Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Much Ado About Baseball and The Healer of the Water Monster

LaRocca, Rajani. Much Ado About Baseball
June 1st 2021 by Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Trish isn't thrilled to have to move to Comity, Massachusetts for her mother's job as a heart surgeon, and is concerned that she won't be welcome on a baseball team in her new town. Ben is also on the team, but hasn't played much since the death of his beloved grandmother. The two are rivals in a regional Math Puzzler competition, so get off to a rocky start, as told in chapters from each. Ben's friend Abhi (who is obsessed with quoting Shakespeare), however, knows that the two's shared love of baseball, math, and puzzles will bring them together, and resorts to a bit of subterfuge to encourage this. The baseball team isn't doing well, but when their sponsor, a snack shop called the Salt Shaker, starts to provide snacks, things start to look up. The two also each receive a book called Mathematics of the Wild that seems to have some magical properties. When strange things start to happen, workers at the shop, Rob and Trish, offer some surprising insight into secrets of the town. Will this be enough to help the team, cement the friendship, and help when an accident occurs?
Strengths: It's good to see students who are really into an academic subject, and readers who like math puzzles will have fun solving the ones in the book. The dog, Fib, has an interesting background to his name! Stories about moving are always interesting to middle grade readers, and it's fun that Trish and Ben had met each other. They definitely share common interests, so it's great to see them become friends. I especially liked Trish's reaction to her mother being called off to work frequently, especially when her mother is instrumental in helping when the accident occurs (don't want to spoil things), and this sheds a new light on her mother's dedication to helping others. The magical snacks are fun, and there is plenty of baseball action for sports fans as well. 
Weaknesses: Shakespeare is definitely not in my district's curriculum until high school (and really, why is he even studied there?) so the connection will probably go over my students' heads. It's not essential to have that background knowledge, but it does make the story more amusing. 
What I really think: This is an unusual blend of baseball, magic, Shakespeare, and math puzzles that will appeal to fans of the companion volume, Midsummer's Magic, as well as readers who like any of those elements or who want a story about forming friendships.

Young, Brian. The Healer of the Water Monster
May 11th 2021 by Heartdrum
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Nathan must spend the summer with his grandmother in her mobile home in the countryside, since his mother is busy documenting a pipeline protest and his father has a new girlfriend whom Nathan wishes to avoid. He loves being with Nali, even though she doesn't have wifi or indoor facilities. He plans to work on a science project involving different types of seeds. This quickly becomes complicated when he thinks he sees a talking horned toad in the garden, stealing the seeds. The toad turns out to be a Holy Being from the Navajo folk lore, and Nathan is able to talk to him because of a communication stone. When he also comes across an ailing Water Monster who saves his life, he promises to help heal him from a sickness that has afflicted him for over thirty years. Nathan's Uncle Jet shows up at the grandmother's house, having lost his latest job and his apartment. Nali agrees to let him live in her hogan if he helps around the property. Uncle Jet has come back from the military, and Nali feels that his depression can be partly relieved by a traditional ceremony, the N'dáá or Enemy Way ceremony. This takes a lot of preparation in conjunction with the local hataalii, and Uncle Jet isn't that cooperative. the hataałii also lets the family know that the ceremony is not the end of the healing process-- it's important to also include therapy. Nathan is very concerned about his uncle, especially as his behavior becomes more and more erratic, but he also has his promise to the water monster, whom he calls Pond, to keep. Keeping this involves a journey into the world of the Holy Beings to try to find a cure for Pond. Nathan learns a lot about his family and about Navajo culture while working to save both Uncle Jet and Pond.
Strengths: The author refers to this story as "modern folklore", and explains that while some Navajo stories are not meant to be told in all contexts, he has reworked some of the folklore into the tradtional middle grade fantasy format. The religion and culture is not fantasy, but the book is. This is an important distinction, and one to keep in mind as we see more books that include cultural connections in what would be considered fantasy stories. Nathan's parallel journeys to save both Pond and his Uncle Jet draw on his background and his kind nature, and pay homage to the lessons his grandmother has tried to teach him. At the same time, the healing that needs to be done reflects the modern problems that Native populations face, both with mental health and addiction challenges and with pollution and other problems with human devastation of the environment. Putting all of these into a formula similar to Rick Riordan's books (Nathan's quest does involve some underground adventures, something I have been noticing in a lot of books!), complete with beings that help him, is a good way to showcase Navajo culture and stories in a way that readers unfamiliar with them will be able to process. Nathan's family, while steeped in their own culture, have problems that are very similar to the problems many families across cultures face in the US. 
Weaknesses: There are a lot of mentions that Nathan is fat, made fun of for being fat, or uncomfortable with the size of his stomach. This seems to go against the current thoughts about body positivity, and seemed out of place with the story in general. 
What I really think: I know that there is some concern about including notes and glossaries about cultural connections, but I am always glad when these are included in the book. While, as the author points out, it might reflect a colonized mindset, it is very helpful for my students who might not have the resources to look up unfamiliar terms on the internet. 
 Ms. Yingling

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