Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Anna May Wong and A Glasshouse of Stars

Yoo, Paula. The Story of Movie Star: Anna May Wong 
January 1st 2019 by Lee & Low Books
Library copy

As a young girl in the early 1900s, Anna May was enthralled with the burgeoning film industry. She lived with her parents in Los Angeles' Chinatown, where they ran a laundry. Movie making looked far more glamorous, and even though her father wanted her to be a secretary, she looked for jobs as an extra in movies, persevering until she got a role in one. Unfortunately, Chinese Americans were negatively portrayed in many films, and because of laws forbidding difference races from kissing on screen, roles were often filled with white actors to avoid this issue. Wong decided to move to China to avoid this sort of discrimination, but returned to Hollywood in 1937 to fight for equal representation. She continued to act until her death in 1961, at the age of 56, and only accepted what she perceived to be positive roles, paving the way for other Asian American actors. 
Strengths: This would be a great nonfiction title to pair with Nesbet's Daring Darleen: Queen of the Screen or Wiley's The Nerviest Girl in the World for coverage of early Hollywood and filming. There's just enough about both, as well as about the racial discrimination of the day, to get readers interested in learning more. Lee and Low's The Story Of biographies have an interesting range of titles and should be included in elementary libraries where Who Was books are popular but a little more cultural diversity is needed. 
Weaknesses: I'm never a fan of illustrations in biographies, but I understand why they are used. There are a few photographs. 
What I really think: I wouldn't mind a longer biography of this actor, but this will be a great choice for my readers who are interested in the history of film and who just want a shorter book. 

Marr, Shirley. A Glasshouse of Stars
Published June 29th 2021 by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Meixing Lim and her family inherit a house in the New Land from her mother's brother, who died of a heart attack while tending oranges in the yard. Ma Ma is pregnant, and Ba Ba (her father) struggles to find work, taking heavy manual labor he isn't used to. The family has difficulty with the new language and customs, and are helped a good deal by Mrs. Huynh, who is also from a different country, but not the one from which they hail. Her food is similar, and she is kind enough to help Meixing with a school uniform, and provides the family with many other kinds of support. School is filled with children who are unkind and make fun of Meixing's food, clothing, language abilities. One girl even steals a gold ring that belonged to Meixing's grandmother, and the teacher believes her over Meixing when a friend steals it back. When a tragedy occurs in the family, Mrs. Huynh once again helps, but relatives also arrive. The house, which she calls the Big Scary, seems to have magical abilities to increase in size to accommodate all of the relatives. Ma Ma's health is fragile, and her pregnancy seems challenging, and it takes a while for her to get back on her footing to take care of Meixing. Josh and Kevin eventually befriend Meixing at school, and she has a supportive teacher, Ms. Jardine. The glasshouse in the garden has portal like abilities that allow Meixing to talk to people from her past, including the uncle who passed away. There is a very frightening episode where older boys attack Meixing and her mother, but eventually Ma Ma has her baby, and a younger aunt offers to come and live near the family to help out. 
Strengths: I am always looking for books about various types of immigrant experiences, and this is one to add to titles like Sheth's Blue Jasmine, Lai's Pie in the Sky, Freeman's One Good Thing About America, Yang's Front Desk, and Behar's Lucky Broken Girl. It's also a rare example of a middle grade novel in the 2nd person. 
Weaknesses: This is the most trauma filled immigrant tale that I have read. My heart broke for Meixing, although it was good to see that there were kind people in their lives like Mrs. Huynh, Ms. Jardine, and the aunt. 
What I really think: This felt much more like an adult novel about a younger character than a middle grade novel. It also had a decidedly Australian feel. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Orpheus Plot

Sweidler, Christopher. The Orpheus Plot. 
June 15th 2021 by HarperCollins
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In a world where Miners who live in the asteroid belt ("Belters") don't much like the Navy who regulates them, Lucas Adebayo still wants to join the Navy. His adopted sister, Tali, has been accepted into training school on the ship Orpheus, since she was born on Mars but came to live with Lucas and his father after her parents were killed. Lucas hopes she can get him into the academy, but she is surprisingly reluctant. When a chance encounter results in him being admitted, he is thrilled but a littler wary. Luckily, most of the other students are kind, and he finds good friends in Rahul, Maria, and Elena. Some of Lucas' academics are poor, but he makes up for them by having real world skills in flying and mechanical maintenance. When the group travels off ship, he meets some sketchy people who give him a chip, and while he's leery of using it, Rahul thinks he can diagnose it without it connecting to the Orpheus' computers. Unfortunately, it does just that, and lets a group of Belters bent on revolution onto the ship. Even the Rieschling Base is overtaken, so the students have nowhere to turn. Even Tali is suspect, but Lucas and his friends need to use all of their skills to deal with the chaos and try to find some way to save themselves and their school. 
Strengths: The set up of Lucas' world gives us just enough information to pull us right in and join his journey from Belter (where personal hygiene is hard!) to cadet, where there are new uniforms and big responsibilities. The fact that his academics are a little weak but his work ethic helps him is a great message. Tali is a fascinating character who has hidden depths. The cadets work well together and put their knowledge to good use, and of course get the better of their oppressors. A fast-paced, interesting science fiction adventure!
Weaknesses: I wish that the Belters had found a better way to change their situation than taking over ships, but it certainly makes for an intense story!
What I really think: Perfect for readers who want a little more space adventures like Landers' Blastaway or Levy's Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy, or this author's fantastic In the Red.  There is always room in a library collection for books with what I think of as a Star Trek vibe-- they boldly go where no one has gone before and have a variety of adventures without veering into dystopia. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

