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.”
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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.

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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.

Return to Sender

by Julia Alvarez
First sentence: “Tyler looks out the window of his bedroom and can’t believe what he is seeing.”
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Content: There’s a bully, and some conflict. And it’s a bit on the longer side. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I’m taking a mulitcultural children’s literature class, and this one is on the list. I was a little way in, and I thought it felt familiar, so I looked it up, and yep: I’ve read it before. Except this time, because it’s for a class, I felt a need to finish it.

It’s told in two voices: Tyler, the son of white dairy farmers in Vermont who are going through a rough patch and need to hire people to help out. They go with the cheap option, and hire a family of migrant workers, who are in the U.S. illegally. And Mari, the daughter of the Mexican family.

There are Things Going On: not just the threat of a raid since they hired undocumented workers, but Mari fitting in at school, the fact that Mari’s mom has disappeared (she went home to Mexico for her mother’s funeral and hasn’t come back yet, even though she started), and just general pre-teenage angst in general.

I found it less preachy this time — mostly because I hadn’t remembered that issues of undocumented immigration or the wall was an issue back in 2005-2006. I found that aspect of it interesting. The idea of The Wall isn’t new, it’s just the most recent manifestation of people who want to enter this country and our extreme dislike for letting them in.

But it was’t a great story either. I didn’t like the format; Tyler’s chapters were odd (written in the present tense) and Mari’s chapters were all letters, which I found a bit hard to suspend my disbelief. I don’t usually mind epistolary novels, but this one was just a bit much.

I finished it this time, sure, but it’s not one of my favorites.

Glory Be

by Augusta Scattergood
First sentence: “What was taking Frankie so long?
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Content: There’s some physical violence. It’s short and the chapters are short. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Glory, the youngest daughter of a Southern preacher, has grown up all her life in Hanging Moss, Mississippi. She hasn’t thought much about how her cook, Emma, is black. Or why she doesn’t see any black people at the pool or library. But, it’s the summer of 1964, and things are changing. The pool closes “for repairs”, but it’s because the pool committee doesn’t want “those people” sullying the waters. They try to do the same with the library, but the librarian stands up and keeps it open. And Glory’s best friend, Frankie, is on the line because his older brother and father are leading the charge against desegregation.

This had a lot of the same feeling as The Help did: white southern people being enlightened and standing up to their racist neighbors, but not really doing much else. I don’t know. It wasn’t bad, and I’m glad that white people have this kind of awaking story, but it kind of left a sour aftertaste. It was a very white book (I am surprised it was on my list for a mulitcultural children’s literature class…) and I wanted, well, more. Emma, the cook, didn’t play a huge role, and the whole book had a white savior narrative to it: Look! White people can recognize that black people are people too. Ugh.

I wanted more.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

by Karina Yan Glaser
First sentence: “In the middle of a quiet block on 141st Street, inside a brownstone made of deep red shale, the Vanderbeeker family gathered in the living room for a family meeting.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a wee bit of “romance” (one of the siblings “likes” a boy and ends up going to the 8th grade dance). The chapters are short, and there’s a lot of white space. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

The Vanderbeeker family — mom, dad, and five children (four girls and a boy) — are perfectly happy in their brownstone apartment (one of three) in Harlem. They know the neighborhood, and even though they’re a bit squished, they love their home. That is, until their landlord, Mr. Beiderman, tells them a few days before Christmas, that he’s not renewing their lease for the next year and that they have until December 31st to get out. The Vanderbeeker parents are upset and resigned. The kids? Upset, but they’re going to do something about it! They being Operation Beiderman, They set about doing nice things for their grump of a landlord, in hopes that he will realize what a wonderful family they are and not kick them out.

You can probably already guess how this will end, but the plot really isn’t the point of the book. It reminded me of All of a Kind Family or The Penderwicks, where the actual point of the book was this charming, boisterous, delightful family that I loved getting to know. It was sweet and delightful and I loved the family dynamics between all the characters. This one is perfect for those who want a classic feel to their books. And I’m sure this would make a fabulous read-aloud to younger kids.

Definitely recommended.

Finding Orion

by John David Anderson
First sentence: “The night we found out about Papa Kwirk, I had a jelly bean for dinner.”
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Release date: May 7, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a brief mention of kissing. And this one feels more weightier than Anderson’s usual fare. It’s still in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it might be better for older readers.

Orion (call me Rion, pronounced Ryan, please) is the middle child — and only boy — in a very, well, quirky family. His mom runs the local planetarium (hence being named after a constellation; his sisters are Cassiopeia and Lyra) and his dad invents jelly beans at the local candy factory. Cass, his older sister, is super into theater and Lyra is a 10-year-old brainiac. The only person Rion can relate to is his grandfather, Papa Kwirk: he, with is stories of Vietnam and Harley Davidson, at least seems “normal.” The only downside is that they only see Papa Kwirk once a year, at Christmas.

But then, Papa Kwirk suddenly passes away. And Rion and his family head to his dad’s hometown for the funeral, and come to realize that they don’t know Papa Kwirk as well as they thought they did. The next couple of days, as they head around town on a scavenger hunt (no one said the Kwirks do things the easy way), they discover that there is more to Papa Kwirk than they could have ever imagined.

I have adored Anderson’s books — some more than others — for a while now. He’s always a bit odd, and he tackles big subjects (like the death of a grandparent) with humor and heart. It’s not as funny as some of his other books, but I really loved the way the family worked together (chalk this one up with The Penderwicks as a good family book!) to solve the scavenger hunt. It embraces the importance of family and telling family stories, which I also appreciated. There was a slight subplot that was a bit hokey, but it set up a great climatic scene where the entire family worked together.

So, maybe this isn’t a true middle grade book, but it’s still a fun read.

Grump

by Leisl Shurtliff
First sentence: “I was born just feet from the surface o the earth, completely unheard o for a dwarf, but it couldn’t be helped.”
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Content: It’s got a longer chapters, and some challenging words, but nothing too outrageous. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the library.

Borlen is a very unusual dwarf: he was born near the surface and is more curious about the human world than digging for gems. He carries around a pet bat, and spends his time reading about the human world and trying to go above and see it. His Fate Stone — the stone that all dwarves get when they come of age — is a mirror, which is unheard of. And so, when he’s placed as a Seventh (the worst position) on a mining team and there’s a chance for him to see what the humans are like, he takes it. 

Once above ground, Borlen stumbles into the clutches of Snow White’s power-hungry stepmother, the Queen Elfrieda Vronika Ingrid Lenore (let’s see if you get it), who unfortunately mis-interprets the word “fairest” to mean most beautiful instead of most fair. That creates a problem for Borlen, when he’s tasked with seeing Snow White killed.

The rest of the plot follows the fairy tale pretty closely, and I enjoyed it. I’m not entirely sure why giving Borlen — Grump of the seven dwarves (I recognized Sneezy, Bashful, and a couple others in the mix) — a backstory was necessary to retell Snow White, but it did make for an entertaining little book.