Thursday, May 12, 2022

Every Bird a Prince, Natural Genius of Ants

Reese, Jenn. Every Bird a Prince
May 10th 2022 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Eren feels increasingly out of step with her best friends Jessie and Kayla, who are pressuring her to provide the name of her crush so that the three can work on getting dates to the dance at their Oregon Wild Rose Middle School. She takes great comfort from vigorous bike rides in the woods, which is a good activitiy since her single mother is often busy with work, leaving Eren to her own devices. Eren doesn't have a crush and is very stressed out about having to provide a name, and decides that classmate Alex isn't the worst person on the planet. Even though Jessie and Kayla are cool with dating either boys or girls, Eren doesn't feel crushes towards everyone, so is very stressed. Using the grapevine of middle school to communicate, Eren's friends let Alex know of her interest, and the two are soon eating lunch together and hanging out in the woods, where Alex likes to run. Since Eren had a very odd experience in the woods with a bird who talked to her and told her that she was to be the birds' champions against the Frostfangs, Eren is glad that Alex believes her and is willing to help. He is also given a bird's feather so that he can talk to the birds the way Eren can. The big problem is that the Frostfangs prey on people by making them insecure and nervous about everything, and Eren, Alex, Eren's mother, and everyone else is extremely insecure to begin with! Eren's mother starts dating a jerk from work because she feels that raising Eren alone isn't a great idea, and she's not likely to get any better offers. Alex agrees to date Eren because he has a crush on another boy and doesn't want anyone to know. His sister, who identifies as asexual and gives the two a talk about consent before allowing them to hang out in the woods together, is supportive, as is Eren, but he is still insecure. Eren starts to realize that she might be asexual as well, and doesn't know how she can possibly explain this to Jessie and Kayla, since they are so invested in the idea of dating. This is perfect ground for the Frostfangs to infiltrate. Will Eren and Alex be able to overcome their insecurities, classmates' opinions, and relationship problems in order to work with the birds to save their school and the world from the Frostfangs?
Strengths: The Oregon setting is great, and Wild Rose Middle School is perhaps the best middle school name EVER. Eren and Alex are thrown together in a realistic way, and I liked that they were able to listen to the bird's suggestion that they be honest with each other, and are able to become friends. The emphasis on "dating" in middle school is drawn in a true to life way, and Eren's apprehension about this will speak to many readers. The fantasy world is well drawn, with the birds being helpful guides and the Frostfangs being terrifying adversaries. Eren's mother's role in this book was quite intriguing. This is a solid fantasy adventure with timely allergorical themes written in a lyrical, heart print fashion.  
Weaknesses: Talking animals are never my personal favorite, so maybe it's just me, but the birds' names seemed a tiny bit twee for middle school. This is definitely more of a middle school book because of the nature of the social situations-- elementary school students don't have dances and are more concerned about hanging out on the playground than dating. They are also a tiny bit less interested in kissing, and that thought is very prominent in Jessie and Kayla's minds. This would be fine for elementary school students who are interested in those topics, but some won't be quite at that developmental stage. Not a weakness so much as a placement suggestion.
What I really think: This is a great choice for readers who like their fantasy with a side of current sociopolitical commentary, like Keller's When You Trap a Tiger, Lorentz's Wayward Creatures, Soontornvat's A Wish in the Dark or The Last Mapmaker, Lowe's Aviva vs the Dybbuk, Higuera's The Last Cuentista, or this author's A Game of Fox and Squirrels

Culley, Betsy. The Natural Genius of Ants
May 10th 2022 by Crown Books for Young Readers/Random
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Harvard's father is a doctor whose mistake has led to the death of an infant. Unable to deal with the guilt, he has decided to take Harvard and his five year old brother Roger back to his hometown, where he rents a house from a friend who is struggling with debt after the death of his wife to cancer. The friend's daughter, Nevaeh, befriends Harvard. The father wants Harvard to have a project, so sends for an ants for a farm via mail order. All of the ants arrive dead, but Harvard gets ants from the outside and places them in the farm that he and his father build, only to find that they have a queen ant as well. Roger misses his mother, who works in a lab studying parasites and can't get away, and they try to get play dates for him, but he often just follows Harvard around. Harvard is worried about his father, especially after he realizes that his father is trying to write letters to the mother of the baby who died. Harvard finds the mother's address and sends her a letter saying that his father feels sorry, but doesn't know how to apologize properly, even though his mother has told him that it is a complicated legal issue. There is a women in town who feels a similar guilt, since she forgot her son in the car and he perished, and Harvard approaches her and asks if she could talk to his father about how to deal with a mistake like this. Eventually, Harvard's mother comes to visit and takes Roger back with her, and Harvard and his father try to help Nevaeh, who has run out of asthma medication. When a storm downs many trees on the property, this help is especially appreciated. Will Harvard's father be able to heal and move on from his mistake?
Strengths: The idea of a summer away from home is always appealing, especially when it is in the country and in a location where a parent was raised. Harvard takes good care of his brother, even when he is annoying, and looks out for his father as well. He's a great character, and his friendship with Nevaeh is well developed. I especially liked the inclusion of her asthma. Harvard knows a bit about the condition because his mother also has it. The ant farm is something I haven't seen much in middle grade literature, and this gets bonus points for never having the farm destroyed and ants everywhere, which seems almost necessary in a middle grade book! This was a quick and interesting read. 
Weaknesses: I found it hard to believe that Harvard didn't get in big trouble for writing to the mother of the baby, and that he was kept in the dark about an issue that clearly made it difficult for his father to function while he had sole care of Harvard and his brother. 
What I really think: Harvard is ten, and this reads very young. It would be a good purchase for an elementary library where ant farms are popular, as long as young readers can deal with the two infant deaths, which are not described in much detail but definitely play a large role in the story. 

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