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.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
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Release date: August 27, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s kind of hard to tell imagination from reality and the print is a bit on the small side for a middle grade book. It’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore, but I’d give it mostly to 5-6th graders.

Ebony-Grace lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her mom and grandpa, who works at the NASA space center. He’s only an engineer — there’s no black astronauts in 1984 — but he inspires Ebony Grace. They have their own imaginary world, where he is Captain Fleet and she is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and the go on Star Trek-inspired adventures throughout space. Except, now Ebony is being sent to her father’s in Harlem, which seems like a whole new planet — she dubs it No Joke City — with a whole bunch of “nefarious minions” that she can’t quite figure out. It doesn’t help that the friend she made last time she was in Harlem (three years ago!), Bianca, has moved on from space adventure games and is now jumping Double Dutch, breakdancing, and rapping with her crew, the Nine Flavas. Ebony has no idea how to fit in and just wants to go home.

On the one hand, this is a fun bit of historical fiction and I appreciated a geek girl main character. I loved that Ebony was super into space and science fiction and super knowledgeable about it. It was nice to see a Black girl be into something that is usually reserved for white boys. So yay for that! And I could relate to Ebony’s feeling of otherness, coming from the South and going to the north. I moved to Michigan from Utah right before 6th grade, and felt a lot of the same sense of outsiderness. I talked funny, I didn’t understand the lingo, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t really listened to the radio (like ever: I mostly listened to my parents records). This one will really resonate with kids who feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

What I didn’t like — what I reacted really viscerally and negatively to — were the adults in the book. I think they’re historically accurate: Ebony’s mom is more concerned with the way Ebony looks and that she’s polite and obedient to her elders, and her father isn’t much better. But I wanted to shake them all. They have a girl who is interested in SPACE! Why are they calling her crazy and telling her she needs to stop with the nonsense?!? Just because she’s a girl?!? The rampant sexism (again: historically accurate) drove me absolutely nuts. And it trickled down to the kids that Ebony met as well: they “grew up” and cared for more “grown up” things — clothes, boys, competitions, and I was so angry that they kept calling Ebony crazy and stupid for liking the things she liked.

I also had issues with the ending — Ebony never finds out what happens to her grandfather who gets in a bit of trouble off-screen and then suddenly dies (WTH?!) — but it’s a middle grade novel, so I can forgive that.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this book. I want to recommend it, because I like Zoboi and I like the idea of a geeky Black girl. I just may not be able to get past my anger at the adults.

Other Words for Home

by Jasmine Warga
First sentence: “It’s almost summer and everywhere smells like fish, except for right by the sea where if you hold your nose just right you can smell the sprawling jasmine and the salt water instead.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s talk of periods starting. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jude lives in a seaside Syrian town, and she’s happy with her life: her father runs a store that caters mostly to tourists, and she and her best friend and her brother love what they can get of American culture. But then the civil war breaks out, and Jude’s older brother disappears and Jude’s parents decide to send her and her mother to the U.S. to live with family. They say it’s for a “visit”, but that visit turns into months as the situation in Syria gets worse. Jude learns English, starts the seventh grade, and figures out how to navigate both her family life — her American, half-white cousin isn’t terribly thrilled about Jude coming to live with them — and her school.

This is a very sweet novel in verse, telling the story of a new immigrant and how she learns to adjust to life in the U. S. I read several of these sorts of stories for my multicultural children’s literature class, and I have to say that while this has many similarities, it’s also a different story. Jude is dealing with post-9/11 Islamophobia and so when she chooses to wear the hijab after her period starts, she has to deal with the fact that she’s wearing a visual representation of a religion that is often maligned in the U.S. It also deals with her everyday difficulties: understanding slang, getting along with classmates, trying to figure out where she belongs all while dealing with uncertainty about her brother and father back in Syria. It’s done quite well, and in a way that I think kids will relate to. It’s not just an important book, it’s a very good one.

Indian Shoes

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Ray and Grampa Halfmoon traipsed down the cracked sidewalk of a steel and stone city.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (So, this says a release date of 2021. The book is currently out of print — I bought a used copy — but I guess they’re bringing it back?)
Content: It’s a series of short episodic chapters, with illustrations. If we had this, it would be in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

This is a series of short stories — well, episodes really — featuring Ray, a member of the Seminole and Cherokee tribes, as he grows up in Chicago with his Grampa. His parents died in a crash (I think) when Ray was very young, and he and his Grampa can’t afford to go to back Oklahoma very often. There’s not a lot to the, Ray buys moccasins for his Grampa (well, he trades his shoes for them), they go to a wedding (in which there are mishaps), they celebrate Christmas alone, Ray gets a bad haircut (and then dyes his hair to match his little league team colors), and they finally go home to Oklahoma and go fishing.

Even with is simplistic nature (it’s definitely written for younger kids), it’s a good portrait of one Native life. It’s a good reminder that Native peoples aren’t all the same, that they aren’t just historical figures, that they don’t all live on the reservation, and that they have lives and hopes and dreams.

I definitely need to read more of Smith’s work, too.