help, and soon the three are on the run. One of them is the heir to the throne, but their mother has always been secretive about who was born first, so who would be next in line is unclear. They find that the situation outside their forest is not good, with wide swaths of devastation, and even with the telepathetic help of Connall, they aren't quite sure what to do. They meet Lady Elianora, their grandmother, who purports to help them, but instead drugs Rosalind and Giles. Cordelia is wary, so isn't as badly drugged, and she manages to shift into the shape of a moth to get out of the trunk in which the three have been locked. She then heads off, lugging the trunk, hoping to get to the Raven's Nest, where the crown has been buried. With all of the political divisiveness that has caused most heirs to the throne to have very short careers, will one of the triplets be able to take the crown... and survive? There's no information about how many books will be in this series, but clearly, there needs to be at least one more!
Strengths: What tween doesn't want the ability to turn into a bird or a cat or a fox, and run away from family? Don't all Warriors or Dragonet Prophecy readers secretly project themselves into the animals? This gives a fresh twist to the "tweens saving the world" trope, especially since the three don't know much about the world, much less about why it needs saving. Giles and Rosalind are fun characters, since they each have their own interests despite their odd family, and Connall is a great, supportive character of whom I would like to see more! There are not a lot of books starring triplets, and I've actually had four of five sets at my school over the last twenty years. 
Weaknesses: I was conflicted about Cordelia's "wild" magic. Should she have been better trained? Was this something usual? Why does Connall have different magic, and the other triplets don't seem to have any? I wanted a little more set up to describe this. Since the whole political situation isn't explained at the beginning, I felt a bit at sea.
What I really think: This is perfect for fans of this author's The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart and other medieval style fantasy books like Wishingrad's The Verdigris Pawn, Durst's The Stone Girl's Story, Prineas' The Scroll of Kings, Nielsen's The False Prince, or George's The Rose Legacy (which is a little more modern, but has political squabbles).

Attack of the Killer Komodos
 Ms. Yingling

Monday, September 27, 2021

MMGM- Cuba in My Pocket, Revolution in Our Time

It's
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
 at 
and #IMWAYR day 
at 
and 

Cuevas, Andrianna. Cuba in My Pocket
September 21st 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Cumba loves hanging out in his small Cuban town with his friends in 1961, although tensions have been rising ever since Fidel Castro overthrew Batista in 1959. While Batista's government cause some problems, Cumba is seeing worrying things going on in his community. His friends even play a game they call "Antes de Fidel, Despues de Fidel" where they talk about the changes in school, food, and more serious issues like soldiers on the street. Cumba's family (which includes younger brother Pepito) is especially worried, since his father had been a lawyer in the Adjutant General's Office under Batista, and his mother is a dentist. His grandparents, especially his abuelo, don't like what has happened to their country, but more than anything, want to stay safe. When the army starts to conscript young boys, sending them to Russian to train, Cumba's family uses their influence to plan to get Cumba to Florida. They obtain a fake passport from their tailor, a German Jewish man who escaped the Nazis, and get a ticket to fly out of another city. Cumba is supposed to report for duty on July 10th, so is set to fly out a few days before, but the local recruiter, Ignacio, come to take Cumba away early. The family protests, saying Cumba is ill, and luckily, he is frightened enough that he throws up on Ignacio's shoes. He does manage to make his flight, and soon is on his way to Miami with another young girl, Adelita. The two commiserate, and hope that their time in the US will pass quickly. Cumba is met by Prima Benita, but Adelita is taken away by a dour looking nun. Prima Benita has been trying to help out as many families in Cuba as she can, and she also has an older boy, Alejandro, and a young woman, Valeria. She is very kind, even though Cumba doesn't care for the oatmeal that she feeds them, and gives him a small allowance which he uses to buy hamburgers and cokes. The man at the soda fountain, Marvin, helps Cumba learn a bit more English, but it is still rough to start school. The teachers and students are mostly kind, but the halls are loud, and all the classes but math are very difficult. He makes a friend in Arnold, who is obsessed with race horses but needs Cumba's help with math, and Cumba slowly settles in to his life, writing his brother frequently and hoping for news from home. When Benita must take in more relatives, Cumba is moved to a foster home in Key Largo with the Reynolds family, and starting over again is difficult. The Reynolds are very kind, and have a young son about Pepito's age, but worries about his parents in Cuba continue. Will he be reunited with his family before he forgets more about them?
Strengths: This is a fascinating time in history, and even addresses the Bay of Pigs invasion, which I knew very little about. The depiction of every day life in Cuba, especially Cumba's experiences hanging out with friends and at school, makes the story even more poignant once things start to break down, and will help young readers to understand why coming to the US isn't Cumba's preference. Life in the US is depicted as challenging, but in some ways a relief. It was interesting that he does make friends with the other immigrants at Benitas, and even ends up in school with a former classmate in Key Largo. The story moved along at an excellent pace, and alternated nicely between Cumba's concerns for his family and his experiences navigating his new country. The fact that this is based on the author's father's life makes this really sing. 
Weaknesses: The cover is fine, but could have been absolutely amazing if it had included 1960s Miami colors and graphics. And, come on, no Belaire font for the cover? And where's Cumba's suit or Guayabera shirt? So many missed opportunies! 
What I really think: Excellent addition to a small but growing body of middle grade literature about Cuba that includes Behar's Letters from Cuba,  and Lucky Broken Girl, Gonzalez's The Red Umbrella, Flores-Galbis' 90 Miles to Havana and Ada's Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba. I'm always uncomfortable with Paterson's My Brigadista Year, even though it's really informative. Castro was in power for a long time, but clearly the majority of Cuban's in the US were not fans. 

Magoon, Kekla. Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People
**UPDATE**23rd November 2021 by Candlewick Press
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

I've been looking forward to this nonfiction book since at least 2009, when The Rock and the River came out, and Fire in the Streets only made me want it more. I've helped students with National History Day projects about the Black Panthers, and when I say that this is sorely needed, believe me. There isn't even an adult book that covers this organization as comprehensively and objectively as Revolution in Our Time does. The author has been working on this since at least 2012, and the dedication to research clearly shows. 

The Black Panther movement was a turbulent organization in a turbulent time, but it's important to know a lot of Black history in order to fully understand the circumstances which led up to the 1960s. Events going back to the founding of the US to the Civil War to Separate But Equal to Northern Migration and World War II are succinctly explained, but the brevity does not lessen the impact. When even the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s failed to keep Black people from suffering from systemic racism, the Black Panthers felt that a new method of protest needed to be mounted. Since nonviolent protests were having little impact, they felt a need for an aggressive alternative. 

As Magoon says in Chapter 5 (of the ARC), "In a vacuum, it is easy to default to saying, "Violence is never the answer," and thus addresses the most difficult issues of the Black Panthers. The country, still dealing with the consequences of WWII and Korea and now heavily involved in Vietnam and protests against it, and also dealing with the Cold War and Hoover's horribly misguided attempts to deal with the threat of Communism, found it difficult to deal with Black citizens armed with legal weapons embracing Leninistic philosophies. It was an uncomfortable time, but this discomfort was crucial to seeing change made. The descriptions of why and how Panther leadership determined their mission and processes against this historical background are helpful in understanding why these extreme measures were taken.

