Sunday, June 30, 2024

Breaking Into Sunlight

Cochrane, John. Breaking Into Sunlight
June 18, 2024 by Algonquin Young Readers
ARC provided by the publisher at NCTE

Reese's father Sam has been struggling with opiod addiction ever since being injured on his job as an electrician. His mother Amanda works at a Kwik Stop, and lately his father has been better. The three have gone roller skating and on other outings, and it's starting to feel like life is looking up. However, Reese comes home one day to find his father passed out in the hallway, barely breathing. He calls 911 and his mother, and his father makes it to the hospital in time, but almost dies. When he is released, Amanda demands that Sam go into rehab, and when he won't, she tells him that she and Reese are moving out. She's met a woman at church, Mrs. Smith, who has a trailer on her farm, and she and Reese move there. Mrs. Smith and her husband are caring for their grandchildren, Meg and Charlie, after their parents were both killed in an auto accident. Charlie is a child with Down syndrome who loves cats, and Meg, while she wants to be supportive of Reese, is struggling with her own issues. It's summer, so there's plenty to do around the farm, but Reese just wants to go back to his father and the family's apartment. He sends his father links to different rehab facilities, and things are looking better. After not quite two weeks, Amanda is thinking about returning, but Mrs. Smith cautions her to give it more time. Sam starts big preparations for Reece's thirteenth birthday, and things seem to be looking up. Will things end well, or will Reese have more to contend with?
Strengths: I don't want to spoil the ending, but opiod addiction is not a simple matter, so there are some more challenges! This was a painfully realistic look at how opioid addiction effects families, and especially children. Reese's emotions are realistic, and he wants to believe in his father. I loved that the mother was doing well at her job despite the struggles she faced in her personal life. Mrs. and Mr. Smith were great characters who had their own struggles but were still willing to help out.
Weaknesses: This was a little on the long side for middle grade. There were a lot of details that didn't forward the plot that could have been removed or shortened, like the dinner at the Indian restaurant or some of the interactions with the cats.
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who want to explore what it is like to live with a parent who is struggling with addiction and found books like Dee's Violets are Blue or Bowling's Across the Desert interesting.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Cartoon Saturday--Freshman Year

Mai, Sarah. Freshman Year
February 13, 2024 by Christy Ottaviano Books
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

In this fictionalized graphic novel memoir, Sarah Mai looks back at the summer of her senior year, when she is preparing to go to college, and captures all of the bittersweet excitement and angst of this liminal time. Her friends all have different plans, ranging from working at a new coffee shop to heading off to other colleges. She plans on breaking up with her boyfriend, Ben, but the two decide to try to have a long distance relationship. Her parents are full of a thousand tips for her success at school, and overly involved, as most parents seem to be. Her roommate is understanding and helpful (she picks up a mini fridge and gives Sarah time alone to settle in), and there are plenty of things to do. Classes are sometimes a challenge, and the college bureaucracy can be daunting (who hasn't missed a deadline to register for classes?). Going back home for Thanksgiving and winter breaks is strange, and reconnecting with old friends is sometimes rocky. Winter is an especial challenge, and Sarah struggles with her mental health, something which sometimes manifests itself in poor hair styling choices. At the end of the year, she's glad to have made it through, and feels a little more settled in her life choices.

There is SO MUCH information about college in this book, and I'm sure that high school students will be riveted. Much of it is very specific to Mai's experience; choosing a major, particular friends, distinct classes. Still, much of it is a window into what many older teens will go through. Decorating a dorm room, navigating time without parental supervision, and feeling homesick are all part of just about every college experience. Mai covers everything in detail; the pages are crammed with pictures and text, and there's everything from her dog being diagnosed with a tumor to care packages to almost unintelligble French tests.

The black and white color pallette is a departure from Mai's colorful illustrations in Langeland's middle grade The Cool Code and The Cool Code 2.0 The Switch Glitch, although I wouldn't have minded the pastels on the cover throughout, though, as they seem very on trend. The darker colors seem appropriate for the turbulent, angsty feel of freshman year. Having recently read my own college journals, I can attest that even though college seems like an exciting adventure, there are a lot of complicated, negative emotions when living through those changing times.

While this would be fairly appropriate for middle school audiences, with just passing references to drinking or relationships, and circumspect drawings. Still, twelve year olds might not be interested in the amount of text, or in the more mature emotional workings. There were several situations that could have benefitted from more explanation; Sarah's mother seems to have some health situation that is unexplained, and readers unfamiliar with college classes could perhaps have used some more description of what Sarah was taking, when the classes met, etc.

I have not read many books about going off to college, except for Pratt's Giant Days and my favorite, Stanton's Waking in Time. It's a topic that I would love to see explored more, and Mai's experiences will be a revelation to high school students looking forward to their own college career.

I showed this to several middle school students who all deemed that this was "too many words", so I will definitely be sending this off to the high school. 