MMGM- Piper Makes Waves

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Carey, Elizabeth Doyle. Piper Makes Waves (Summer Lifeguards #4)
July 6th 2021 by Sourcebooks Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Piper's grandma, Bett, wants her to spend some time away from constantly working on the horse farm. Piper's mom travels a lot for work, and her father lives some distance away with his new family, so Piper's home is with her grandmother in a small, coastal town. Since her friend Jenna is a good swimmer, she and friends Ziggy and Selena have applied and made it as junior lifeguards. Piper has a bit of a crush on Luke, who is older and the son of the man who runs the beach where they work. Money is tight, and the life guarding gig doesn't pay, so Piper is glad to get work helping out a local caterer, until she is out one night until 1:00 and finds it hard to stay awake. Piper wants to do her job well, so decides to step away from catering, even though Jenna is angry. Piper needs to be more confident as a life guard, but she's nervous. When she is paired with the best college aged lifeguard, she sees him on his phone, which is against the rules, but doesn't say anything. She also goes out with Sam, the rich girl whose parents are in England and for whom Selena's parents work, and ends up in a dangerous situation that would not have happened if she had stood up to the other girl. Will Pipe gain the confidence and authority she needs to be a good life guard?
Strengths: I love books where kids are engaged in a lot of activities. In addition to everything else, Piper even babysits kids on the beach to earn money, and I love how she has to balance all of her activities, including occasionally working on the farm to help her grandmother, or even just making sure her grandmother doesn't have to make dinner on really busy days. What a nice change from some of my students, who seem to spend their days playing video games! There are realistic but easily resolved tensions with friends and family, situations that make Piper nervous, and a lot of good information about how to handle this type of situation. I love the discussion Piper has with an older lifeguard about not feeling uncomfortable wearing her swimsuit on the beach. This series is a solid choice for readers who like Coco Simon's Cupcake Diaries or even Martin's Babysitters Club books.
Weaknesses: I haven't been in middle school for a long time, so while it seems possible that Piper would day dream about being married to Luke (since that was the sort of mind set back in the day), it seemed out of place with today's girls. Or, I want it to be!
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and think this will be a popular choice with my students, especially when it is February in Ohio and we all want some sun and sand!
 Ms. Yingling

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Generation Misfits

Bowman, Akemi Dawn. Generation Misfits
June 29th 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Millie has always been home schooled  by her parents, Scott and Jane, who are very invested in everything their daughter does, especially when it comes to playing flute, since they were both band geeks themselves. She desperately wanted to go to Brightside Academy, which has a strong performing arts emphasis, but when the time comes to actually attend, she is apprehensive. She finds it difficult to make friends, especially after spilling her lunch on a popular girl, and isn't quite sure how to "school", so frequently doesn't turn in assignments the correct way. She gets second chair flute in the 8th grade band, only to have her position challenged later. The only thing that makes her feel better is listening to her favorite J-Pop band, Generation Love. Things are miserable on all fronts until she meets Zuki, who wants to have a J-Pop club. Millie's parents don't want her to spend time socializing, so she lies and says she has to stay after school for academics. For a while, it's just her and Zuki, but when they decide to put together a performance group to compete in the school Pop Showcase, they attract Luna, who is a dance major but also a big J-Pop fan, Ashley, who identifies as nonbinary, and Rainbow, who has also had problems fitting in. Zuki is a little too controlling of the group, but has issues of her own, and Millie struggles with her classes and is getting D's and F's, which makes her parents angry. Will the group be able to overcome internal and external drama and be able to compete successfully in the showcase?
Strengths: There are not a lot of books about children transitioning from home schooling to public school, and Millie's difficulties with understanding what homework to do are realistic. She eventually makes a multicultural cast of friends who band together over a common interest. While not many of my students are J-Pop fans (although a few sport K-Pop t shirts), this is a fresh take on musical interests. Books set in private schools seem exotic to my students, especially when uniforms are involved. 
Weaknesses: The happy cover is at odds with the tone of the book, which is very angst ridden. Once Millie finally finds a group of friends, things are still not happy because of all of the drama. 
What I really think: This will be popular with readers who enjoy diverse ensemble casts like the one in Shepherd's Babysitting Nightmares or the Girls Who Code series, and with readers who like 
Torres' Flor and Miranda Steal the ShowJones' Girl vs. Boy Band: The Right Track. The parents seemed unrealistically difficult, and the first fifty pages were filled with all of Millie's despair. Perhaps the target demographic will enjoy Millie's wallowing more than I did. 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Cartoon Saturday- Chunky

Mercado, Yehudi. Chunky
June 22nd 2021 by Katherine Tegen Books
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Hudi's doctors want him to lose weight, especially since he had a lung removed after an infection at the age of five. His mother is always giving him a hard time about what he is eating, and his father, who is very athletic, wants him to try to find a sport he enjoys so he can get more exercise. In his mind, he has an imaginary friend he calls Chunky who cheers him on in everything he does. While sports are not Hudi's passion (he would rather make people laugh by telling jokes, and has his eye on the theater program), he tries soccer, swimming, and tennis, always managing to get injured enough to end up in the emergency room. This is a hardship for his parents, who struggle to make ends meet but always make sure that Hudi and his sisters have what they need. When his father loses his job, his sister's bat mitzvah is in jeopardy until grandparents step in to help. His father finds work out of town, and Hudi is approached by the football coach to be on the team, because of his large size instead of in spite of it. For a while, Hudi throws himself into the violence of football, but doesn't really enjoy it. Will his parents ever realize that Hudi's strength lies in his ability to make other's laugh?
Strengths: There are not enough middle grade books about personal identity. This is such a huge concern for so many tween and teen readers, who dwell so much on what other people think about them. Seeing memoirs or stories about other kids trying to figure out who they are is interesting and somewhat helpful for them. Developing a passion for something, exploring different activities, and coming to terms with immutable facts about one's body and appearance takes up so much middle grade brain space that it is amazing that any school work ever gets done! Mercado does a great job of exploring all of these facets with humor and a fairly healthy level of self acceptance. He seems to be a bit younger than I am, but doctors were definitely putting children on diets when I was young! The inclusion of the author's Jewish and Latinx background, as well as the depiction of economic difficulties with his family, give a much needed bit of diversity to the body of graphic novel memoirs. This book will never get back to the shelves!
Weaknesses: The appearance of  the imaginary friend Chunky makes this seem a bit younger, but this is a solidly middle grade book. The story would have been successful without him, but his inclusion does make for an intriguing cover.
What I really think: Graphic novel memoirs like Tatulli's Short and Skinny and Copeland's Cub are some of my favorites because they are humorous while delivering more serious messages about personal identity. There are certainly other graphic novels that are autobiographical, but it's the humor that appeals most to my readers. Definitely purchasing this one, and have just the readers in mind for it!

