Orange for the Sunsets

by Tina Athaide
First sentence: “Yesofu glanced at his watch.”
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Content: There is some violence and name calling. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

History I didn’t know about: The British colonized Uganda and brought in Indians to do work for them. When the British left, the Indians stayed, filling the hole that the colonizers left. Then, in 1972, there was a military coup, and Idi Amin took over the country. One of the things he decided was that Uganda was for the Black people who have been oppressed, and the Indians — many of whom were citizens or had been born there — needed to get out. He gave them 90 days.

Asha is an Indian, whose best friend is Yesofu, the son of her family’s (Black) servant. They’re best friends, inseperable. That is, utnil Amin gives the order for the Indians to leave. Suddenly they find themselves on opposite sides: Asha believing she is Ugandan and deserves to stay; Yesovu wanting to have what Asha always has had: a good job, a nice house, running water.

There is more to the plot, as the book follows the 90 day countdown. Asha’s father is involved in getting people out of the country; Yesofu is friends with another kid who is incredibly militant about Amin’s orders, to the point of harming Asha.

I am uncertain what I think about this. On the one hand, it’s a story about a part of history I knew nothing about. I do think it’s important to tell those kinds of stories. But on the other hand, this book wanted me to sympathize with the colonizers, to feel bad that Asha and her family, the Indians who had lived in Uganda, were getting expelled from their home. And I did, but. well, Yesofu had a point too: it wasn’t fair that the native people, the Black people of Uganda were kept in lower positions. I think Athaibe wanted to balance both sides of the story, but I think it kind of felt maudlin at times: Asha and Yesofu trying to hold on to an obviously doomed friendship. I also think Athaibe hammered the corruption of the soldiers home too hard: the last scene is a soldier taking Asha’s mother’s gold bangles as a “payment” to let them leave. It may be true, but it was a bit heavy-handed.

So: conflicted on this one. It wasn’t badly written, but I’m not sure I liked it.

Amina’s Song

by Hena Khan
First sentence: “As I reach for a pair of silver earrings that my best friend, Soojin, might like, Zohra smacks my hand away.”
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Others in the series: Amina’s Voice
Content: There is some talk of “liking” boys. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amina has spent the last month or so in Pakistan visiting her family. She’s enjoyed her stay, though there are frustrating things: she doesn’t speak Urdu well, and everyone would rather practice their English than let her practice her Urdu. And, even though her family is Pakistani, she feels, well, too American.

But when she gets back home and starts seventh grade, no one seems interested in her trip and her stories. On top of that, for her history project, she chose to research Malala Yousafzai, but her classmates only want to focus on the negative parts of the story How is Amina going to keep her promise to her uncle to champion the good things about Pakistan?

Amina struggles with balancing the two parts of her life: the side that loves Pakistan, and her family and her faith; and the side that feels American and loves living here as well.

I love how Khan balances the conflict within Amina; it must be what many children of immigrants feel. I liked that there was a boy that Amina was friends with, and in spite of her friends thinking there was something “more”, all it was is friendship. It was refreshing to read about a seventh grader who wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. I was thoroughly charmed by this sone, and by Amina. I hope there are more stories of hers to tell.

The Length of a String

by Elissa Brent Weissman
First sentence: “Dear Belle, All my life I’ve shared with you.”
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Content: There is talk of death and the Holocaust, and some crushing on boys. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Imani is stuck on what to do for her bat mitzvah project until her great-grandma Anna passes on, and Imani finds an old diary of Anna’s. Anna came to America, by herself, in 1941, sent by her parents to live with “cousins” in New York City right before the Jews in Luxenburg were deported to ghettos and then to concentration camps. Imani is fascinated by Anna’s story not just because of their religious connection, but because Imani is adopted, and has been wondering about her birth family. Anna’s story is told through a series of letters she wrote in a journal. As Imani dives deeper into Anna’s story she has more and more questions about what makes a family.

This was pretty good. I liked the Jewish aspects of it; the preparing for a bat mitzvah, Hebrew school, and the connections made there. I didn’t mind the historical aspect, because it made the Holocaust relevant to today, as opposed to being stuck in the past. I didn’t mind the adoption story, but I did wonder why a white woman author felt this story needed to have a Black main character. I suppose it was good to let readers know that all Jewish people aren’t white presenting, but I don’t know if it was Weissman’s story to tell. That said, it wasn’t a bad book.

Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai

by Debbi Michiko Florence
First sentence: “Heartbreak is for suckers.”
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Content: There is some talk of first romance and divorce. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore. But it’d be good for 6-7th grade as well.

Jenna Sakai has sworn off relationships. First, her parents got a messy diverse and her dad “abandoned” her by moving to Texas from California. Then her boyfriend, Elliot, who she thought she was super compatible with dumped her right before Christmas. After a very lonely winter break at her dad’s house, she’s back in California, at her school, determined to make a fresh start. No more relationships. No more Elliot (except he keeps popping up in places where she thought were Elliot-free). Just focus on the things she’s good at: journalism. Then she discovers a cute diner, and takes to going there as an escape from all the other stress in her life. It’s a great place, until she discovers that Rin Watanabe also uses the diner as a refuge, specifically what she’s come to think about as “her booth”.

