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!

The Elephant in the Room

by Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence: “What SilaTekin would remember about that afternoon was that she had been wearing her favorite shirt.”
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Content: It deals with heavy subjects, but on an accessible level. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sila Tekin has lived in Oregon all her life, but her parents are immigrants from Turkey. They’re in the United States legally, but one day, Sila’s mom gets deported because her paperwork is not “correct”. It was supposed to be short deportation, but turns into nearly a year as Sila and her dad become more and more depressed. Enter Gio – an older man whose wife passed four years earlier and who recently won the lottery. The three of them – and they add a school mate of Sila’s, Mateo, later – make a sort-of family, helping each other through the process of healing. And then there’s an elephant.

The elephant is a rescue from a family circus, and brings more healing for our characters. I think Sloan was trying to advocate not only against circuses but in favor of humane animal treatment in captivity. She also had a strong case for elephant-human bonding. I just think Sloan really likes elephants.

The story itself was… okay. I think it’s good for a picture of immigration — and as a reminder that not every immigrant comes through from the southern border — and to help kids deal with tough situations. I’m just not sure Sloan was the best person to tell this story. Sloan says she has been profoundly affected by her time in Turkey, but I think this story may have been told better by someone who has had the experience of being an immigrant.

It’s not a bad book, but not my favorite by her either.

Unsettled

by Reem Faruqi
First sentence: “I grab Asna’s hand, palm to palm.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a novel in verse, so even though it looks long, it goes quickly. There is some talk of bullying and dementia. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Nurah is happy with her life in Pakistan: she has friends at school, she lives near her grandparents, and loves her home. But then, her father gets a job offer in Peachtree City, Georgia, and relocates the family there. Nurah finds it hard to adapt: she is out of place at school and her brother, whom she used to have a good relationship with, is increasingly distant. The one place Nurah feels at home is the rec center swim team; she’s not the best, but she feels at home in the water.

This was a very sweet and heartfelt story. I thought it worked really well as a novel in verse; it was simple without being simplistic. And Nurah’s challenges with fitting in at school, getting along with her increasingly distant brother, a grandmother with dementia, and just experiencing a new country are presented in a way to make them incredibly relatable.

It was a charming book, but one with a deeply felt heart.

Otto P. Nudd

by Emily Butler
First sentence: “‘Otto, you’re splendid,’ mumbled Bartleby Doyle.”
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Full disclosure: the author is a friend of a friend, and I am friends wtih her on social media.
Content: The font is pretty large and there are illustrations on every chapter header. There is some talk about parent deaths. it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Otto considers himself a Very Intelligent Bird. He was raised in captivity by Bartleby Doyle, but the Old Man (as Otto calls him) has let Otto go free, to make a nest nearby. Otto still comes and helps Bartleby with his inventions, but he really just wants to make sure the neighborhood is in order. This means he’s not very nice to the other birds and animals. However, when Bartleby has an accident, and Otto can’t get in the house to push the emergency button, Otto is forced to turn to the “lesser” birds and animals in the neighborhood to help him out.

I am sure there is some animal-loving second- or third-grader out there who is just perfect for this book. Butler has a very chatty style and is often very humorous in spots. Otto — and Marla the squirrel and Pippa the girl – is an interesting character to hang with for a while, and there is a very delightful birds vs. raccoons skirmish at the end. The book has a nice lesson about making amnends and resitution for wrongs (even if it is just hurt feelings).

But this just didn’t rise above the level of “just fine” for me. And I get it: I am definitely not the target audience. (And, to be honest, I wasn’t when I was in third grade, either.) That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. It’s just not one for me.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington

by Janae Marks
First sentence: “The day I turned twelve, I was certain it’d be my favorite birthday yet, but then I got the letter.”
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Content: It talks about wrongful imprisonment, but in a very age-sensitive way. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, but would probably be good up through 6th or 7th grade.