Friday, June 25, 2021

Guy Friday--Ahmed Aziz's Epic Year

Hamza, Nina. Ahmed Aziz's Epic Year
June 22nd 2021 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Moving from Hawaii to Minnesota is difficult enough, but the reason the family is moving makes it even harder; Ahmed's father has a rare liver disorder and needs a transplant. There are better doctors in Minnesota, so the family moves back to the father's hometown. This is a difficult move for the father, who lost his brother to the same liver disorder when the brother was twelve. There are advantages to moving home after twenty years, though. The family is supportive, and long time friend Janet, who would send care packages of leaves and maple syrup, is there as well. Ahmed is apprehensive about starting a new school, although his younger sister Sara is enthusiastic. Having gotten a letter from his teacher requesting that he read three books in preparation for his advanced language arts class (Holes, Bridge to Terebithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler), and having failed to read all of them, some of this fear is justified, but it is quickly replaced by confusion and irritation with his parents when Mrs. Gaarder turns out to be Janet! 
Strengths: While there is the serious issue of the father's illness, most of the book is upbeat and will be popular with fans of books like Gorman's Dork in Disguise (1999) or Weeks' Guy Time (1999). Both Indian and Minnesotan culture are well represented, and there is a bit of discussion about Ahmed's feelings at being unlike his classmates. Mrs. Gaarder is an enthusiastic teacher who wants her students to really explore and think critically about the books they read, and it's nice to see a novel encouraging academics. Geeky but in-charge Carl is a fun foil for Ahmed's insecurities, and classic bully Jack's motivation is made clear early on. The father's illness is handled realistically, and the impact on the entire family is shown. The bright cover and reasonable length will make this a go to title for many young readers. 
Weaknesses: This is a solid debut novel, but it follows the very old school formula of going through a school year. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing this book and looking forward to whatever Ms. Hamza writes, but hope for a more updated feel to the next book. Another similar read is Buyea's Because of Mr. Terupt, and even that was written in 2010. 

I wish I could say that the book titles Ahmed is assigned are not indicative of what language arts teachers are using in 2021, but they aren't far off. We're seeing things change, but since I had a request from another school for my Lois Duncan books (which I read in middle school in the 1970s!), it is going to take some work. I'd like to have seen shout outs to titles like Yang's Front Desk or Venkatramen's The Bridge Home, which are being used in many schools. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Magical Imperfect

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect
June 15th 2021 by Feiwel & Friends
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Etan lives north of San Francisco in 1989. His father and grandfather have a jewelry store, and his mother is currently in the hospital as the result of some mental health issues. To cope with this, Etan is not able to speak most of the time. This causes his friends with whom he plays baseball to distance themselves from him, and his family's social circle, with whom they frequently celebrate Shabbat, has dwindled. Upstairs neighbor Mrs. Hershkovitz (whose dog Etan walks) sometimes comes, but it is a lonely time for the family. The grandfather survived World War II by leaving Prague and making his way to Angel Island in 1940 via Greece, and the community has many members from all over the world, including the Philippines. Etan also runs errands for a local shopkeeper, and when he is out delivering something to the Agbayani family, he connects with their daughter. Malia has severe eczema, which is irritated by the sun, and is homeschooler because of this medical issue and also because other children frequently call her "the creature". Malia is a great singer, and when a talent show is scheduled to be held at the local community center, Etan encourages her to participate. His grandfather has recently shown him some family heirlooms, including earth from the Dead Sea collector by the grandfather's grandfather, which is thought to have strong healing properties. Because of the mother's illness, the father is having trouble going back to the synagogue, and has been intent on watching the World Series instead of participating in family religious ceremonies, which angers the grandfather. Even though the talent show is on the same day as a big game his father wants him to attend, Etan uses some of the mud to try to help Malia, and the two sneak out to the talent show. Of course, the timing is bad, because there is a massive earthquake. Will Malia and Etan be able to work through their various problems with the help of family and each other?
Strengths: While the community of Ship's Haven is fictional, I liked the small shops and feeling of community. The grandfather's story was interesting, and the inclusion of Jewish culture and Filipino food was both fun and informative. The short verse chapters are labeled with dates, so the story progresses quickly toward October 17, 1989 with a feeling of urgency. There's just enough baseball included, and it draws in several different threads of the plot in an interesting way. Malia's condition is one I have not seen portrayed much in middle grade fiction. Despite these several serious issues, the novel is hopeful in tone.
Weaknesses: There are a lot of topics covered, and the novel in verse format meant that I still had a lot of questions at the end of the book. In particular, I would have liked to know more about what was being done to help Etan process his mother's illness and deal with his selective mutism. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who are interested in 1980s history, children facing challenges, magical realism, or novels in verse.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Thing I'm Most Afraid Of

