Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Boy, Everywhere

Dassu, A.M. Boy, Everywhere
March 23rd 2021 by Tu Books 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Sami has a happy and secure life in Damascus, Syria. His mother is a teacher, his father is a doctor, and he enjoys hanging out with his younger sister Sara and his grandmother, Tete. He is obsessed with video games and doccer, and spends a lot of time with his best friends, Joseph and George. When his mother and sister are injured in a bombing of the local mall while there picking up Sami's new soccer shoes, he is wracked with guilt. Sara stops talking, and soon his mother and father are acting in mysterious ways. They have decided to move, and start selling off furniture and cleaning out their apartment. Sami hopes he will continue to go to his school, and is quite surprised when he learns that the family is leaving the country. He feels that Damascus hasn't been as bad as Aleppo, and doesn't want to leave his friends, his grandmother, or all of his things. Soon, however, the family is involved in a dangerous journey that takes them to Istanbul, on a boat to Greece, on dodgy trucks, and finally on a flight into England. It has taken all of the money the father has saved, and since the family entered the country without proper paperwork, they are arrested and sent to an immigration prison while their paperwork is being sorted out. It helps that they have family friends willing to sponsor them, and the father will be able to work as a doctor, but the prison is a very dangerous place, and they must spend many tedious days waiting for everything to be arranged. Once they get out, they get a frosty welcome from Uncle Muhammad's family in Manchester; his wife Fatimah and son are downright cruel, while Iman is kind to Sara. The house is small, so the Sami and his family are in one room. Sami does find a friend, Ali, at school, although Hassan tries to make his life difficult there, too. Sami tries to e mail his friends and also Aadam, a slightly older boy they met on their journey whom they were only able to help a little. When Aadam shows up in Manchester and Sami brings him home, Fatimah tells the entire family to leave. Things are difficult enough for the parents, who are working in a factory and cleaning houses while waiting for paperwork, and the father yells at Sami. Sami is then determined to go back to Syria, where he feels more at home. Luckily, Ali and Aadam are able to show Sami that things will get better for him in Manchester. 
Strengths: In a note at the end of the book, the author explains that she wanted to show a Syrian student who had a much better life in Syria than he has in the UK, and who would rather have stayed that country, but was unable to. This is such an important point, and one which tween readers really need pointed out to them! Sami's love of video games, he obsession with his Nikes, and his unhappiness at being in England are all painfully and realistically explained, and it's very clear that the family did not want to leave the comfortable life they had, but felt they had no choice. There are helpful people along the way, such as David, a guard at the prison, but also people like Hassan who have no sympathy at all. This was a hard book to read, but such an important one. Very well researched and written. 
Weaknesses: I wish this had been a tiny bit shorter; while all of the information is really good, it's hard to get some of my readers to pick up a book that's 400 pages long. It certainly moved quickly, so hopefully they can be persuaded. 
What I really think: This was an excellent book, and a great companion to Senzai's Escape from Aleppo. That book is set in 2013; this is set in 2015-16, and has great details about how difficult it is from people from war torn countries to even make it to Europe, as well as an in-depth discussion of the challenges faced when they try to settle into a life in another place. Definitely purchasing, and hope that this will be available in paperback so that teachers can use it as a literature circle choice. Add this to the growing number of books about Syrian refugees that includes Warga's Other Words for Home, Ferruolo's Ruby in the Sky, Brown's The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees, Marsh's Nowhere Boy, McLean's Team Fugee, Hitchcock and Senzai's Flying Over Water, Mitchell's Without Refuge, Saaed's Yara's Spring, Rauf's The Boy at the Back of the Class

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Across the Pond

McCullough, Joy. Across the Pond 
March 16th 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Callie is okay with her parents leaving San Diego and moving to a castle they have inherited in Scotland. Lady Whittington-Spence, a woman they befriended when they were young died without heirs, leaving the mouldering edifice to them, but they are lucky enough to get a grant to repair the facilities and turn it into a tourist destination. Callie's brother Jax is seven and makes friends easily, so he's fine with the move, but Callie is apprehensive. She had some difficulties with a best friend back home that makes her doubt her every interaction, and after visiting the local comprehensive she would attend, she begs her parents to let her be homeschooled. She does her research and has a solid plan, so they agree, even though they are deep in renovations on the property. Callie does have to have at least one social group, and the local librarian, Esme, lets her know about a birding group that meets at the library. While she doesn't know anything about "twitching", it's better than a sport, even though the adult leader is a bit of a jerk and all of the members are boys. One boy, Rajesh, The activity has another plus in that Callie has found a journal of  Lady Whittington-Spence's from when she was a war evacuee in 1939, and she was also interested in birding. Callie's parents hire a man to help with the renovations, and his granddaughter, Sid, gets off to a rocky start with Callie, but the two eventually warm to each other. 
Strengths: I absolutely adored the setting of this, and the fact that it was based on the author's parents having lived in Scotland to go to university when she was a small child was fantastic! The backstory with Lady Whittington-Spence's childhood as a war evacuee added an interesting layer. Sid and Rajesh are good friends, and they add a bit of diversity. Sid has epilepsy and has absence seizures (something that has not been covered enough in middle grade literature), and Rajesh's family has an Indian cultural background, and he is made fun of by other boys for his short stature, but has a good attitude about things. There's a nice blend of family activities, friend drama, and birding set against the fabulous backdrop of a Scottish castle. 
Weaknesses: Middle school is rife with friendship problems, and it's worrying that Callie reacts to these by wanting to completely withdraw from the company of other children. The instance that led to the drama was one in which her friends were engaging in dangerous behavior, and the fact that Callie did the right thing by reporting them could have been treated in a more positive manner. I know that books today address anxiety in a way that it hasn't been addressed in the past, but I would like to see more modeling of resiliency. The young Lady Whittington-Spence and Rajesh do show more positive ways of dealing with challenges. 
What I really think: Travel books are always popular, and this is a more up-to-date version of a US child moving to Scotland than Krech's Love Puppies and Corner Kicks (2010). (Which came out about the year that Callie would have been born. Where does the time go?)

Monday, March 29, 2021

MMGM- The Amazing Beef Squad: Never Say Die

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Ross, Jason J. The Amazing Beef Squad: Never Say Die
March 16th 2021 by Delacorte Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Of COURSE, Stupidball games always end badly, but this doesn't stop friends Hogue, Jared, Pratchett and our narrator Nick Rhodes from playing them. While the middle school friends would rather spend their days playing video games, their parents have gotten together and forced them to spend an hour a day outside at the local park in their western town of Leonardville. This leads to all manner of innovative things to take their time, including the water balloon canon Cold Vengeance and pool games like Death Squid Versus Machine-Gun Shark. At school, the boys are on the robotics team, which is loosely supervised by their science teacher, Mr. Easton. The boys generally spend fifteen minutes on robotics, and then use the school computers (which are in a lab that used to be a basement boiler room, exactly like my daughter's elementary school lab was!) to play their games. The other member of the team, Karla Woo, soldiers on, annoyed at the boys but not quite willing to work with them to improve their behavior. When Mr. Easton's latest science experiment ends in an explosion, he is taken away by the police and put on a leave of absence. Nick and his friends start to torture all of the substitutes who come to take Mr. Easton's place, since he is the only teacher that they find interesting. One of their epic pranks get them suspended for five days, and all of them lose their computer privileges. Officer Jim, the school resource officer, has always been somewhat supportive of the boys, but has understandably been more aggressive in keeping them in line, so the boys figure out his schedule by hacking into the school secretary's e mail, and are able to still go to the park and cause mild, unobtrusive trouble. They are eventually caught, expelled from their school, and sent to the True North school, where they are taught to "apply high-tech solutions to real-world problems in real time, on a going-forward basis, with best practices and full-redundancy" (from the E ARC, but MUST be quoted!), which ends up with them spending the days in a document storage facility scanning records in order to save them digitally. But that's not all! Once they find Mr. Easton's birth certificate and realize he might be related to the town founders, and therefore might be heir to their park that a local developer wants to ruin, Nick and his friends get involved in high stakes espionage in order to save their teacher, their park, and themselves. 

