Sunday, August 22, 2021

Carry Me Home and Elfie Unperfect

Fox, Janet. Carry Me Home
August 24th 2021 by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Lulu and her sister Serena have struggled since their mother's death, but their father has struggled even more. When they were home in Texas, their father left them for a month with an aunt, who threatened to send them to foster care. When he returned, he packed up their Suburban and drove west in search of work. The trio landed in Montana, in a small town where the father has found work as a builder. In order to save money, they are living in their car, but have a system worked out. They wash and eat every morning before going to school, and Serena goes to after school care, and Lulu frequently picks her up. On the weekends, they go to the food pantry and library, and pay their $20 rent at the campground weekly. There are some students, like Deanna, who are mean and make snide comments about Lulu wearing the same clothes or smelly bad, but there are also nice kids like Jack, who sits with her at lunch, gives her food he doesn't want, and encourages her singing. When her father is not in the car one morning, Lulu is able to get her and Serena to school, and when he doesn't return, she figures he will be back soon. She continues to feed Serena, pay their rent, and go through their weekly routines, but it isn't easy. Especially hard is picking Serena up after school. The children are supposed to be picked up by a parent, so Lulu asks Jack to write a note and sign her father's name. As the days pass, Lulu struggles to keep things together, but doesn't waver in her devotion to her sister. The two get coats at the local Lutheran church, and manage to ward off adult interest. When Lulu is late picking up Serena, however, things fall apart. Serena ends up in a foster home, the car gets towed, and Serena ends up sleeping in the local library. Will she be able to find out what has happened to her father, and be reunited with her sister? 
Strengths: It's important to show a wide variety of economic circumstances in middle grade literature, and this is a very effective look at how one familiy ends up homeless. There are two other books I can think of where the family lives in a vehicle (Svetcov's Parked and Nielsen's  No Fixed Address), but Lulu's experience with her father being gone are somewhat unique. I loved her resourcefulness and how she tried to hide her fear from her younger sister. It was also heartwarming to see how much help was offered when her situation was finally revealed. This was an interesting and heart-warming story from the author of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.
Weaknesses: There are some instances when Lulu seems much younger than middle school. She is certainly very responsible, but there were just some small turns of phrase, and an episode where Deanna mentions dolls she collects. The obsession with making 1,000 cranes ala Sadako showed a much younger level of magical thinking than I would have expected. These instances are not too widespread, but did give me a little pause.
What I really think: I will probable end up purchasing because of the Boxcar Children vibe, but will have to hand sell this one due to the 1980s vibe of the cover. This would be perfect for elementary school, but my students like their books with family problems to be a bit grittier. 

Mahoney, Kristin and Santant, Dan (illus.) Elfie Unperfect
August 10th 2021 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Elfie is a very particular child who has struggled through Cottonwood Elementary School, finding it hard to make friends, even with her cousin, Jenna. She's thrilled that she's gotten into Hampshire Academy, where she has to wear a uniform, and where she hopes the students are as interested in academic matters as she is. Other things are changing as well; her long time babysitter, Rhoda, is now in nursing school, so doesn't have as much time to spend with Elfie. Things are rocky on her first day of school, although she does connect with another girl, Sierra, with whom she is working on a project. The third member of the group, Cole, brings out his phone to look up something, even though the students have been told they are not allowed to use tools to help them. Worried about breaking the rules, Elfie takes Cole's phone and puts it in her back pack. When an all school assembly is called, she tries to get the phone back to him, but can't locate him. After the headmaster makes an announcement that the phone is missing and it is tracked down to her back pack, Elfie is suspended, with her case going before a review board. Since that may take months, she enrolls back in Cottonwood, where Jenna is in her class with Ms. Rambutan. Elfie has a rocky day here, too, since she shows off her information about the rambutan fruit that the teacher brings in, and she feels that other students are irritated with her. She asks to go to the restroom, and when Jenna follows her to help, the two argue. Ms. Rambutan is concerned about Elfie and works with her in constructive ways, pairing her with Will and Jenna for an Egg Baby project, thinking that they will be easier to work with. Jenna is having some problems with her parents' relationship of which Elfie is unaware, and Rhoda is diagnosed with cancer, which worries Elfie quite a bit. Elfie's parents reach out to Sierra's to see if their daughter has any information that might help Elfie get back into Hampshire Academy, and the two girls get along quite well. Elfie even has a play date with Sierra, although she ignores something she is supposed to do with Jenna, further alienating her cousin. Will Elfie be able to carve out a niche for herself at whatever school she finally attends? And will she find coping mechanisms to help her get through life?
Strengths: When I started teaching 30 odd years ago, I never thought that they way students would change would be to get more anxious, but here we are. Elfie is an absolutely typical student, with her difficulties in connecting with other people. She seems like she might be on the Autism spectrum, but this is never specifically stated. This reminded me a bit of Lopez's Lucky Luna when it came to having a cousin in the same school, and feeling some jealousy there. The parents are super supportive, and it was interesting to see a long time babysitter included. Ms. Rambutan's class seemed like a lot of fun, and the Filippino representation is good to see. This reminded me a bit of Keller's The Science of Breakable Things as well. 
Weaknesses: The inclusion of Rhoda's cancer was interesting, but I could have used either more details or fewer details. Can't quite put my finger on it, but it would have been nice to see it developed as something more than an occurrence that was upsetting Elfie, since so many other things were upsetting her. It's a hard balance to strike, and it did end up being crucial to a plot point.
What I really think: This was on the young side for middle school. My students really enjoy this author's The 47 People You'll Meet in Middle School, as well as Annie's Life in Lists, but this had many solidly elementary themes. I would definitely purchase it for an elementary school but will wait to see what the budget looks like before picking this one up. 
 Ms. Yingling

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