Friday, June 28, 2024

Guy Friday- Faker

Korman, Gordon. Faker
July 2, 2024 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Trey and his sister Arianna have had a nomadic life, changing schools and moving to new places frequently, with "vacations" in exotic locales in between, because their father, Junior, is a con artist. They change names frequently, but always included the generational markers so they can be called the same thing. Arianna's name gets different spellings. Their mother left long ago, unable to deal with this lifestyle. The father settles in to a place with wealthy marks, like the Spealman School where Trey has befriended Rudy. He comes up with a scheme, like selling shares in a purebred show dog, gathers the money, and absconds. There's even a family safe word, "Houdini", for when the extractions have to take place. The latest one involved pulling Trey out in the middle of a lacrosse game after the parents at the school all started to realize they had bought shares in the same dog. The next stop is Boxelder, Tennessee, where the father has found a furnished house in a wealthy area called "The Point". Trey and Arianna's contribution to the con is to befriend wealthy children and introduce Junior to their parents. Arianna, who is younger, wants to play a larger role, and is proud to bring home Micah, whose parents are art dealers. Junior takes a while to figure out a scheme, and Trey settles in to the school, making friends with Logan and well as Kaylee Novak, whose father is also one of his teachers. Mr. Novak is starting a unit on ethics, which is uncomfortable for Trey, and Kaylee is determined to save the local Albion Pond, which has become derelict and filled with mosquitos, while the area around The Point is much nicer. Junior allows Trey to do this as long as he doesn't get him picture in the paper. Junior's plan turns out to be a new, flashy Electic Vehicle called "El Capitan". He has a guy put a new body on a Tesla, and drives the car around town. The parents are enthralled. Junior claims to be a lower echelon worker, but is able to take "investment money". This starts to add up to million of dollars, but Trey has his doubts. Not only does he want to stay with his new friends in Boxelder, but he starts to question his father's assertion that he only takes money from those who can afford it when Mr. Novak wants to invest Kaylee's college fund. When the news breaks that the new El Capitan factory will be built on the site of Albion Pond, things get even more complicated for Trey. How can he convince his father to give up his grifter lifestyle and embrace a more honest way of living?
Strengths: There was something weirdly enthralling about Trey's posh but corrupt lifestyle, but there was also the combined philosophic outlook of both the ethics of what the family was doing and the environmental and class division problems in Boxelder. This covers friendship, sibling rivalry, hype over new technology, and activism for children. It was funny, but also had a couple of fantastic plot twists that I do not want to spoil, since every fan of middle grade literature will want to go out and grab a copy of this right away. Personally, I was glad to see Korman return to the single perspective, first person voice; if I struggle with multiple narrators, I know many of my emerging readers will as well. The ending was a bit pat, but somehow the ending that I really wanted to have for both Trey and his community. Fantastic book.
Weaknesses: I'm taking a quarter of a star off for the deus ex machina ending, even though it does keep the book at a reasonable 224 pages.
What I really think: I'm a big Korman fan, but I have to say that this is one of my favorites, right up there with Born to Rock, Ungifted, and Slacker. The only question now is whether to buy two or three copies!

Ms. Yingling

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Dinner at the Brake Fast

Lute, Renee Beauregard. Dinner at the Brake Fast
June 25, 2024 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Tacoma's family runs a truck stop in North Bend, Washington, that serves all day breakfast, and she has to help out frequently, especially when her father has days where he is struggling with his depression. Even though this isn't always her favorite thing to do, she loves cooking, enjoys the customers, and looks forward to the day when she can use her own cooking skills to go on the road with a food truck. On this particular day, she is supposed to cook dinnerr for a change, and her dad was supposed to go with her grocery shopping. Instead, he can barely get out of bed. When a tour bus barrels into their parking lot in distress, the day gets even more complicated. Tacoma meets the son of the driver, Denver, and the Nick Jersey Hudson Canyon Band. Denver's mother drove a tour  bus for John Denver, and coincidentally, Tacoma's father once played in a concert with Bruce Springsteen. This is a story he tells frequently, so he was devastated when the picture that was taken of the event and which had hung on the walls of the diner for years was stolen. Frequent oily trucker customer, Crocodile Kyle, who always causes problems whenever he comes in, whispers to Tacoma that he has the picture hanging by his bed. When it turns out that Denver is going to be stuck at the diner for the day, Tacoma inveigles him into helping her get the picture back. She also involves Kyle's nephew, Hudgie, in the plan, and soon the three involved in a complicated plot that involves an accidental road trip, an aggressive rooster named Tick Tick, an oddities shop, a corn maze, and even a meat vending machine. With the help of Hugh, the rooster's owner, and Denise, a trucker for whom Tacoma always has packets of raw sugar, will a Tacoma be able to get the picture back and return home in time to make dinner?
Strengths: Tacoma is a resilient character who knows what she wants and will let nothing stand in her way. She's a huge fan of cooking, and has quite a collection of regional cookbooks, although we only see her cook right at the end of the book. She is vivacious enough to drag not only visiting Denver into her plan, but to blackmail her nemesis, Hudgie, into helping her out. While some of the kids' hijinks are a little unlikely, they are all realistic. There's even some slightly scary moments, like when they get locked in the oddities shop and stuck in Kyle's truck. It was particularly nice that Kyle got his comeuppance for at least some of his horrible behaviors. The father's depression is dealt with factually, and the family is supportive and has coping mechanims to help. Tacoma and Denver have a mutually supportive friendship, and Tacoma gets her wish to finally make DINNER after years of having to help with breakfast food. 
Weaknesses: I was ready to just hang out at the diner for the entire day, but even with the band there, that would have gotten a little boring. This kept taking turns that I didn't quite expect, which isn't a bad thing, but did take me by surprise. Also, the math barely works for Denver's mother to have driven John Denver's tour bus. The last tour before his death was 1997, and since Denver would have been born in 2012, the mother would have had to be VERY young when she drove the bus. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed the trucking component of Hawes' Big Rig or want to hang out at a local diner (like Bauer's Hope Was Here), but really is more of a quirky adventure reminiscent of Greenland's Scouts with a sprinkling of mental health issues akin to Hiranandani's The Whole Story of Half a Girl. Fans of this author's The Exceptional Maggie Chowder will be glad to see this new book, which has a fantastic title. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Roswell Johnson Saves the World

Colfer, Chris. Roswell Johnson Saves the World
June 4, 2024 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