There is a lot going on in this novel, but the thing that amazed me most was how willing I was to believe all of the questionable activities in which the boys were involved. I have a fine radar for things that are unlikely to happen in middle schools, but something about the writing convinced me that sure, Officer Jim was a decent guy... until he wasn't. And that the boys and Karla were allowed to work on robotics club alone. And that Mr. Easton was allowed to blow things up and let students play with liquid mercury... okay, no. I didn't believe that part. But the rest... for whatever weird reason, I believed. 

And that's no small feat. This had a Gordon Korman McDonald Hall vibe to it because while the concerns were clearly very middle grade (it has taken me many years and many awkward conversations with adult men to understand just how much middle school boys talk about their privates), it was well-written and believable. Could the boys hack into the surveillance system? Probably. Could they then discover the code to get into the local men's society building? Yeah. Would they get caught? Of course. Could they have been set up by the son of the construction company owner who knew a lot of town secrets and wanted to use these for his own financial gain? The author holds our hand and walks us down the path with such certainty that I could believe all of this. It didn't hurt that I was constantly distracted by all the pranks the boys pulled. 

One of my favorite characters was the quiet and shady Karla Woo, who has awesome tech abilities and knows more about the boys and their activities than they probably know themselves. Not only is she working assiduously on the robotic arm, but she is hacking into the boys' hacks, and ultimately saving the day! I would have like to see her be a more active part of the group, and would be more than happy with another book where this happens!

Readers who like the comic minor crime novels like Johnson's The Great Green Heist, Rylander's The Fourth Stall, and Ferraiolo's The Big Splash and generally humorous novels like Richards' Stu Truly and Acampora's Danny Constantino's First Date will absolutely adore the antics of these exuberant friends who are just pushing the envelope to see what happens, and end up triumphing despite their Stupidball ideas. 
 Ms. Yingling

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Horse Girl and These Unlucky Stars

Seim, Carrie. Horse Girl 
March 30th 2021 by Penguin Workshop
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Willa, who goes by Wills, is used to moving around a lot because her mother is a pilot in the Air Force. She is currently stationed abroad, and the family is in Oakwood, Nebraska. Her dad tells horrible jokes and makes breakfast for dinner, and her older sister Kay is a mathlete. Wills is taking riding lesson at a local stable, and is very fond of the horse she rides, a Clydesdale named Clyde Lee. There is a team of riders that competes, and the captain is mean girl Amara. Wills has some self esteem issues, and views herself as clumsy and large, which is one reason she bonds with Clyde. After a difficult ride, she finds a note written in sparkly purple ink giving her support. This encourages her to keep up with riding even when her Halloween horse costume isn't as successful as she would like, she finds it hard to get along with the other riders (and equestrian teams are co ed), and Clyde has troubles with his foot. She continues to try to solve the mystery of the notes of support, and prepares to join the Oakwood Flyers competitive team in the battle against the Elkhorn Equestrians, who stole the Flyers' best rider, but when she finds out that Clyde is going to be adopted, she mounts a protest, chaining herself to the horse. Will she be able to ride competitively in the future?
Strengths: Like Wills, many middle school girls are quite interested in equestrian pursuits, and the combination of horses with a mean girl and a team dynamic is well done. The fact that Willa's mother was in the Air Force and stationed abroad added a level of emotional complexity that compelled the story forward; her wishful thinking that her mother meant to visit and surprise her at her competition was absolutely the way that middle graders would think. The father was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed the fact that while Kay was allergic to horses and had completely different interests, she supported Willa as much as she could. The this wasn't really a mystery book, but the mystery kept this moving along as well. 
Weaknesses: The stable manager cares deeply Clyde's well being, and it irked me that Willa was more concerned with the fact that she would miss him. I also could have done without the graphic description of Amara's reaction to competition; it's definitely a reality, though. Had several habitual "pukers" during my cross country years! 
What I really think: This had a lot of good details about riding horses as well as competing with them, and as such will appeal to my students who are fond of horses. Despite my own objections about Wills' behavior, I think this will circulate well, and I do try to buy a couple of horse books every year.

McDunn, Gillian. These Unlucky Stars
March 2nd 2021 by Bloomsbury Children's Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss

Annie lives in a small, North Carolina town with her brother Ray and her father, who owns the local hardware store. Oak Branch is struggling, since most tourists favor nearby Mountain Ring, with its bigger shops and posher establishments. Annie's mother left years ago, and has not had any contact with the family, but Annie still misses her mother's enthusiasm and odd rituals, like spaghetti dinners in the bathtub and waffle picnics in the park. She always seems to get into trouble, and her father doesn't seem to understand her artistic temperament, so she believes what her mother said about her being born under a lucky star. The school is worried about her not working well with others on group projects and eating alone in the art room, but she puts off the teachers who care about her with a lie rather than accepting their help. When an incidence with other students leads to an elderly woman, Gloria Crumb, falling and being injured. To her credit, Annie gets help for her and assists with her dog, Otto, but is worried that she will soon be found out as the person responsible for the fall. Her father has an idea that a town festival will bring more business to the town, and soon everyone is working on floats and activities for a Rosy Maple Moth festival. Annie is spending a lot of time with Gloria, and learning that the woman is much more than the crabby old lady she originally meets. Oak Branch is very small, and Annie spends time in other local businesses, including a diner that serves two different kinds of barbecue, and a bakery run by her friend Faith's aunt. Still pining for her mother and feeling guilty about Gloria, Annie throws herself into helping others prepare for the festival even as she is consumed with worry that her father is becoming serious about a woman he is dating, which could forever close the option of her mother coming back. Will Annie finally realize that she needs to make her own luck?
Strengths: The small town setting was very interesting, and Annie's connection to so many people in town made it more understandable that she would become so involved in Gloria's life. It was good to watch her understand that old people weren't always old and decrepit, but had vibrant pasts of their own. Her father and brother are very supportive, and there is plenty of help available for Annie, even if her prickliness doesn't let people help her. The festival planning was engaging, and sheds light on the plight of some small towns. Of course, Otto the dog was a fun addition.
Weaknesses: Annie wasn't the most likable character, and given all of the current interest in mental health issues, I thought it was odd that her mother with bipolar disorder was portrayed as having left and not being in contact at all. I did like the fact that the father was dating and Annie had to come to terms with that; we need to see more of that in middle grade literature. 
What I really think: This is a gentle, introspective novel that will go over well with fans of books like Yardi's Owl's Outstanding Doughnuts, Beasley's Gertie's Leap to Greatness, Elliott's Storm Dog, and Going's The Next Great Jane.