Levine, Kristin. The Thing I'm Most Afraid Of
June 15th 2021 by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In 1993, Becca is not thrilled with the fact that her parents have divorced, and her father has taken a job in Vienna. When they decide that she will spend the summer visiting him while her mother, a teacher, back packs around Europe, this feels like a disaster. Becca is very anxious, and even though she is working with a therapist, she still has issues with just about everything. To cope with her anxiety, she keeps a journal of worst case scenarios, which helps a little, but she has certainly never planned for anything like this! It doesn't help that her father is dating a woman named Katrina, who has a son Becca's age, Felix. The two have hired an au pair, Sara, who is a refugee from Sarajevo, Bosnia, where there is a lot of fighting. While Sara managed to get out of the city, her mother and younger brother did not, so Sara is always trying to talk to people to see if she can find them. When she finds out about Sara's problems, Becca feels a bit silly about freaking out about going on a Ferris wheel or riding a bike, and along with Felix, she makes a list of things she would like to do, like attend a crowded event and eat a soft boiled egg. There are a few children whom Feliz knows who meet up to take a dance class, so Becca slowly makes some friends. She slowly makes progress, and manages to see some of Vienna, but when she, Sara, and Felix make a trip to Sarajevo. Sara is arrested on the way back, and it takes the parents, as well as a friend's mother who is an immigration lawyer, to locate her and bring her home. As the summer winds down, Becca begins to realize that adventure doesn't have to equal risk, and she looks forward to visiting her father again. 
Strengths: Like Standiford's The Boy on the Bridge, this book was prompted by the author's own time in Vienna as an au pair, so the details of daily life are beautifully done. I loved her note on putting together all of the elements of the story! Sara's predicament is very timely, given all of the trouble in the world that is displacing people in a similar way, and it's interesting to see how this was handled historically. 
Weaknesses: I understand why Levine portrayed Becca's anxiety, and this is certainly something I see with students today. However, in 1993, there were very few students who would have admitted to being anxious. It never seems to be very interesting to read about, and I'm not sure how much it helps students who are anxious. Still, very much on trend.
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, since this covers an interesting time period that I haven't seen covered before. My students enjoy travel books, and despite the problems, was a fun story about living in another country. 

Lowry, Lois. Autumn Street
Published May 20th 1980 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Library copy 

Such a lovely and yet problematic book. In 1980, lovely would have won out, but today, I'm afraid I'm going to have to categorize this as problematic.

"It was a long time ago." This is how the book starts, and it's so true.

Lowry is a beautiful writer, and if she wants to evoke a particular time, and a particular feeling, she does a great job. The details about life in the 1940s, during World War II, are fantastic. Using white ink on the black pages of scrap books? That's a detail you can't research. Even the existence of maid and cooks and nannies is something that we've kind of forgotten as a society.

But it's problematic. While it's great that Elizabeth is friends with Charles, the son of the Black cook Tatie, there are a lot of racial issues at play. At one point, the n-word is used by Elizabeth, in an... affectionate? Kidding? Teasing? way that we just... can't anymore. Never really could, but definitely can't now. I also found the description of the shell shocked veteran's appearance to be disturbing, even though I'm sure that people existed in small towns who were just like that, and that they were treated the way Ferdie Gossett is.

I'm going to have to shelve this one with A Cricket in Times Square as one that had its moment but really can't be handed to students any more. I'd love to hear what other people think.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Even and Odd

Durst, Sarah Beth. Even and Odd
June 15th 2021 by Clarion Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Even and Odd are sisters born a year apart who share their magical power. Odd isn't thrilled with hers, and worries that her activities on "odd" days will be limited because she can't control her powers, but Even, who is older, is due to take a magical exam and is angry that she can't practice her magic every day. She also really, really wants to go on a business trip with her mother into the magical world, Firoth. The family runs a store on the border, and deals with both magical and nonmagic items, and the mother travels to promote the shop. Even manages to turn herself into a skunk as a joke, but is worried when she can't turn herself back. When others notice that magic is not working as it should, and messages aren't getting across the border, the girls start to worry. Along with a unicorn who was in the shop, Jeremy, the girls check out another portal in town and manage to make it to Firoth... but can't get back. Jeremy is already in trouble, since he was not supposed to leave the magical world, but went in order to buy soda and game cards! His home has been moved, since magic on the Firoth side of the border is acting up. His family sends the group to Lady Vell, a famous entrepreneur who is an expert on border magic, and the girls find out a family secret from her. She is responsible for the problems, but won't stop what she is doing, leaving the girls, along with Jeremy, to try to figure out a solution. Luckily, the girls' mother finds them, and helps them fix the  magic and come to terms with their magical past. 
Strengths: Durst successfully thrusts us right into Even and Odd's magical world and it was easy to go along without missing a beat. We get just enough of the shop and the family situation before going right to Firoth, with a unicorn who has an invisibility cape, no less! This was particularly well paced, and never dragged for a moment. There were plenty of funny moments, such as Joj and the mermaids for whom he cares, and even has a bit of an environmental message! This is a fantastic book for readers who aren't quite ready for high fantasy but want to have an adventure in a magical world. 
Weaknesses: For some reason, I had trouble telling Odd and Even apart. On the surface, they couldn't be more different, but I kept getting them confused. Perhaps it was the gimmicky names; I also struggled with Gutman's Coke and Pepsi, even though I enjoyed The Genius Files
What I really think: I love that Durst writes stand alone fantasy titles, and these are popular with my students, so I'll definitely purchase this one. The cover is fantastic! I have older titles like Enchanted Ivy and the Into the Wild duology, and Catalyst, The Stone Girl's Story, and especially Spark all circulate well, although I have to admit that the cover of The Girl Who Couldn't Dream dissuaded me from buying it. It was also a bit young. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

MMGM-- The Double Life of Danny Day

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Thayer, Mike. The Double Life of Danny Day
June 15th 2021 by Feiwel Friends
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