I have always been intrigued by the amount of social improvement programs that the Panthers ran. Some of these are discussed in Williams-Garcia's 2010 One Crazy Summer, and all are discussed here. Education, both for children and for adults (I love that there was a book list in the weekly newspaper!), was very important, but there was a strong understanding that people cannot learn on empty stomachs. Free food programs were implemented on community levels, and these expanded to include clothing, shoes, and other programs for issues that were essential for survival. Since the median age of Panthers was 19, this was a movement clearly driven and forwarded by the young, so they were not forgotten. 

There were strict rules, and very clear mission statements for the organization, as well as a sort of uniform (the classic beret, black jacket, and light blue shirt), and these, along with the sense of purpose, helped engender strong feelings of community. They were also helpful when members were frequently arrested on trumped up charges, especially where weapons were concerned. 

There were some problems. Many of the leaders ran into trouble with the law, often being jailed, or were killed. These occurrences aren't downplayed, but are framed in contexts that help make sense of the impossible circumstances the Panthers found themselves fighting against. It's easy to think that those who live by guns, die by guns, but Magoon clearly describes the precipitating events that drove these actions and shows how necessary they were. 

It's hard to find information about the Civil Rights movement in the 1970s, but here we finally see the causes and societal pressures behind the winding down of the Panther, until their official disbandment in 1982. Clearly, however, the fight is not over, and we see the legacy of the movement and learn about the fates of some of the key players. 

There are biographies at the end of the book, a timeline, a helpful bibliography, and complete index, as well as plentiful period photographs and illustrations throughout. 

Search your public library for books about the Black Panther Movement. Aside from Martin's Black Against Empire (2013), Shames' and Seale's Power to the People (2016), and the Talbot's By the Light of Burning Dreams (2021), I doubt you'll find much. And those are all adult books. This is absolutely the most complete and balanced book that I have seen on a critically important but underrepresented organization in the Civil Rights movement. I cannot recommend it enough. 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Sidelined

Bietz, Kara. Sidelined
September 21st 2021 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Julian is looking forward to his senior year in Meridien, Texas. He wants to play football and hopefully get scouted for a college scholarship. He's been living with Grandma Birdie since the death of his father, who also played football and had been hoping to set up a community center for kids in town. When his grandmother has a "surprise guest" for him, he never thinks that it will be Elijah. Elijah and his family moved away suddenly several years before, and Julian was devastated not only because the two had been friends for a long time, but because he hoped that after the two shared a kiss, they might be more than friends. Now, Elijah is back at school and living with Birdie and Julian until his mother, teenage sister, and her baby can move to town. Elijah's father is in prison, and everyone in the small town suspects that Elijah is just like his father. Since he was accused of trying to steal fund raiser money before his family left town, it's a hard thing to shake. However, he's not like his father, and he's a bit upset that in his absence, Julian had a boyfriend, Reece. When Elijah gets back on the football team, there is some tension. One of the issues is that the team always pranks their rival school before the big game, and Julian wants to put an end to this tradition because he thinks his father would want that, but when he finds out the truth about his father, things become complicated. Can Elijah and Julian navigate their shared history and find a way to go forward?

This young adult book captures the essence of senior year; both boys are trying to make the most of their time remaining in high school, but just want to move forward with college plans and escaping their small town. There is a lot of angst over incidents that really aren't that important, and Julian's hatred of the pranks is well founded, but also not taken seriously. He and Elijah aren't quite sure how to act around each other, and waste a lot of time avoiding each other. This is a great depiction of that uncertain time leading up to high school graduation. 

We are finally seeing books with gay characters who aren't coming out, but who instead are trying to figure out their relationships. This seems to be an accurate portrayal, and the difficulties caused by past history certainly inform their current actions and lead to some tension. It's refreshing that the ending is fairly happy. 

My only complaint about the book is that there is not quite enough football! This is more along the lines of Schmidt's Bookish Boyfriends: Get a Clue, instead of Herbach's Stupid Fast or Cracking the Bell, which are both young adult books with lots of good football details. If you're looking for more romance and small town drama than football, this is perfect. 
 Ms. Yingling

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Cartoon Saturday- The Ghoul Next Door, Good Dogs #3

Bunn, Cullen and Farris, Cat (illus.). The Ghoul Next Door 
July 13th 2021 by HarperAlley 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Grey has done a really great history project on the local cemetery in his East Coast town of Ander's Landing, and when he is carrying it to school with his best friend Marshall, two things happen: he finds a penny on the sidewalk from 1919, and picks it up even though Marshall doesn't want him to, and he decides to take a shortcut through the cemetery. Marshall won't go with him, and things don't go so well for Grey-- he trips, and his project falls into an open hole. When he peers in to investigate, he sees a shadowy, creepy hand take his project! He's normally a good student, and claims that he just left it at home, since his story seems unlikely. He's given another day to bring the project in, and spends the evening recreating it, only to find it smashed the next morning. However, there is a completed project on the porch that he takes to school. His teacher finds strange things inside the project (a bone and hank of hair), and advises Grey's parents to keep him away from the cemetery! Grey eventually meets the ghoul who is leaving him disconcerting presents. Lavinia is not supposed to be talking to humans, but she's tired of living in the graveyard and having to be a ghoul. She enjoys hanging out with Grey, and he warms to her a bit, feeling somewhat sorry for the huge group of ghouls in the cemetery, and grateful that Lavinia saved him from a rat attack. When Marshall is taken by the ghouls, Grey goes in search of his friend in Lavina's dangerous and scary world. Will he be able to save both his old, surface dwelling friend as well as his new ghoul friend?
Strengths: This booked sucked me right into Grey's world and I believed right away that, sure, a slightly flirtatious ghoul is following him home and getting him in trouble with his parents and teachers. I was glad that Grey was able to tell Marshall what had happened, and whether or not Marshall believed him, he told Grey to keep the truth to himself. Marshall then getting involved with the ghouls and getting taken made for a great reason to have a quest. The illustrations are done in an interesting way-- I think the black lines around the characters are not quite as pronounced, which I liked. This could be a stand alone, although the ending hints at the possibility of a sequel. 
Weaknesses: I wish there had been a little more explanation of why Lavinia wanted to befriend Grey. Maybe a family connection, or a connection through the house he lived in. She was taking a lot of risks to show herself to him, and I wasn't getting her motivation. 
What I really think: This was more along the line of Tapalansky's Cast No Shadow than Steinkeller's The Okay Witch; creepier, with disturbing ghouls and other menacing creatures. The rat attack and other scenes make this a bit gorier, which is exactly what my students want. I need to start thinking of my graphic novel section as a smaller version of my regular collection and try to get different genres, cultures, and themes represented, so I should buy this one, even though I am not personally a fan of rat attacks. 


