Sweep

sweepby Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “There were all sorts of wonderful things a person might see very early in the morning.”
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Content: There are some scary moments, and some talk of death. Plus the prose just feels “older”. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it could easily go older as well.

Nan Sparrow has been a chimney sweep her whole life. She started out with a man she called Sweep, until one day he just didn’t come back, and so she took up with her current master, Crudd. He, if you can’t tell from his name, isn’t terribly nice.

Then one day, the worst thing that can happen to a sweep happens to Nan: she gets stuck. They try to get her out, but nothing works, and so they try the Final Option: burning her out. She blacks out, and when she wakes up… she’s rescued. And there’s a creature there. She ends up calling him Charlie — he was made from a small piece of char that the Sweep left her — and it turns out he’s a golem.

It has a tough beginning, but after Charlie comes into the story, it settles down into small adventures: Nan tries to keep from getting caught — she is supposed to be dead, after all — and tires to find out more about Charlie and his purpose as Charlie himself learns more about the world. It’s very atmospheric (in all the best ways), as Nan and Charlie end up relying on each other. There is a couple of small sub-plots, dealing with the horrid conditions of chimney sweeps in Victorian England (and they are horrid) and with Crudd’s vengeance for Nan “escaping” her indenture. But, mostly it’s a charming little tale of Nan and Charlie and their friendship.

Auxier, when he was here for school visits, said that he considers himself more of a storyteller than a writer, and that shows: although his writing is elegant, it’s the storytelling that comes through. He knows how to tell a story to keep a reader reading, and to make the characters come to life. It’s a strange, sweet story and I adored every moment of this one (even the ending, which made me cry).

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Louisiana’s Way Home

by Kate DiCamillo
First sentence: “I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a follow-up to Raymie Nightingale, and it deals with some tough subjects. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

We first met the inimitable Louisiana Elefante in Raymie Nightengale; she was one of the Rancheros who was basically defined by her slightly off-kilter granny, her dead circus performing parents, and her pluck and spirit. Now, two years later, we’re back with Louisiana and her granny, as they take off from Florida in the middle of the night, uprooting Louisiana from her friends and a place she’s grown to love.

When Granny’s tooth begins to ache, it derails their running away, and they land in a small Georgia town. All of Granny’s teeth get pulled, and they take up shop in a motel, while she recovers. Louisiana is left not only to her own devices, but eventually, just left, as Granny takes off to take care of the curse that is hanging over her head.

It’s Louisiana’s voice and spirit that comes through most in this book. It’s written in the first person — DiCamilo’s first since Winn Dixie — and Louisiana comes out loud and clear. She’s angry and insecure and yet hopeful at the same time. She’s angry at her Granny for uprooting her, she’s insecure about her future, but she’s hopeful that maybe she can find a place for herself. There are some pretty shocking revelations made throughout the book, and Louisiana takes everything in stride, which is both remarkably resilient and gives the book a hopeful and uplifting feel to it.

It’s classic DiCamillo, and definitely a delight to visit with this character again.

Harbor Me

by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “We think they took my papi.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: This deals with some heavy topics: immigration, guns, police brutality, etc. but it does so in a way that’s accessible and approachable for younger kids. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

In this classroom in New York City (I’m assuming… it’s a very diverse classroom), six kids are allowed one hour each week to talk, unsupervised by adults. The idea, hatched by their teacher, is that they would be able to talk about things on their minds, big and small, unencumbered by  adult approval/disapproval and interference.

The six kids are Esteban, whose father has been recently taken by ICE and is being held in Miami, possibly to be deported back to the Dominican Republic; Amari, a black boy whose father has recently had the talk with him about how to act in public, which bothers him deeply; Ashton, a white kid who recently moved from Connecticut, and who is often bullied at school; Holly, an upper-middle-class black girl; Tiago, a Puerto Rican whose mother doesn’t speak much English; and our main narrator, Haley, a biracial whose mother died in a car crash and whose father is in jail, and who is being raised by her uncle.

While Haley’s our main narrator, and her story is the one that we learn the most about, this really isn’t a plot-driven book. It reads much like the idea behind it: as a safe space for 4-6th graders (mostly, though maybe kids younger or older would be interested) to explore tough topics and feelings about things in the news today that may be bothering them. It’s less about the characters than it is about the ideas and themes. Which isn’t a bad thing; kids hear news and are probably more aware than adults give them credit for, and to have a book that addresses their fears  — even if they don’t solve them — and is a space for them to discuss their fears, is a good thing.

And Woodson’s writing is as lyrical as always. It’s a really tight book; there isn’t an extra word in it.

Worth reading.