For his whole life, Danny has lived each day twice. When he was very young, his parents worried about his assertion of this fact and sent him to a psychologist, who helped him come up with a system-- the first time around is a "discard day", so he can experiment and often makes questionable choices, and the second is a "sticky day", so he has to do well on tests and be nice to people, since these are the events that will be remembered by other people. When his family moves from Texas to Pocatello, Idaho, Danny isn't thrilled to have to adjust to a new school. Keeping notes to help him decide what to do the next day, he claims to be a mind reader and asks classmates to write down a phrase on a piece of paper, and carefully scopes out the hierarchy of the cafeteria. Braxlynn and Jaxson are two really popular students, but it's Noah who catches his attention. Noah runs an illicit video game competition, where the $2 entry fees are collected in a brown paper bag, and the winner, usually Noah, gets to keep the proceeds. Freddie is welcoming to Danny and tells him about the ins and outs of the game, which she doesn't win, although she could use the money since her family is struggling. He also meets Zak, and gets along with him really well even though he is more into music and doing really well in school, and Zak's Ghanan born father is Danny's father's new boss! Danny is plenty busy, settling in to his new school and keeping up with his work, but he also has to keep track of his younger twin sisters who get into lots of trouble on discard days that he tries to remedy. He tells Zak about his situation, and with his help, figures out a plan to take down Noah's video game reign. 
Strengths: This was sort of like a football book, but with video game on-field action. Video games take up a lot of mental real estate for many of my students, are there aren't many books that include them in the plot, unless they are fantasy books where children get sucked into the games. This is also innovative with the realistic fantasy of Danny getting two chances on each day; the reason given is that he was born on February 2 at 2:22. Enough of a reason for me! It was interesting that his family had him in counseling, and I liked that he spent so much time with his younger sisters. The field notes on fellow students and their social constructs was fun and not inaccurate. All in all, a very solidly fun middle grade novel! Definitely purchasing.
Weaknesses: This was sort of like a football book, but with video game on-field action. This means that I didn't understand some of what was going on and may have skimmed those parts. Also, Noah was handling a LOT of money, and I'm surprised that he hadn't gotten caught. Middle school students tend to give away situations like this by congregating in suspicious ways, and there's always one student who will spill all of the beans to the administration! 
What I really think: This felt a little like Clements' Lost and Found, where twins only go to school every other day. I really like the idea of playing with a time loop or alternate reality in middle school, especially one where you get to test things out before doing them. It was also interesting that Zak and Danny's doctor encouraged him to do more with this opportunity than skip school to play video games. Thought provoking AND fun. Looking forward to seeing more from Mr. Thayer. 
Finklestein, Norman H. The Shelter and the Fence:When 982 Holocaust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America
June 8th 2021 by Chicago Review Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

While middle grade literature has many books portraying people who went to camps or hid from the Nazis, there are not quite as many about people who left their homes and fled to other countries. Going to another country in Europe is roughly equivalent, distance wise, to going to another state, and I'm not sure my students fully understand that. This book introduces us to many families and individuals who got out of their countries and were able to apply to come to the United States. Refugees from 18 different countries were brought to Oswego New York via a transport ship from Italy. They were settled in an old army base, which at first made many of the people nervous, since it seemed like the concentration camps many had experienced. The people of Oswego, however, had set up the living areas like apartments, and tried to furnish the newcomers with as many of the niceties of home as they could. The applicants were vetted so that there were a variety of occupations represented, so people worked in the camp. Children went to the local public schools. 

While the residents of the camp were glad to have food and safe shelter, they also felt penned in. The agreement between the refugees and the US was that this was a temporary arrangement, and after the war, they would return to their countries. Because of this, they weren't allowed out of the camp to visit relatives in New York City, although some did sneak out. A couple of students graduated from high school and were accepted into Harvard, but were unable to attend. It took a lot of legal work for the residents to be allowed to stay after the end of the war. 

This was an interesting tale of history that was unknown to me. I have to admit that I was hesitant to read yet another book about World War II, but I don't know that there will ever be an end to the very different stories that emerge from that era. The book had plenty of pictures, as well as large text, and moved very quickly. At just under 200 pages, this is a book that students who have studied the Holocaust will find refreshing, since it depicts people who were saved. Perhaps knowing about these 982 people will build empathy for the many immigrants who are coming to the US today from a variety of war torn countries. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Curse of the Phoenix and Dragon Ops

Carter, Aimee. The Curse of the Phoenix
June 8th 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Twins Lu and Zac are struggling since the death of their mother, especially since their father is so grief stricken that he can't take care of them properly, and throws himself into his work instead of educating himself about Zak's life threatening allergies to almost everything. When their great Aunt Merle offers to have the children spend their summer break with her and her wife, Rowena, the father packs up the children and flies with them to England. Their mother left the family estate to marry their father, and only came back rarely, but shared fantastical stories about Wildewood with the twins. Zac is working on a graphic novel of them but the twins are gobsmacked to find that the tales are actually true. Rowena, along with Conrad and his children Penelope and Oliver, cares for an array of magical creatures in a preserve, helped by a phoenix whom no one has seen for quite some time. The phoenix was very fond of the twins' mother, and even though Rowena doesn't want them to enter the sanctuary, they do, and are branded. This means that they won't be able to leave and go back to the US, lest they die! Was the phoenix also responsible for their mother's death? And will the two be able to help with the magical creatures but be free to embrace their own destiny?
Strengths: Traveling to a family estate in England is always a great way to start a book, and when the family has a preserve of magical creatures that they are tending, even better! Zac and Lu are interesting characters who are more than happy to investigate their family background, and I especially enjoyed that their mother shared information about the preserve as stories that Zac is using to write a graphic novel. Zac's allergies are a great inclusion. Merle is a great character who misses the twin's mother and wants to take care of them, and Rowena is her abrasive foil who doesn't want them near, but mostly for their own safety. Penelope is a cousin who enjoys the preserve, and Oliver's longing to go back to a life without it is a realistic twist. The variety of creatures, and the twins' interactions with them, are superb. I have soccer fields behind my house-- I think that these should be given over to the care of centaurs, fairies, and other creatures,and young readers will also be able to put themselves right into the story. 
Weaknesses: I am never a fan of books that depict a parent as so grief stricken that the care of children suffers. Given Zac's allergies, this is even more unforgivable.
What I really think: This is very similar to Mull's Fablehaven series or Sutherland's The Menagerie trilogy. I haven't had a lot of readers for those recently, so may pass on purchase. If your copies of those books have fallen apart, this would be a great replacement, updated for the 2020s with various social and personal concerns.