**Spoilers in Strengths** 

Roswell Johnson is a dedicated young scientist who pursues information about extraterrestrials. Sadly, his school science fair doesn't appreciate this, giving the award to a baking soda volcano instead of his incisive expose. Roswell lives with his grandparents on their free range chicken farm in Oklahome, and is one of the few Black students at his school, where he has faced some discrimination. His mother died when he was young, and his father was in the military and was killed in Afghanistan. When Roswell is out looking for a chicken, he sees a space ship, and is taken up into it with a tractor beam! The aliens, Nerp (whom Roswell can understand) and Bleep (who is younger and communicates in robotic beeping), study the chicken and return it to Earth, but don't seem to realize that Roswell has also come aboard. He ends up blasting into space with them, and marveling that his dreams have finally come true. He finds out that the aliens are Grays from Grayton and are part of the Milky Way Galactic Alliance that is trying to save Earth from destroying itself. Sadly, their ship is attacked by Reptoids lead by General Xelic, and Roswell and his new acquaintances find themselves in captivity with a variety of other beings, including Cassiopeia Furbottom, a Furgarian, Rob, a Cyborg, and Mank. Stella Stargazer comes to their rescue, but Roswell soon finds out that the Reptoids are in cahoots with Eli Rump, the richest man on Earth who has convinced the US government to implement his ERASE system to protect the planet from asteroids. Rump has gotten his vast wealth from a variety of enterprises, including the Rump Dump luxury toilet, a football team, movies, and a Rump World theme park. They have agreed to put him in complete charge, but Rump has evil motives in mind. Will Roswell and all of the well meaning extraterrestrial beings he meets in his travels be able to save the world from the combined evil of the Reptoids and Rump?
Strengths: Colfer's 2012 Land of Stories books had quite a following for a while; a student even donated one of the books in the series after convincing his parents to buy it for him! There is something silly and pell mell about his narrative style that is appealing to middle grade readers. Roswell has a lot of reasons for being interested in extraterrestrial life; after all, his late father had a tale about seeing a UFO, and named him after the Roswell incident. (For more reliable information on that, I highly recommend Fleming's Crash from Outer Space. There are lots and lots of amusing and quirky space beings that Roswell meets, and he not only gets to save the day, but **SPOILER** (highlight to see) is reunited with his father, who isn't dead, but is being held on a secret lunar base.
Weaknesses: I am not sure where the children't literature community is right now on the topic of white authors writing Black characters, but since Roswell does describe some issues that he has faced because he is Black, I was a bit uncomfortable with this. Colfer's writing tends towards an overuse of tropes and won't win any awards for beauty or creativity, but is serviceable.
What I really think: There are a lot of space adventure books out there like Mbalia and Makonnen's The Last Gate of the Emperor, Nick Brooks' Nothing Interesting Ever Happens to Ethan Fairmont and even Blackwood's Race to Fire Mountain for younger readers that I liked a little better than this one, but if Colfer's work has a large following in your library, this will be a popular title.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Fantasy Tuesday

Fifteen years ago, I circulated a lot of fantasy. This school year, even Harry Potter didn't circulate. I invested heavily in the multicultural fantasies of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, and since so many fantasy books have very lengthy series, I'm not in the position to buy too much more fantasy until my students start reading it again. Here are some books that would do well in libraries with a strong contingent of fantasy fans. 

Maunakea, Malia. Lei and the Invisible Island (#2)
June 4, 2024 by Penguin Workshop
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After her adventures in Lei and the Fire Goddess, Lei is back. Her guardian Kaipo is struggling since Pele and her evil hawk Io have taken Lia's pendant, and Lei consults Kaukahi to try to borrow hers. She still has a lot of support from her Tutu, but with only two weeks of her vacation left, it's imperative that she get her pendant back so that Kaipo doesn't remain a human. I was suprised to see a sequel, but it has all of the action, adventures, and details of Hawaiian life of the first. 

Nolte, Katherin. The Wonderful Wishes of B. 
June 4, 2024 by Random House Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

This was intriguing but a little young, since Beatrice is ten. I'm all for hardening one's heart to deal with a death, but the doll and the eight cats put this into the realm of elementary fantasy. Also, reading about grief is just not all that appealing to middle grade students, who oddly never ask for this type of books even thought there are dozens and dozens of them. 

From the publisher:
All that stands between ten-year-old Beatrice and an amazing life are five wishes…and she’s got a plan to make them all come true! A magical and heartfelt adventure about grief, hope, and the power of human connection.

Beatrice Corwell has a crooked haircut, eight well-trained cats, and a she’s turning herself into a Tin Man. Once her heart is made of metal, she’ll no longer miss her beloved dead grandma, her absent dad, or her recently moved-away best friend.

While Beatrice awaits her transformation, she keeps vigil with a special doll and a handful of wishes she’s determined to make come true. With her encyclopedic knowledge, there must be a way to grant her heart’s deepest desires.

When an unusual boy named Caleb moves to town and mentions his granny’s interest in magic, Beatrice decides to enlist their help. She quickly learns, however, that spells don’t always go as planned, and witches can’t be trusted.

With the arrival of an unexpected visitor and a series of otherworldly messages, Beatrice’s plans begin to falter. Will her heart turn into metal? Will any of her wishes come true?

Graudin, Ryan. The Girl Who Kept the Castle
June 18, 2024 by Quill Tree
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Graudin usually writes YA, so maybe isn't aware that magic is often illegal in #MGLit books, and it's only the tweens who can save the world. This is well done if you have readers who want this kind of tale, but they are a hard sell at my school. 

From the publishers: 
Wizard West was dead for nearly an entire day before he noticed. And it is up to Faye, the daughter of West’s groundskeeper, to inform the wizard that he is a ghost who has lost all of his magical powers. (But not before the wizard tries transforming her into a cat!) To make matters worse, the enchanted castle of Celurdur—the only home that Faye has ever known—will fall apart at the next full moon if its foundation spells can’t be renewed.

After (sort of) accepting his demise, West decides to host a competition to choose his successor. Faye finds herself fighting to keep the tournament running smoothly behind the scenes: putting out kitchen fires, feeding the compost dragon, and making sure competitors stay away from the cockatrice pen.

But killer roosters soon become the least of her worries. A servant of the evil Shadow Queen has sabotaged the contest—set on destroying not just Celurdur but the entire kingdom of Solum. It is up to Faye to stop him, but she’ll need more than a mop. Will a maid’s magic be enough to save everything she loves from utter destruction?

