Jennifer Chan is Missing by Tae Keller (Middle School)

12-year old Mallory Moss is a worrier. She knows that people are really “just a collection of what other people think about us.” So although she thinks her own opinion matters, she is sure that what others think matters even more. And this becomes a problem when she meets Jennifer — the intriguing new girl who enthusiastically and loudly believes in aliens and is never going to fit in with the kids at school.

This is a coming of age story both about an outsider (based on beliefs, not color or ethnicity) and a girl who is intent on always fitting in, even in the face of unfairness, meanness, and outright bullying of others. Excellent writing, good messaging with a variety of sources: parents, religion(s), and introspection.

Some good quotes:
“At services tonight, the rabbi talked about forgiveness, how it’s not only between you and God. He said God exists in the relationships between people, so forgiveness is between you and the person you hurt.”

“Why are people so afraid to believe? Well, Jennifer, maybe because it’s impossibly embarrassing to be proven wrong.”

“It’s so easy to talk bad about someone. It’s so easy to bond over hating someone else. It’s almost scary how naturally it comes.”

“Maybe. But sometimes I think complicated is the word people use when they don’t want to think too hard.”

“Confession isn’t about telling our secrets to God. God already knows. It’s about revealing our true hearts to ourselves, because we can’t know who we are when we’re hiding from who we’ve been.”

“I had to make her understand that this mattered — what people thought had everything to do with who she was. Because how do we know who we are without knowing our place in the world?”

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 26th, 2022.

Year on Fire by Julie Buxbaum (Young Adult)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

A quartet of students at the elite Los Angeles Wood Valley High School — each facing their own coming-of-age difficulties. Twins Immie and Archer, so close they tend to think conjoined thoughts; Paige, the strong, fearless, and ultra-competent; and Rohan, newly arrived from London with his father as a result of some pretty serious marital discord. And around them fires always seem to be burning — one wildfire after another and even a fire within the school itself as a none-too-subtle reminder of the fires that are raging within.

The dramas that comprise the story are more-or-less typical dramas faced by teens today — some run-of-the-mill first kisses, small betrayals, secrets (all still deeply felt regardless of their commonality) as well as a good array of home situations — all problematic in their own never over-the-top but nevertheless deeply felt way. I am impressed by the way Buxbaum treats these situations and experiences directly from the perspective of the student characters — each of whom have their own personalities and coping mechanisms. We are treated to their anger, sadness, confusion and the sometimes slow realization of their own parents as individuals with their own flaws and capacity for error.

Well-written with plenty of slowly gained insight and fun dialog / text streams.

Thank you to Delacorte Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 12th, 2022.

Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi (YA / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Bitter is a quiet, wary, girl who has found a haven in Eucalyptus — a school for artists that is safe from the violence that pervades the town of Lucille. After a harrowing childhood spent in horrific foster homes, Bitter needs this feeling of safety to be able to function. Many of her friends are part of Assata, a group that is willing to use violent means to finally bring justice to Lucille. She is afraid to join, but also feels guilty that she cannot. After one of her close friends is intentionally maimed during a protest, her anger rises and she intentionally uses her blood to call forth a creature she has painted with the intent of Vengeance.

This is a prequel to her last book, Pet, telling the story of Bitter’s first discovery that she can call forth “Angels” from her paintings to help combat the “Monsters” that live in the town of Lucille. In the last book, it is Bitter’s daughter, Jam, who bring the picture to life. You can see my review of that book here: https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2019/08/19/pet-by-akwaeke-emezi-ya/.

Emezi’s writing is always hypnotic — her characters, surroundings, and passion are completely gripping. This book is more political than her last book, and I have a small problem with some of it. She includes the requisite LGBQT characters and does a good job of blending everyone together into a “no big deal” community; she also has a character in a wheelchair who turns down an offer of healing because he already knows he is “whole.” However, I’m not thrilled at her overly simplistic portrayal of all “rich” people being the “monsters,” and Assata feels like a thinly disguised Antifa to me (I am not a fan). Given that the book is geared towards young people who don’t yet have a lot of experience in the world, I would prefer a more balanced depiction of the world with a set of more specific injustices against which they are fighting.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 15th, 2022.

