Merci Suarez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “To think, only yesterday I was in chanletas, sipping lemonade, and watching my twin cousins run through the sprinkler in the yard.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some difficult situations with Merci’s grandfather and some intense moments and older themes. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5), but it would probably be better for the older end of the spectrum.

Merci Suarez likes her life: she lives with her parents and her older brother next door to her aunt and her twin sons on one side and her grandparents on the other. They’re happy as a family, with their traditions and squabbles, and she doesn’t want things to change. But, she’s started 6th grade, with all the pressure that brings, and her brother is a senior in high school and is going to be leaving for college. And, then her beloved grandpa starts forgetting things and acting strangely. And then there’s that girl (THAT girl) at school who Merci thought she was friends with, but turns out to be nothing but a thorn in Merci’s side.

The question is: how is Merci going to deal with everything being different?

This is a perfect little book about friendship and family and figuring out how to manage change. Merci isn’t perfect, which I appreciated, and I enjoyed the fact that the conflict came from something other than bad parents. Merci’s parents are supportive of her, and encourage her in her education. I felt for her at times, especially because she had to make sacrifices with friends and school because of her family. It’s a very realistic portrait, and one I appreciated. I liked how Medina captured the Latinx family experience; it’s a good example why Own Voices is so important. I liked Merci’s story, and felt for her experiences, and I loved how Media wove in culture and heritage as well.

It’s an excellent book.

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Mac B, Kid Spy: Mac Undercover

by Mac Barnett
First sentence: “This is the house I grew up in.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 11, 2018
Content: The chapters are short and pretty simple, with lots of illustrations. It will be in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

I think Mac Barnett is funny. I know humor is subjective, but I find Mac’s sense of humor hilarious. So, it’s not a surprise that I found this first book in a new series where the premise is that Mac, when he was a kid, was a spy for the Queen of England absolutely hilarious.

There’s not much to it. The Queen of England calls Mac to come to England and find a spoon that was supposedly stolen from the crown jewels by the president of France. Mac goes, gets a Corgi sidekick, and (of course) solves the mystery. But that’s beside the point (at least for me). What was the point was the silliness of it all. The way Mac talks directly to the reader (telling them to look it up when he drops a fact or two), or his silly asides. Add in the pictures and it’s just hilarious.

I hope kids will like this one. I sure did.

Sheets

by Brenna Thummler
First sentence: “It’s difficult to list, in order, the things I hate.”
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Review copy picked up at CI6
Release date: August 28, 2018
Content: There is a slight romance, and some bullying. It’ll be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Marjorie Glatt’s mother has recently died and her father has gone into mourning. Which means that 13-year-old Marjorie is left taking care of everything: school, her five-year-old brother, and running the family laundromat. It’s a lot for a 13-year-old to take on, especially when one of the town’s residents, Mr. Saubertuck, keeps trying to put her out of business so he can start his 5-star spa and yoga center.

Walter is a recently deceased ghost, who doesn’t like being a ghost. So, he skips ghost town (yes, there is a ghost town!) and heads to the nearby city where he finds the Glatt’s laundromat, which turns out to be a ghost’s paradise. What they discover is that a girl and a ghost can, in fact, help each other out, and make both of their lives easier.

This is a super charming little graphic novel. It deals with a tough subject — grief and death — but in such a way that it’s accessible to kids and gets them to think  (and laugh!) in ways that a prose novel wouldn’t have. I love Thummler’s illustrations, from the ghosts who have personalities in spite of being covered with sheets to Marjorie and Mr. Saubertuck.

Delightful.

Rules for Thieves

by Alexandra Ott
First sentence: (I’d put it here, but I’ve misplaced my copy of the book!)
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Content: There’s some intense moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Twelve-year-old Alli Rosco has a problem: she’s in an orphanage (which she hates and has tried — unsuccessfully — to escape from) and doesn’t want to be adopted (she tried that, too, and ran away because the family was so awful). So, when faced with another adoption day, she takes the most reasonable alternative: she runs away (again). And gets caught (again)… but this time, things go differently. She gets hit with a magic curse, and then a boy helps her escape. His name is Beck, and he tells her that 1) the curse she was hit with is deadly, and that she has about 10 days to live and 2) the Thieves Guild is real and can help get her the money it will take to heal her curse.

The catch? She has to pass a trial to become part of the Guild.

The other catch? She’s not a great thief to begin with.

But, with Beck and the Thieves Guild, she finds a family that she can be a part of, and even though the trial is obscenely difficult, she is game to do the best she can for her friends.

The thing that impressed me most about this was the world building. Ott created something familiar, yet wholly its own with patron saints and 53-day months, and unusual creatures and technology and magic. It sucked me into the story, which I also enjoyed. Alli is a headstrong character, willing to go out on a limb for those she came to care about, and willing to risk everything to save her own life. It’s a decent heist and a good adventure story, and it wraps up quite nicely at the end, while leaving a thread open for the sequel. I’m definitely interested in where Alli’s story is going.

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang
First sentence: “My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There are some uncomfortable and intense moments, but nothing too graphic. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Mia Tang and her parents are immigrants from China. Which means, even though her parents are highly educated, they’re scrambling for jobs.So, when one comes up managing a hotel — for $5 a room per night, not counting the first week, but they can live there for free — they jump at the chance. Except it’s not as easy as all that. It’s a lot of work for two people (no cleaning staff!) to handle, so Mia takes to running the front desk. Even though she’s only 10. And even though she learns to love the hotel and the weeklies — the people who pay by the week, not by the night — she can’t talk about what her parents do or where she lives at school. Because she’s not like the other kids.