Mancusi, Mari. Dragon Ops: Dragons vs. Robots (#2) 
June 8th 2021 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After their adventures in Dragon Ops, Ian and Lilli have coped differently. Ian doesn't want to play ANY video games, and Lilli has thrown herself into playing sports, including soccer with Josh, whom Ian dislikes. Even their cousin Derek spends his time playing guitar instead of gaming. The dragon from the first book, Atreus, has escaped its video world and is on the loose, and Ian feels himself being followed by it. When the two find that Ikumi has possibily been kidnapped by a rival gaming company, they go back to gaming to try to get a position of beta testers for the updated game Mech Ops from Admiral Appleby, who worked with Ikumi's grandfather. Appleby's grandson is Josh, who is just as annoying to Ian in video gaming as he is in soccer. When it turns out that Ikumi's father is also missing, the stakes get even higher. Once in the game as testers, they meet up with Yano, who is a big help, but the real world intervenes. The closer they seem to come to rescuing Ikumi, the more people from the Mech Ops organization try to pull them out of the game. WIth help from arcade owner Maddy and a rivl gamer named Starr, will Ian and Lilli be able to figure out what is going on in Mech Ops, and how it involves Ikumi, before it is too late?
Strengths: I like Ian and Lilli as characters. They have complicated relationships with gaming, and even though they occasionally play all night and want to skip activities to sleep during the day (and have a video game playing mother who understands this!), they don't do this often, and have both stepped away from games when they felt the rest of their lives were suffering. They really do want to help Ikumi and her father, despite their complicated relationship. Josh ends up being an interesting character as well, and the history of both the Dragon Ops and Mech Ops games (and their intersection) was intriguing. There's lots of action, tons of video game detail, and some really cool creatures! 
Weaknesses: While not as step-by-step of a recreation of a video game as the Cube Kid Minecraft books, there was still a lot of video game details that I didn't quite get. This will not be a problem for younger readers, or anyone who has more knowledge of video games than I have, which is pretty much limited to computer solitaire!
What I really think: This is a great sequel to a popular title. There's room for another book, but a duology would be fine as well.  I have students eagerly waiting for this one!

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Cartoon Saturday--The Legend of Auntie Po

Khor, Shing Yin. The Legend of Auntie Po
Published June 15th 2021 by Kokila
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In 1885, Mei Hao lives with her father, who is a cook for a logging camp in California run by Mr. Andersen. Because Mei and her father are Chinese, there is a lot of prejudice against them, even though Mr. Andersen thinks of them as "family". Sometimes, this is true. Mei is best friends with Bee, and the two often plan their futures together. Since Mei has a crush on Bee, she has conflicted feelings when Mei talks about getting married and prefers the scenario where the two move to the city and run a pie shop together. In other ways, the differences are clear. The Chinese loggers are fed separately from the white loggers, Mei is not paid, and the treatment of Chinese workers is not equal. There are also a few black workers, who hold a place somewhere in between. Mr. Andersen hires his brother to "help" in the kitchen, which Mr. Hao doesn't particularly like, although he keeps silent, and when the people who own the camp complain, Mr. Hao and his Chinese assistant are both fired. The food is awful, and the white men in the camp eventually approach Mei to help feed them, and go to Mr. Andersen with their complaints. Mei is known for telling stories to keep the children happy, and has told many stories about Auntie Po, a Paul Bunyan-like character who also has an ox, and who takes care of the miners. As the tensions in camp worsen, Mei begins to think that she actually sees Auntie Po. This happens more often when tragedy occurs in Bee's family, and the whole logging camp struggles to deal with this event. In the aftermath, Mr. Andersen starts to realize how badly he has treated the Chinese miners, and especially the Hao's, and tries to make amends. 
Strengths: This was a great historical story with a unique spin on the Paul Bunyan tales. Reimagining them with a Chinese Auntie makes perfect sense, since folklore is always adapted to fit different cultures. The information about logging camps is well researched and informative. Mei does not have a lot of hope for her future at the beginning of the story, but it is good to see that by the end, there are other options for her. The LGBTQIA+ representation is not a large part of the story, but it's nice to see it represented in a historical context. Certainly, there were "Boston marriages" (a term in use around this time) even on the west coast! Mr. Andersen's portrayal as someone who thought he was progressive for the time but who still didn't treat his employees equally in interestingly done. The story moves along quickly.
Weaknesses: This was such an intriguing piece of history that I wished it wasn't a graphic novel, so I could have gotten more information! I also spent a lot of time trying to understand the color palette and being confused by Auntie Po's bright pink shirt. On the bright side, this kept me from being obsessed with the noses, which is usually how I interact with graphic novels, which are just not my cup of tea.
What I really think: This was a really interesting story; I just wanted more information! A great addition to a slowly growing collection of graphic novels with cultural connections. 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Marcus Makes a Movie

Hart, Kevin and Rodkey, Geoff. Cooper, David (illus.) Marcus Makes a Movie
June 1st 2021 by Crown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Marcus attends an afternoon program at school while his father works, and he is struggling to find an activity to join. He's a big fan of drawing comics, but doesn't want to go to the art option and do things like origami and collage work. He ends up in the movie making program, hoping to be able to sit quietly and draw, but the exuberant college students won't let him. Not only that, but a girl who annoys him, Sierra, is in the program. The group has to vote on the movie they want to make, and Sierra, who attended a summer program on writing screenplays, has written a script for Phone Zombies. Marcus counters with his own idea to spite her, but doesn't have an actual screenplay for his superhero action comic, Toothpick, just his comic book. He's angry when his idea loses, but Sierra makes an effort to reach out, mend fences, and offer to help him with his film if he helps with hers. Marcus has recently experienced a serious loss, and some of his comic deals with this, although we don't find out all of the details until late in the story. Marcus learns a lot about film making and cooperating with others, and continues to work on Toothpick. 
Strengths: I loved that this showed how much work it takes to make a film! There is one student who is in the program to improve her MeTube channel on makeup, and even that is seriously discussed. So many of my students want to be YouTube stars but have no real concept of what this would entail. Sierra is a fantastic character who is extremely understanding and works well with everyone, and it's great to see her take Marcus under her wing not only in regards to film making, but in interacting with others. I loved the portrayal of an after school program, and there are plenty of supportive people in Marcus' life to help him with his loss, including his father, who is supportive of Marcus' creative endeavors. The occasional illustrations will help this appeal to readers of notebook novels. The use of casual register is noticeable but done in a natural way; this is no small feat. 
Weaknesses: The frequent self-referential nods to "Tevin Bart", as well as mentions of MeTube seemed odd to me, but younger readers will likely not notice. Marcus also started out as an angry, unlikeable character with some behavior issues, but we find out the reasons for this, and he does improve. 
What I really think: This is an interesting and informative look at the ins and outs of making a film from people who have been through the process. Similar to Greenwald's Pete Milano's Guide to Being a Movie Star, but I liked that it was centered around an after school program instead of a film with celebrities. Definitely purchasing, although Rodkey's We're Not From Here was SO good that I wish he would write more books like that. I'm not sure how many of my students are familiar with Kevin Hart as an actor, but this book stands alone without that knowledge. 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Crossing the Stream

