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

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