Ms. Yingling

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Cartoon Saturday- Simon B. Rhymin'

Reed, Dwayne and Paul Jr., Robert (illus.) Simon B. Rhymin'
March 2nd 2021 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Simon is a fifth grader who likes to think of himself as a rapper. He does have a way with words, and can create cadences very quickly, but he is also very shy, and leery of speaking out, much less performing. His rap alter ego is The Notorious D.O.G., and while he has the support of his parents and friends, he still is apprehensive about his own talents. After agonizing about what to wear to the first day of school, Simon does feel a little better when his new teacher, Mr. James, wears bow ties and tennis shoes, and starts rapping in class. When Mr. James assigns an oral report, however, Simon's anxiety goes into overdrive. He has a great topic: there is a man in the neighborhood, Sunny, who is always sweeping the sidewalks and making the neighborhood look good, but who appears to be homeless. After interviewing Sunny (and finding out that he had been a custodian at Simon's school at one point!), Simon feels that more needs to be done in the neighborhood to help the homeless. After a disastrous attempt at speaking that ends in him having to leave to throw up, Simon tries to put measures in place so he can speak in public. Will he be able to overcome his fears and use his voice to help people in his community. 
Strengths: This was a good story about wanting to help others and overcoming personal difficulties in order to do so. Simon is a well meaning character who is trying to work through his problems with public speaking, especially when they get in the way of both his personal dreams as well as his desire to fulfill his civic duty. The author is a teacher who has some renown due to his own rapping videos. Sunny was treated with respect, and Simon did his homework in locating organizations that helped the homeless in his neighborhood. 
Weaknesses: The illustrations did not come through on my e reader, so I am curious about what they look like. 
What I really think: This seemed a bit young for my students. I would love to see something with an older character and different style of illustration that I could recommend to my reluctant readers in the 8th grade. This would check out to 6th graders, but would be a hard sell to my older students. I wish this weren't the case. I may take a look at the finished book to see how the overall package looks. 

Brown, Jeffrey. One Upon a Space-Time 
June 2nd 2020 by Crown Books for Young Readers
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

There are human kids who are studying at the Earth School for Space Mission Preparation in the year 2216. They are considered for a space mission that the alien race of Tobeys is preparing. The Tobeys (who are clones, and all have the same name) are pleased with the way the humans have handled the technology introduced to the humans, and think they are ready for the next step. Of course, adults are quite right for the mission-- it has to be tweens because adults are "whiny" and would be annoying. Helped by Commander Gusevitch, the children undergo training that includes stints on "the vominator", manual dexterity challanges, and tests of how long they can stay in a cold environment.  Petra and Jide are chosen, and soon they are on a mission to Mars with a Tobey. They do experiments in space, as one does, and eventually land on the red planet! They are met by the robot Kay, and spend some time at the base. They meet fellow explorers, who come from several different races and don't look like humans. The group eats space food, works on projects in the base, and travel on the surface, but dust storms soon make it imperative that they return to Earth. More of their adventures will be told in book two, A Total Waste of Space-Time. 

Brown has a great background in STEM related graphic novels, including several volumes of the Star Wars Jedi Academy series as well as Lucy and Neanderthal. He tends to include a lot of great scientific information, with lots of text in the comic style panels. 

Petra and Jide's reactions to their surroundings are humorous, and the general tone of the books is snarky enough for older readers to find amusing, while still making sense to younger ones. Reads who like Graley's Glitch, Sanity and Tallulah, Ali-A's Adventures: Game On! or Kochalka's The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie will find Once Upon a Space-Time a fun romp through the stratosphere. 

I find Brown's work a little too wordy for my own personal taste-- words are really crammed onto the pages. There's also a weird snarky tone that other reviewers have likened to the writing of The Office, but for kids. The artifice of an entire race named Tobey seemed odd, and the alien's face was enough to give me nightmares, for some reason. Still, very popular with the target demographic, which is what matters. 

Ms. Yingling

Friday, March 26, 2021

Guy Friday- Comics

Henry, Will. Wicked Epic Adventures: Another Wallace the Brave Collection
March 23rd 2021 by Andrews McMeel Publishing
Copy provided by the publisher

Amp! publishers so many great collections of comic strips; Wallace the Brave and Snug Harbor Stories are popular with my readers.  This strip debuted in 2015 and is now in over 100 papers. Daily strips can be seen at Go Comics. This latest collections not only has the strips, but instructions for building a pine cone bird feeder, happy rocks, and a papier mache mask. There is even a detachable pop-up card to make! 

A little quirkier than Peirce's Big Nate, more kidcentric than Harrell's Adam at Home, and as vaguely philosophical as Mutts, Wallace and his friends is a solid entry into the world of comics with young protagonists whose fathers could well have been Calvin (and Hobbes). 

Peirce, Lincoln. Big Nate: In Your Face
March 2nd 2021 by Andrews McMeel Publishing 
Copy provided by the publisher

I still think it is a terrible shame that students don't read the newspaper. I doubt that many of them have Go Comics bookmarked, although they really should. It also includes another one with great scenes at school, Frazz.  Reading the comics pages is a tiny little moment of being permanently ten years old. Big Nate has been around for 30 years, and always is a great deal of fun. The strips in this collection are from 9/5/16-2/25/17, and somehow, none of them seemed familiar to me. 

Big Nate is a staple of middle school libraries. The eight Big Nate Novels and the newer Max and the Midknights are essential to have, and if you have any collections of comic strips at all, you need as many of the 17 comic strip collections as you can afford. Follett has them in prebind, since frequent wear will reduce them quickly to piles of dust. The included poster always gets saved for whoever is the biggest Big Nate fan. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Almost There and Almost Not

Duga, Lindsey. The Haunting 
February 4th 2020 by Scholastic Press
Library copy

In Victorian London, Emily lives in Evanshires Home for Neglected Girls, having been abandoned as a baby. It's a bleak existence, brightened only by a dog, Archie, she befriended, who visits with her through the gate. When the Thorntons arrive looking for a child to adopt, they pick her, even though she is unkempt and frequently in trouble. They take her home to Blackthorn Manor, a sprawling but decrepit estate where Miss Greer takes care of the housekeeping. Right away, Emily notices odd things, and there is an ever growing list of things she is not allowed to do, like pick blackberries or play music. She does meet another girl, Kat, and the two play, although Kat is very secretive, shady, and sometimes shows up at unusual times, accompanied by creepy phenomenon. The Thorntons try to interact with Emily, but Mrs. Thornton seems very frail and prone to headaches. Emily is left alone a lot, but eventually starts to realize that there is a ghost who means her ill and is connected with a family secret. 
Strengths: I was not at all surprised at the note from Duga at the end that discussed her love of Mary Downing Hahn and the late Betty Ren Wright when she was young. Books like this are why I was sure I could make a career running an orphanage in England when I was young! There are all of the important hallmarks of creepy, killer ghosts-- crashing vases, cold spots, and creepy sounds. The Haunting pays homage to both of those authors, and is a good read alike for Barbara Brooks Wallace's historical ghost stories as well a s India Hill Brown's The Forgotten Girl
Weaknesses: I've read dozens and dozens of similar books over the years; since most of them are out of print or in very bad shape having been read frequently in my middle school library over the last 30-40 years, this is a fine book to replace those, even if it didn't seem fresh to ME.
What I really think: I liked Ghost in the Headlights a lot better, but young readers who haven't read quite as many books about orphans moving into haunted houses as I have will pick up this book for the spooky cover and share Emily's growing fear of Kat. 

My students are far more likely to pick up The Haunting, with its murderous ghost, than the following book, with its kindly, misunderstood ancestor haunting the place. 