Monday, June 24, 2024

MMGM- Wander Lost and How to Be a Vet

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 
Martin, Laura. Wander Lost
June 25, 2024 by HarperCollins
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Nash Benson and his twin brother Rhett have never been allowed to play board games by their mother, Natalie, although Nash tries to get them from the gaming club at school. There was a brief time when the two were allowed to play video games, but Rhett got obsessed with them, and their system was taken away. When their principal, Mr. Jeffers, tells them that their mother has been in an accident and their grandfather will be picking them up, they are worried and confused. They've never met their grandfather, Ace, who shows up and takes them to his farm in Indiana with their guinea pig, Geronimo. The cabin is run down and packed with vintage board games, and the boys soon learn the strange truth; their family are Bounders, part Wanderers who have the ability to travel into board games, and their mother has been abducted by Ogden. He's a game character who has a grudge against Ace, who destroyed Ogden's board game and has caused him grief. One of the things that happens when Bounders go into games is that two characters from the game must come into the real world; this could be evil fauna, or someone like Flanny, from a Wild West game. Ace tends to take his dog Chief into games for assistance. Ace teaches the boys some of the rules after they have a somewhat less than great turn at playing "Training Wheels". They shouldn't talk to characters in the game, they should never give the characters the game manual. Wanderers are game characters who have managed to win their game and have the ability to go into other games. A Wander Lost, such as Ogden, is created if a person from the real world is killed in the game, and the game character is able to come out and replace that person. There is a sad family history that allowed this to happen with the Bensons. Ace thinks that Ogden is holding Natalie prisoner in a game, and wants the boys' help in finding her. Once they have some training in Bounding, Ace disappears, and one of the games, Lost Lore, is gone. Snow White, a character from that game, is in the cabin. The boys get help from Cress, who is another Wanderer with a tie to the Bensons, but she wants payment from them in the form of a valuable artifact from a game. She shows them how to use the game Tunnels to travel to other games, and tells them that if Ogden had destroyed the last Lost Lore game, they wouldn't be able to travel to it through the Tunnels game. The boys find out that Ogden has an evil plan involving a company he has formed, Reboot, that is turning vintage board games into video games. They think their mother is such in Pirate's Wrath, the game from which Cress came. Ogden is having a game launch an hour from the cabin, so they teach Snow White to drive and head there. Will Rhett and Nash be able to take their new skills at Bounding and save not only their mother and grandfather, but foil Ogden's plans to unleash Pirate's Wrath on the world?
Strengths: Children who like board games or video games will be enthralled with the idea of Bounding and Wandering, and spend a lot of time thinking about which game they would like to travel into, although Ace does tell us that vintage board games are more imaginative than newer ones. This was a whirlwind of activity, and lots and lots of things HAPPEN, so there is no lack of excitement. Like many board games, there were quite a number of rules, as well as details about the games. There have been several books about characters getting sucked into video games, but other than Jumanji, I can't think of any involving board games. This was all well planned; I can't imagine the wall of sticky notes that Martin must have had to make all of the threads weave together properly. Ogden's motivation was interesting, and I don't want to spoil that. Martin does such a great job of coming up with unusual plots; I adore her Hoax for Hire, and this is another great story for middle grade readers.
Weaknesses: I wanted to know more about Sam, and wouldn't have minded a bit more back story about how the Bensons became Bounders. How long has Chief been with Ace? There wasn't a lot of time for these details, because the boys were busy saving their mother and grandfather. Also, I expected Geronimo to figure into the story a bit more, but I can see the challenge of including a guinea pig character.
What I really think: Since I not only often have fantasy amnesia but also really, really don't like to play board games, this one was a bit of a struggle for me personally. My students, however, LOVE games. This will be perfect for readers who enjoyed titles like Schrieber's Game Over, Pete Watson, Mancusi's Dragon Ops, and Khoury's The Ruby Code. I will definitely purchase a copy. 

Martin has a nice note about how she was influenced by the works of Roald Dahl. I'm not sure how much this will mean to young readers, but teachers and librarians will appreciate it. Fifteen years ago, there was some interest in Matilda, but even with a new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, no one has checked out the books in years. One of our elementary schools had a teacher who wanted to borrow copies of The BFG for a class study, and I deaccessioned it and sent it on its way because no one had checked it out in ten years. He's got an odd, British style that has gone out of fashion, and The Witches was rather problematic. Is Dahl still popular at your school?

French, Jess and Linero, Sol (illus.) How to Be a Vet and Other Animal Jobs
July 2, 2021 by Allen & Unwin
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

There is apparently a shortage of veterinarians in many parts of the US, and as a lover of dogs, I was glad to see this book, which could be used to encourage middle grade readers to pursue the profession! Starting with what a vet is, and the sorts of tools they might need to do their job, this book continues on and describes in more detail the sorts of things vets can expect to do. There is information on how to become a vet, on the different types of vets, and brief discussions about other animal related jobs that are available. In addition to jobs like small and large domestic animal doctors, positions like exotic animal vets, support service providers like groomers, and animal science researchers are mentioned. 

There is a very interesting history of veterinary medicine; I didn't know that small animal veterinary practices didn't become commonplace until the 1900s, or that Louis J. Camuti was the first vet to specialize in cats! It makes sense that, fifty years ago, most vets were men, but also isn't surprising that about half are now women! 

All of the specialized terms are explained nicely, with bold face type drawing attention to words that young readers may not have met. The illustrations do a good job of showing the different types of tools, animals, and working venues that vets might come across. I was a little surprised that there wasn't an index, but since the book is fairly short, it's easy to flip through to find infrmation. 

The pictures are done in a pleasant, simple style, and the people shown represent a variety of cultural backgrounds and ability types. The colors are bright and engaging, and the animal representations are realistic.

Whether children want to be a small animal vet, snake milker, or zoo designer, this book has plenty of information about how to train for the job and what the work would entail. This is a great book for middle grade readers, and has more information than shorter books like I Want to Be a Veterinarian by  Driscoll and Echeverri, I Can Be a Farm Vet (Barbie) by Jordan and Riley, or Martin's Vet Academy. 

Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Spindle of Fate

Lim, Aimee. The Spindle of Fate
May 1, 2024 by Feiwel & Friends
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Evie Mei Huang's mother ran a tailor shop, but recently disappeared and has been declared dead. Her grandmother has been helping out, but needs to return to her regular job at a beauty salon, so her father is trying his best to hold both the household and the business together. Evie is watching out for her younger sister Mona, and her best friend Thida is being quietly supportive. When cleaning the shop, Evie is approaching by a talking money, who is really a demon and a supernatural private detective. Or so he says. He says that Evie's mother is still alive, but being held in Dìyù, the Chinese underworld. There is even a note from her mother which uses the same phrase that her mother always uses on her lunch notes. This is not the news that Evie needs on her twelfth birthday, and she goes to talk to her Aunt Kathy only to find her in the middle of a meeting of the Secret Society of Weavers, having a memorial service for Evie's mother. Aunt Kathy is pregnant, so she can't go to the underworld to find her sister. The society members all have their own reasons for not going, so Evie is the only choice. She does have backup from Kevin, who volunteers in exchange for finding out who his soulmate will be. The two travel into the underworld by a portal painting and start their quest. The Spindle of Fate can't be used to change the user's own destiny, but Evie has some magical help; her mother made her a talisman when she was born, and she hopes to use a Spool to find her mother. There are plenty of adventures, like swimming across a pool of blood, and while Evie finds out some dire secrets about her family, the outlook is grim for retrieving her mother. How will Evie and her family move on?
Strengths: Evie is a self assured character who is willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of her family, even on her birthday. She isn't happy about it, but willing to do anything to get her mother back. She works well with Kevin, and listens to all of the elders, even when she doesn't like what they suggest. The quests have some new challenges; swimming across a pool of blood was a new one to me, since I don't know that I've read any other books with depictions of Dìyù. Uncle Monk was an intriguing demon, and I wish we had seen more of him. While the ending isn't necessarily happy, everything is wrapped up in a way that makes sense.
Weaknesses: This gets really dark near the end, with a murder and a few rather heart wrenching details, so I don't know that I would hand this to younger elementary students. Also, I am never a fan of using stereotypes, and at one point Evie opines that they should "pull a Karen".
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like portal fantasies and magical quests like Villanueva's Lulu Sinagtala and the City of Noble Warriors, Cacao's The Secret of the Ravens, or Hendrix's Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Jupiter Nettle and the Seven Schools of Magic

Mandanna, Sangu and Ballesteros, Pablo (illus.) 
Jupiter Nettle and the Seven Schools of Magic
June 11, 2024 by Viking Books for Young Readers
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this colorful graphic novel, Jupiter desperately wants to attend the Seven Schools of Magic, preferably as a spellcasting student, but can't manage to get in. She despairs until an opportunity is presented to her to attend the school of Earth magic by Professor Grim. He hasn't had any students for years, because no one regards his area as "real magic". Jupiter packs up and heads to school with her talking cat Lilith, but soon experiences negativity about her field from other students. It doesn't help that Prof. Grim doesn't give her much direction, the work is hard and dirty, and she is derided by Davey and other students, who claim that she is only there supporting the magic that others do by picking up unicorn poop and growing plants for spells. She does make a friend in Pipette after helping her get items for her potions, and helps raise a small dragon, Sizzle. When the teasing escalates, Jupiter gives up and goes home, and neither Lilith not her parents are able to convince her to return. When she gets a communication that the White Wizard has returned and plans to take over the school and cause harm, she goes back to school on a dragon. The ghost population of the school tells her what is going on, and that her nemesis Davey was the one who removed the wards from the school, letting evil in. The students and professors have all been captured and are being held in the forest by the White Wizard's army of animated puppets. Luckily, Pipette missed breakfast, and is willing to help her friend. Will Jupiter's Earth magic be strong enough to save the day?
Strengths: The world needs people to pick up unicorn poop. This is my main take away, and may well become my mantra. Just because a job isn't glamorous doesn't mean it has no value. Jupiter is an engaging character who will appeal to children who feel that they are not a good fit for their own world. She is good at what she does; she works with an abused unicorn, Dagger, so that he becomes a productive and helpful member of the school, she raises Sizzle well, and she is a tireless worker who provides real value to her school. We have tantalizing glimpses of the other magic in the Seven Schools, and further adventures could cover those more fully. I imagine that everyone will want to work with Jupiter now! Lilith was a fun, snarky familiar; I would imagine most of my students would love to have their cats talk to them, as well as be able to raise their own dragon, like in Durst's Spark. This will be a very popular graphic novel with fantasy fans in elementary and middle schools.
Weaknesses: Young readers will not have read as many fantasy books as I have, so won't mind yet another story where a misfit student realizes the value of her own magic after being bullied by her peers and saves the world from devastation, but I'd like to see something different for a change. Ooh. The misfit student could turn evil and take over the school and bend everyone to her will. That would be new. (I'm a little vindictive, I guess!)
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like magical academy stories like Sanders' Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew, Elle's Park Row Magic Academy, or Okogwu's Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun. There are not as many graphic novels set in these schools so fans of Fernández's ¡¡Manu!! and Escabasse's Witches of Brooklyn will be especially pleased to see this one.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Guy Friday- Ratty

