The Three Rules of Everyday Magic

by Amanda Rawson Hill
First sentence: “There’s something about that moment right before the first star appears in the sky.”
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Content: It’s got a lot of more mature themes, but they’re handled at an age-appropriate level. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Kate has a lot (a LOT) going on in her life. Her dad left five months ago because his depression got too much and he needed to go away. He didn’t want Kate to contact him, and she doesn’t know where he is, so mostly she just ignores the guitar she used to love to play and writes him letters that she can’t send. Her grandmother has developed dementia that’s advancing, and is no longer able to live on her own, so she’s come to live with Kate and her mother. And (as if that wasn’t enough!), Kate’s best friend, Sofia, has decided that she’s much better friends with another girl, shutting Kate out.

It’s a lot. I know that it’s better to have a lot of conflict in one’s book, but really: depressed and missing dad AND best friend problems AND a grandmother with dementia (and that’s not even mentioning the burgeoning crush on home school friend) is a LOT to tackle in one book.

Hill manages it pretty well. It’s not perfect, though I did appreciate she didn’t tie everything up in a nice little bow at the end. It’s hopeful, but the problems aren’t solved, which is nice.

I liked this one, but didn’t love it.

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Resistance

by Jennifer A. Nielsen
First sentence: “Two minutes.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence, and talk of death. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Chaya is a teenager in the Krakow ghetto during World War II, and after her younger sister and brother disappeared (presumably put on a train to the death camps), Chaya decided that she wasn’t going to sit idly by and let the Nazis destroy her world. So, she joined the resistance as a courier. She could pass as a Polish (non-Jewish) girl, so she took to smuggling supplies into the ghetto and people out.

But her path didn’t end there: when things on a raid go wrong, Chaya and her friend Esther find themselves on the road to Warsaw, dodging Nazis and Nazi sympathizers until they get to Warsaw and are able to join the Jewish resistance for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (which was a real thing).

This is really good historical fiction, if you’re not already tired of World War II stories. I got the distinct impression that Nielsen was trying to use this as a lesson for the climate in the US today — there were multiple references to people who just sit idly by and watch the horrors of the world being on the wrong side of the fence — but honestly? I’m tired. I know Holocaust stories are important. And I believe that everyone should learn about them, so we don’t repeat history. I’m just, personally, quite done with them. I liked Chaya well enough, I respected her journey, I got that Nielsen was telling me that I needed to be more pro-active in resisting hate and evil in this world.

But all that said, I didn’t quite like the book. I think it’s me, though, and not the book.

Ben Braver and the Incredible Exploding Kid

by Marcus Emerson
First Sentence: “Sixty miles per hour.”
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Others in the series (it’s probably better if you read this first): The Super Life of Ben Braver
Content: There’s fart and poop jokes (of course). There’s also lots of illustrations and white space with short chapters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is a second in a series, and for many reasons (well, time mostly) I didn’t read the first. From what I can tell: Ben Braver is a perfectly normal kid who got sent to this boarding school for kids with superpowers. And he saved them from an evil supervillain. Except no one at the school knows that Ben doesn’t have powers (well, except for the Headmaster — who’s about as reliable as Dumbledore — and his best friends). It’s the new year, and there’s a new menace — sort of — and Ben’s doing his level best to hide his lack of powers while he gets more and more popular.

Actually, this one is more about the ability of fame to go to one’s head. Ben gets SUPER obnoxious while he gets more and more attention, but (of course) everything comes crashing down around him. And when the real threat presents itself, he does what he can to save the other students, but in the end, it’s an outside person (whose appearance was explained away in a sentence) who solves the problem. (Yeah, I have a problem with easy solutions like that.)

I really wanted to like this one more than I did. I think I was hoping for something fun and funny, and while there were some amusing points (humor is REALLY hard to do), it kind of all just fell flat for me. (There was one one-page comic that made me laugh, but that was it.) It’s probably great for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid crowd (I didn’t like those much either) and for those reluctant readers who want a lot of illustrations in their stories. But it really wasn’t my thing.


Lost Rainforest: Mez’s Magic

by Eliot Schrefer
First sentence: “What’s wrong with me?”
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Content: There are some moments of intense action. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

I picked this one up after hosting Eliot at a few school events last February. I learned SO much about the Amazon ecosystem and the animals in it, and Eliot was so charming and passionate about animals that I thought I really ought to give the book a try.

