Sunday, February 20, 2022

Just Harriet and Messy Roots

Middle grade is tricky, and middle school is even trickier. I read a lot of books that are great titles, but just not a good match for my students. Here we have one that is a bit too young, and one that is a bit too old.

Arnold, Elana K. Just Harriet
February 1st 2022 by Walden Pond Press
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Harriet is a rising fourth grader who is dealing with a life changing event at the end of third grade; her mother is pregnant and has been put on bed rest. Harriet (who was named after the titular character in Fitzhugh's 1964 book) is not happy about the baby, and keeps reminding her parents that they said that nothing would change. Of course, things do. Since her mother is not able to take care of her, she is sent to spend the summer on an island off the coast. Nanu runs a bed and breakfast, and is looking forward to having Harriet "help" her. Harriet is even allowed to bring her pet cat, Matzo Ball, even though Nanu is not sure how her older, grumpy dog, Moneypenny, will react. Harriet's father takes her over on the ferry, tries to sweeten the deal with a doughnut, and promises her that there are adventures to be had, and perhaps even treasure in the Gingerbread House, which he doesn't explain. Harriet, who describes herself at the very beginning of the book as someone who occasionally lies and has other less than perfect qualities, let's everyone know of her displeasure. While Nanu is sympathetic, she is also busy, and expects Harriet to deal with her grief and get on with things. When cleaning out a shed behind the B&B, Harriet finds an old fashioned key, and hopes that this is what her father meant when he talked about a treasure. She investigates all of the locks that she can find in between helping out at the B&B, walking Moneypenny, and feeling sorry for herself during down moments. Will she be able to solve the mystery of the key?

Harriet, who reminded me a bit of Calhoun's classic Katie John (1960) is right in line with other modern characters who are not afraid to let their opinions be known, like Pennypacker's Clementine, McDonald's Judy Moody, or Parks' Junie B. Jones. She's not mean spirited, but she does like to get her way. She does show more regret than many characters; she refuses to walk Moneypenny at one point, and feels bad that the dog needed to go out, and also that Nanu seems tired while walking the dog. 

There are other interesting characters in the book, such as the proprietors of the local ice cream shop, a resident of the B&B called "the Captain" who is an ornithologist, and a mysterious next door neighbor, the almost 100 year old Mable Marble. Of course, Matzo Ball and Moneypenny figure largely in the story as well. 

There are a fair number of line illustrations accompanying the text, which is always a great addition to books for elementary readers. The Dung Ho pictures are slightly reminiscent of LeUyen Pham's work in Snyder's Any Which Wall or Moore's Freckleface Strawberry. Harriet is adorable, as is Matzo Ball-- the eyes are especially expressive, and it's sweet that Harriet is wearing a pair of her father's childhood overalls. 

I wouldn't be surprised if we see Harriet again, since this author's Bat and Starla Jean each have a couple of books about them. Any books about adventures during the summer, especially ones that involve mystery and treasure on an island, are bound to be popular!

This was too young for my middle school students, but would be a fine addition to an elementary school collection. 

Gao, Laura. Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American
February 15th 2022 by Balzer + Bray
ARC provided by Follett First Look

Born Yuyang Gao in Wuhan, China, the author moved to the US at the age of 4 (sometime around the turn of the Millenium, I think) to be with her parents, who had left her in the care of grandparents while they attended graduate school. It was a rocky transition, and she felt out of place. Eventually using the name "Laura" after Laura Bush, she tried to navigate elementary and middle school. She and her younger brother, Jerry, tried to figure out US traditions like Christmas, and she started playing basketball. The family expectation was that she would be good at academics and perhaps become a rich doctor, and the expectation that she would be good at math was also brought up my classmates, who were casually racist. Going into high school, she struggled with accepting the way she looked, dealing with a boyfriend who wanted her to have sex, and figuring out what she should do for college. Moving from Texas to Pennsylvania for college, she finally met more students of Asian descent, but found it difficult to navigate how to "be" Asian-American. She also realized that she was gay, and decided to get involved in art. The books end with her experiences as a young adult working on the West Coast and dealing with COVID and rampant prejudice. 
Strengths: This reminded me a little bit of Bermudez's Big Apple Diaries, or (in a strange way) the first half of Bechdel's The Secret to Superhuman Strength, with Laura's grappling with racial identity being substituted for Bechdel's athletic endeavors. The illustrations are a bit rougher and less comic book style than Raina Telgemeier, and the color pallette (in the first few pages of the ARC) is an interesting yellow and red. She cites Yang's American Born Chinese as a book that interested her, and there are a few similarities. I enjoyed the parts where she traveled back to China to reconnect with family and culture, and the 2020 challenges with COVID are definitely a needed perspective. 
Weaknesses: This is definitely a Young Adult graphic novel; the f-bombs don't start until about half way through the book, and there aren't many inappropiate situations (the boyfriend wanting to have sex being the most vivid), but many of the life path concerns might not resonate with middle grade readers. 
What I really think: I probably won't purchase this book, but will be interested to see if Gao writes abnother book. 

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