Thus begins a tumultuous friendship between Jenna and Rin, as Jenna writes an article digging into a donation his family made to their school. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that gets the gist of things.

I thought it was cute. I was a little “meh” at the beginning — boyfriends/girlfriends in 7th grade kind of turns me off, but Florence kept it pretty age-appropriate with just hand holding. But it was a really good story about a girl learning to trust other people again, after a couple of very big heartbreaks, first with her parents’ divorce, and then with the breakup with someone she thought was super compatible with her. I liked that it showed that middle school romances aren’t always great (thought there was an example of a good, healthy relationship as well). I also think that Florence does a good job capturing the complicated emotions and friendships that middle school has while not making everyone super annoying (which is easy to do). My only complaint is that I didn’t know this was a companion book to another one, and I kind of felt like I didn’t quite have the whole picture sometimes. But that was more my problem than the wriring.

It was a fun book, overall.

Merci Suarez Can’t Dance

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “It was Miss McDaniel’s idea for me and Wilson Bellevue to work together in the Ram Depot, a job that nobody wants.”
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Content: There is talk of kissing, periods, and puberty. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I bet 6th graders would love this.
Others in the series: Merci Suarez Changes Gears

It’s halfway through seventh grade, and Merci is kind of (sort of) figuring things out. She’s not happy with her grandfather’s continuing descent, and her aunt isn’t around as much anymore, leaving Merci to babysit her terror twin cousins. And at school she’s trying to get along with Edna, but it doesn’t seem to be working well. And now, there’s the Heart Ball, the seventh grade fundraiser, which Edna is in charge of, and Merci is trying to avoid. But there’s Wilson, the boy she runs the Ram Depot with and maybe (?) may like-like. It’s all, well, a LOT.

This book had a ton of heart. I loved Merci trying to figure her way out, and I adore her family and the way they have each other’s backs. I loved the way Media wrote a character that was dealing with Alzheimer’s, and how the family worked to make his life easier. You could just tell how much the family loved each other. And I liked the middle school angst of it as well. Merci was delightfully awkward, making the best decisions she could, mostly, and terribly realistic. It was just a delight to read.

I know this book wasn’t really “necessary”, but I’ll take more Merci books any time.

Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring

by Angela Cervantes
First sentence: “Whether she liked it or not, Paloma Marquez was in Mexico City for a whole month. “
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Content: There are a few intense moments. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Paloma is being dragged to Mexico City because her mother has a fellowship there. It’s the home of her father, who died when Paloma was young, but even that doesn’t make Paloma any less grumpy about not being able to spend the summer with her friends by the pool back in Kansas City.

Once in Mexico, though, things start to change. She discovers the art of Frida Kahlo, art that her father loved, and then meets twins Gael and LIzzie, who pull Paloma into solving a mystery: who stole Frida’s peacock ring.

This was a fun little mystery. Paloma did most of the work, figuring out clues, and learning about her father’s heritage as she worked on the mystery. The book was full of facts about Frida and her life and art, as well as small bits about life in Mexico City. Cervantes never tried to make Paloma Mexican; she was always American, she always looked at life from the outside, but she learned to appreciate the culture and language and life around her.

It was a fun read, and possibly my favorite of Cervantes’ books.

Black Boy Joy

edited y Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “Homegoing.”
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Content: there is some slight romance. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but my teacher considered it a YA novel, so it’ss good for all ages?.

Here are the things I liked about this book:

It’s super diverse, even though all the authors are black men. There are science fiction stories, poems, art, contemporary stories, and ones based in mythology. They have protagonists that are non-binary, interested in sports, and interested in music and art.

It focuses on joy and celebration, even when it touches on hard things like funerals.

It’s a delight to read.

Not all the stories are equal, but that’s to be expected in a short story collection. And sometimes the joy felt unearned, but that’s because we weren’t given enough time with the characters. (Another fault of short stories.)

Even with the faults, it’s an excellent collection. Highly recommended.

Clean Getaway

by Nic Stone
First sentence: “It might sound silly, but to William “Scoob” Lamar, the Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful sign looks… well, beautiful.
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Content: There are some uncomfortable moments. It’s i the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

William “Scoob” Lamar is having a rough year at school. First, he got in trouble for beating up a bully who was making fun of Scoob’s st friends’ younger brother. Then, he figures out how to cheat on a programming quiz, and shows other kids how to do it. He doesn’t cheat, but ends up suspended because he was the “instigator” of it all. He’s at hoe, grounded, with the spring break trip canceled. But, just when all hope was lost, his G’ma sows up with an RV asking him to take a strip with her. So, he does. and leaves his phone at home, so his dad can’t stop him from going.