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not
April 6th 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus 

California and her father have gotten along okay after the death of her mother, but when her father starts to struggle, he takes her to visit her Aunt Isabelle, and leaves her there, claiming there is work to be had salmon fishing in Alaska. Isabelle, in turn, takes her to Great Aunt Monica, who has recently lost her husband Milton and who has also injured her arm and needs California's "help". She doesn't know quite what to do with a young girl, so asks for her help in writing a biography of an ancestor, etiquette expert Eleanor Fontaine who wrote in the early 1900s. This was a passion project of Milton's, and encourages Aunt Monica to start moving on a bit. The two start to go through notes and cleaning the house, all while eating their way through Aunt Isabelle's stash of frozen meatloaf, but some odd things happen. California can see not only a small ghost dog, who brings her pieces of notes, but the ghost of Eleanor Fontaine herself! She has conversations with the etiquette writer about not only proper protocol, but the woman's life. Combined with the notes, California finds that there are some secrets about her ancestor that the notes will show. California does make friends with a girl she meets while running errands. Salma and her mother run a local pottery shop, ClayCation, and the two girls take to each other right away. Desperate to contact her father, California writes to her Aunt Isabelle, but after not hearing back, stops mailing them to her aunt, stashing them under her bed instead. When Aunt Monica feels a bit better, she has the house and garden cleaned, and the letters accidentally get mailed. California learns some secrets about her father as well. 
Strengths: This was an interesting twist on a child having to spend time with a relative because of a parent having difficulties. The ghosts were tremendously endearing; a fluffy dog and a pearl clutching arbiter of correct behavior who turns to dust when confronted with realities! Eleanor's hard scrabble backstory complements California's reality nicely. I can see young readers becoming very interested in calligraphy after reading it described as an activity at which California excels. 
Weaknesses: It would have been nice to see California connect a bit more to Salma and others in the community, and perhaps have a few more interactions with Monica, in order to really cement her comfort with remaining in her aunt's care.
What I really think: While I would have loved this as a child (I was a BIG fan of writing letters!), it is a bit young for my readers, who are steadfast in their love of only the most gruesome, bloodthirsty ghosts. I will probably not purchase, but this is a great gentle ghost story with some family issues for younger readers. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Soul Lanterns

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns
March 16th 2021 by Delacorte Press
Translated from the Japanese by Emily Balistrieri 
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Nozomi lives in the suburbs of Hiroshima in 1970. Every year, she goes with her family to a lantern lighting ceremony on the river that honors the people lost in "the flash", the bombing on August 6th. This year, she sees a woman staring at her. The woman asks how old she is (she's 12), and then how old her mother is. Nozomi knows that her father lost his first wife and two of his sisters, and her mother also lost people. One of the lanterns that her mother lights, however, has no name on it, which makes her curious. A school project on "Hiroshima Then and Now" gets Nozomi and her friends thinking about the people around them who would have lived through the bombing. Nozomi hears a story about her art teacher, Mr. Yoshioka, who lost his girlfriend, and who found only a comb he had given her after the bombing. Shun finds out more about his uncommunicative neighbor, Mrs. Sudo, who lost her husband in the war and her young son in the bombing. Kozo learns about his aunt, Sumi, who was a teacher who tried to save six of her students. The more the students delve into the past, the most they are able to appreciate the horrible human toll that the war took on those around them. Nozomi even finds out about the woman who stared at her during the lantern ceremony, and is able to settle questions about a past relationship that her mother had. Mr. Yoshioka, who is suffering from tuberculosis and spends some time in a sanatorium, helps the students process the different stories they have heard and to understand the role that Japan played in World War II as well as the lingering effects that this history had on the community. 
Strengths: This was certainly a fresh and unusual historical perspective, and I love the fact that this was originally published in Japan! Such a window into how a population dealt with a horrific historical event. Setting this book in 1970, when survivors were still plentiful but when the average twelve year old would have felt very removed from the events was excellent. Having three friends at school working on a project, and asking people around them what they remember will resonate with my readers, who are often assigned projects where they have to ask adults about 9/11 or the Challenger Disaster. I very much enjoyed this one. 
Weaknesses: There were occasionally phrases in the translation that seemed a half bubble off, but in general, this was an interesting and well done work. I would love to see more books by #ownvoices authors translated for the US middle grade market! There could have been a little more information, for US readers, about how Japan reacted to the bombings with calls for peace.
What I really think: This is an essential purchase for middle school libraries, and a fantastic addition to books about the aftermath of WWII in Japan, such as Dicicco and Sasaki's The Complete Story of Sadako Sasaki , Yep's Hiroshima, Stelson,'s Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story, Burkinshaw's The Last Cherry Blossom, Smith's The Blossom and the Firefly , Napoli's In a Flash and Kadohata's A Place to Belong.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Rivals and Where We Used to Roam

Greenwald, Tommy. Rivals
March 23rd 2021 by Amulet Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

The Walthorne Souths Panther and the Walthorne North Cougars are bitter rivals, a conflict which is heightened due to the economic disparities in the schools. Alfie is a sports reporter for South, and works with Mr. Rashad, the media advisor, to run a radio show as well as a blog. She interviews Carter and Janeece about the basketball teams, but it is only after she makes comments about a player on the North team, Clay who injured after being pressured to play, that she gets a lot of attention. Austin is the captain of the North team and the son of a ball player. He's under a lot of pressure to do well, and even get private instruction on how to improve his game from Coach Cashen, who also supervises a local travel team. Carter's family struggles, and when his father loses work as a house painter after an incident involving breakage of a pricey statue that may have happened when his father was drinking on the job, Carter hopes to get onto the travel team so that one day he can get a college scholarship. Told in texts, snippets of radio interviews, and posts on chat boards, Rivals shows many facets of how sports teams don't always revolve around just the sports, and how adults sometimes favor players for reasons that have nothing to do with the game. In addition to the problems behind Clay's injury, Alfie's reporting also uncovers a girls' basketball player who is living out of district, and leads to the resignation of a coach after an ill-considered remark. How will the two teams, as well as their players, continue their seasons with all of the controversies swirling around?
Strengths: Great on-court action, plenty of thought provoking ideas, and a good treatment of some current topics such as class disparity. It's always good to see these topics discussed in ways that young readers can process them; using the lens of sports always helps with focus! Greenwald does a great job at addressing the differences between Carter's family and his teammates. The cover itself is brilliant in that respect; look at the differences in the basketballs!
Weaknesses: While younger readers will enjoy reading the chat boards and text messages, when I see text that is not in a standard format, it's harder for me to process, and I tend to skim them. Those parts of the book do propel the story forward, and I had to go back and actually read them! Also, as an adult, I would have liked to see the dad's drinking dealt with a bit more effectively. 
What I really think: Game Changer is hugely popular in my library, and I'm sure Rivals will be as well. While I'm not personally a fan of the format, I'm going to buy two copies, and pick up another copy of Game Changer while it is still available in hard cover. Greenwald writes compelling sports fiction with serious social messages, but I would love to see him combine his talents to write a humorous sports book with a main character like Charlie Joe Jackson.