Boy by Roald Dahl (Autobiography sort of…)

Penguin Books is reissuing Roald Dahl’s “not an autobiography” memories of youth. It reads exactly like one of his fantastic children’s books, and in particular it is easy to see the inspiration for my favorite — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — in many of the stories. It is consistently funny and engaging and fascinating in its ability to demonstrate the development of one of my favorite childhood authors. Since his childhood began in 1916, the descriptions of what life was like (operations without much anesthetic, the typical (and ridiculously cruel IMHO) boarding school experience, and complications of international travel) are plentiful and eye-opening. All in all a very fun (and fast) read.

Looking at some background on Dahl, I’m surprised at all the vitriole — he’s been accused of racism, profanity, and sexual innuendo. The examples given were ridiculous. I despair.

The Half-Orphan’s Handbook by Joan F Smith (Young Adult)

A well-written book about a young girl going through the grief of her father’s recent suicide. Lila is 16 and has been reluctantly cajoled into attending a grief camp for the summer. This is the story of her slow journey towards healing, including a healthy amount of new friends, a budding love interest, and that irreverent teen style that helps makes the unbearable, bearable.

The author, who went through a similar experience, does an excellent job at describing the confusion of competing feelings, the different ways grief hits you at different times, and the eventual return to the three Ls: laughing, loving, and living without guilt. I really liked all the characters, and I want to emphasize that this was not at all a depressing book — there was a lot of honest reflection, observation, and fun. Plenty of racial and sexual diversity as well as discussions of addiction, suicide, and first love.

Thank you to Children’s Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 6th, 2021.

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (Children’s Fiction)

10-year old Bea has largely adjusted to the big changes in her life — 2 years before her parents divorced so that her father could be the gay man he had always known himself to be. Bea alternates living with each parent day by day and weekend by weekend. Now her father and his boyfriend Jesse are getting married and Bea might be getting a sister — something she has always wanted.

While not as creative as some of Stead’s earlier books, this is a well-done dive into the experiences of a young girl struggling to understand the massive changes in her life. The book serves as an excellent template for how to handle a divorce. The eponymous “List of Things That Will Not Change” is for Bea when she finds out about the divorce — my favorite item: “We are still a family, but in a different way.” And indeed, that is how they behave.

Bea also sees a therapist — Miriam — and the advice she recollects at various points is clear and useful. I’m not a big fan of therapy, but I found this summary of the process and techniques for Bea to be excellent. This would be a useful book for both the target 8-12 year olds and their parents. If I had one small complaint about the book, it is that the focus is all on Bea and the new life of her gay father. Her mother doesn’t get to have much of a new life and although portrayed lovingly, doesn’t get a lot of air time (and she deserves some!).

Thank you to Wendy Lamb Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf (Children’s Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

This is a British story about the Syrian refugee crisis — focused on one small boy and given a fairy tale ending. 9-year old Alexa gets excited from the first moment she sees the new boy — Ahmet — sitting quietly at the back of the room. She and her three friends befriend him and are introduced to his plight just as the UK is moving to stop the flow of refugees completely by “closing the gates.” Alexa conceives the “MOST AMAZING PLAN” (backed up with an “Emergency Plan”) to help keep the gates open, help Ahmet find his family, and deal with the “haters” of the world (with clearly marked names such as “Mrs. Grimsby” in case you are in doubt as to who they are).

The book is sweet and does an excellent job of portraying the refugee crisis in real human terms by describing one boy’s very sad situation. I do feel that the story was oversimplified and did not like the way everyone was depicted (literally) as “good guys” and “bad guys.” While I support trying to find a real solution to refugee problems, this book was written as a very heavy handed propaganda piece. Anyone who doesn’t absolutely support unlimited refugee immigration is labeled (literally) a “bully,” a “hater,” “heartless,” “selfish,” and by implication stupid, and irrational. I don’t think that was necessary — it would have been just as effective a book if she had focussed on one young refugee’s experience, the way the kids had helped bring attention to his plight, and some positive messages about how refugees can be helped and integrated into society, without including all the nasty labels and overly simplified and often inaccurate portrayals of those with other opinions.

