Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

by Jessica Kim
First sentence: “I should have known better than to think anyone would listen to me at the Korean beauty salon.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There are some awkward moments and second-hand embarrassment. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Yumi Chung is the youngest of two daughters of Korean immigrants. Her parents run a Korean barbecue restaurant in LA, and they expect Yumi — like her older sister, Yuri — to be excellent. The problem is that Yumi wants to be a stand-up comedian, which is something her parents neither understand or respect. Instead, they send her to hagwon — a Korean summer tutoring program — that will help her get a scholarship to the best private school in LA. Yumi is miserable until she discovers a new comedy club is running a summer camp for kids, and the person teaching it is Yumi’s favorite YouTube comedian! She ends up going — pretending to be Kay Nakamura (which gives some interesting, if subtle, insight into how white people lump all East Asians together) — until things all fall apart, including her parent’s restaurant being on the verge of closing. Can Yumi fix the mess she’s made for herself?

Oh, this was so very delightful. It addressed so many things — from not living up to your older sibling’s achievements, to finding your own space int the world, to owning your mistakes — without ever being heavy-handed. Yumi was a totally believable character with completely understandable parents. The conflict came from not just the immigrant to first-generation divide, but their honest desires that their kids wouldn’t have to slave away in a restaurant to make their living. I liked how Kim never made the parents out to be villains, and how Yumi (and Yuri) was able to figure out how to balance her parents’ wishes with her desire to follow her own path.

And excellent middle grade book.

Audio Book (sort of): James and the Giant Peach

by Roald Dahl
Read by Taika Waititi and friends
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Content: It’s silly, but much like most of Roald Dahl books, mostly harmless.

I don’t know how I stumbled upon Taika Waititi (and friends) reading James and the Giant Peach, but it has been something that has utterly delighted me these past few weeks. It’s a silly story, one I’ve read maybe once (there’s a bit about the wicked aunts killing spiders I think about every time I deep clean, though), one I have usually dismissed as “lesser” Dahl.

But in Waititi’s hands, it was magical. He’s a gifted storyteller, and the people he’s assembled to help him are wonderful as well. Some are more memorable than others: Meryl Streep and Benedict Cumbertbatch as the aunts in Episode 2 were hilarious, Cate Blanchett as the Centipede in Episode 3 was absolutely perfect, and YoYo Ma as the grasshopper was simultaneously incredibly earnest and utterly endearing. I listened to three episodes every Friday, which was about an hour, and I was always charmed.

It’s still a silly story, with an utterly pedantic ending, but Waititi made it wonderful.

Coo

by Kaela Noel
First sentence: “April breezes, warm and mild as clean laundry, fluttered across the dark rail yard.”
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Content: It’s a long book, but the print is fairly large and there’s a lot of white space, so appearances are probably deceiving. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. It would make a good read aloud for younger kids.

Coo was abandoned as a baby in an alley and discovered by a flock of pigeons. Who carried her to their rooftop and raised her, teaching her their language and feeding her. In return, she helped them when they were injured. She never left the roof, though. When she was older (11 maybe?), her favorite pigeon, Burr, was seriously injured, and the pigeons got Coo to go down an give him to Tully, a woman who came to feed them and helped when they were seriously injured. She saw Coo, and realized something needed to be Done about her. She tried the police, but they didn’t believe Tully that there was a child living with the pigeons.

Eventually, Coo went to live with Tully, learn English and more about the human world. However, when her flock is threatened by the mayor’s plan to eradicate pigeons, Coo rushes in to save them. Because family — especially found family — matters.

It’s a sweet story, if an odd one. Noel is tapping into some heavy themes: child abandonment, animal cruelty, survival, but she does it in such a way that it doesn’t seem heavy or inaccessible. Coo is an interesting heroine to follow, and her love for her flock of pigeons, whether they be the stalwart Burr or the chaotic Roohoo, is definitely palpable. There’s a lot of unnecessary conflict (from an adult perspective), but it kept the story flowing, and I think kids will enjoy following Coo and Tully as they try to figure out their predicament.

It’s an interesting take on the “raised by wolves” story, and one that’s worth reading.

Black Brother, Black Brother

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “I wish I were invisible.”
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Release date: March 3, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s pretty simply told, and easy enough (and appropriate) for younger readers to understand. It will be in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Dante is the black brother in his family. His dad is white, his older brother Trey presents as white, but Donte and his mom present as black. Which wasn’t a problem until the family moved to a (mostly white) suburb of Boston and the boys started attending a (mostly white) prep school.