And? Well, it’s perfect for those who like prophecies and talking animals and friends who work together towards a single goal. It’s MUCH better than the Warriors books, and about as good as the Wings of Fire books (real animals instead of dragons though). Granted, I’m not a fan of talking animals, but even I liked this one. Schrefer knows how to plot really well, and I liked the small things like using “otherpaw” (for example) instead of “other hand”. You can tell, reading the book, that Schrefer knows his animals, and knows how they work together (or not) in an environment. And he knows how to write action, and how to keep the plot moving forward.

So, while this may not be my sort of book, it’s still a good one, and I’m glad I read it.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez
First sentence: “There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s long and sometimes meandering, which might discourage reluctant readers. There are also hints of romance (but none actual) which might turn off squeamish kids. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sal Vidón has just moved to Miami from Connecticut, and is starting his first week at a really cool performing arts and technology school. The problem? It’s the third day of school, and it’s the third time he’s landed in the principal’s office. The first two were reasonable: to meet the principal on his first day, and the second because he was eating Skittles after PE and the gym teacher was unaware that Sal is diabetic. But this time? It’s because he played a prank — put a raw, whole chicken — into the locker of a kid who was bullying him. Sure, as a prank goes it’s mostly harmless. The real catch? Sal pulled that chicken out of a different universe.

And he was being watched: by Gabi Reál, student council president extraordinaire, and puzzle figure-outer. And once she turns her sights on Sal, his life is never going to be the same.

This is one part science fiction book: with multiverses, and calamity physics (is that a real thing?) and warping the space-time continuum, with self-driving cars (I want one, please) and really advanced AI. And one part Cuban family drama: Sal’s mother died six years ago, and he’s been pulling other versions of his Mami out of other universes ever since. There’s also Gabi’s drama with an infant baby brother fighting for his life, and the bully with a bigger backstory. There’s a lot going on in this book, but it all works, and works well together. Hernandez has given us a funny, clever Cuban speculative fiction book, that kept me turning pages and wondering where he was going to go next. There are cool teachers and Gabi’s gaggle of dads (too hard to explain), and it’s all just enormous amounts of fun.

The Size of the Truth

by Andrew Smith
First sentence: “This all starts with my first enormous truth, which was a hole.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 26, 2019
Content: It’s odd, and Smith’s reputation for edgy YA might turn some people off, but there’s really nothing in this that a 4/5-6/7th grader wouldn’t like. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sam Abernathy is known for one thing: falling down a well when he was four and being trapped for three days. It’s not something you want to be remembered for, especially when you are 11 years old and just got pushed up to the 8th grade. No, it’s not something he wanted. He also doesn’t want to go on survival campout weekends with his dad. Or be a part of the Science Club. Or go to MIT to study science something. Or be in 8th grade PE.

What does he want? To cook. But no one seems to hear that.

Yes, this is a very Andrew Smith book: delightfully weird, slightly off-kilter, and yet completely full of heart and soul. There’s a talking armadillo (who may or may not be a figment of four year old Sam’s imagination). There’s another 8th grader, James Jenkins, who Sam’s sure is going to kill him. But what it is really, is a reflection on figuring out who YOU are (and not who your parents or community want you to be) and what YOU want to do with your life. And then sticking up for it.

And it’s absolutely perfect for those fourth-seventh graders who are just trying to figure things out.

I loved it.

Freya & Zoose

by Emily Butler
First sentence: “There was no question in Freya’s mind that this was her last chance.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author.
Content: It’s short and highly illustrated, but it contains some big(ish) words. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Freya is a rockhopper penguin who has always wanted (and feared) adventure. So, when she hears about an expedition to the North Pole (by hot air balloon!) she takes a deep breath and hops on board. There, she meets the intrepid (and somewhat annoying) mouse Zoose, who becomes her unwelcome (at first) traveling companion. Together they weather the ups and downs and the hardships and joys of traveling to the Arctic, and discover that perhaps friendship is the most important part.

Because I sell books, I tend (sometimes, not always) to read them looking for the person who will like the book. And this one, I think, will appeal to one of two sorts of people: those who like talking animals, and those who like quiet books that feel like classics. It’s a charming little book, with a quiet little adventure (Things do Happen, but it’s not a mile-a-minute page-turner) that I think would make a fantastic read-aloud to a younger child. I’m not sure how much an older kid would like it — it’s firmly geared toward the younger end of the middle grade range — but I really do think that reading it aloud to a 4-6 year old is the perfect thing to do with this book.

And that’s not a bad thing at all.