Selfors, Suzanne and Naidu, Lavanya (illus.). Ratty
June 18, 2024 by Viking Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In 1995, 12-year-old Ratty and his uncle Max Barclay return to Fairweather Island in order to try to reverse the curse that Ratty is under; shortly after his birth, he turned into a rat. His parents abandoned him, and he's been raised in secret by his loving uncle. Ratty tends to many injured creatures, but wants to return to being human. His uncle is reluctant to go back, and isn't wrong. The family house has been cared for by Jasper Gup, whose granddaughter, Edweena, is visiting while her parents, who are famous treasure hunters, are traveling. Edweena was bitten by a rat when she was young, and has made it her life's work to educate others about the dangers of rats, and to set traps all over the Barclay estate. Max, of course, has her remove these, and once she does, she is alarmed to see a variety of rats streaming to the house! They have come to see Ratty, whom they consider their king. Ratty, for his part, helps the rats with various ailments, and Max has to buy a LOT of cheese to feed them, making Edweena even more suspicious. We find that Peter Barclay, who worked on a ship and was thrown overboard, washing up on Fairweather Island in the late 1800s, logged the cedar trees to extinction, and his family all did various things that caused damage to the island. There is a curse that has affected the family for generations, but it usually causes their death, not a transformation like Ratty's. When Edweena finally meets Ratty, the two find a surprising link in their past, and she learns that rats are not as horrible as she thought. When she skips the school trip to the sinkhole where Peter Barclay was killed 100 years ago, to work on plans with Ratty, she is appalled to learn that her entire class, as well as Max and Jasper, have fallen into the sinkhole. Ratty has a solution to the problem, and when the people of the island find out his true identity, Ratty learns to make peace with the curse and who he is. 
Strengths: Selfors always writes a good animal story; Wedgie and Gizmo still makes me laugh. Ratty, of course, is not all humorous, and there is a lot to unpack, both for Edweena and for Ratty. Edweena has family issues of her own, with her great-great-great-grandmother inventing a very effective rat trap. Max is a fantastic uncle who is willing to do anything for Ratty, and the interaction with the community is very satisfying. Naidu's illustrations really make this book; they remind me a little of Joe and Beth Krush's illustrations in Norton's The Borrowers and just give a delightful sense of setting and characters. I wish more middle grade books would incorporate this level of illustration. 
Weaknesses: I wanted to know more about exactly how the curse turned Ratty into a rat, and expected something different at the end. I feel like I missed some greater message, somehow. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoy rodent themed fiction like Lieb's Ratscalibur , Fiedler's Mouseheart trilogy, or Moon's Delphine and the Silver Needle.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Lie Until It's True and Darkness and Demon Song

Weaver, Jessie. Lie Until It's True
May 7, 2024 by Melissa de la Cruz Studio
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this sequel to Live Your Best Lie (which I haven't read), Amanda Pruitt and her family are glad that her sister, Cora, has been found not guilty of the murder of a social media influencer, even though Amanda was the one who turned her in and who has a TikTok account under the name of UntilProven that has reported insider information about her sister's case without their parents' knowledge. Amanda is going to spend some time with her Aunt Amy at the Summit Hotel, where she hasn't been for three years. Why? A famous artist, Royden Das, was killed there, and her friend Vince's mother is in jail for the murder. His granddaughter, Lillia Das, is living nearby. Vince is trying to keep his family's art gallery afloat, and is glad to see Amanda, because he has a huge crush on her. Mallory, whose parents own the summit, is romantically involved with Cole, whose mom managed the facility. Cole thinks that Das' murder was committed by a ghost, and he has invited the Haunting or Homicide program to the hotel to investigate. To sweeten the deal, he has offered up Amanda and her online personality as part of the investigation. There's a lot of intrigue involving Das' romantic interest 50 years ago, who through herself off the hotel before they eloped and is said to haunt the hotel. The hotel is struggling financially, and Cole thinks that the program will help. Amanda doesn't want her identity known. When Cole is found murdered, and Amanda has blood on her clothing after suffering a seizure and not remembering how she got from one place to another, there is a lot of interest in this new case. How are the three violent deaths connected to each other, the hotel, and to Amanda? 
Strengths: My students ask frequently for murder mysteries, and since this involves not only an elderly artist's death but also a (not so nice) teen, this will have a lot of appeal. The cover is fantastic. The inclusion of social media will add to the appeal, and I really appreciated that there was no language or descriptions that would push this into the high school category. Amanda's seizure disorder is intriguing, and her fear that she is the one behind the two murders adds some interest. 
Weaknesses: This was somewhat hard to follow because of the shifts in viewpoint; sometimes there are flashbacks, some of the chapters are social media posts and comments, and there are also texts. This is a Young Adult Novel in length. 
What I really think: The hotel setting of this reminded me a bit of Stine's You May Now Kill the Bride. This would be a great choice for a high school library, and would be okay for a middle school one where Patterson's Confessions of a Murder Suspect is popular, but I'm afraid that my students would struggle with the flashbacks. I'm debating purchase. I really loved Barnes' The Inheritance Games, but it's been hard to get students to read it, mainly because of the length of each book, and the fact that it is also a long series. 

Fournet, M.R. Darkness and Demon Song (Marius Gray #2) 
June 18, 2024 by Feiwel & Friends

In this sequel to Brick Dust and Bones, In this sequel to Brick Dust and Bones, Marius has managed to bring his mother, Kelly, back from the dead. He continues to go to Madame Millet's school, where he has met the enigmatic Lynna, and also hunts monsters, selling them to Papa Harold. His flesh-eating mermaid friend, Rhiannon, still helps support him. When Marius stops by a local restaurant, the Old Coffee Pot, with his mother and Lynna, he manages to free some ghost hunters who are being possessed by spirits, but his mother becomes violently ill. Something is not quite right, and he tries to find out. He seeks the help of a retired demon hunter, Creecher, who sends him on a mission to find out how good he is, and then tells him that his mother is possessed by a demon. He consults Papa Harold, who says that if Marius can capture the Honey Island Swamp monster, he'll help with information so Marius can exorcise his mother. The monster is actually protecting owls on Honey Island, so Marius doesn't capture him. Now, he needs other help to rid his mother of the demon. With the help of Madame Millet, Mama Roux, and Creecher, will he be able to locate part of his mother's soul in Hell and reunite her with it? While this book could conclude Marius' story, there is a bit of demon song wafting through the air at the end that could lead to yet another tale.

Marius' relationship with Rhiannon has something of the feel of Tom's relationship with Alice in The Revenge of the Witch, which is not black and white, and therefore very interesting. How can you be friends with someone you are supposed to think is a monster? The New Orleans setting, with the super creepy paranormal creatures (children with solid black eyes infesting a movie theater!), is great, and the plot moves along very quickly. I KNEW that bringing Marius' mother back from the dead would have some negative ramifications, but I liked How Marius was determined to solve the problem, had a support network he could ask for help, and did everything in his power to put things right.

I wasn't quite sure where Marius and his mother were living. I think they were still in the graveyard, living in a mausoleum, which seemed odd. Of course, she wasn't really in any condition to hold a job and rent an apartment, so that makes some sense. The details in the first book of their living arrangements was interesting, so I would have liked to know more. I was also hoping that Marius' life would return to normal so that he was even more invested to work to keep his mother.

