Friday, August 27, 2021

Guy Friday- We Are Family and Tremendous Things

James, LeBron and Williams, Andrea. We Are Family
August 31st 2021 by HarperCollins
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Things are tough in Lorain, Ohio, and Carter Middle School is not free from the problems affecting the area. When Coach Beck, who has been running the Hoop Group for years, has to step down because he has Parkinson's, the members are devastated, since they all have come to the group for different kinds of support. Jayden hopes that basketball will be his ticket to the better high school, Willow Brook, especially after his mother loses her job at a legal firm. The coach's daughter, Tamika, has had to stop attending Austinberg Prep, and hopes that the group will make her father see that girls should have a chance to be ballers as well. Chris is the nephew of NBA player Kendrick King, and hopes to replicate his uncle's success, even though his father Chris is more interested in his own involvement with basketball than Chris'. Anthony has been attending the group as a useful punishment for some anger issues that manifested themselves at school, and is also a way to get away from his abusive father. Dexter, who is on the small side, is glad that he will have a change to play, and somewhere to hang out after school while his mother is working. When the coach quits, Tamika takes it upon herself to enlist the help of the only teacher available, Principal Kim, but she then struggles to find enough kids to play. She really wants the group to do well at a big competition in order to impress her dad, and even manages to arrange a scrimmage with her former team, but it's hard to get kids on the court when they are dealing with problems at home. Jayden wants to play, but is cleaning up at a local pizza parlor, but eventually reluctantly agrees to join. Will this small but scrappy group be able to prove themselves outside of their school?
Strengths: James is still hugely popular with my students, and I am impressed with the philanthropic work that he has done in Akron. Like Derek Jeter, he had a difficult time growing up, and is determined to give back to his community in a really admirable way. This story definitely shows some of those difficulties, but did not fall into the stereotypes that older books embraced about inner city life. Yes, things are tough, but it's not all abusive fathers. Jayden's mom had been going to law school, and his grandmother is a retired high school English teacher. Dex's mother is struggling to balance work and school. Pizza parlor owner Roddy chose to stay in the area with his daughter instead of pursuing college. There are some opportunities, but life doesn't always work out the way we want, and that's a good message we don't see much. There are enough details about basketball that this will attract young readers, and enough about real life struggles that adults will appreciate. 
Weaknesses: The kids all struggled with so many issues, but we were told about them, and not shown, which really weakened the impact. Williams (Baseball's Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues) is a fantastic writer, so perhaps this will improve in the next books in the series. 
What I really think: I'll definitely buy this, and would love to see other popular sports people emulate James in both his social projects and his fictional ones. 

Nielsen, Susin. Tremendous Things
May 25th 2021 by Penguin Teen
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Wilbur lives a comfortable, if somewhat lonely, life in Toronto with his two mothers. He was home schooled for a while, and his introduction to middle school was so rocky that he still feels the reverberations at 14, especially from his nemesis, Tyler. Luckily, he has a good friend in Alex, although now that Alex has found a boyfriend, Fabrizio, the two don't hang out as much. Sal, his elderly next door neighbor, might be his best friend, and imparts a lot of wisdom about life, and there's his very loyal chihuahua-dachshund mix dog, Templeton. (Wilbur is a big fan of the book Charlotte's Web.) To complicate matters, his mothers are both having troubles with employment, and worry about meeting their bills. Wilbur works at a fast food job, where he doesn't get a lot of pay but keeps getting "promotions", and plans to use the money from that to pay for a class trip to Paris, where the students will stay with host families. The trip seems like it might be too expensive, but when Wilbur hosts his French student, Charlie, the trip seems imperative. Charlie ends up being a girl, and an exuberant one at that. She loves Wilbur's mothers, and finds Wilbur to be quite amusing. She doesn't even mind Templeton. Wilbur has quite a crush on her, so is devastated when he sees her kissing Tyler right before she goes back to France. Determined to be a changed man by the time he visits her country, Wilbur takes up running with Alex, takes fashion tips from Fabrizio, and listens to Sal's wisdom. He even gets up enough courage to ask for a raise and to fire a troublesome coworker, although he ends up getting fired instead. The trip to France goes well, although perhaps not in ways that Wilbur suspects, but his return to Canada is greeted with sad news. Will Wilbur be able to maintain his confidence and keep muddling through high school with a little more success?

It is very difficult to find humorous, realistic fiction for high school boys, and this has the same mix of laughs and heart that Sonnenblick's Notes from the Midnight Driver has. (Of course, their the older friend is named Sol!) While this had a few too much information about Wilbur and his Speedo for my taste, I'm sure that the target demographic will find these inclusions to be hilarious!

Even though there isn't a lot that happens, this book is a quick read that pulled me in right away. Wilbur hasn't had an easy life at school, and struggles socially, but still maintains a positive attitude. He has realistic struggles maintaining his friendship with Alex once Fabrizio enters the picture, and feels that he won't have a chance with Charlie but makes an attempt anyway. I especially appreciated that he had listened to all of his mothers' lectures about asking before kissing a girl and getting "enthusiastic consent"!

While Wilbur's attempts to lose weight and shed his gray sweatshirt and saggy beige pants isn't really on trend, it is something that many high school students think about. He didn't have the healthiest lifestyle, so it's good to see him embracing some physical exercise and better food choices. I loved that Sal had Mad Men era clothing tucked away that Wilbur and his friends managed to style into a modern look. 

Nielsen does a great job with older middle grade or younger Young Adult characters, which is evident in We Are All Made of Molecules or No Fixed Address. This is a great title for not only fans of Sonnenblick, but teen readers who want an engaging story that doesn't necessarily include sports, dragons, or space aliens!

Occasionally, we get staff directives to wear certain things-- today it was college t shirts. I don't have anything from the University of Cincinnati, even though my younger daughter went there, but I do have a t shirt from my older daughter, who went to Kent, where I got my MLS. It doesn't look this good. Pairing it with a denim skirt and navy Keds  jeans and running shoes because it's been a week.

My father got his PhD from Kent in 1971, and my grandmother got her teaching certificate from Kent in 1914!

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