I’ll stop here and say this book is all about racism. Explicit racism from some of the students at the school — the story’s antagonist and school bully, Alan — but also the implicit racism in the system: Donte, because he is black, is the one who is always in trouble, who the teachers and the headmaster blame for things that go wrong. But it goes broader than that: Rhodes tackles the prison system — Donte is arrested for something he didn’t do at school, and the only reason he gets off is because he doesn’t present as stereo-typically black (and having a white father helped, too). And the overall racism inherent in sports.

It’s a simple book, but that makes sense, considering who its intended audience is. And Rhodes is a remarkable writer, able to simplify without dumbing down for her audience. It’s a good story, and one worth reading.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “There was a rhythm in y fists.”
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Content: It’s long. And there is some action violence. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Tristan Strong is the son and grandson of boxers, but that’s not what he wants to be. No, he’s a bit of a nerd, and would rather spend his time with his best friend Eddie collecting stories. Except his best friend Eddie died in a bus accident, and Tristan couldn’t save him.

After losing his first boxing match, Tristan is sent to his grandparents in Alabama to try and work though is feelings about Eddie’s death. And that’s where, unfortunately, Tristan falls through a hole and into the world of MidPass and Alke, where gods and folk heroes are battling iron machines and the Maafa for control of their world. What can a 13-year-old do to help? Well, a lot, as it turns out.

This was such a fun book! I enjoyed Tristan’s adventures and the way Mbalia wove both African and African American myths and folk tales into the story. I loved how Tristan came into his own as the book went along, and he was able to face his grief as well as figuring out how to get through his fear (it was nice to have a hero who was terrified but manged to work through it!). I loved how everyone that Tristan met worked together, and how the solutions weren’t about fighting and winning, but more about cooperation. I also liked that Mbalia addressed slavery as part of the whole mythos but it was never a book that was solely about the slave experience.

Definitely highly recommended!

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse

by Joseph Marshall III
First sentence: “Jimmy McClean walked among the buffalo berry thickets along the Smoking Earth River.”
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Content: There is some bullying and talk of war. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Jimmy McClean is half white, half Lakota, which makes him a target at his school outside the Rosebud Sioux reservation, both from the white kids and from the other Lakota kids. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever fit in, with his blue eyes and brown hair. That is, until his Lakota grandfather takes Jimmy on a road trip through Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana following the footsteps of Crazy Horse — known in his younger years as Light Hair — and learning about the life of this great warrior and leader.

This is such a good story. First off, I enjoyed the grandparent-grandchild dynamic, and I appreciated the division between present day and the historical storytelling. It wasn’t a straight “this is what Crazy Horse did here” narrative, but rather weaving the stories of Crazy Horse’s life in such a way to help Jimmy with his present day problems. I also appreciated the Lakota perspective on Crazy Horse. It’s good to remember that history books just teach the White perspective, and it’s valuable to hear these stories from another side.

It’s short, and it’s a valuable story to have around, and not just for Native representation. It’s a good reminder that history has many sides.

A High Five for Glenn Burke

by Phil Bildner
First sentence: “Let’s do this, Silas,’ I say to myself.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 25, 2020
Content: There are some awkward moments. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sixth-grader Silas Wade has a loving family (though his parents work too much and his younger sisters are sometimes annoying), and a great best friend in Zoey. He loves playing baseball with his team, the Renegades, and and his coach, Coach Wade, is the best. But Silas has a problem: he has realized that he is gay, and doesn’t quite know how to tell everyone.

Enter a report on Glenn Burke: a real-life professional baseball player (and the inventor of the high five!) in the 1970s who was run out of the major leagues after he came out as gay. Learning about Burke gives Silas the courage to come out to Zoey and then to Coach Wade. It’s not all roses, however. There are ups and downs to this process as Silas figures out how to be his authentic self.

This is a really good book as well as being an Important One. I think there needs to be more sports-oriented books that have LGBT themes, partially because I think there still is a stigma about being LGBT and playing sports. (It’s probably less than it was, but it’s still there, I think.) It’s good to have a book — and one that is written so that kids can grasp what’s going on — that shows that an LGBT kid can play ball well and be gay. And not necessarily fit all the stereotypes that normally come with being gay. I also appreciated Silas’s growth arc; he starts out terrified that people will find out his secret, but as the book goes on, he becomes more and more comfortable with himself.