Zoe is just a normal twelve-year-old: she likes hanging out with her friends, she lvoes baking, and she just wants to enjoy the summer (even though she’s currently fighting with her former best friend and neighbor, Trevor). Then, on her birthday, she finds a letter from her biological dad, Marcus, whom she’s never met, because he was arrested and convicted of murder before she was born.

Curious, she opens the letter, and then decides — against her mom’s will — to write him back. They start a relationship of sorts and when Zoe asks why he’s in prison, Marcus says he is innocent and was convicted wrongly. That sets Zoe off on a hunt to prove to herself — and her mother, and possibly the world — that Marcus is who he says he is. Along the way, she gets an internship at a bakery and learns a bit about that world, and makes up with Trevor.

It’s a very sweet little book, this (no pun meant with the baking, though I do wish there was a recipe for the Fruit Loop cereal cupcakes in the back) story of a girl getting to know her biological dad. Marks finds a balance with the parents — Zoe isn’t trying to replace her stepdad, whom she calls “dad” — but she does want to know this person who, up until this point, was just a sperm donor. I liked that Marks brought out that the prison system is not always about justice: Marcus had a bad lawyer, yes, but Zoe’s mother was also convinced that because the system found Marcus guilty that must have meant he was. We’re all so conditioned to believe that, and I appreciate that Marks explained that it’s not true in a way a younger kid could understand. I liked that Zoe had a good support system of adults around her, but that she also gets in trouble when she does things that, well, a kid would get in trouble for.

It was a very charming book, and one that is dealing with heavy subjects — like wrongful imprisonment — but not in a heavy-handed way. I truly enjoyed it!

When You Trap a Tiger

by Tae Keller
First sentence: “I can turn invisible.”
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Content: There are a few heavy subjects, like a loss of a parent. It would be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore if it hadn’t won the Newbery. As such, it’s in the Newbery section of the bookstore.

Lily has always been the quiet one in her family. It’s her older sister, Sam, that is loud and opinionated and always in trouble with their mom. But when their halmoni (their grandma) gets sick and the sisters and their mom move in with her to help, things change. Lily is convinced — by a magical tiger — that her halmoni stole something from the tigers god and if Lily just gave it back, her halmoni would get better.

This is such a lovely little book. A testament to the power of stories and passing those stories on. And not just book stories, but the stories of family, of Home (whether it be spiritual or ancestral). There are no stories that shouldn’t be told; even the sad ones have merit. It’s also a sweet book about family connection, surviving loss, and being strong and brave and what that means. Plus, it’s incredibly well-written and feels just perfect; not a single word or scene that’s out of place.

Definitely earned that Newbery it won. Excellent.

King and the Dragonflies

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.”
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Content: There is some parental abuse, and kids run away. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

King’s brother Khalid recently died, and he and his parents are struggling to adjust to the new reality. It doesn’t help that King things his brother has come back as a dragonfly. And that his old good friend, Sandy, has come out as gay. In their small, conservative Louisiana town, and with Sandy’s abusive father as sheriff, that doesn’t bode well. Not for Sandy and not for anyone who wants to be his friend.

King spends the book coming to terms with both his brother’s death and with Sandy’s revelation (and the realization that he might be gay as well). It’s a quiet book, but it’s captivating. Callender is a phenomanal writer, and the feelings and emotions they invoke are incredible. They capture not only grief but friendship and parents struggling to do what they think is best. It’s a journey, one that is not readily summarized in a plot, but that is incredibly moving all the same.

Definitely deserving of the National Book Award it won, and highly recommended.