Wenitsky, Rachel and Sidorov, David. Freeman, Tor (illustrations)
Good Dogs in Bad Sweaters (Good Dogs #3)
September 28th 2021 by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

The good dogs from Good Dogs on a Bad Day and Good Dogs with Bad Haircuts are back and ready for the holiday season! Erin, who runs Good Dogs day care, has gotten married to her boyfriend Jin, and is still having Cleo and King compete in agility contests, and Napoleon is training to be a therapy dog. Patches, the wise old sheep dog, wanders about vaguely reminiscing, and Petunia also is in the day care. Lulu's hair has grown out, and she is preparing for the streaming show she is doing with Jasmine, who is putting aside her own acting career for now. Hugo and Waffles are living with their family that includes three boisterous children. The dogs are surprised when a dog who looks very much like Hugo shows up in the park, and turns out to be Waffles' litter mate, fuzzface, who is the adopted only dog of a family who has renamed him Bentley. Bentley's parents are glad to see Waffles, and invite Waffles and Hugo over for a visit. Hugo is concerned that Waffles will want to be adopted by Bentley's family, who spoils him with presents and treats. Cleo has done poorly in a competition, and is very sad. King is trying desperately to cheer her up, but failing miserably. Jasmine's parents come to visit for the holidays, which throws Lulu's social media presence into chaos, especially since they bring their pet teacup pig, Buttercup, who turns out to be an excellent snuggler. Let's not forget the squirrel in the park, Nuts, whose wife, Berries, is having a litter very soon! As the holidays approach, the dogs' various worries are shared, and they all try to help each other, especially Napoleon, who tries out his therapy tactics on the dogs, with surprising success. When Hugo is afraid that Waffles won't have a good Christmas because Santadoodle won't show up, the group decides (and I loved this, from the E ARC) to "go on a crazy caper all over town to save Christmas and learn lessons along the way". (They've been watching a lot of Hallmark movies.) With the help of Nuts, who is trying to avoid being home with his vast new brood of babies, as well as ornery cat Pickles, the Good Dogs set out to find a gadgety ball for Waffles present, saving Christmas and learning many lessons. 
Strengths: This is MY idea of a "heart print" book. The dogs are good friends, and look out for each other's interests and are all so sweet. If humans were this good to each other, there would be fewer problems in the world! There are so many funny scenes, and the language is very clever. Napoleon doesn't appear very often, which is a shame, because hearing therapy language applied to dogs is hysterical! I enjoyed the fact that the dogs all had different backgrounds, and yet got along well. Their adventure, while they are all wearing sweaters, was a lot of fun, and in the holiday spirit. Just a fun, pleasurable book to read.
Weaknesses: There are a LOT of characters in this book, and it was somewhat difficult to keep them all straight. Patches and Petunia didn't do much, and I wonder if there will be more about them in the next book, which MUST be published, because Erin and Jin are expecting! 
What I really think: This will be an enormous hit with readers who are fans of Watson's Stick Dog and Falatki's Two Dogs in a Trench Coat, as well as Crimi's Secondhand Dogs. This series is perfect for elementary schools, with its occasional illustrations, but I'm going to hand the first book to an 8th grader the first day of school, and I think he will be very pleased. Invest in this series for readers who love dogs, humor, and of course, bad sweaters!

Friday, September 24, 2021

Guy Friday- What About Will

Hopkins, Ellen. What About Will
September 14th 2021 by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Trace's brother Will is five years older than he is. He was a football player until he was involved in a bad tackle that left him with a facial nerve injury, anger management issues, and lots of pain. This lead to depression and deepened the rift between the boys' parents. Their mother fronts a band and had a decent amount of success, and their dad works security in a casino near their home in Las Vegas, and when the problems with Will got bad, their mother left the family and went on tour. It's been a year since the divorce, and Trace spends a lot of his time at home alone. His father works, and Will leaves without much explanation. Will does have some friends, and plays on a baseball team, but he misses his mother and the way their family used to be. When a new girl, Cat, joins the team, some of his teammates are against a girl playing, but after a rocky start, Trace realizes that he and Cat share a lot of interests, and also each have some family problems that they don't share with everyone. Cat's older brother has run away from home, and she's moved to Las Vegas with another brother and her father, who is a fairly famous former baseball player. Her mother is staying in California in case her brother comes home. Cat does well on the team, and she and Trace start a solid friendship. Trace is the only one who sees that his brother is becoming more withdrawn, and seems to be getting into drugs, based on his furtive actions, new friends, and frequent odd demeanor. Trace wants to tell his father, but is afraid that he will then fight with Will. He does confide a bit in neighbor Mr. Cobb, who served in Vietnam and tells Will about some of his experiences in the war, and about his career as a nurse, and encourages Trace to tell his father about his brother's behavior. Even though it escalates to the point where Will steals money from Trace and even takes his baseball glove that Cat's father signed, Trace is reluctant to share this, especially since his father is dating Lily, who works at the senior facility where his grandfather lives. Trace does reach out to his mother, but she brushes him off, promising to visit when it is clear that she won't. When Will's behavior puts him in a life and death situation, will Trace finally be able to let his family know what is going on, and will they be able to pull together to help Will get through?
Strengths: Opioid addiction is a horrible and growing problem in our society, but is more likely to touch the lives of middle school students in the way it touches Trace's. Whether it is a parent or an older brother, kids have to not only deal with the problem, but also go on with their schooling and lives. Hopkins does an excellent job of showing the effect that Will's actions have on Trace's life, and on his entire family. Will is good at hiding what is going on, and it is realistic that the father's work hours cause him to miss important signs. I love that Trace does have some supportive adults, like the fantastic Mr. Cobb, to help him. The new relationship with Lily, and Trace's reaction to it, is also realistically done, since he is against it at first but remains polite, then starts to enjoy Lily's positive personality, her cooking ability, and her labradoodle. It was interesting to see the mother's involvement from a distance. This book showed a hard reality, but wasn't completely without hope, which is all I ask for in sad middle grade books. 
Weaknesses: I know that Ms. Hopkins' style is novels in verse, and the form is occasionally justified, but it's not really necessary. This would have worked just as well with the line spacing as straight prose.
What I really think: I've always felt bad that middle school invited Ms. Hopkins to speak and then rescinded the invitation after they read her much grittier young adult novels, so it's interesting to see her enter the middle grade age group with Closer to Nowhere and this novel. She does an excellent job at laying out the genesis of addiction, the signs, the treatment that should happen, and the ways in which events progress in a world that is not perfect. This is a great choice for all middle and most elementary school libraries. Add this to the slowly growing list of novels where tweens are affected by addiction like Messner's The Seventh Wish (2016), Campbell's The Rule of Threes, Petro-Roy's Life in the Balance, Bishop's Where We Used to Roam, and Walters' The King of the Jam Sandwiches.
 Ms. Yingling

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Infestation (Whispering Pines #2)