Bishop, Jenn. Where We Used to Roam
March 23rd 2021 by Aladdin
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Emma lives in a suburb of Boston with her parents, a meteorologist and a running store owner, and her older brother Austin, a football star. Her long time best friend, Becca, is very bookish, and as sixth grade starts, the two are having a hard time finding common ground. They both want to join clubs, but Becca wants to do Battle of the Books and Forensics, neither of which sound at all appealing to Emma. She would rather do art club, since one of her hobbies is making shadow boxes. When she finally breaks with Becca and goes to art club, she has a good time, and even makes new friends. Kennedy and Lucy are a bit quirky, but lots of fun, and seem to understand her more than Becca does. While the school year has gotten off to an uneasy but decent start for Emma, it's been disastrous for her brother. Austin is injured in a football game, requires surgery, and has a hard time coping with both the pain and the end of his sports career. At a camping trip at the end of the school year, Emma lets a secret about Becca slip, and the two aren't speaking. When Austin needs to go into rehab, Emma's parents decide to send her out to Montana, to stay with a college friend of the mother's, while they deal with Austin's addiction. Emma isn't happy, especially when she finds out that Chris and Delia's daughter is three years older than she is and not interested in all of the fun trips that her mother has planned. Luckily, Emma meets Tyler at the library, and the two hang out together. Emma still feels bad about what she did to Becca, and starts a shadow box for her, hoping to heal their friendship. Tyler has family secrets of his own, and the two spend the summer together trying to figure out the next step. 
Strengths: I really enjoyed Emma's exploration of school clubs, and her decision to break with Becca and join a new club will resonate with many readers. Middle school is a time when almost everyone loses at least one friend. Austin's descent into addiction is realistically portrayed, and I loved that the parents were active and functioning, and even then missed some clues. When they did realize what was going on, they actively worked to get Austin help. Traveling to exotic locales to spend the summer with people one barely knows has roots going back to Cleary's The Luckiest Girl, and is always a popular topic. The fact that Tyler is gay but has been out long enough in his community for it to be an unremarkable part of his personality is appreciated. 
Weaknesses: Emma's problem with Becca didn't seem like that big a deal; I see students who do worse things to friends all the time, unfortunately. It was good to see that Emma felt bad and wanted to repair her relationship, but she was really obsessed with it in a way that seemed uncharacteristic of 6th graders. Certainly within the realm of reality, though, so a small quibble that middle grade readers are unlikely to have.
What I really think: I like each book by Bishop a little better than the last (although my favorite is 14 Hollow Road, which students keep losing and I've had to replace twice!). She deals with a lot of hard issues in a fairly constructive way, and there are certainly a lot of students who have had someone in their families addicted to opioids. I am a little surprised that the book wasn't set in Ohio, since there is such a wide ranging problem in our state, but I will definitely be purchasing this title. 
 Ms. Yingling

Monday, March 22, 2021

MMGM- The Elephant in the Room

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day at 

Sloan, Holly Goldberg. The Elephant in the Room
March 2nd 2021 by Dial Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Sila's family has been happy in Oregon, even though her father, who is a mechanical engineer, has to work as a mechanic, and her mother is a cleaner in a hotel. The parents left Turkey because of political prosecution. After her mother found out that the women where she worked made far less than the men, she was fired, and immigration services told her that her paperwork was not in order and that she would need to go back to Turkey to get the proper forms so that she didn't get deported. That was months ago, and Sila is struggling without her mother. She has disengaged from her friends, and just tries to help her father around the apartment to lessen his feeling of loss. When her father is called out to a farm to fix a truck, the two meet Gino. He was one of a group of workers who played the lottery and won, so he has moved to a vast property completely surrounded by a stone wall. His wife was Sila's second grade teacher, and died of cancer four years previously. The three feel a connection, and meet on the morning of Gino's birthday to have doughnuts. While there, circus members arrive. Gino buys the group doughnuts, and Sila is able to see a real live elephant. The circus is disbanding, and the wily owner sees an opportunity in Gino. Before we know it, Gino has bought the elephant, Veda,  and much of its equipment. A grumpy bear is even thrown in as a lagniappe. After a rocky start (both animals have been cooped up and underfed), Gino sends the bear to a refuge and starts to make his farm more elephant friendly. Sila and her dad visit, and she is thrilled. Things are still rough at school, and Sila has been placed in a mentoring program, partnered with Mateo, who is on the autism spectrum. Mateo was very chatty until third grade, and is now very quiet. At first, the two just sit together and read, but when Gino invites Sila to bring a friend to see Veda, she invites Mateo. His mother is okay with it, but does send lunch with him. Mateo and Sila both enjoy seeing the elephant, and working with Gino, and soon have a plan for the summer which involves helping to care for the animal. When Mateo's mother, a lawyer, finds out about Sila's mother's problems, she offers to help. Will Sila be able to make things better for not only Veda, but Mateo, her mother, and herself?
Strengths: I do not ever want to have a bear! What a great description of what caring for these animals would be like. It was great that Sila was always interested in animals, and Gino was able to fulfill her wishes and also provide himself with a much needed sense of purpose. Dealing with the elephant poop is quite a challenge, and Sila and Mateo are up to it, with some help from workers that Gino hires. The details of immigration problems are explained in a way that middle grade readers can understand, and will hopefully make them more sympathetic to people who have run into difficulty. Sila's sadness is profound, but she still tries to find a way to go on. The scenes with the school personnel trying to set up her mentorship with Mateo are realistically awkward, and Mateo's mom is great. I needed a happy ending when I read this, and my students will also appreciate this. 
Weaknesses: I'm not wild about the cover; for some reason, elephant books are a hard sell in my library, and this isn't immediately appealing. Also, it would be great to have books about immigration from #ownvoices authors, although Sloan has clearly done her research. These are so many gradations on the autism spectrum that this seemed realistic to me, but many people would rather see an #ownvoices story. I am fine with a well researched book by any type of author as long as the treatment is sympathetic.
What I really think: I'm the only teacher on the planet who wasn't wild about Counting by Sevens, and since elephant books are a hard sell in my library, I was prepared not to like this one. I was pleasantly surprised. I was immediately invested in Sila and Gino, and thought the realities of having an elephant were well portrayed. The story is very neatly plotted, and things work out a little TOO well, but considering the troubles we see in the world right now, I found it a huge relief to read an upbeat novel where everything ended happily. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Summer of Brave, Violet and the Pie of Life

Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave
March 1st 2021 by Albert Whitman & Company
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Lilla lives with her divorced parents, an art museum director father and an entomologist mother, in a duplex near the college campus where both work. While she doesn't have to travel far when moving between parents, she still has two separate rooms, and has to deal with her parents being overly concerned that their recent divorce doesn't "damage" her. It's better than her friend Knox's parents, who have a bitter relationship, but she still wishes that her parents wouldn't be so involved in her life. This is especially true when they are both hoping that she gets into a magnet high school. Knox and Vivi understand that Lilla is very shy about making her feelings known, which is why their summer challenge is to be brave and speak their minds. Lilla's father wants her in the arts track, her mother in the STEM one, and Lilla would rather just attend the regular public high school and be well rounded. Her friends Vivi and Knox are both thinking about the magnet school, and both hoping to get jobs as counselors in the museum's summer program. Lilla is hired right away, but not in the STEM area, as her mother hopes, and Vivi doesn't get hired at all. To complicate matters further, Lilla is starting to have a crush on Knox, although her parents are concerned that she is spending too much time with "bad boy" Colby, who is interested in Vivi. After an upsetting incident involving a college student cat calling her, Lilla becomes very worried about how she presents herself, but more angry that she has this worry. She and some friends interview woman and construct a chart of where cat calling is most prevalent in the neighborhood. Lilla uses this as her presentation for her magnet school application, and finally lets her parents know how she is feeling. 
Strengths: Like Murphy's Dear Sweet Pea, this has a very interesting depiction of shared parenting. There's just enough discussion of both Vivi and Knox's family situations that we can share Lilla's perspective on how her family's dynamics differ from her friends. I love the college town setting, and the fact that Lilla is working as a camp counselor. A lot of 8th graders work at Safety Cities or with Parks and Rec in the summer, and it's not shown a lot in middle grade literature. The cat calling and its aftermath are shown in a disturbingly real way, and Lilla does manage to find a voice to complain about it. 
Weaknesses: There's an interesting depiction of a librarian, Mrs. Wilder,  who is too interested in what Lilla is reading that had me worried-- while I always offer suggestions, I also try to give students plenty of room to make their own choices. Do I comment on them too much? It's a good reminder for self reflection. However, the librarian claims that Dash and Lily's Books of Dares is "so cute and nothing inappropriate for younger readers". They don't exactly say the title, but all clues point to this title, and Dash and Lily was chock full of f bombs! (Also, Lilla is grateful that the librarian introduced her to Anne of Green Gables?) I have so many questions, but obviously, the target demographic will NOT.
What I really think: While this has more of a YA level of angst, this had some good points about Lilla seeking autonomy from her parents, as well as a nice, light romance. Fans of Carter's How to Be a Girl in the World and Firestone's Dress Coded will enjoy this. 