A child in the class — “Brendan the Bully” — is portrayed as a terrible boy with no possibility of education or redemption. And when explaining what is happening in Syria, Alexa’s mother explains: “The bad people are just much stronger than they are and like to feel big and powerful by bullying them. You see, some people think that by taking things away from other people and hurting them, it gives them more power, and the more power they have, the more they want and the greedier they get. So they go on hurting more and more people until everyone wants to run away.” Is that really an accurate description of the Syrian civil war? I don’t think so — and I think that oversimplifying problems for children by blaming and labeling whole groups of people as simply irredeemably bad is a very dangerous proposition.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6th, 2019.

Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo (Children’s Fiction)

One day, shortly after she buries her beloved dog, 14-year old Beverly Tapinski simply leaves home. She catches a ride up the highway to Tamaray Beach with nothing but the clothes on her back and the flip-flops on her feet. She finds a job bussing dishes at the local fish restaurant (even though she hates fish). She finds a place to stay in a trailer park with a lonely old lady. And for a while, she manages to carve out a small place for herself in a world she has learned is largely composed of sadness and meanness.

I love the way DiCamillo doesn’t soft-soap anything — she doesn’t pretend that bad parents and bad situations don’t exist. Beverly’s mother really doesn’t care that her daughter is gone — she is far more interested in her next drink. This sweet, but never sappy, book follows Beverly as she finds her own moral strength and some spots of beauty in the world including some people who do look out for each other and care, even about strangers. I found it to be moving and heartfelt.

For those of you familiar with other DiCamillo books, Beverly was first featured as a side character in Raymie Nightingale.

Thank you to Candlewick Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 24th, 2019.

 

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer (Middle Grade)

I’ve been reading a lot of depressing (but very good – stay tuned) books lately and decided I needed a happy break — enter To Night Owl from Dogfish. An impressive, fully epistolary (email style) novel, following the grudging friendship developing between two 12-year old girls who have been sent to summer camp by their romantically involved, single, gay dads in order to get to know each other. What follows is a touching and simultaneously funny (and convoluted) story reminiscent of The Parent Trap.

Californian Bett Devlin is afraid of nothing, loves animals, sports, and a lack of rules. New Yorker Avery Bloom is afraid of everything, likes the indoors, and loves for things to be under control and absolutely safe. As their dads head off for a motorcycle trip across China, they communicate via iPad having already decided that they will under no circumstances be friends or even speak to each other at camp! Things head off in unexpected directions (I really didn’t see *any* of the plot developments coming) and include Avery’s previously unknown biological mother and Bett’s (somewhat loony) grandmother from Texas.

A fun read!

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (Age 10+)

A perfect kids book! Had it been around when I was young I would have read it a hundred times by now (like my other favorites: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, and Charlotte’s Web). It’s an adventure story complete with rambling houses, hidden treasures, eccentric characters, ghosts, and Mystery with a capital M.

12-year old Milo Pine lives with his adoptive parents in Greenglass House — a rambling old Inn whose “regulars” are the smugglers who need a little “shore time.” Greenglass House is perched above a deep gorge — accessible only via a creaky cable car named the Whilforber Whirlwind or a 310 step stairway.

As Christmas vacation commences, and Milo prepares to snuggle in for some serious R&R in the empty Inn, the cable car bell keeps ringing and the number of guests (and emergency helpers) grow until Milo finds himself amidst a sea of eccentric characters who all seem to be on delightfully connected personal quests that center on the house itself.

Weaving together folk tales and local legend with a little paranormal thrown in, Milo uncovers the mysteries of Greenglass House and the odd set of characters who are so fixated on it. Milo — prone to anxiety and panic attacks — also develops delightfully through the twin instruments of literature and role playing games.

Good writing — the story is complex enough to engage adults and yet completely accessible to the target kid audience.