Lang, Heidi and Bartkowski, Kati. Infestation (Whispering Pines #2)
September 14th 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
E ARC provided by Edleweiss Plus

After the horrific events of Whispering Pines, Rae, Caden and the others are trying to go forward. Caden's brother Aiden is in the other place, and his family's magic seems unable to get him out, and the Unseeing took many of their classmates. Rae is still dealing with the disappearance of her father, and the town is unsure about the corporate stalking that Green On! is soing in the town. Some of the children, like Vivienne, whose mother works for Green On! think is a great corporation, and there is an internship opportunity at the company that Rae, Alyssa, and Vivienne all seize. Also there is Blake, whom the girls don't trust. When Aiden reappears, Caden struggles with how to deal with him. Rae and Blake both run into various giant insect like creatures who torture goats for their various purposes, and also take some of the smaller bugs back into their houses. They realize that something must be done about the infestation, and after they successfully fight the creatures with a bug spray created by Green On!, they further question that corporation's motives. There are still probably going to be threats to Whispering Pines, since Rae and Caden decide to form a team to take care of any future occurrences. 
Strengths: Exploding goats. Giant menacing spiders. Hidden spaceships. Evil alternate dimensions. Tweens saving the world. It's all here. Nicely creepy tale with enough action to keep the pace brisk, enough friend drama to heighten the suspense, and otherworldly occurrences to keep Condie's The Darkdeep or Stranger Things fans happy. 
Weaknesses: The cover of the first book, with the missing eyes, was so much creepier. The bug in the background should have been bigger. Or, you know, the cover could have featured the exploding goat. 
What I really think: There were a lot of characters to keep straight, and my fantasy amnesia (as well as skimming over a lot of the book to avoid exploding goats) rendered me incapable of fully understanding how the Other Place and Green On! were related. I'll have to have a student explain it to me. My students are very good about doing this, which I appreciate. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

How to Find What You're Not Looking For

Hirandani, Veera. How to Find What You're Not Looking For
September 14th 2021 by Kokila
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Ariel lives with her parents and sister Leah in Connecticut in 1967, having moved there from Brooklyn when her parents wanted to distance themselves from relatives and relocate their bakery. The family is Jewish, but not as observant as some of the family, which has lead to tensions. Unfortunately, their new town does not have very many Jewish people, and Ariel has experienced some racial tensions, but her parents don't want "to make a fuss". When Leah shares with Ariel that she has met a man she really likes, Raj, she asks Ariel to keep it a secret, because Raj's family is from India, and they are Hindu. He's studying at New York University, and worries that his family won't be any more accepting than Leah's. There are other things going on in Ari's life as well. She has a lot of trouble with her handwriting, and struggles with school assignments, but her mother, even after countless meetings with teachers, just thinks that Ari needs to work harder and everything will be fine. Ari's teacher, Miss Field, is impressed with Ari's poetry, and also encourages to do a report on the recent case of Loving vs. Virginia. After her sister makes a sudden but unsurprising decision regarding Raj, Ari is even more interested in this historic civil rights case. When the bakery falls on hard times and the tension in her family increases, will Ari ever be able to make her parents understand how important it is that they continue to communicate with Leah?
Strengths: I love that this is based on the author's own background of having a Jewish American mother and father from Mumbai. We need more stories about families who have been in the US for quite a while; it might help people understand how unnecessary and hurtful the question "Where are you from?" can be. Working in the current event of Loving vs. Virginia gives this a wider historical perspective. The long time family bakery was interesting, and the hard work involved in such an enterprise, and the economic difficulty of running one, was poignant. Leah's struggles with her relationship with Raj, and the parents' objections, were completely realistic for the time, and a good example of how things have changed, if only incrementally. Ari's learning disability (dysgraphia) is one that I haven't seen portrayed in middle grade literature, and the depiction of how she deals with it, how her parents feel about it, and the efforts of the new, young teacher are all interesting. This story combines several different elements in a compelling way that I think will make it a popular choice with many readers. 
Weaknesses: This was written in the present tense, and for some reason, that seemed odd. Ah. It's because it is also written in the second person, which I didn't realize until just now. So, apparently not a big issue, but reading it felt a little bit like I had an uncomfortable tag poking the back of my neck. Perhaps that was the point? Also, the inclusion of student poetry in books always makes me cringe, since I wrote (and published) a lot of poetry until I was in my mid-twenties and should never have shown it to anyone! 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing. I love the range of Hirandani's work, and look forward to what she writes next. A great addition to historical fiction about the immigrant experience, such as Dumas' It Ain't So Awful, Falafel, Yang's Front Desk, Perkins' You Bring the Distant Near, and Behar's Lucky Broken Girl. 

Ms. Yingling

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Last Gamer Standing and other spec fic

Zhao, Katie. Last Gamer Standing
September 21st 2021 by Scholastic Paperbacks
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

It's 2067, and Reyna Chang is definitely super excited to be at the summer Dayhold Academy and to be taking part in the junior championship tournament. She's had to keep her online identity separate from her in person one, since there is a heavy bias against both female and Asian gamers. Her online presence is The RuiNar, who presents as a teenage boy, a play on the Chinese version of her name, Rui Nar. Her parents are struggling, especially now that her mother is battling cancer, and are not thrilled to have their daughter be so interested in gaming. They think that she should spend her time studying useful things, like math and science, and don't fully support her dreams of being a professional gamer like LuckyJade847, her idol. The summer academy has many useful classes, but Reyna struggles with the social aspects of the camp, since she has to hide her identity. Her best friend from school, Henry, is at the camp, and she does connect with Nell Kwon (a boy), over their interest in The RuiNar. Reyna makes it through the first round by forging an alliance with Proslayer, a player whom she has admired, but he does not make it through. In the second round, she tries another alliance with RHCP, but that doesn't go as well. In the meantime, her mother's condition worsens, and her father wants her to come back home. Not only that, but she gets an anonymous e mail from another player who threatens to dox her. (From Dictionary.com: To publish the private personal information of (another person) or reveal the identity of (an online poster) without the consent of that individual.) This strengthens her resolve to do well at the tournament, especially since she wants to win the $10,000 prize in order to help her family. During the third round, she is made the captain of a team that includes F3lx, who is widely suspected of habitual cheating, but who is so clever he is never caught. Will Reyna be able to hold her own in the tournament, stay connected with her family, remain safe from those who wish her ill, and pursue a career in E Sports?
Strengths: While the descriptions of in-game play (and the fantastic cover!) are what will sell this to most readers, there is plenty of relevant social content for gatekeepers. This is set just far enough in the future that readers in 2067 might still have access to this book! Not a lot has changed, especially in the treatment of women and people of color in the gamer world. I loved that Reyna addresses this topic, and while it informs many of her choices, it never stops her from working towards her dream. It is also helpful that she does have a few role models (whom she eventually gets to meet), and has friends who are supportive of her once they find out her true identity. Also important is that when she has an opportunity to report mistreatment, it is taken very seriously. She is even given a response when she asks specifically what the consequences will be. When there are problems in middle grade novels, I think it is helpful to young readers to see good practices modeled in books, since they may not see them in real life. Since this is a Scholastic title, make sure you order an extra box if you are having a book fair! 
Weaknesses: I could have used more information about Reyna's life and how she worked her gaming into her ordinary activities before she came to the summer camp. Also, my daughter's name is Nell and I've never heard the name used for a boy before, so I kept expecting another subplot to develop from this.
What I really think: If this were available in hard cover, I would probably buy five copies. In prebind, I will probably get two or three. Video gaming is a HUGE interest among middle school readers, and until a few years ago, it was difficult to find books that involve them. Now, there's Anderson's fantastic Insert Coin to Continue, Mbalia's Last Gate of the Emperor, Mancusi's Dragon Ops, and many more titles. 