I enjoyed this one, and it's not often we see a middle grade horror SERIES. I'd love to see Fournet write some stand alones with the same setting, but with different monster hunters. Readers who enjoyed Baptiste's Jumbies series or Royce's  Conjure Island will be glad to be able to travel back to New Orleans.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

BLOG TOUR! Rachel Friedman Breaks the Rules

Kapit, Sarah and Kote, Genevieve (Illus.) Rachel Friedman Breaks the Rules
June 18, 2024 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Rachel is eight years old and doesn't like to follow the rules. Her father is doing his best to raise her and her older brother Aaron after the death of her mother when Rachel was very young, but struggles with the best way to handle Rachel's defiance and ADHD. Rachel does gymnastics, and idolizes teen sensation Holly Luna, so when her best friend Maya gets tickets to go see her, Rachel is jealous. After several different episodes involving not following the rules, like throwing challah at Aaron and making and throwing a paper airplane at shul, Rachel's father makes her a deal; if she can follow the rules for a week, she can go see Holly Luna. Rachel really tries, but when one of Aaron's friends leaves the door to the house open and her cat Cookie escapes, Rachel breaks the very important rule of not crossing the street alone so she can rescue her pet. She not only has to clean the litter box for the month, but the trip to see Holly Luna is off. To protest, Rachel decides to break as many rules as she can. She wears her pajamas to shul, eats a cookie there, and finishes off her display by doing a cartwheel in the aisle. Rabbi Ellen is very understanding, and tells Rachel that while questioning is an important part of Jewish faith, there are some important reasons why the rules exist. Rachel's father apologizes to her for not understanding her point of view and lets her go see her idol. This appears to be the first book in a planned series. 
Strengths: Rachel is an amusing character, somewhat along the lines of Junie B. Jones and her exuberantly defiant personality. Her hatred of rules will be shared by many young readers, who will applaud her attempts to push boundaries. Kote's illustrations are perfect, and add a lot of interest to the page. Rachel's Jewish culture plays a large role in the book, and I especially liked Rabbi Ellen's assertion that questioning is part of religious tradition. 
Weaknesses: Since I have to deal all day with children who think the rules don't apply to them, and that they can run in the hallway, I would have preferred it if Rachel had been more considerate of others. I wasn't quite sure why she was so averse to rule following, and I prefer a character like Nina Soni, who occasionally gets into trouble but learns from her experiences. 
What I really think: This is a good addition to culturally connected early reader series like Sheth's Nina Soni, Brown's Lola Levine, and Warner's Absolutely Alfie, and, Florence's  Jasmine Toguchi.

The Sequel, Rachel Friedman and Eight Not-Perfect Nights of Hanukkah is out September 3, 2024, and the third, Rachel Friedman Is Not the Queen, is out in February 2025!

Rachel Friedman Breaks the Rules Blog Tour Schedule

June 17








June 18



June 19




June 20



June 21



Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Countdown to Yesterday

Marr, Shirley. Countdown to Yesterday
June 18, 2024 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

James is 11, and things are tense in his house. His mother, who has never before made a cake for the school fundraiser, has decided to take on the most difficult one in the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake book for her first attempt. While her own mother, who had immigrated from China, didn't use this revered cookbook, she is determined to finally make James a cake. She makes James go to school early to get assigned that choice and everything. This is just one of the tell tale signs that something is wrong in his house. His mother and father seem at odds, so it's only slightly surprising when his mother says that she has found a new apartment. His father is staying in the house, with all of his computer equipment he uses for his job as well as his musical instruments. Around this time, James runs into Yan, who always has her nose in a vintage computer textbook, and the two commiserate about the difficulties with parents. They also hang out in the school library, in the room where the librarians stock pile old books and equipment, and come up with the idea of a time machine. Yan says she has created one, and even James' father claims that computers might make this possible. As things escalate with his mother's baking and her encounters with the mother of James' nemesis, who also wants to make the rocket cake, James becomes determined to travel to the past to revisit happy memories. When Yan and James make this happen, will James choose to remain in the past, or does revisiting it give him new insights?
Strengths: I'm a fan of time travel books, so enjoyed the combination of computers that James and Yan were able to cobble together in order to make time travel work. The idea of traveling through an Internet Archive "WayBack Machine", but to the actual place and time rather than a web site, was intriguing. I also enjoyed the birthday cake cookbook mentions, although I feel compelled to note that the US Baker's Coconut Cut-Up Cakes is very similar and predates this by a couple of decades. Yan and James work well together, and the depiction of the divorce and the new living arrangements will resonate with many young readers. 
Weaknesses: While I personally enjoyed all of the cake details, there should have been fewer of those and more details about time travel for the target demographic, especially readers in the US for whom this book won't have any emotional connections. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who enjoyed Edge's The Many Worlds of Albie Bright or Welford's Time Traveling with a Hamster

Ms. Yingling

Monday, June 17, 2024

MMGM- Stepping Off and Jane Addams: The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 
Sonnenblick, Jordan. Stepping Off.
June 4, 2024 by Scholastic Press
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

