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.

Some Places More than Others

by Renee Watson
First sentence: “‘New York City is no place or a little girl,’ Mom says.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some arguing, but mostly it’s pretty good for the age group — 8-12 — that it’s aimed for. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amara wants one thing for her 12th birthday: to go see her father’s home and family in New York City. She’d love to go by herself, but she’ll take going with her father on a business trip. The problem? Her father hasn’t spoken to her grandfather in 12 years, since Amara was born and her grandmother passed away.

It takes a while (probably a bit longer than it should for the pacing in the book, but that’s being nitpick-y), but Amara is on her way to Harlem to see her grandfather, aunt, and cousins (whom she has only spoken to). It’s awkward, especially since her cousins are 14 and 16 and don’t really want to hang out with her. Amara has a few adventures (and mis-adventures) and learns about her own personal history as well as African American history in Harlem.

I enjoyed the book, mostly for the history as well as the class tensions between Amara — who is decidedly upper middle class — and her cousins — who are not. I liked Amara as a character, and I think Watson got the middle grade voice right, even if the pacing was slightly off.

In the end, it was a sweet story about learning the importance of where you (or your people) came from.