Baitie, Elizabeth-Irene. Crossing the Stream
June 8th 2021 by Norton Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Ato's Mum runs a small shop in Ghana, and the two make ends meet despite the fact that his father when died he was young. He hasn't spent much time with his grandmother, but when Nana wants him to visit every weekend, Mum allows this, but forbids Ato from sitting on the sofa on the porch. Ato is a bit afraid at first, because Nana is whispered to be a witch, but the two end up getting along well. This is good, because Mum is increasingly in thrall to Prophet Yakayaka and his House of Fire ministry, and thinks that Ato might be misbehaving because of evil spiritual influences. Meanwhile, Ato and his friends are working on a project for school. They hope to win a competition that would allow them to visit Nnoma, a bird island that Ato's father helped with before his death. the island has been closed to outsiders for a number of years, so Ato and his friends, with the help of Papa Kojo, work on growing vegetables with organic pesticides. When visiting Nana, Ato hears the story of BB and his mother. BB lived in the nicer neighborhood of Tamarind Village, but made friends with several Zongo children from across a polluted stream that ran between the two locations. His mother didn't trust these children, and didn't want BB to hang out with them. As Ato and his friends work on their gardening project, they also find out more about Prophet Yakayaka and the benefits he is having to raise money for children in Agoro, and befriend a dog they call Choco. When Ato, Leslie, and Dzifa find out about the conditions in Agoro, they try to tell the adults around them about what the prophet is doing. Ato finds out more information about his father, and is instrumental in uncovering evidence about the Prophet's schemes. 
Strengths: Baitie is a Ghanaian writer who has written a number of Young Adult books, so it's great to see her turn her hand to middle grade. I have looked for years for books set in other countries and written by writers who live there, and since I've had a fair number of Ghanaian students over the years, I was so excited to hear about this one! It's interesting to see details about Ato's every day life (he and his mother have a woman who cleans for them) and his interactions with his friends. His grandmother's stories show a lot of social awareness and changing attitudes. The Prophet and his hold on Mum was fascinating, and the investigative journalism that reveals his true purpose was a good inclusion. 
Weaknesses: I was expecting the plot to be more about the bird island and the father's role in that, but enjoyed the turn this took to focus on the Prophet. There is a senseless death of a dog, if you are handing this to tender readers. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and will be a great addition to a small but growing number of titles set in African countries, such as Krone's Small Mercies, Okorafor's Ikenga, or Nwaubani's Under the Baobab Tree  or Warman's The World Beneath.

 Ms. Yingling

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Samira Surfs

Guidroz, Rukhsana. Samira Surfs
June 8th 2021 by Kokila (first published 2021)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In 2012, Samira and her family are members of the Rohingya people. Because of the oppressive government in Myanmar (or Burma, as her family prefers to call it) that denies citizenship to Rohingya, Samira's family undertook a treacherous journey at a great personal and emotional cost to come to Bangladesh. Her father now works on a shrimp boat, her brother at a hotel, and Samira sells hard boiled eggs on the beach. Samira misses her friends back home, as well as her grandparents, and would really like to go to school. Her father tells her that even if they did have the money, they would send her brother, because "only boys can change a family's fate". The family did not find a place in the local resettlement camp, so are considered unregistered, and experience a lot of discrimination from local people who feel that immigrants are taking jobs and opportunities away from native Bangladeshis. While on the beach, Samira meets other girls who become her friends. Aisha also is a refugee, sells jewelry on the beach. and lives with just her grandfather. She is very quiet about her own story. Nadia's brother Tariq is friends with Samira's brother Khaled. Rubi's mother is a seamstress, and Maya sells chips. Samira is enthralled when her brother and Tariq are surfing, but she is afraid of the water because of her family's journey. Khaled offers to teach her to swim, and also teaches her some English that he is picking up at the hotel. Eventually, Samira gets brave enough to try surfing, although it is a lot of work to become good at it. When a local contest with a cash prize is announced, Samira wants to enter, even though her family doesn't want her swimming because of their faith. Sure she is going to help her family in this way, Samira persists, but when she is not allowed to enter the contest, will her persistence pay off?
Strengths: Aside from Perkins' Tiger Boy, I can't think of any other middle grade books set in Bangladesh, and certainly haven't read any with Rohingya characters! It's great to see this representation, and Samira's interactions with her family and friends will resonate with middle grade readers. I liked the details about how the family lived, especially things like going to a local shop to watch television news or borrowing a cell phone in order to call relatives. There aren't many books about surfing, either, so this has all kids of new and interesting topics in it! The illustrations are helpful in showing where Samira lives, and what she and her friends wear. I love giving my students books that show what the lives of children their age are like in other countries, and this was an interesting and informative title. 
Weaknesses: Most of the novels in verse that I have read lately don't strike me as particularly poetic when I read the pages out loud. The same is true of this book. That's fine, but since my students shy away from novels in verse despite my efforts to promote them, I would have preferred a prose format with more context clues for some of the terms and situations with which my readers might be unfamiliar. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing this, and would love to see more books with Rohingya characters, but wish that there were more details about Samira's every day life so that my students would have a better understanding of Samira's life. The notes at the end were very helpful.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Interview with Sarah Beth Durst

Sarah Beth Durst has been a favorite of mine ever since my exchange student from Iceland ran off with my copy of Drink, Slay, Love (2011)and didn't want to give it back! Her newest book, the middle grade fantasy Odd and Even, is out today. 