When Jesse is at his family's home in Tall Pines Landings, everything seems better. Unlike his life in Long Island, where he commutes into Manhattan for school, his life in Pennsylvania includes good friends, fun activities, and a feeling that "the real world isn't real". That's the slogan for the community, but also something that Jesse holds onto tightly when he is in New York. His long time best friends are Ava and Chloe, and since he is heading into his junior year in high school, he's trying to reconcile his feelings of friendship with the romantic attraction he feels... to both girls. On some days, he thinks that he wants to be involved with moody Ava, whose younger sister Annie he coaches in tennis, but on others, he prefers the sunny, carefree Chloe. Lately, though, his attention has been taken off of his friendships and his musical interests by his parents constant bickering. His mother, a high school teacher, and his father, a busy doctor, fight over everything, and have started to avoid being in the same place at the same time. Feeling that maybe his mother is hiding a new relationship, Jesse reaches out to his grandparents, who come to visit from Florida to assess the situation as well as spend time with Jesse and his sister Leah, who is in college. There's not much the grandparents can do, but his grandmother does leave him with a freezer full of matzo ball soup. When Ava's mother dies, her grief distracts the teens from relationship problems for a while, but also distances them from each other. Jesse and Chloe finally connect after a romantic evening on the lake, but when Jesse is called back to New York suddenly, he doesn't know where the relationship stands. He doesn't want to say anything to Ava when he can't talk to her in person, and this upsets his remote support network. He starts the school year, but everything seems off. He has a good friend, Carson, but things just aren't right. He tries to visit Chloe, but that doesn't go well, and it's hard to deal with his parents being separated, especially with Leah off at college. When March of 2020 rolls around, the Pandemic causes lots of changes. Jesse's father has to work at the hospital and retirement facilities, so doesn't want Jesse to be exposed to him. For a while, Jesse and his mother live in her apartment, but eventually decide to head out to Tall Pines Landings. Eventually, Chloe and Ava's families come as well, and Jesse has to come to terms with the fact that his world of refuge has suddenly become his "real world". He has to deal with remote schooling, family members getting ill, and Chloe and Ava needing answers. As the lockdown continues, will he find a way to figure out both of his lives?

Sonnenblick always does such a fantastic job of writing young adult books that also speak to middle grade sensibilities, and is one of the few authors writing realistic, sometimes humorous fiction for adolescent males. I think that adults forget how all encompassing the desire for romantic entanglements is in high school, but Sonnenblick has not. Jesse's attraction to both girls is real, compelling, and utterly confusing to him. Getting a whiff of Chloe's hair can almost make him faint. He doesn't want to hurt either girl, but likes them both equally. This will sound all too familiar to high school readers, and will be a tantalizing peek at the future for middle school ones. 

Jesse has other interests, of course. He works at the Tall Pines recreation center and is very sweet with Ava's sister Annie. He plays guitar, and composes songs for his friends, some more successful than others. He attends a very competitive math and science school, and the depiction of his grades falling when he is struggling with family issues is all too realistic. 

The family issues are something I would love to see come into play a lot more in realistic fiction. Young people spend a lot of time with their families, and when things are stressful, it can affect every aspect of their lives. It's good to see that Ava does take some solace in being with Jesse and Chloe after her mother's death, and also that Jesse and his sister are able to remain friendly when their parents are squabbling. Jesse's grandparents felt so utterly real to me, and their experience during the pandemic was painfully close to home. 

The best part of this book might just be the portrayal of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. I've read several books set during that time, but none of them seemed quite right. Perhaps it was too soon. When Jesse describes the days at school leading up to Friday, March 13 as having "a weird, day-before-Christmas-if-Christmas-were-a-nuclear-holocaust vibe in the air", that's exactly what it felt like to me. I didn't see anyone in person for months, and didn't hang out in stained sweatpants, but somehow Jesse's pandemic felt very much like my own. The fact that we were involved in his life for quite a while before the pandemic hit made the contrast all the more poignant. 

I've been a fan of Sonnenblick's ever since Notes from a Midnight Driver, which is about the same age as Jesse now, and never quite believe that the books are as good as they are. How can they be such a fantastic mix of "awkward multiplied by heartbreak" and still be so funny? I don't know, but I am glad to see this new title, and will hope for many, many more. 

Brill, Marlene Targ. Jane Addams: The Most Dangerous Woman in America
June 18, 2024 by Ohio University Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Born in 1860,  Jane Addams had a life that was financially comfortable and progressive, although also beset with physical hardships. Her father started a flour mill and used his financial and social position to help the welfare of others, and allowed Jane opportunities that many young women did not have at the time. However, Jane's mother died right after she was born, and Jane herself suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, which often left her in constant pain. Even though her father was a great believer in education, she was not allowed to go to Smith, but instead had to attend the strict Rockford Women's Seminary, where she fought to be the first woman to get a degree from the institution instead of just a diploma, in 1881. She was going to attend the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia, but her ill health prevented this. She spent time trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, traveling and helping with her family. Eventually, she and a college classmate, Ellen Gates Starr, founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Housed in a mansion in a formerly well-to-do area, Addams sought input from the nearby residents as to what services would help them. Services ranged from food, day care, and job placement to volunteer classes, language classes, and drama and art clubs. There was even a nurse who would provide basic medical treatment. Even early on, two thousand people a week came through the doors. Not content with limiting herself to the operation of Hull House, Addams also fought for child labor laws, sanitation improvements, and for equal opportunities for people of all bakgrounds. She was a mediator in the Pullman strike, and was the first vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1912. She wrote books and articles to raise awareness and as a way to earn money for her causes. She suffered from constant ill health, and suffered at various times from typhoid, tuberculosis, cancer, and even a heart attack! She continued to work for the public good, eventually succumbing to lung cancer in 1934. 
Strengths: This was a fantastic overview not only of Addams' life but of the social and historical context in which she lived. There are a good number of pictures to help younger readers understand what the world looked like in Addams' time; I especially loved the picture of her with her classmates! The information about her family and how they formed her personality was especially interesting, and the fact that there was a women's medical college in existence in 1881 was something I feel like I should research more! The concept of Hull House seems like it would be a good thing for people of wealth to put together today; the social work of the 1800 and early 1900s was really fascinating, and would help with so many problems today. Other than LeBron James' initiatives in Akron, I don't know of other similar philanthropic efforts, although there must be some. It's the grassroots nature of Addams' work that is so appealing. The fact that she fought through so many health issues and yet always took on more and more work is inspiring. I was to share her story with all of my students! 
Weaknesses: This is being released in paperback; given its value for research, I would love to have a hardcover copy of it. At least Ohio University Press usually uses a higher quality of paper than most paperbacks have. 
What I really think: This is a must purchase for all school and public libraries. It's a great biography of a woman who gave so much to society, and who deserves to be remembered. I am so glad that Brill subtitled this "The Most Dangerous Woman in America", acknowledging the power that Addams had. It's so much better than the book I read as a child; Wagoner's 1944 Jane Addams: Little Lame Girl