Green, Debra. Violet and the Pie of Life 
March 9th 2021 by Holiday House
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Violet life in middle school is complicated by her parents, who are fighting even more than usual. Violet and her best friend Mackenzie, who had been in scouts together, are interested in trying out for the school production of The Wizard of Oz, although Mackenzie is sure that the pretty and popular Ally will get the part of Dorothy. Violet does better than expected in the audition, and is cast as the lion, while Mackenzie isn't in the play. Violet's father moves out, and she isn't given a lot of information about where he is or what he is doing. Her mother, when asked, tells her to ask her father, who is not answering her texts. She's angry about this, and the play is taking so much of her time that she is getting behind in her homework. Things are difficult with Mackenzie, whose father has passed away a while ago and whose mother believes in "free range" parenting, which doesn't always work out well for Mackenzie. Ally is nicer than Violet had thought, and doesn't have an ideal life, either. The plays runs into difficulties of its own. Will Violet be able to construct a new family unit for herself that takes care of both her needs and the needs of her parents?
Strengths: I would much rather see books about parents who divorce than parents who die, since this is a much more prevalent occurrence, but one which isn't written about very much. I wouldn't have minded seeing the parents fighting more before the father moved out. The effect on Violet's life and her school work are important to see. It's interesting that her two best friends also have difficult lives, for other reasons, and nice that Violet's mother cares about Mackenzie enough to buy her clothes and make sure she is taken care of. Ally's background of being raised  by her grandparents is also something we need to see more in middle grade literature. 
Weaknesses: The blurb describes the book this way "Twelve-year-old Violet has two great loves in her life: math and pie.", but there really isn't much about either pie or math. That's fine, but I found myself looking for math and pie references that weren't there!
What I really think: Divorcing parents and friend drama are always good bets for middle grade literature. I liked this better than King's The Year We Fell From Space but not as much as Vail's Unfriended or some of the Wish novels; it might have been the large part that the school play took in this book. Books about theatrical productions are a bit of a hard sell to my students. 

The acknowledgments mention a writing group that includes Marlene Perez, who had a great series, Dead is the New Black, back in the days when the Twilight books and all things vampire were popular. It's funny how books I no longer have are still firmly stuck in my mind!

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Cartoon Saturday- Shoe Wars and Super Side Kicks

Pichon, Liz. Shoe Wars
March 2nd 2021 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Ruby and Bear live with their father, Bert Brogue, in a tiny house near Wendy Wedge's shoe factory. He used to have his own shop and designed fabulous shoes, but after his wife Sally's death from snake bite, he became despondent and gave in to Wendy's demands. She is pure evil (think Cruella deVil, but with evil shoes), and so is her son Walter, who of course attends school with Ruby and Bear. When their father invents a flying shoe, the children hope he can win the upcoming contest, and life will be better. Wendy has other plans.  along with her evil henchmen, she conspires to steal the shoes, enter them into the competition as her own, and then use this victory to rule the world. This book is listed as being 460 pages long, but with all of the pictures and large text, the story seems shorter. 
Strengths: Pichon has a great style, as we have seen in her Tom Gates. Quirky pictures, fun stories, and words that bounce all over the page make these a great transition to Notebook Novels for the growing number of students who ONLY want to read graphic novels. Ruby and Bear are working so hard to help their father, and they have to fight such evil to do it. Of course, the evil is over the top in a typically British, Roald Dahl type way. The use of different types of shoes for the names of characters was inspired, and I loved the surprise hero at the end. 
Weaknesses: A lot of the text is in bold print. While I'm used to text in books like Geronimo Stilton being in different colors, styles, etc., having so much bold print felt like screaming when I read it. Young readers will not care as much. 
What I really think: I would have gone with Stella Stiletto as the main character's name, but I guess that would be a bit much. If your students are fans of David Walliams' books, like Demon Dentist, and appreciate this goofy brand of cartoonish villainy, this book is perfect. 
Than, Gavin Aung. Super Side Kicks: No Adults Allowed
November 17th 2020 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

It's hard work being a super hero, but it's even harder work when you are the side kick to an unpleasant mentor! Junior Justice is tired of the vain Captain Perfect, who just has JJ do his laundry and other scut work. Flygirl is tired of the unpredictability of Rampaging Rita, and Dinomite is sick of being taken for granted by Blast Radius. Sure, he can change into the form of any dinosaur, but why isn't he appreciated for his degree in quantum physics and the fact that he speaks 47 languages. The three decide to set up their own group, but are joined by Goo, who is the sidekick of the very evil Dr. Enok. They are afraid of the galatinous mass at first, but he pleads his case that he is actually good and tired of being with his creator, who keeps him locked in a jar. The newly formed squad must deal with adversity before they can even create their super hero lair; their hero overlords want them back, and Dr. Enok is on the prowl to retrieve Goo. When the dust from the confrontations settles, will the Super Side Kicks be ready to battle the forces of evil on their own? 

With bright colors and sounds effects (ZZZAAAACK!) worthy of the 1960s television Batman program, No Adults Allowed is an impressive first book in a graphic novel series for middle grade and elementary readers. The words are well spaced on the page, often in white speech bubbles, and the illustrations are clear and lined in black. This sounds like a silly thing to say, but graphic novels are often beloved by struggling readers who have difficulties navigating the elements on the page, and Mr. Than did a great job at making each spread clear and accessible. 

The storyline is also well delineated and easy to follow. The children are good, the superheroes are not great caretakers, and the children yearn to be free. They defeat Dr. Enok because they are on the side of right, and the rescue the mistreated Goo. I wasn't a huge fan of the truncated, baby talk style in which Goo spoke, but younger readers will find this more acceptable. 