Video game books are always hard for me personally; I don't understand gaming (since the only game available during my formative years was Pong), and I don't think it is a good thing for children to do. If they are reading a book about video games, at least they aren't playing them! My own offspring were limited to a half hour of screen time each day, so when Reyna talks about playing for FIVE hours each day, that just seemed excessive. Many of my students think they can become YouTube stars, professional video game players, or professional ball players, but their chances of actually succeeding are so low. I wanted to be a Latin teacher, and my life would have been SO much better if someone had firmly squashed that impossible dream when I was young, so I really struggle with books like this, even though I buy them and recommend them to students.  

Got to the point this summer where fantasy novels got a bit samey. Now, my students won't necessarily have this reaction, since they haven't read as many as I have, but I can't buy all the books. Even if there were enough money, there's not enough SPACE, and I already have a ton of books about tweens finding out the have magical powers and using them to Save the World. Here are a couple of fantasy books I will be buying, but didn't have the mental energy to review properly.


Tsang, Katie and Tsang, Kevin. Dragon Legend (Dragon Realm #2)
September 21st 2021 by Sterling Children's Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

This had a couple good twists-- it is set at a summer camp, dragons are involved (they are HUGELY popular in my library right now), and there is also some time travel. I enjoyed the first one, Dragon Mountain

From the Publisher: 
"Billy Chan and his friends are not having a very relaxing summer. Their friend, Dylan, has been kidnapped by the evil Dragon of Death and it's up to them to travel through time, back to the dangerous Dragon Realm, in order to save him. Luckily they have their own dragons on side, but they'll need to collect eight magical pearls if they're to amass enough power to destroy the Dragon of Death and her followers for good. So begins an epic quest that will take them to the depths of the Frozen Wasteland and the imperial palaces of Ancient China. But can good triumph evil...?"


Barron, Rena. Maya and the Return of the Godlings
September 21st 2021 by HMH Books for Young Readers

Really enjoyed the first book in this series, Maya and the Rising Dark. Glad to see Maya's father is back and involved in teaching her about her powers, and will definitely buy this book. 

From the Publisher:
"In this highly anticipated sequel, Maya and the godlings must return to the sinister world of The Dark to retrieve the one thing keeping the veil between the worlds from crumbling: her father's soul. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and Willa of the Wood."


Smith, Ronald. The Young Prince: Spellbound
September 28th 2021 by Marvel Press 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

While I was able to hang on through the first book in this series (https://msyinglingreads.blogspot.com/2018/01/wndb-black-panther-young-prince.html), the story does require a little more Black Panther knowledge than I have in my brain. There is even a graphic novel about this character, but that made me even more confused. I love Smith's writing, and the first book has been wildly popular with my students. I'll buy this one, and feel like I need to go read a whole lot of Black Panther comics. Or maybe see the movie. 

Somehow, I did much better with Stone's Shuri series:

From the publisher:
"In the sequel to the hit middle grade novel, The Young Prince, T'Challa is heading back to America to visit his friends Sheila and Zeke, who are staying with Sheila's grandma in Alabama over their summer break. T'Challa is excited to see his friends, but his fun summer vacation quickly turns into a nightmare. The small town has fallen under the sway of a charismatic politician named Achebe who is there to retrieve a spell book full of dark magic. When strange events start to take place, T'Challa begins to think that it's no coincidence that Achebe arrived in Beaumont at the same time he did."

Monday, September 20, 2021

MMGM- Without Separation and How to Win a Slime War

It's
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
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and #IMWAYR day 
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Brimner, Larry Dane and Gonzales, Maya (illus.)
Without Separation:Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez
September 14th 2021 by Calkins Creek
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this beautifully illustrated picture book, we learn the history of the Lemon Grove Grammar incident of 1931. At that time, the town only had the one elementary school, but community built another school, the Olive Street School, without a lot of fan fare, and abruptly sent all of the students of Mexican descent there after Christmas break. They claimed that it would better suit their needs. This, of course, was untrue. During the Great Depression, there was some thought that workers of Mexican descent were taking jobs away from white residents, and there were many attempts to segregate students. This did not sit well with Roberto Alvarez,who was a good student and very proficient in English. (The claim was made that the students struggled with language, and also that the school was built so that children didn't have to cross rail road tracks!) He and his family sued the school board to be allowed to continue with his friends in a school that he enjoyed. This was not an easy thing to do, especially since the school board tried to convince people that groups in Mexico were organizing the suit and some of the student actions attached to it. This was not true, and the judge decided that Lemon Grove had no power to set up a separate school. 

This would be a great book for a class read aloud on history that has been swept under the carpet for all too long. There were several court cases around this time, including Mendez vs. Westminster School District, about a decade later. This is a great summary of how decisions can be made by communities, justified, and impact students. 

The illustrations have a Southwestern feel to them, and give a good feel for what the 1930s looked like. The agricultural setting of the schools really comes to life, and the picture of the Lemon Grove Grammar school surrounded by lemon trees is particularly lovely. 

There are good notes at the end that explain more of the details not only of this case, but of the history of other segregation cases, such as the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson that frequently comes up. This has a few photographs showing the school, and is a great resource. 

Understanding history is so important for all students, especially when it comes to the experiences of children their own age. Young readers assume that the world has always been the way it is for them, and it's good to introduce them to different times. It's also helpful to understand the long standing prejudices in the US that have continued systemic racism, and perhaps we will see improvements in our society as more of these cases are brought before the public eye again. 