Sometimes Brave

by Trista Wilson
First sentence: “It’s‌ ‌super‌ ‌duper‌ ‌helpful‌ ‌to‌ ‌have‌ ‌a‌ ‌good‌ ‌imagination‌ ‌when‌ ‌you’re‌ ‌homeless.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author, who also happens to be one of my co-workers.
Content: There’s some talk of crushes. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hazel is going into 5th grade, but her life has been upended: her dad, who is a government employee, is not getting paid due to a government shutdown. Because of this, money is tight enough that Hazel and her parents are evicted from their apartment and now are living in their car, trying to make that work. It’s a difficult thing, and Hazel feels isolated and alone. Until she makes a friend at school who is in a similar situation. That, and starting to volunteer at an animal shelter, reading to dogs, helps Hazel get the courage to face her family’s situation head-on.

i thoroughly enjoyed this little book. It’s a great look into something most of us don’t think about: homeless kids. And, the nice thing (okay, there’s nothing nice about homelessness) about this is that there didn’t have to be a tragic event to make it happen. (Which is probably more realistic.) The family was doing fine until 1) medical bills in the past probably made things tight and then 2) a lost income pushed them over the edge. The parents weren’t dead or sick (mom had cancer but had recovered years before), there wasn’t a storm or a war. It was just Something That Happened. But it was a Big Deal to Hazel and I appreciated that Trista (I feel weird writing Wilson, like I do with other authors) focused on the mundane reasons for becoming homeless.

She also focused on the stigma that’s attached to it: Hazel was embarrassed to tell people that she was sleeping in her car, and showering infrequently. And that it was hard to get homework done because of her living situation. This book goes a long way to showing kids that being homeless is not a failure of theirs (or their parents!), but rather something that happens and that there are ways to help.

I also really enjoyed Trista’s voice in the book. I think she captures a 5th grader quite well, from their early crushes to making and losing friends. It was a delight to read.

Tristan Strong Destroys the Universe

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “Nobody likes getting punched in the face.”
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Others in the series: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There is some violence and talk of trauma. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Tristan Strong fixed the problems that he created in the first book in this series. And then he returned to our world while Alke rebuilds. Except: there is a new foe. The Shamble Man has is wreaking havoc on Alke and he has come into our world and kidnapped Tristan’s grandmother. Which leaves Tristan no choice but to return to Alke to get her back. And what he finds is a whole lot messier than he thought it would be when he left.

This is very much a second book in a series — being a bit more dark and dismal than the first. However, I enjoyed that Mbalia not only gave us a complete story. No cliffhangers here. I also appreciated along with the humor and adventure, Mbalia addressed the underlying trauma that happens when things — bad things, hard things — happen. It’s a clever and good way to introduce the concept to kids, and to allow for an opening to talk about them. It’s handled really well. But, even though Mbalia tackles tough subjects, it’s still a lot of fun to go with Tristan back into the world of Alke. I adore Gum Baby and her silly bravado, and I liked the way Tristan was able to work with people he initially found difficult to work with.

In short: it’s smart, it’s fun, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

by Jessica Kim
First sentence: “I should have known better than to think anyone would listen to me at the Korean beauty salon.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There are some awkward moments and second-hand embarrassment. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Yumi Chung is the youngest of two daughters of Korean immigrants. Her parents run a Korean barbecue restaurant in LA, and they expect Yumi — like her older sister, Yuri — to be excellent. The problem is that Yumi wants to be a stand-up comedian, which is something her parents neither understand or respect. Instead, they send her to hagwon — a Korean summer tutoring program — that will help her get a scholarship to the best private school in LA. Yumi is miserable until she discovers a new comedy club is running a summer camp for kids, and the person teaching it is Yumi’s favorite YouTube comedian! She ends up going — pretending to be Kay Nakamura (which gives some interesting, if subtle, insight into how white people lump all East Asians together) — until things all fall apart, including her parent’s restaurant being on the verge of closing. Can Yumi fix the mess she’s made for herself?

Oh, this was so very delightful. It addressed so many things — from not living up to your older sibling’s achievements, to finding your own space int the world, to owning your mistakes — without ever being heavy-handed. Yumi was a totally believable character with completely understandable parents. The conflict came from not just the immigrant to first-generation divide, but their honest desires that their kids wouldn’t have to slave away in a restaurant to make their living. I liked how Kim never made the parents out to be villains, and how Yumi (and Yuri) was able to figure out how to balance her parents’ wishes with her desire to follow her own path.

And excellent middle grade book.