This Australian import (the side kicks resting place atop the Sydney Opera House was a good clue!) will be popular with younger readers who enjoyed Winnick's Halo series and Trine and Montijo's Melvin Beederman books, but is also a great choice for struggling middle school readers who are still enjoying Pilkey's Ricky Ricotta. I am looking forward to book two, Ocean's Revenge. (2021)

Friday, March 19, 2021

Guy Friday- Houdini and Me

Gutman, Dan. Houdini and Me
March 2nd 2021 by Holiday House
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Harry Mancini lives in New York City, in the very house where the famous Harry Houdini once lived. He's always been a fan. He and his friend Zeke are hanging out at Riverside Park, playing near the railroad tracks, when Harry's shoelace gets stuck. He can't get his shoe off, but as a train bears down on him, he falls backwards and survives, although he has a concussion and is in the hospital. He's okay, and has many gifts and flowers. In one box is an old fashioned cell phone. Harry's a little excited, since his mother doesn't believe in children having smart phones, but he's very surprised when the phone buzzes... and Harry Houdini is on the other end. After some conversations with his idol, Harry is given an offer by Houdini-- switch bodies for an hour and travel back to take Houdini's place while Houdini experiences 21st century New York. Harry agrees, but finds himself in a bit of a pickle in Houdini's time. Houdini, in the modern day, doesn't have much looking booking his act at Madison Square Garden, and his reasons for switching with Harry end up being a bit darker than were expected. Will young Harry be able to remain in his own time, or will Houdini use him as a way to obtain immortality?
Strengths: I absolutely adore the inclusion of photographs of real places in New York! Like The Basweball Card Adventures, we have a modern kid sent back into time, but this is slightly different because Harry doesn't spend a whole lot of time there. Young Harry's near miss with death, the fact he lives in Houdini's house, and the communicating with Houdini by cell phone are all really interesting. I liked that Gutman included Houdini's interest in speaking from the beyond the grave. Quite a fun book, and I enjoyed having one central character, although The Flashback Four books work well with an ensemble cast. 
Weaknesses: Should the texts from Houdini have been in all capital letters? It seemed a bit like screaming to me, but from a children's standpoint I guess it makes sense.
What I really think: This reminded me a bit of Qwerty Stevens, but it's a formula that works. Students are still fascinated with Houdini, so this is a must purchase for elementary and middle school libraries. The fact that it is a stand alone also makes it great for gift giving to fans of this author, Houdini, or historical fiction. 
 Ms. Yingling

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Charlie Thorne and Cassidy Blake

Gibbs, Stuart. Charlie Thorne and the Lost City (Charlie Thorne #2)
March 2nd 2021 by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After her adventures in Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation, Charlie is hiding out in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, where she is renting a house, pretending to be 18, and keeping her head low. Since she is the only person to have Albert Einstein's Pandora code, her brother Gabriel and his CIA partner Milana want to turn her over to the government. When she is found by Esmerelda Castle and asked to solve a code carved on the bottom of a giant tortoise, presumably by Charles Darwin, Charlie isn't happy. However, she has noticed strangers in town whom she suspects are after her. She knows that Esmerelda came in a small plane, and asks to be taken to the research station. She has already solved the riddle, and be they know it, the two are on a path to get other clues left by Darwin. Esmerelda has not told Charlie the whole truth, and Charlie is savvy enough to have figured this out, so after going to a church, finding a clue, and climbing to the top of the church spire to get another clue, Charlie escapes. She has hidden a mountain bike nearby for a quick getaway, but is soon chased by two cars. Luckily, one of them is driven by Gabriel. He and Milana join Charlie as she travels down the Amazon, looking for the next clue. One of their stops is an ecotourist hotel run by indigenous residents, and run by Segundo. He advises that the next step of their journey, to the fabled lost city of Paititi, is impossibly hard. There are several groups of evildoers hot on their trail, including the Russian Ivan who is to bring Charlie back uninjured to his government, Esmerelda and her treasure hunting brothers, and several others whom they meet on the way who think they can overcome Charlie and get the treasure themselves. Still, the three head off down the Amazon to where it is closer to a wetlands to a river. What is the treasure that Darwin found? Actual treasure? A link between hominids and humans? Or something more shocking and treacherous?

Charlie Thorne is the most serious of the Gibbs' series, but still has moments of fun. There are deft turns of phrase that made me chuckle, and Charlie getting the best of everyone she encounters is always good. But her challenges are real, and traveling across the Amazon is a daunting proposition. Still, Charlie is able to blackmail her brother in a humorous but really intimidating way, refer to something as the world's largest Chia Pet, use her freshly manicured nails to save the day. 

The research that went into this is astonishing. From information about Darwin and his travels, to different types of codes, to the flora and fauna of Ecuador and the Amazon, the details about what it is like to take the journey Charlie does are fascinating. There are even small things, like Esmerelda's genetic predisposition to not feel pain when injured, that prove very important down the line in very clever ways. I knew from Scott Westerveld's Peeps not to pee in the water in the Amazon, but I found myself debating the merits of wearing a wet suit if I ever find myself cruising down that waterway. Would the barrier against the mud and bugs be more important than the heat, as well as the fact I could never go to the bathroom? Also, I need to remember to bring a canister in which I can save bullet ants. 

Unlike Horowitz's Alex Rider, Charlie is not necessarily a reluctant hero. She does not like the situation in which she finds herself, but is willing to use her skills to actively pursue adventure in ways that Alex is not. We get hints that she is going to investigate clues that Cleopatra may have left behind, and is on her way to Egypt as the book ends. She also has her own funding and must rely on her own resources, whereas Alex has the support of MI5. I almost wish that, like Alex, Charlie were 14, and that she weren't so freakishly smart. It would be easier for me students to put themselves in Charlie's shoes and imagine that they are the ones having the adventures. 

For pulse-pounding, non-stop adventure, this is a fantastic book, and it is also very instructional. If I am ever on a boat hurtling down the Amazon and I am attacked by people in a plane throwing dynamite, I know exactly what I need to do. I just need to pack my emergency bag, find an unlimited source of funding, and continue the conversation with one of my friends about how we can weaponize quilting tools to use on our own Mrs. Pollifax type adventures. Charlie Thorne has provided a lot of fertilizer, much of it bat guano, for my imagination! 

Schwab, Victoria. Bridge of Souls (Cassidy Blake #3)
March 2nd 2021 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Just back from her whirlwind tour of Paris (and her creepy encounter with a skeleton specter) in Tunnel of Bones, Cassidy joins her parents in New Orleans. In this hot and humid city, ghosts and spirits seem to be everywhere, and Cassidy can't shake the feeling that something is badly wrong. It doesn't help that her friend Jacob is becoming more and more corporeal, and can even move objects. After several creepy encounters with the skeletal creature she saw in Paris, Cassidy texts her friend Lara Chowdhury for advice. She thinks Cassidy is being chased by an Emissary of Death, who feels that Cassidy cheated death and now owes her life. Soon, Lara has made her way to New Orleans as well. Her parents travel a lot, and she didn't want to be stuck at home in Scotland with her dead uncle, so the group gets to see some of New Orleans' more interesting side. It is home to the Black Cat Society in which Lara is very interested, and after some sleuthing, their headquarters is found. They are also concerned about the Emissary, but don't have a lot of help to offer. They are great at backup, though, and there when the three try to take care of the Emissary, which ends in Lara being taken. She's an in-betweener as well, and had cheated death when she was very ill. It's up to Cassidy, Jacob, and the members of the Black Cat Society to save Lara and deal with the Emissary so he is no longer on Cassidy's trail. Will Cassidy be able to save both of her friends?
Strengths: If you want to write a middle grade ghost stories, it is essential that some of the ghosts be murderous! If séances, a ghost friend, another friend willing to travel around the world to help you, and clueless adults are also in the mix, all the better. While this story has lots of adventurous elements (the travels into the spirit world behind the Veil are wonderfully scary), Cassidy is an interesting character whom I found myself really watching in this book. She's scared, she's questioning her role in dispatching ghosts, and she's wondering if she really did cheat death, and what the ramifications of that are. Lara is such a fun character, and it's too bad that there isn't some way to have them hang out more. Perhaps her parents will let her travel with the Blakes indefinitely? I also found myself being a little wistful about Jacob. He has to move on at some point, but he is really the only full time friend that Cassidy has. Bridge of Souls was an excellent addition to this series. 
Weaknesses: New Orleans sounds horrible. I know it is a vibrant city with lots of history and culture, but the humidity alone is enough to make me never want to travel there. Perhaps next the Blakes can travel to Rome? Or San Francisco?
What I really think: This series has been very popular (I have two copies of the first book, and they're always checked out!), and it's one that I enjoy as well, even though I'm not a huge fan of creepy books. Cassidy's off beat relationship with Jacob, her travels with her parents, and the descriptions of local ghost lore all combine in a delightfully creepy way. There's definitely at least one more book needed to finish off the story, and my feelings would not be at all hurt if there were two!