Respicio, Mae. How to Win a Slime War
14 September 2021, Wendy Lamb Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Alex Manalo and his father have moved into his Lola and Lolo's house, since his father is tired of his Silicon Valley job and will be taking over the family Filipino market now that his grandparents are retired. Alex isn't too concerned about his new school, and he even deals well with the fact that his mother died when he was young. What is hard for him is that, while he is generally supportive, his father really doesn't understand Alex and his interests. Alex has long hair, and would rather be making slime than doing anything else. He is interested in the store, because he wants to be an entrepreneur. His father, however, played soccer in school and wants Alex to play... and he'll even coach! At school, Alex makes a fast friend in Logan, who is on the outs with his own best friend, and who introduces Alex to the history of the school's Slime Wars. There is another girl, Meadow, who is the reigning Slime Queen, and she is NOT happy about Alex cutting into her market, even though the school has forbidden even having slime at school, much less buying and selling it. Alex and Meadow start the Slime War, and will compete to see who can sell the most slime in a week, without getting caught. Alex has a rocky start, and also struggles with being goalie on his dad's soccer team, but makes a valiant effort, even going door to door to try to sell slime! Meadow is very cut throat and mean to Alex, but he starts to wonder if there is something behind her meanness. Alex's father is making a lot of changes at the Manalo Market to update it and bring in new business, but Alex does not like how his father is stripping the store of its personality and Filipino culture. Will Alex be able to stay out of trouble at school, be able to follow his own interests, and convince his father to keep some aspects of the family business?
Strengths: Even though I hate slime (the science classes make it, and I've had to clean enough of it out of the library carpet!), I love books where children have a definite passion. I'm not quite sure how widespread the love of slime is (apparently there is a social media personality who touts it), but there are a lot of recipes for the substance at the beginning of each chapter. The ins and outs of having a family business, along with being close to family for a change, are fun to read about.  The students are operating outside of the school rules, which specifically forbid slime, and this is done in a realistic way. Meadow is a great character; we don't see a lot of her at first, and she is quite mean, but when Alex gets to know her, he understands the pressures she is under, tries to help her, and the two end up coming up with a solution to the ongoing Slime Wars. The father's interest in soccer and insistence that Alex get involved in a sport is very realistic. I started coaching cross country in order to get my daughter to run, and while she didn't like the running part, she did have a good time and made some friends. This is exactly the sort of middle grade book that I wish made up the majority of my purchases, since it's what my students most often request: humorous, upbeat stories of children from a variety of backgrounds doing Interesting Things while having a bit of school drama. Perfect. 
Weaknesses: Alex's hair doesn't look that long on the cover, and I had hoped he would enjoy soccer more. Also, slime doesn't seem particularly useful or environmentally friendly. 
What I really think: This is exactly the sort of middle grade book that I wish made up the majority of my purchases, since it's what my students most often request: humorous, upbeat stories of children from a variety of backgrounds doing Interesting Things while having a bit of school drama. Perfect for fans of Gordon Korman, Richards' Stu Truly, Acampora's Danny Constantino's First Date and Uhrig's Double the Danger and Zero Zucchini. 

Steele, Philip and Nobati, Eugenia (illustrations) 
The Magnificent Book of Treasures: Ancient Egypt 
September 21st 2021 by Weldon Owen
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Steele does an excellent job of writing informative nonfiction, including his The Holocaust (2016), which has gotten a LOT of use in my library. This book on ancient Egypt has just what the title states; page after page of pictures and descriptions of Egyptian treasures. There is a wide array, from statues to canopic jars to mummies. The illustrations are so life like that I thought several were photographs of the artifacts! Each illustration is accompanied by a list of information about the origins of the type of item, manufacturing process, and use in the tombs, and there is a "Fact File" that lists the dates, materials, and size. The pages are really beautiful, with a colorful faience like border. This could be useful for students doing reports, and since our 6th grade covers ancient Egypt in social studies, I definitely think I will purchase it. It is short enough that it would also lend itself to pleasure reading. When my older daughter was in 6th grade, we constructed a cardboard pyramid with shelves for her teacher, who assigned students a project where they had to make an item for the "tomb", and then they had a "burial". This would be good for showing students ideas for that kind of project as well. It was a fun project-- I forget what my daughter did, but I remember the Barbie shabtis, which were actually really well done!

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Traitors Among Us (Don't Tell the Nazis #3)

Skrypuch, Marsha. Traitors Among Us (Don't Tell the Nazis #3)
September 7th 2021 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After their Ukranian village is occupied by the Soviets and then the Nazis in Don't Tell the Nazis, and they manage to survive the war after leaving in Trapped in Hitler's Web, sisters Krystia and Maria are relieved to be in a refugee camp in the American Zone in 1945 and hope to soon be with their aunt in Canada. Their relief is short lived; Sophie Huber is also in the camp, and tells soldiers that the two girls are Nazi collaborators. The Red Army are all too ready to believe this, and happy to arrest the girls and torture them to get information. They do this with others as well, including Sophie, and many sign confessions that are untrue to make the torture stop, or in the belief that once they confess, they will be released. This is not the case, and the girls are glad they did not sign confessions. After the soldiers stage a fake execution to try to get Krystia to confess, Maria is let go with orders to report to a Soviet work camp. Instead, she is helped by Birgit, who hides her, feeds her, and helps her wash up and get new clothing so that she looks like one of the locals. Along with father and son Elias and Finn, the group works together to get Krystia and Mychailo out of the prison, tempting guards with Linzer cookies spiked with sleeping powder. From there, the sisters must try to make it to the American zone and hope that they will be sent on to Canada to resettle. 
Strengths: It still surprises me how many different WWII stories there are out there, so it makes sense that there are just as many stories about experiences after the war. I didn't know the details about the Red Army and their treatment of prisoners; there is a lot of brutal torture in this; it's not like Moskin's I am Rosemarie (1972) where the war ends, prisoners are released from concentration camps, and they walkout into the sunshine. The sisters' relationship is strong but strained at times, and their survival skills are top notch. My favorite scene was when Maria is given German clothing and must sew an outfit for herself, making a jumper from a Hitler Youth girl's uniform skirt, a blouse from a ball gown, and woolen underpants from a Nazi flag! The details about the lack of food, the difficulty in traveling, and the kind people they meet in their journey all make this an enthralling read. 
Weaknesses: This ended a bit abruptly and went to an epilogue. I guess I was so invested in the story that I wanted to know more. 
What I really think: There are not that many books covering the aftermath of the Holocaust; Matas' After the War (1996) and The Garden (1997) and Whelan's After the Train (2009) as well as the nonfiction Waisman and McClelland's Boy from Buchenwald (2021) as well as Skrypuch's own Stolen Girl (2019), so it's good to see the conclusion of Krystia and Maria's story. I do wish that the publishers had an official name for this trilogy!