The Darkdeep

by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs
First sentence: “The ground lept up to smack Nico in the face.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 2, 2018
Content: There are some intense and possibly scary parts. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Nico’s father is a park ranger in their small town in the Pacific northwest and made a decision which cost people jobs and made Nico a target at school. And so, when he and his friends are off at Still Cove — a cliff over a cove that “everyone” says is haunted — and the son of the mill owner comes along, Nico is not surprised that he’s targeted. The result of that target, though, is that Nico slips off the cliffside and discovers an island in the cove and an abandoned houseboat on the island. And when his friends Emma and Tyler, and one of the bully’s cronies, Olivia, join him, they decide to explore the houseboat.

What they find is a weird portal that brings all their subconscious manifestations alive. At first, it’s fun: BB8, a centaur… silly stuff like that. But everyone’s subconscious contains a little darkness, and as the darkdeep (as they start to call it) gains in strength, the manifestations begin acting on their own accord. And soon, the town’s in trouble, and Nico, Olivia, and their friends are the only ones who know why.

This was so much fun! I suppose I shouldn’t say that about an adventure/mystery/horror-light book, but it really was. I loved the creation that Condie and Reichs came up with, and the voice they found together (they worked for a single voice rather than alternating chapters, and it really works well) is just spot on middle grade. I loved the friendships they had between the four, though the focus was more on Nico and Olivia and their struggle to become friends (I mean: who wants to be friends with one of the people who was formerly bullying you?) and to trust each other. I liked the way it was plotted, letting suspense build and giving the kids the keys to the next part of the mystery as they went along. It definitely has everything it needs for kids to really enjoy this one.

I sure did.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “To think, only yesterday I was in chanletas, sipping lemonade, and watching my twin cousins run through the sprinkler in the yard.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some difficult situations with Merci’s grandfather and some intense moments and older themes. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5), but it would probably be better for the older end of the spectrum.

Merci Suarez likes her life: she lives with her parents and her older brother next door to her aunt and her twin sons on one side and her grandparents on the other. They’re happy as a family, with their traditions and squabbles, and she doesn’t want things to change. But, she’s started 6th grade, with all the pressure that brings, and her brother is a senior in high school and is going to be leaving for college. And, then her beloved grandpa starts forgetting things and acting strangely. And then there’s that girl (THAT girl) at school who Merci thought she was friends with, but turns out to be nothing but a thorn in Merci’s side.

The question is: how is Merci going to deal with everything being different?

This is a perfect little book about friendship and family and figuring out how to manage change. Merci isn’t perfect, which I appreciated, and I enjoyed the fact that the conflict came from something other than bad parents. Merci’s parents are supportive of her, and encourage her in her education. I felt for her at times, especially because she had to make sacrifices with friends and school because of her family. It’s a very realistic portrait, and one I appreciated. I liked how Medina captured the Latinx family experience; it’s a good example why Own Voices is so important. I liked Merci’s story, and felt for her experiences, and I loved how Media wove in culture and heritage as well.

It’s an excellent book.

Mac B, Kid Spy: Mac Undercover

by Mac Barnett
First sentence: “This is the house I grew up in.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 11, 2018
Content: The chapters are short and pretty simple, with lots of illustrations. It will be in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

I think Mac Barnett is funny. I know humor is subjective, but I find Mac’s sense of humor hilarious. So, it’s not a surprise that I found this first book in a new series where the premise is that Mac, when he was a kid, was a spy for the Queen of England absolutely hilarious.

There’s not much to it. The Queen of England calls Mac to come to England and find a spoon that was supposedly stolen from the crown jewels by the president of France. Mac goes, gets a Corgi sidekick, and (of course) solves the mystery. But that’s beside the point (at least for me). What was the point was the silliness of it all. The way Mac talks directly to the reader (telling them to look it up when he drops a fact or two), or his silly asides. Add in the pictures and it’s just hilarious.

I hope kids will like this one. I sure did.

Sheets

by Brenna Thummler
First sentence: “It’s difficult to list, in order, the things I hate.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up at CI6
Release date: August 28, 2018
Content: There is a slight romance, and some bullying. It’ll be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Marjorie Glatt’s mother has recently died and her father has gone into mourning. Which means that 13-year-old Marjorie is left taking care of everything: school, her five-year-old brother, and running the family laundromat. It’s a lot for a 13-year-old to take on, especially when one of the town’s residents, Mr. Saubertuck, keeps trying to put her out of business so he can start his 5-star spa and yoga center.

Walter is a recently deceased ghost, who doesn’t like being a ghost. So, he skips ghost town (yes, there is a ghost town!) and heads to the nearby city where he finds the Glatt’s laundromat, which turns out to be a ghost’s paradise. What they discover is that a girl and a ghost can, in fact, help each other out, and make both of their lives easier.

This is a super charming little graphic novel. It deals with a tough subject — grief and death — but in such a way that it’s accessible to kids and gets them to think  (and laugh!) in ways that a prose novel wouldn’t have. I love Thummler’s illustrations, from the ghosts who have personalities in spite of being covered with sheets to Marjorie and Mr. Saubertuck.

Delightful.