Bildner knows how to write for kids in a way that makes all of this make sense. And perhaps that’s the most important thing.

Look Both Ways

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “This story was going to begin like all the best stories.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some tough subjects, like bullying and parents with cancer. It’s in both the YA (grades 6-8) and the middle grade (grades 3-5) sections of the bookstore.

The format of this book is really the highlight: it’s a series of ten interconnected short stories, based out of a school, and following kids as they go home after school one day. One story for either one kid or a group of kids per block.

It’s a clever premise, and one that shuns the large (a school bus fell from the sky is the underlying “What?” of this story) in favor of the small stories. It’s the story of a girl writing in a notebook, observing things and collecting data on the way home (and a side note in another story about how she is “mysterious”). It’s about the troublemakers who are always stealing loose change, and where they go after school and what they do with the money. It’s about older siblings who have died, or kids getting beat up for defending a boy-on-boy not-quite kiss. It’s simple and deep and profound and lighthearted all at once. Which is why, I think, Reynolds is one of the brilliant writers out there.

Will kids read it? I don’t know. I hope so. It would be perfect for school book groups, and for parent-children discussions. And it’s a good reminder that everything — and everyone — isn’t always what it looks like.

The Bookwanderers

by Anna James
First sentence: “
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Content: It’s not long and it doesn’t have a lot of hard words, though it does seem to lean in to bookish kids, even if one of the characters has a hard time reading because he’s dyslexic. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Tilly has grown up in her grandparents’ bookstore, Pages & Co. (a quick real-life interjection here: they have a bakery and a store, but no evidence of customers? How are they paying the bills? I know, I know, it’s a kids’ book…) surrounded by books. She is an avid reader, partially because you can’t grow up in a bookstore and not be and partially because it’s a connection to her mother, who disappeared when Tilly was little.

And now that she’s 11, something unusual has started happening: characters are coming out of books. And she’s been pulled into them, not just metaphorically, but literally. It turns out that her grandparents and mother are part of this group called Bookwanderers, people who can literally travel between the pages of a book. And now, Tilly and her friend Oskar find they can travel in books too, which means, maybe that’s where Tilly’s mother went? And maybe they can find her.

On the one hand, this is super charming. I was charmed by the presentation, by the idea of taking something metaphorical (getting lost in a book) and making it literal. I liked Tilly and her willingness to take chances, even though she had a good support system with her parents. I liked that it wrapped the story up, but also left a thread open for more books in the series.

But. I’m not sure how much kids are going to like it. (Which makes me sad.) Because of copyright issues, James can only use the classics, which makes sense, but I’m sure that kids would much rather read about falling into books they love, and not Alice in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables, and A Little Princess. It makes sense why she used the classics, but it is a drawback, and one I’m not sure many readers could get past. Which means it’s more for adults who love reading and have a fond memory of reading as a kid, and that’s kind of sad.

Even so, I was happy I read it!

Dear Sweet Pea

by Julie Murphy
First sentence: “I’ve counted my birthday savings three times, and at this rate, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough money to clone myself.”
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Release date: October 1, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Most of the problems are with parents and friendships, and so while it may not be interesting to the younger end of the middle grade (grades 3-5) it’s not inappropriate.

As she finishes up seventh grade, Sweet Pea is trying to figure things out. Her parents are getting a divorce, which is hard. But she’s fighting with her best friend, Oscar, while making up with her ex-best friend, Kiera. It’s all super confusing. It doesn’t help that Miss Fannie Mae, who writes the local advice column, has asked Sweet Pea to watch her house while she’s gone, but asks her not to tell anyone, which just puts a huge wrench in the whole situation.

I haven’t read any other of Murphy’s work (why not?) but this one truly tickled me. I loved that she got the middle grade voice down: the real problems are friendships and trying to figure out how to navigate those, as well as trying to understand her family’s new dynamic. They stakes aren’t terribly high, but they’re still meaningful. I appreciated that her parents weren’t awful, but honest and open about their differences and reasons they were splitting. And I loved Sweet Pea. She was charmingly not perfect, but she tried her best and that’s really all that counted.

It’s really a delightful middle grade book.