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Cartoon Saturday-- Escape From Alcatraz and Sunny Makes a Splash

Sullivan, Tom. Unsolved Case Files: Jailbreak at Alcatraz: Frank Morris the Anglin Brothers' Great Escape 
September 7th 2021 by Balzer + Bray
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Like this author's great Escape at 10,000 Feet, this Unsolved Case File takes a deep dive into an interesting historical mystery. In an interesting collage style, with typewriter font text, we get a good history of Alcatraz and it's accommodations, as well as some brief accounts of earlier escapes. We then get all of the nitty gritty about the innovative, hard work that Morris, the Anglins, and a man who didn't manage to make the escape, Allan West, did in order to escape from the prison island. Really, it's remarkable how they used their limited resources (magazines from the prison library!) to carve through their walls in undectecable ways, make boats and life jackets out of raincoats, and swim to the mainland in order to get away. There's no proof that they did this, but information recently came to light that the Anglin brothers might have escaped and lived in Brazil. Readers who enjoy true crime podcasts or Denson's FBI Files will be thrilled with this series. 
Strengths: While this has enough pictures to be considered a graphic novel, there's also a good amount of text. The illustrations are a bit quirky, but very fun to look at, and capture the vintage vibe really well. There's such a wealth of information packed into the book as well. This is a perfect read for students who don't quite know what they want to read!
Weaknesses: It would have been nice to have a timeline of Alcatraz included. Not necessary, but if teachers wanted to pare this with Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts, it would have been helpful. 
What I really think: I'm not a fan of true crime podcasts or crime writing in general, but still found this intriguing. I was amazed at the effort the men put into their escape, and honestly, felt that if they did manage to make it to Brazil and lived exemplary lives without running into trouble with the law, that's probably okay. Definitely purchasing, and expect this to be in steady rotation.

Holm, Jennifer L. and Holm, Matthew. Sunny Makes a Splash. (Sunny #4)
September 21st 2021 by Scholastic Inc. 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

It's summer just outside Philadelphia in 1978, and Sunny is faced with the tedium of watching her younger brother Teddy while her mother is spending the entire summer cooking and doing laundry and being super stressed, maybe because she's drinking too much Tab so she can fit into her double knit polyester pants and she's trying to give up smoking (that's all MY conjecture). There are a few times when the family is invited to go to the country club pool with friends, and when she is there, Sunny steps in to help a classmate, Tony, at the snack bar during the busy adult swim time. His dad runs the pool, and offers to hire Sunny to help out. Her mother (whom she interrupts during her programs while she's folding socks) reluctantly agrees but lays down a lot of rules. These don't really affect Sunny, who has an awesome summer hanging out, eating the occasional deep fried ice cream treat and debating jumping off the high dive. The older life guards include her and Tony in their after work parties, which means she gets to be out at NIGHT. Her grandfather comes for a visit because the roof of his condo has fallen in, and his going out also irritates the mother, who accuses both of them of "acting like teenagers". At the end of the summer, Sunny heads off into 8th grade with a new friend (and potential romantic interest) to keep her company. 
Strengths: Why are there not so many more books about tweens having exciting summers, hanging out with friends? Sunny had a rough time, with her older brother having drug problems in the first book, so she deserves sun and fun! 
Weaknesses: I cannot travel back to 1978 and have THIS summer instead of the one I did have!

What I really think: Who am I kidding? I can't be objective about a book that almost perfectly depicts the family room in my parents' house. And yes. Bowls of ice cream every night while watching television. Because we didn't serve dessert WITH dinner. To this day, my father thinks this makes sense. Definitely purchasing, and delighted to know that Ms. Holm's birthday is just one week after mine!

Friday, September 17, 2021

Guy Friday- Kneel

Buford, Candace. Kneel
September 14th 2021 by Inkyard Press
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Russell and his friend Marion live in Louisiana, and hope to use their skills at football to work their way out of that environment. Things are particularly tense in the area after another Black teen, Dante Maynard, was shot and killed by a policeman, Officer Reynaud, who has not yet been charged. Russell drives an older car, and when it breaks down a few blocks from his area of town, he and Russell are very nervous. When a player from the mostly white Westmond football team stops, they know it is not to help them, and are just glad that Mr. Dupree, who runs a fruit and vegetable wholesale company, stops and gets them to safety. Russell has a crush on Gabby Dupree, who is more interested in school than in Russell. There has been a lot of activity in the community surrounding Maynard's death, and many flyers calling out the police and asking for justice have been posted by someone being called "Dante's Shadow". When Russell's team plays Westmond, tensions are already high, and when Lawrence, a Westmond player, uses the n-word on the field and is not taken out of the game, as dictated by the rules, Marion is pushed by Brad, another Westmond player, and the ensuing scuffle is blamed on Marion rather than the white players. He is arrested and taken to jail, and Russell's father has to bail him out, since Marion's mother is not returning calls and his step father is abusive. Marion comes to stay with Russell and his family while they work on finding someone to take his case. Coach Fontenot removes Marion from games, because the league has required him to do so, and this means that Marion could lose his chance to get a college scholarship. When Russell is moved to protest by kneeling during the national anthem before a game, his own career is in jeopardy, and his father, who lives and breathes Russell's football career, cautions him to back off. Things improve slightly when Russell is paired with Gabby on a project for English class that involves James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, and the two get to spend more time together. Gabby is very interested in issues of social justice, and so takes an interest in Marion's case. Unfortunately, she also takes Russell to a protest about Maynard which takes a bad turn. Will Russell be able to find a way to use his voice to call for social justice and still be able to pursue his dreams of a football career?

This is a very timely book, and brilliantly incorporates social issues with football in a nicely nuanced story. While Marion's unfair arrest, Dante Maynard's death, and the resultant community outrage take center stage, there are undercurrents of the players' college aspirations, family interactions, and budding romance to bring the political problems close to home. One of my favorite parts was when Russell's father explains how his own football career, in the 1980s, played out, giving details of racial discrimination that help explain his actions toward his son's activism. The assignment of If Beale Street Could Talk helps give Russell perspective and assists him in finding his voice. 

Russell is often torn between his own safety and speaking out. This is painfully realistic. The books starts with the scene with his car breaking down. He doesn't want to worry that he is just a few blocks into Westmond, but he does. When he is approached by the other player, he wants to talk back, but knows this is dangerous. Russell often feels like a coward for not speaking up, but realizes that saying something could turn into a life and death incident. Especially poignant is the scene at the protest when Gabby is being injured by a police officer, but one of the protest organizers pushes Russell away, knowing that he could be killed for trying to protect Gabby. 

While fictional titles Feinstein's Backfield Boys (2017) and Bradley's Call Me By My Name (2014) as well as the nonfiction books Attucks!: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City (2018) by Hoose and Strong Inside (2016) by Maraniss all combine sports with discussions of racism, all of the authors are white men. It's increasingly important to make sure that the stories of Black characters are told by Black authors, so it's good to see Buford enter the young adult field with this stirring account of racism set against the background of sports in the south.