But, things aren’t what Scoob expected.. While the history of his (white) grandma and his (black) grandpa is interesting — his grandma kept the Green Book that helped them travel safely though the south during the Jim Crow era — things aren’t, well, right. His grandma keeps changing the plates on the RV. She won’t answer calls from Scoob’s dad. She is being super cagey. While Scoob enjoys the history, he’s not entirely sure this vacation is all it’s cracked up to be.

This is what I wrote for my class (spoilers): “Scoob’s grandfather was arrested for grand larceny and died in prison but in the end we find out that it was Scoob’s grandmother who had stolen the jewelry. She literally let a black man take the fall for her crimes. A person she was supposed to be in love with! That she had a son with! The ending didn’t provide a lot of resolution; instead of getting punished for her life of crime (she had been stealing jewelry for YEARS), she got cancer and died. And then Scoob found her stash and got his dad to drive it to Mexico to bury it. I have NO idea what to think about this. I get the underlying message is that white people are not to be trusted, even if you’re related. That a white person will always find a black person to blame things on.”

Someone in the class pushed back and said they thought the underlying message was more about how our actions can affect more than just ourselves, and maybe that’s a better way to look at the book. It does make it more age appropriate. At any rate, the book did give me a lot to think about.  

Two Black Historical Fiction Books

Finding Langston
by Lesa Cline-Ransome
First sentence: “Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I an think about is kicking up their dust.”
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Content: It’s short, with short chapters and about an 11-year-old. There is some bulling. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Set in 1946, the book follows 11-year-old Langston, who has recently moved to Chicago with his father from Alabama. It’s a bit about a southern Black family trying to make a life in a big city. It’s not easy: they live in a one room apartment, Langston is bullied because of his accent, and they don’t have the comforts of family being nearby. The one thing Langston finds that is welcoming is the branch of the Chicago Public Library . he finds Black authors and learns about Langston Hughes. It makes grieving for his dad mother and the dealing with the bullies at school easier.

It’s a sweet family story, one with sympathetic characters (I even liked the dad), and a good look into issues surrounding the Great Migration. It went quick because it was short, but it had some complex character development and dealt with touch issues like classism and Northerners looking down on their Southern neighbors. I’m glad I read it.

Harlem Summer
by Walter Den Myers
First sentence:”I like Harlem in the summer except when it gets too hat, which it had been for the last week and we hadn’t even reached July yet.”
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Content: There is some violence and talk of people drinking but it’s short. It’s in the Teen section of the library, but I’d probably up t it in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Set in Harlem in the 1920s, it follows the summer of a 16-year-old named Mark. He gets a summer job at the Crisis, a magazine run by WEB DuBois celebrating the “New Negro”. All Mark wants to do, though, is play his saxophone and impress Fats Waller (who was a real person!) with his jazz. Unfortunately, that gets him into a whole mess of trouble involving stolen whiskey, gangsters, and Langston Hughes.

I didn’t like this one as much, partially because I felt like it was a who’s-who of 1920s Harlem, which is fine and all, but doesn’t led itself to a really great plot. But I also kept thinking of Kendi’s description of assimilationists, and how they wanted Black people to “prove” themselves to white people. That was a huge part of the book, the talk of “New Negros” and how the 10% was going to save the rest of the race. And that’s just, well, racist. Myers may have been poking fun at them; in the end Mark decides that the Crisis and the people there aren’t nearly as much fun or interesting as the people involved in jazz music. Even so, it bothered me. I didn’t hate the book, but I did struggle to finish it, and it just wasn’t what I had hoped it would be.

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “The house always wins.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 5, 2021
Content: There is talk of addiction in adults, some bullying, and a mild “relationship”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

AnthonyJoplin — Ant to his friends, but don’t call him little — comes from a family of serious Spades players. His grandfather, his father, his brother, were all really great at it, winning the local tournament (and then some). But Ant can’t seem to get in the game. He’s “weak”. Or that the way he feels, especially around his dad, his brother, and his friend. That he needs to be stronger, better. He needs to win the tournament, for starters.

He and his friend make a good team, but when his friend is unexpectedly unable to play, Ant turns to the new girl – Shirley – as a partner. Which is its own set of problems. Add to that his father is acting weird, staying up in the middle of the night playing online poker, and Ant is just confused about what he really is supposed to expect out of life.

I love that Johnson gets the middle grade audience, tackling touch subjects like addiction and masculinity without talking down to his readers. I love that he gives us characters that are interesting and complex, which makes them and their problems seem more real. I love that he sprinkles his books with humor, so they are not depressing, but rather reflect life’s ups and downs.

The only think I didn’t like about this book was the narrator: I liked the folksy aspect of it, with the slang and the way it felt like someone telling a story, but I often felt the narrator — who was a character in their own right — got in the way of the story.

But it was’t enough to turn me off of this book. Definitely another very good read!