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Starfish, Amina's Song

McDonnell, Patrick. Mutts Go Green: Earth Friendly Tips and Comic Strips
March 30th 2021 by Andrews McMeel Publishing
Copy provided by the publisher

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

The other two Mutts books, Summer Diaries and Winter Diaries, have done well in my library, so I'm excited about this new volume. This still reminds me of 1930s comics a bit, but the Earth-Friendly information is always something I'm trying to get to my students. This is a great, whole wheat Pop Tart way to do it. 

From the publisher:

Mutts Go Green is a special kids' collection of the popular comic strip MUTTS, featuring themes of ecology, environmental friendliness, and animal education.

This special collection of MUTTS comics for kids includes eco-friendly lessons on how to keep the environment clean and ways to help create a greener future for our furry friends and future generations. Mutts Go Green draws on Patrick McDonnell's 25-year career of writing and illustrating heartwarming comics starring Earl the dog, Mooch the cat, and a host of other adorable animal friends.

Fipps, Lisa. Starfish
March 9th 2021 by Nancy Paulsen Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss

In this novel in verse, we meet Ellie at the beginning of a new school year. Her best friend, Viv, is moving away, and without her, Ellie doesn't have an ally in her battle with mean girls Marissa and Kortnee, who use any opportunity to make fun of her in their Texas private school. Ellie faces censure for her weight at home as well from her mother and older brother Liam, and older sister Anaïs, who saddled Ellie with the nickname "Splash" after a pool incident at her fifth birthday party. The mother is particularly controlling and cruel, refusing to buy Ellie new clothes BECAUSE she has gained weight, posting diet articles on the refrigerator, and controlling everything that Ellie eats. Ellie's father, a psychiatrist, sees how hurt Ellie is, and makes an appointment with Dr. Wood, a therapist, for her. At first, Ellie doesn't want to talk. She's come up with her own ways of coping, including a list of "Fat Girl Rules" of how to act. While she has a good friend in new neighbor Catalina, whose family is warmly accepting of Ellie, school is still very tough. The school librarian is a bright spot, and gives Ellie a chance to work in the library over lunch, even pairing her with one of her tormentors, who is misunderstood himself, which is why he was lashing out, and the two make peace. There is no such peace to be made with Marissa and Kortnee, who mastermind a stunt that not only is mentally cruel, but results in physical harm. Even this doesn't dissuade Ellie's mother from taking her to doctor's appointments to discuss bariatric surgery, a procedure that caused serious complications for Ellie's aunt. Armed with the strategies Dr. Wood helps her craft, Ellie is finally able to confront her tormentors at school as well as her mother, and is able to embrace the good things about her body.
Strengths: This is absolutely on point when it comes to modern feelings about body image in young girls, and shows Ellie's struggles in a way I haven't seen very often in middle grade books. This is not a book about a girl struggling to lose weight (as books in the past would have been), but a book about a girl struggling to come to terms with her body and the people around her who constantly harass her. It is good to see the inclusion of two supportive friends, whose families are also supportive of Ellie. Her father does the right thing and gets Ellie into therapy when he can see that she is struggling with how her mother and peers are treating her. I was also glad to see that Ellie had a dog, Gigi, who was a big comfort. There is also an excellent scene with a clothing stores for teens that has attractive clothing in Ellie's size. 
Weaknesses: It seemed odd that the school didn't do more to protect Ellie (teachers at my school would not tell Ellie to go home, have a good cry, and move on) or punish students who acted against her, but the author's note said that everything in the book is partially based on experiences she has had or heard of. 
What I really think: Novels in verse aren't popular with my students for reasons I don't understand. Unlike some novels in verse, though, this does give us plenty of information about what Ellie thinks and feels. A good addition to libraries where books about friend drama, weight issues, or personal identity are popular. 

I was also the child who was not allowed to have treats and snacks because of my weight, and who was put on a diet by a doctor in the third grade. My mother commented negatively on my weight as well as her own until Parkinson's and dementia took away her ability to communicate. We all react differently to our pasts, and my personal views don't align exactly with the current ones, so I am always afraid to say anything on the topic, lest the Twitterverse give me a hard time. 

Khan, Hena. Amina's Song
March 9th 2021 by Salaam Reads 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Amina and her family get to spend some time in Pakistan visiting her uncle Thaya Jaan (who had been unwell) and his family. While there are some things that she doesn't like (no one seems to let her speak anything but English), she loves being with her cousin Zohra and feels at home. Once she is back in the US, Amina is concerned about starting 7th grade with her friends Soojin and Emily. Her social studies teacher assigns a Wax Museum project, and Amina decides to research Malala Yousafzai. While her friends are generally supportive, and Amina has a small but solid community of Muslim friends (including Rabiya), she does sometimes feel that people in her Wisconsin town. In Amina's Voice, her mosque was attacked, mean girls at school make snide comments, and while she is proud of her heritage and her religion, she sometimes feels that her mother could allow her to make different choices, like wearing a more fashionable dress to a school dance. When Amina talks to Nico about music, the two decide to work on some sound mixing together, and her friends and family seem to worry that this has romantic implications. She likes Nico, sure, but she just wants to work with him on music and spend time with someone else with a background that is different from many of her school mates (Nico is half French, half Egyptian). Her uncle told Amina that she needed to spread the word about her culture; will Amina be secure enough in her identity to do this?
Strengths: I'm always a fan of books where children go to other countries to visit grandparents! Growing up, I had a friend who would spend summers in Greece, and that seemed absolutely fascinating. It's also something some of my students experience. Amina's fondness for both the US and Pakistan is interesting to observe, and her desire to spread knowledge about her family's culture is great to see. The relationship with Nico, and the inclusion of music, was well done. There's a lot of good friend and school drama, as well as the Wax Museum project, that will speak to a wide range of middle grade readers. 
Weaknesses: This felt a tiny bit unfocused at the beginning, and it would have helped to have the plot emerge a bit earlier. Having worked with teachers who have assigned Wax Museum projects, I found it hard to believe that the teacher would have cared at all that Amina didn't follow the rubric exactly when she did MORE research on other people. I would have given her an A+!
What I really think: Amina's Voice has circulated very well, so I know I'll have readers for this sequel, but I did so love the Zayd Saleem series and wish that Ms. Khan would turn herself to a similar book for slightly older readers! While there are a growing number of books with cultural connections, a lot more of them have girls as the main characters, and it is a learning process to get boys from any culture to read books about girls!