Monday, February 27, 2023

MMGM- A First Time for Everything and Not An Easy Win

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Santat, Dan. A First Time For Everything 
February 28, 2023 by First Second
E ARC provided by Netgalley

In 1989, young Dan is a Good Kid, being raised by his mom and dad as an only child. He helps around the house a lot, especially since his mother suffers from Lupus, and middle school is horrible, and he tries his best to fly under everyone's radar, which isn't easy when his teacher makes him get up in front of an assembly and read a poem, with disastrous results. His parents treat him to a three week tour of Europe with school. While this is exciting, it also puts him in close contact with people from school with whom he has a past. His mother thinks they are his friends, but flashbacks show us the real nature of their relationships. He does meet two boys, Braden and Darryl,  from another school, and has fun hanging out with them. The group see the sights in Paris and are given time to wander on their own, and Dan does some drawings, since his camera doesn't work well. He strikes up a relationship with Amy, who is from another school, and his friends goad him on to talking to her, and eventually kissing her cheek over fondue. Dan's had some rejections in the past, so is constantly surprised that Amy wants to hang out with him, too. The group spends a week in Salzburg with host families, and their adventures include going to a club, and Dan has some tense moments that involve being lost, stealing a bike, and almost not making it back to his host home. Three weeks is a short time, but for young teens on a class trip, it is enough to experience a microcosm of an entire life. Dan and Amy know that their relationship, as sweet as it is, will not hold up to long distances (especially in the age before cell phones, when writing letters was the only way to communicate!), but are glad that they've been able to connect at all. Dan returns home with a little more self awareness and confidence to face his high school years. There are notes at the end about Santat's REAL trip to Europe that include some photographs. 
Strengths: As adults, it's easy to forget that middle school students are doing so many things for the the first time. This makes life more exciting, but also more harrowing, and this lens focuses our memories in a very particular way. Do I remember much about making my 1,000th trip to the grocery store last Saturday? No, but I can remember the first time my mother sent me into the supermarket by myself to purchase a carton of eggs (which cost 79 cents) like it happened yesterday. Class trips are particularly exciting, and three weeks does seem like a long time at 12. Santat captures so many facets of this perfectly. The flashbacks to earlier times are especially brilliant. Dan's not just dealing with Amber and her meanness on a daily basis; he's constantly reliving their failed romantic past. This book also captures the hope that students this age have, but doesn't spare us the angst and self doubt, so when Amy pretends to fall asleep on Dan's shoulder on the bus, the reader can feel the tension as well as the enormous relief and joy when things go right. Even though many students won't get trips to Europe, even a rare field trip to a local art museum, zoo, or concert can create a shorter version of Santat's experience. Adults will love this because it will remind us of our past, and young readers will find the traveling to be aspirational. The artwork is fantastic as always. 
Weaknesses: Like Holm's Sunny Makes a Splash, MY life was never this good. Although I did get to spend my senior year of college in Greece, I didn't have anyone whose shoulder I could put my head on during bus trips. It's easy to forget how important this in when you're younger, so as sad as this made me, it was a timely reminder.  
What I really think: There are a growing number of graphic novel memoirs from middle grade authors, like Krosoczka's Hey, Kiddo, Russo's Why Is Everybody Yelling? Growing Up in My Immigrant Family Bermudez' Big Apple Diaries, Harper's Bad Sister, Page's Button Pusher, Sharp's Just Pretend, Soontornvat's The Tryout, Rodriguez's upcoming Doodles From the Boogie Down,  and my very favorite graphic novel, Tatulli's Short and Skinny. Do students even know that these are memoirs? Not entirely sure, but they will definitely pick it up and enjoy the vicarious traveling (and life) experience. 

