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.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Lerner Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.

(My last YA review for a while…)

Cute and whimsical, this early YA book explores the world of stereotypes using fictional characters who long to be more than their boilerplate dictates. Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy who works hard and is true to type, but chafes a bit under perceived Author mismanagement. He is sent to Group Therapy with a set of Manic Pixie Dream Girls — just one step away from termination — in order to learn to “remember his place” and “The Author is always right.” However, when the Trope Town Council decides that perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream trope is more trouble than it’s worth, Riley and his therapy cohort have to come up with something big to show how truly important their trope is.

On the surface this is fun and a little silly and will appeal to the younger part of the YA demographic. However, there is some depth to the discussion of literature, the use of stock characters (stereotypes) and the impact that can have on readers. In the Trope Museum the characters bear witness to old stereotypes that have been “retired” due to being offensively racist, sexist, etc. The Uncle Tomfoolery trope is a prime example. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is on the chopping block for being sexist. But Riley, as an experimental “Boy” version, shows how it may be the association of a particular race, gender, sexual preference with a particular trope that is the issue, not the trope itself. I liked that a lot — there are various personality stereotypes that exist in the world — the damage (I feel) is associating them with whole groups of people based solely on physical characteristics.

*** Spoiler alert *** One more small thing I appreciated. Riley finds himself at the center of a love triangle between Zelda (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and Ada, a “Developed” girl in the novel he is working on. At the end of the book, all three step off into the sunset on the Termination Train to Reader World without having to resolve the triangle. They are happy to pursue their own lives and see where it takes them without necessarily “winning” the boy. When I was growing up, just about every movie I saw and book I read focussed on the girl falling in love with the right boy. Regardless of her other pursuits, if she didn’t get the boy at the end, she felt like a failure. Since I was never taught this explicitly, it was difficult to question to the premise. Fiction has a powerful ability to teach us norms of expectations and behavior under the covers as it were. I like the not-so-subtle messages in this book.

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
Children’s fiction — middle grade

New (to me) word: hibernaculum — a place in which a creature seeks refuge, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.

I loved this book — a perfect middle school read!

Gusta Newbronner “loses” her father on the bus ride from NYC to Northern Maine. She will be staying with the grandmother she has never met and living in Grandma Hoopes’ orphan home. The time is 1941 and there is general tension around foreigners. The tension is even higher around Gusta’s father who is not only a foreigner, but a union organizer as well. While Gusta sees her father as brave, courageous, principled, and fighting injustice, others see him simply as a foreign fugitive.

The story is full of real and (to me) lovable characters — her grandmother and aunt, the various children staying in the orphan home, new found cousins, and even the two children who represent opposing sides in “the Dairy Wars” in her classroom. Originally shy and unassuming, Gusta comes into her own as she learns to stand up for what she believes in and to fight injustice in whatever way she can. In the meantime she is making friends, getting to know her family and joining the Honorary Orphan Band (playing the French Horn — she appears to be a bit of a prodigy).

The writing is excellent. In addition to delightful language (see examples below), we are treated to intriguing descriptions of the process of egg cleaning (far more unpleasant than I would have ever guessed), the thrill of playing the French Horn, oculism in the 40s, pigeon photography (as in they are trained to take the photos), and magical stories from Gusta’s great-grandfather, the sea captain. I absolutely loved the description of what it was like for Gusta to see clearly for the first time when she was able to get glasses. Masterfully done.

The novel has that genuine feel of a true story — unsurprising as it is a fictionalized account of the author’s mother’s life, supported with extensive research using the local paper archives. I would add this to any middle grade reading list.

Some of my favorite lines…

“The winter must have been picking at the scabs of that road for months.”

“Gusta’s mother was omnivorous when it came to words”

“For a moment, Gusta stood there, just saving the feeling of having someone in the world who was already glad today about seeing her tomorrow.”

“And the heaviness inside Gusta, where all the secrets festered, thickened and increased.”

“She knew from stories that wishes wriggle and cheat — if they even exist at all.”

“It was like she coated all her meanness with a hard-sugar layer of wholehearted sincerity.”

“Georges made the happy sound of someone who has just become a part of the great unfolding history of pigeon photography.”