There is a small plot to this one: Mia’s parents take in Chinese immigrants who have fallen on hard times, usually for only one or two nights, and hide them from the owner. Mia wants to be a writer, except her mother doesn’t think she can because English isn’t her first language. and she enters a contest to run a hotel in Vermont. She makes friends and makes choices and learns the power of the written word. There’s not much going on plot-wise, but the characters are compelling, and it’s an excellent look into the things immigrants do (and white/rich people do to them!) in order to make it work here in America. It was definitely enlightening.

So, while there’s not much to talk about, it’s an important — and excellent — book.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart
First sentence: “In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test.”
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Content: It’s a bit long, and somewhat involved, so maybe it’s not for reluctant readers though I think it would make a good read-aloud. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I was pretty sure, when I picked this one for my mystery book club this summer, that I had never read it before. But, about a third of the way into it, I realized if I hadn’t read it before, it must have been a pretty predictable book, since I basically knew (most of) what was going to happen. So, I will err on the side of bad memory and say I’ve read this one in the past (sometime) and not that it’s predictable (though maybe it is, a little bit).

The basic story is this: Reynie (and four others: Sticky, Kate, and Constance) is an orphan who answers an ad looking for gifted children to take a test. Once he (they) pass the test, he finds himself working for Mr. Benedict on a secret project: someone has been transmitting subliminal messages to the public (read by children) and Mr. Benedict needs them to infiltrate The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (or LIVE) where the messages are coming from and stop them.

From there, Reynie and his friends embark on a dangerous mission to fulfill Mr. Benedict’s wishes and stop LIVE (or is it EVIL?) from taking over the world.

On the one hand: this was kind of fun. It was nice to see Reynie and company working together, using each of their own strengths, to overcome the bad guys. It took a while — this book takes place over months, not days — but they eventually work together to solve the ultimate mystery. But, on the other hand, did it really need to be this long? And while I got that the mystery was figuring out who was sending the messages and then how they worked and how to stop them, I felt a bit disconnected from the whole book. Usually, with mysteries, I like to be aware that (if I am clever enough) I could possibly solve the puzzles and mysteries as well as the characters can. But this time, I felt like Stewart was just laying everything everything out for us, walking us through each step and not leaving readers any chance to solve the mystery on their own. Which made me a little disappointed in the book.

Still, not bad overall.

Two (Older) Mysteries

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective
by Donald J. Sobol
First sentence: Mr. and Mrs. Brown had one child.”
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Content: It’s got short chapters, and simple text. It’s in the beginning chapter book section (grades 1-2) of the bookstore.

The girls reminded me, when I picked this one up, that on a vacation we listened to one of the later books in this series. They enjoyed it, or at least they have memories of enjoying it. I remember this, vaguely, but had never actually read these. There’s not much to them: Encyclopedia Brown is presented a mystery — everything from a tent that the resident bully claims is his to missing roller skates — and then the reader is encouraged to solve it. I’ll be honest: I didn’t get a single one. I came close a few times, but never actually guessed the right answer. I went back and looked, and the clues were there. I’m just not a careful enough reader to catch them. Even so, it was a fun little read.

The Secret of the Old Clock
by Carolyn Keene
First sentence: “Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some scary moments, but nothing too intense. It’s in the Middle Grade Classics section of the bookstore.

I adored Nancy Drew when I was a kid. (Nancy Drew and Little House on the Prairie and Wrinkle in Time: those were the books I read and re-read.) I don’t know what it was about these books that drew me to them, whether it was Nancy as a character or just the mysteries and adventure I liked immersing myself in, but I have fond memories of reading these.

So I was a bit wary as I dipped back into the world of Nancy Drew as an adult (after nearly 40 years!). Would it hold up? Well… yes and no. The no is easier to handle: the writing is not only formulaic (which is to be expected, as it is written by committee, something I didn’t know as a kid) but also quite mundane. The thing that really stood out was how expressive Nancy’s eyes were: they sparkled and flashed and twinkled…. how many adjectives can they use to express her eyes and what purpose does it really serve? It wasn’t a mystery that a reader could get involved in; it wasn’t meant to be a puzzle that the reader could solve, but rather we were along for the ride, watching as Nancy got into scrapes and met people and was determined enough to find the solution. In this case, she accidentally stumbled upon a family dispute: Joseph Crowley died and was supposed to have left money to his relatives and friends, all of whom were less well off than he was, but it turned out that he left the money to this snobbish, well-off family in town instead. Everyone, Nancy found, was convinced that there was a newer will. But no one knew where it was.

The thing I did like about this was Nancy. Sure, she was a proper 1930s young lady: polite, kind to her elders, friendly and helpful. But, she was also smart, determined, and  unafraid to take chances. In this one, at least, she’s out there taking on bad guys and solving cases, and doing it by herself. (I know she picks up a boyfriend and a couple of friends later, but in this one, it’s just all Nancy.) Maybe that’s what I loved about these books as a kid: I wished I could be that determined and risk-taking, and I admired that about Nancy. I still do.

I don’t think I’ll revisit any of the others in the series, but I’m glad I reread this one.