Giles, Chrystal. Not an Easy Win
February 28th 2023 by Random House Books for Young Readers
ARC provided by Follett First Look

Lawrence lives with his mother, who works at Bob's Diner and his younger sister Nikko in their grandmother's house. The family left Charlotte to stay with Granny after some problems with Lawrence's father. He feels like he's had a target on his back ever since he started at the mostly white Andrew Jackson Middle School, and he's just been expelled for being involved in a fight that he didn't start. Instead, he'll be doing online schooling. Granny doesn't want him hanging around the house all day, so he approaches neighbor Mr. Dennis, and ends up working at the Carver Recreation Center during the day, setting up chairs, cleaning, and doing other chores after he finishes his schoolwork for the day. He's glad to be doing something; after all, Granny says that "a man who don't work don't eat"! There are some problems with the son of Junior, who runs the center. Deuce is angry, and tries to pick fighting with Lawrence. Lawrence knows that he can't be involved in another fight, and tries to understand why Deuce acts this way. A bright spot is Twyla, and Lawrence gets interested in chess after he finds out that she plays. He practices a lot and loses to Deuce, but picks it up quickly enough that he is approached about being the third person to attend a chess tournament in Charlotte. Deuce has struggled with his grades, so Junior has banned him from playing basketball, and suggests to Lawrence that the two of them can work on their chess moves together. At first, Deuce is reluctant and prickly, but Lawrence works hard to try to find a common ground, which ends up being music. They have other things in common, things that are hard to deal with and which neither boy wants to discuss. The tournament is an exciting opportunity, but when Deuce runs into problems with other competitors, will Lawrence be able to help? 
Strengths: There are not a lot of books where students have incarcerated parents, but it is more common than one might think. I liked that while his father's being "gone" affected Lawrence's life deeply, the book was not about his father being in jail, rather like Baptiste's The Swag if in the Socks, a huge favorite at my school. Lawrence does become more thoughtful in his actions, and learns not to react as much when people say things to him, which is a skill we could all use! His family is supportive, and I loved Granny's lessons about working and cooking. (Even though having meat sauce with spaghetti and hot dogs in the beans was pretty fancy, it's a good lesson in saving money. I'll have to pass on the canned salmon, though. The bones always freaked me out!) His crush on Twyla played out in a realistic way, and I liked that he was able to remain friends with her even after their conversation. There is a lot of chess detail that I didn't understand, since I have never played the game, but this will be a bit hit with readers who do play. Definitely purchasing this one!
Weaknesses: It's sad that the principal at Lawrence's school hasn't taken the time to understand what is going on in his student's life and to protect him from people who are bullying him. That said, students at my school would probably say that I put too much emphasis on "law and order", but I just want people to be safe. (I do try to be positive and constructive when telling students that they shouldn't pretend to hit each other, because it might escalate. This is a topic that weighs heavily on me.)
What I really think: Like this author's Take Back the Block, this is a good balance of personal problems, societal issues of racism, and family relationships. The inclusion of chess will appeal to readers who liked Ponti's Forbidden City (2022), Sorosiak's Always, Clementine (2002), Wishingrad's The Verdigris Pawn (2021), Adewume's My Name is Tani (2020), Gerber's Focused (2019), Klass' Grand Master (2014) Blackwood's Curiosity (2014), Myers' Checkmate (2011), Wallace's Perpetual Check (2009) and Neri's Chess Rumble (2007).


  1. I agree with you about the need for more books for kids with incarcerated parents. I have been a mentor to mothers incarcerated for mostly drug issues. I've visited them and they struggle with how to connect with their kids. I can't imagine how the children feel with sometimes lengthy separations. Have reviewed some PBs, but no MG. Understandable why Deus acts out. Need to read this novel as I have someone in mind I want to refer this book to. Also enjoyed the first book -- never got to study abroad and I really wanted to do that. Thanks for sharing!

  2. For some reason I didn't realize Santat's book was a graphic novel until I read this review. Don't know how I missed that. I am looking forward to reading it.

  3. Thanks for the reviews. I'm definitely most likely going to pick up Santat's book. It does seem like everyone but me (and I guess my siblings) seemed to have some sort of European vacation during their high school years.

  4. These both sounds interesting, but Not an Easy Win particularly so. I agree kids with incarcerated parents is an overlooked problem in kidlit. I'll looking for a copy. Thanks for the heads up.

  5. I have Santat's book on my list of books to read for this year ... And hope to get to it soon. The second one is sure to tug at heartstrings for me. My IMWAYR post is here