Once you read her new book, make sure that you pick up a copy of Pierce's Alanna, so that you are fully prepared to join me and Ms. Durst when we go to live in Tortall. Such a great tale of female empowerment, and a book that is still popular with my fantasy readers!

It was such fun to interview her!

Who were you as a middle grade reader? What were some of your favorite books?

I love all the same kinds of books that I loved when I was a middle-grade reader.  Anything with a unicorn, dragon, talking animal, or magical whatever -- count me in! 

Some of my favorites then and now:

ALANNA by Tamora Pierce

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones

DEEP WIZARDRY by Diane Duane


BEAUTY by Robin McKinley

THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper

A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle

I love books that make you feel as if the impossible is possible.

When I was ten years, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.  Problem was: I'd never met anyone who was a writer.  As far as I knew, it wasn't a thing that one could aspire to become.  It seemed impossible.  During that time, I first read ALANNA by Tamora Pierce, and I distinctly remember thinking to myself as I closed that book, "If Alanna can become a knight, I can become a writer."

Years later, I met and became friends with Tamora Pierce, and she is every bit as fantastic, inspiring, and supportive as you'd imagine she is!

You’ve written many books for a variety of ages and have said that when you write from characters’ perspectives, it’s fairly easy to change levels, but what themes or interests do you think are particular to middle grade readers?

I love writing for a variety of ages.  They each have their particular joys.  When you write for adults, for example, you're writing for readers who bring a wealth of cultural, historical, and emotional baggage to the reading experience -- in other words, they come with expectations that you can choose to either fulfill or subvert.

But the joy of writing for middle grade readers is that they don't bring those expectations.  They're newer to the rhythms, tropes, and traditions of stories.  So you're often writing about first adventures -- the first taste of independence, freedom, and agency.

With my newest book, EVEN AND ODD, that's especially true.  Even, a twelve-year-old girl who shares magic with her sister Odd, wants to be a hero.  But she thinks she needs to wait to complete her training -- and finish growing up -- before she can do something important.  She learns that you don't have to wait to make a difference in the world.

I think that's always been a theme of particular interest to middle-grade readers: that kids can be heroes too.

Quasi-medieval settings have always been a favorite for fantasy writers, and you’ve set several of your books in a world of that sort. What is so appealing about this setting? Dragons? Capes? Absence of technology? Cooking things over open fires?

When I was a kid, I had these beautiful illustrated collections of fairy tales -- The World of Fairy Tales, The Big Book of Classic Fairy Tales, The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales -- that I'd pour over.  Still, when I look through their pages, I feel that same shiver of familiar magic.

As a reader, I love the quasi-medieval setting because it taps into my soul-deep memory of first reading Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Rose Red, The Tinder Box, Rapunzel, East of the Sun and West of the Moon...  I am convinced that the words "Once upon a time" are among the most magical in the English language.  Right up there with "I love you" and "Free pizza."

As a writer...  Setting is a tool.  Sometimes your story is best served with a brand-new setting.  (I love creating new worlds!)  But other times you want to use a familiar setting or a familiar set of tropes because you intend to either expand on them or twist them.

If everyone already knows what a unicorn is, then you can go ahead and name yours Jeremy.

Your newest book, Odd and Even, starts in the modern world and involves a similarly modern fantasy world. I loved that you treated the problems with magic as ecological problems. Why did you approach it that way? Would you like to see more books with environmental messages?

There is a strong environmental theme that pops up in a lot of my books (especially in EVEN AND ODD, SPARK, and in my epic fantasy series for adults, THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA, which is about out-of-control nature spirits).  The things you care about do have a way of appearing in your fiction.

It just feels logical and right to me that magic would of course have an impact not just on people's lives but on the world around them.

I suppose it's no coincidence that THE LORAX is my favorite Dr. Seuss book...

Stand alone fantasy novels are my favorite thing! Aside from Into the Wild and Out of the Wild, your middle grade novels have been stand alones. What motivates you to stick to this format? Has your publisher ever wanted you to continue a story you considered done?

I love standalones because you get a complete journey in one sitting.  Like a three-course meal where the server brings out the soup, the steak, and the ice cream all at once.  There's no waiting.  No cliffhangers.  No "Ahh, I need to know what happens, but the sequel doesn't exist yet!"  You hold the entire tale in your hands.

Happily, my publisher loves standalones too.  I'm currently writing a new standalone fantasy adventure called THE SHELTERLINGS, which will be out in 2022.  It has a lot of talking animals (so very, very many!), and I'm loving writing it!

Since 2014, it’s been great to see more multicultural fantasies, like the Rick Riordan Presents books. Are there other trends in fantasy writing that you’ve seen lately? (Or would like to start?)

Every time I look to see what's new, my to-read list increases by a ridiculous amount.  There are so many wonderful stories out there!  I don't really watch trends, but I can tell you that I'm finding more and more books that I adore.

In particular, I'm drawn to optimistic fantasy -- "hopepunk," I've heard it called.  I love books with hope, humor, and adventure.  Also doesn't hurt if they have a few talking animals...

A few favorite recent MG-fantasy reads:

THE RAVEN HEIR by Stephanie Burgis


RIVER MAGIC by Ellen Booream


What magic power would you like to have? What literary fantasy world would be your choice to inhabit?

I think I'd choose telekinesis.  It's definitely my favorite magic power to write about.  One of the most fun scenes to write in EVEN AND ODD was the breakfast scene -- Even decides to make pancakes using magic.  She hasn't quite mastered cracking eggs with her mind, though.  At least this time there's no egg goo on the ceiling...

Re my choice of literary fantasy world, I'd want to live in Tortall.  Or Valdemar.  Maybe Narnia, but it would depend on the time period.  Really, I think the best magic power of all is a portal that allows one to visit every magic world (and then return safely home)...  in other words, a book!

Thanks so much for interviewing me!