There are a quantity of f-words used in the text. While I normally don't buy books that make this choice (my budget is limited and I can't buy everything, so I choose to support authors who don't use this language), the combination of football and racial issues will probably result in me purchasing this book, which has themes and language similar to Volponi's Black and White., which has been on my shelves since 2005 without complaint. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

What Lives in the Woods

Currie, Lindsay. What Lives in the Woods
September 14th 2021 by Sourcebooks Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss

Ginny isn't thrilled that she has to give up her summer writing camp with her best friend to spend a month in Woodmoor Manor, but since her father's job is to help renovate it, she doesn't have a choice. Her older brother Leo is a little more on board, but will miss playing basketball. The manor is a museum that needs lots of work, although there were previous renovations to bring the utilities up to code, and Ginny's room has a creepy, featureless mannequin in it. Right away, she hears the creepy whispering of her name... although that ends up being Leo playing around with the communication tubes. Every time something occurs, her father blames the old house and its vagaries even though there are local legends about creatures called hitchhikers that inhabit the woods that surrounds the house. Ginny tries to channel her fears into writing a mystery book like her favorite author, Agatha Christie, but is still terrified of the Shadow People who seems to be after her. She has an ally in Will, a local boy who works in the book store in town. He and his brother, Chris, had a terrifying experience there in the ballroom, and the two caution Ginny to be careful. But when mannequins move, typewriters write by themselves, and creatures with bloody red glowing eyes seem to be everywhere, is there any way for Ginny to be safe?
Strengths: As with all of the best mysteries, I can't say a whole lot lest I give away some of the delicious twists and turns. The creep factor on this one is just right for middle grade-- lots of creepy threats, but not a lot of blood and gore. The historical mystery behind the mystery is solid, and Ginny has the help of Leo and Will to solve it. As creeptastically good as this one is, though, what I liked best were the relationships. Leo is a fantastic big brother who alternates between trying to scare Ginny and supporting her. Will is a good friend, but there's also a bit of a crush, and they share a love of reading. The parents are both around and supportive, and the mother's attempts at baking on a catering scale are interesting to see. Currie's Scritch Scratch is solidly set in Chicago, but this summer trip to Saugatauk, Michigan also gives good descriptions of place. 
Weaknesses: In my 25 years in a middle school library, I have never had an Agatha Christie fan, even though I love her work myself. (Although, really, Dorothy Sayers is a bit better!) This is not to say there aren't middle school fans of Christie's work, and maybe this will encourage readers to rescue Murder on the Orient Express from the middle of the Matt Christoper books. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and am very glad that I live in a neighborhood with more fields than woods near me! I'm just going to stay out of the woods for a little while...

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Soft Place to Land, Paradise on Fire

Marks, Janae. A Soft Place to Land
September 14th 2021 by Katherine Tegen Books
ARC provided by Follett First Look

Joy's family is moving into an apartment because her father is out of work and they could no longer afford their house. It's a difficult adjustment, especially since it also means that some things that really make Joy happy, like piano lessons, are also out of the question. She is enthralled by movie scores and wants to write music for them, so it's important that she keep up her skills. Luckily, one of the first people she meets in the building is Nora, who has her own family issues (her mother died when Nora was young) and shares Joy's love of movies, although she wants to be a film maker. Nora thinks the two could work together, and introduces Joy to the apartment building's big secret-- a hidden storage area that the kids in the building have furnished with cast offs and call "the Hideout", and don't tell ANY of the adults about. It's a great place to get a break from her kid sister, Malia, and from her parents' constant arguing. It's also good for meeting other kids in the building, and Joy finds some graffiti on the wall that makes her think another kid is struggling as much as she is, and she tries to get to know the other kids in order to help. In order to make some money to put towards their film making preparation, Nora and Joy start a dog walking business and get four neighbors whose dogs they walk. When Joy falls asleep in the Hideout and her mom finds her and blows the secret, she and Malia have a bit of a falling out, which leads to problems with their business. At the same time, Joy's dad is spending more and more time at his brother's because he needs "space", and Joy is worried that her parents will divorce. Will Joy be able to make things right with her new friend, and settle into life in the apartment, no matter what it brings?
Strengths: There are not as many books about children living in apartment buildings as I imagine there are children living in apartments! There are also a lot of children who, like Joy, have family lives that aren't horrible, but have some difficulties. It was nice that Joy made friends right away, and that she got along with many of the children in the building, as well as the adults! Don't we all need neighbors who make us snickerdoodles? The dog walking business had a lot of very good, realistic details, and the Hideout was a great place that the children used responsibly, even if the powers that be had, again, realistic concerns about. The best part was that Joy was able to look outside herself and be concerned for the other person leaving messages about struggling. Another good book from the author of From the Desk of Zoe Washington.
Weaknesses: I've never lived or worked anywhere with secret or unused rooms, so I am always suspicious of ones in books. Young readers won't share my skepticism and will just want a Hideout of their own.
What I really think: I'm definitely purchasing, since this is an easy to get into story that has a lot of universal appeal to it. It would be great to see books like this with kids who live in suburban apartment buildings and are interested in science and math related fields. While it's great to see kids with passions and interests, I wish that these were in areas that might lead to jobs, rather than usually being in sports, entertainment, or cooking. 

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Paradise on Fire
September 14th 2021 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 
ARC provided by Follett First Look

Addy lives in the Bronx with her grandmother, Bibi, who has moved from Nigeria to care for her after the devastating death of her parents in an apartment fire when she was four. She's still marked by the trauma of that event, and spends much of her time making maps, always knowing several possible ways out of every situation. Bibi has been understanding, but feels that Addy needs to live up to her full name, Adaugo, which means daughter of an eagle, and broaden her hoizons. Because of this, Addy finds herself flying to the Paradise region of California to take part in a program with other inner city students. She's leery of talking to others too much, but knows that the program requires her to work with the others; Jay, DeShon, Kelvin, and her cabin mate Nessa. Surprisingly, she finds herself enjoying the outdoor environment, and the owner of the camp, Leo, shows her how topographical maps work, helping her to understand her new environment so that she can be more comfortable with it. She still has moments where memories from the past haunt her, so she takes especial interest in how to properly put out camp fires, especially since California is experiencing a drought. She spends a lot of time hiking and exploring the area with Leo's dog, Ryder, and the others start to respect the feel that she has for the terrain. When a wildfire approaches an area where the students are camped with two counselors, they must try to figure out the best way to escape it, and they rely on Addy's skills to get them out, although not everyone makes it. 
Strengths: Paradise on Fire has several excellent and much needed themes. Topmost, certainly, is the environmental one. It's great to see Addy be introduced to the wilderness and to fall in love with it, and heart wrenching that she also has to see first hand how fragile this environment can be. Addressing the fact that many children, especially BIPOC ones from city environments, don't necessarily get out to parks or have swimming instruction, is something that I haven't seen done very much. Since I have a park and a pool directly in my back yard, this is easy for my to forget. Showing how Addy has dealt with the effects of trauma her whole life is in keeping with current trends; I had to be careful not to say she was trying to "move on". She is struggling just to move forward. Once again, Dr. Rhodes has done an excellent job of bringing together several different topics to make for a fascinating novel that would be good for high school and middle school readers. 
Weaknesses: I had trouble keeping the other participants straight, and they felt a bit flat to me. This might be because Addy herself kept herself at a distance and didn't connect with the others as much. It was easier for me to connect with Leo and even with the dog, Ryder.
What I really think: This is a great addition to books about wild fires, such as Davis' upcoming Partly Cloudy, Henry's recent Playing with Fire, Philbrick's Wildfire, Shotz' Firefighter, Garretson's 2010 Wildfire Run, and Cooney's 1995 Flash Fire, which shows that this environmental problem has been going on for far too long.