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.”
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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.”
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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.

Audio Book (sort of): James and the Giant Peach

by Roald Dahl
Read by Taika Waititi and friends
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Content: It’s silly, but much like most of Roald Dahl books, mostly harmless.

I don’t know how I stumbled upon Taika Waititi (and friends) reading James and the Giant Peach, but it has been something that has utterly delighted me these past few weeks. It’s a silly story, one I’ve read maybe once (there’s a bit about the wicked aunts killing spiders I think about every time I deep clean, though), one I have usually dismissed as “lesser” Dahl.

But in Waititi’s hands, it was magical. He’s a gifted storyteller, and the people he’s assembled to help him are wonderful as well. Some are more memorable than others: Meryl Streep and Benedict Cumbertbatch as the aunts in Episode 2 were hilarious, Cate Blanchett as the Centipede in Episode 3 was absolutely perfect, and YoYo Ma as the grasshopper was simultaneously incredibly earnest and utterly endearing. I listened to three episodes every Friday, which was about an hour, and I was always charmed.

It’s still a silly story, with an utterly pedantic ending, but Waititi made it wonderful.

Coo

by Kaela Noel
First sentence: “April breezes, warm and mild as clean laundry, fluttered across the dark rail yard.”
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Content: It’s a long book, but the print is fairly large and there’s a lot of white space, so appearances are probably deceiving. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. It would make a good read aloud for younger kids.

Coo was abandoned as a baby in an alley and discovered by a flock of pigeons. Who carried her to their rooftop and raised her, teaching her their language and feeding her. In return, she helped them when they were injured. She never left the roof, though. When she was older (11 maybe?), her favorite pigeon, Burr, was seriously injured, and the pigeons got Coo to go down an give him to Tully, a woman who came to feed them and helped when they were seriously injured. She saw Coo, and realized something needed to be Done about her. She tried the police, but they didn’t believe Tully that there was a child living with the pigeons.

Eventually, Coo went to live with Tully, learn English and more about the human world. However, when her flock is threatened by the mayor’s plan to eradicate pigeons, Coo rushes in to save them. Because family — especially found family — matters.

It’s a sweet story, if an odd one. Noel is tapping into some heavy themes: child abandonment, animal cruelty, survival, but she does it in such a way that it doesn’t seem heavy or inaccessible. Coo is an interesting heroine to follow, and her love for her flock of pigeons, whether they be the stalwart Burr or the chaotic Roohoo, is definitely palpable. There’s a lot of unnecessary conflict (from an adult perspective), but it kept the story flowing, and I think kids will enjoy following Coo and Tully as they try to figure out their predicament.

It’s an interesting take on the “raised by wolves” story, and one that’s worth reading.

Black Brother, Black Brother

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “I wish I were invisible.”
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Release date: March 3, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s pretty simply told, and easy enough (and appropriate) for younger readers to understand. It will be in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Dante is the black brother in his family. His dad is white, his older brother Trey presents as white, but Donte and his mom present as black. Which wasn’t a problem until the family moved to a (mostly white) suburb of Boston and the boys started attending a (mostly white) prep school.

I’ll stop here and say this book is all about racism. Explicit racism from some of the students at the school — the story’s antagonist and school bully, Alan — but also the implicit racism in the system: Donte, because he is black, is the one who is always in trouble, who the teachers and the headmaster blame for things that go wrong. But it goes broader than that: Rhodes tackles the prison system — Donte is arrested for something he didn’t do at school, and the only reason he gets off is because he doesn’t present as stereo-typically black (and having a white father helped, too). And the overall racism inherent in sports.

It’s a simple book, but that makes sense, considering who its intended audience is. And Rhodes is a remarkable writer, able to simplify without dumbing down for her audience. It’s a good story, and one worth reading.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “There was a rhythm in y fists.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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!