Figure it Out, Henri Weldon

by Tanita S. Davis
First sentence: “Fluorescent lights really, really sounded like bees, Henrietta decided, shifting in her seat.”
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Disclaimer: Tanita and I are both on the Cybils board, but I purchased the book.
Content: There’s some mild bullying. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Henrietta – Henri for short – Weldon feels like she has a lot to figure out. She’s in 7th grade, but she’s just transferred to a public school, so the family could afford for her mother to get her Ph.D. It’s an adjustment, to say the least. On top of that, Henri and her older sister, Kat, are always arguing, though Henri feels like it’s always Kat picking on and nagging her. Kat has, especially, told Henri she is not to be friends with the Morgans – a group of foster kids living in the same home. Except the Morgans are nice to Henri. And then there’s math, which Henri just doesn’t get. As things start piling up, and she feels less and less like she has support at home, Henri wonders: Will she ever figure things out?

This was such a charming book. The sibling rivalry felt realistic, even though I felt bad for Henri – she was really trying her best, and her family just kept piling on. Families do that, though. And I can see how the youngest child would especially feel that. I liked the way Tanita depicted Henri’s learning disability; there are a lot of books out there on dyslexia and other reading disorders, but not much about dyscalculia, and I appreciated learning how Henri dealt with it. But, mostly it was a book about a girl trying to figure things out, which feels very 7th-grade. And I really really liked it.

The Way I Say it

by Nancy Tandon
First sentence: “I can’t say my name.”
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Content: There is pretty explicit bullying, a child gets in a bike accident and ends up with a brain injury, and there is talk of crushes and liking girls. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Rory has problems saying his /r/ sounds, which is why he has a hard time saying his name. He’s in 6th grade, which he feels is a bit too old to be in speech therapy with the school pathologist, but since he can’t say the r-sound correctly, off he goes. He’s bullied for not talking right, and even though he’s a brilliant 11-year-old guitar player who likes classic metal /rock) he’s still shunned. Especially by his ex-best friend Brent.

The book goes over the whole sixth-grade year (which is a bit excessive, I think, for a middle-grade book), following Rory as he learns to navigate 6th grade without his best friend. He makes new friends, he enjoyed speech class because of his super cool teacher, Mr. Simms, and after Brent has a bike accident (he’s hit y a drunk driver) and ends up in speech class with Rory, he learns to maybe find a way to get past the betrayal he felt from becsue of Brent’s actions. Oh, plus there’s a bully.

I felt like, reading this book, I could play Middle Grade Novel Trope Bingo, and get at last a bingo, if not a blackout. Magical white male teacher? Check. Magical Negro friend who is super upbeat and inspirational? Check. Cute girl, who he has a crush on but is afraid to tell her? Check. Super good at something unique, like the guitar? Check. Clueless parents (overprotective mom, and dad he can’t connect with)? Check. Bully who is “ethnic”? Check. So. many. tropes. I got so tired of trope after trope after trope. Tandon is a speech pathologist, and I could tell that she wanted to highlight some interesting and different methods to get kids to say their sounds right. But that was the only part of the book I felt she cared about. The rest of the book – from the bullying at school to the breakup with the friend, to the ineffective parents (all around – Brent’s mother made him RIDE THE BUS the day he started back at school after his accident. What parent does that?!) was just mediocre at best.

*sigh* You can’t win them all.

The Marvelous Land of Snergs

by Veronica Cossanteli
First sentence: “‘Children need rules,’ stated Miss Watkyns.”
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Release date: September 20, 2022
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at the bookstore.
Content: There is some violence, but not really. I was telling someone at the bookstore that this will make a great read aloud but I have no idea if an 8-10 year old will want to pick it up Maybe the right 8-10 year old. It’s in the Middle Grae section of the bookstore.

Pip and Flora are orphans, who have found themselves at the Sunny By Hoe for Superfluous and Accidentally Parentless Children. They are not entirely happy there; the director, Miss Watkyns, is very strict and always going on about rules, and Pip and Flora are not terribly good at following them. until one day, when they are punished and then end up in the woods, and through a gate that was accidenally left over, and they find themseleves in teh land of the Snergs. Their guide, Gorbo, isn’t not terribly bright or put-together, but together they manage to get in a bit of trouble, meet the Snerg Queen and go up against a wicked witch.

No, it’s not a plot-heavy book though Things do Happen It really would make a delightful read-aloud to a 4-6-year-old, someone who doesn’t mind the low stakes and would be entertained by the silliness. Because it is sill. Not ad, just silly. The marketing material says it’s based on the original story by E. A. Wyke-Smith, which inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit, so there is that. IT does feel like something from the 1920s, with its Capital Letters and morals (but not terribly heavy-handed morals). Even so, I found it delightful. Not deep, but entertaining.

Which is probably all I really needed.

The Ogress and the Orphans

by Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “Listen.”
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Content: It is long, and kind of old-timey sounding. It’s probably not for every kid. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the booktore.

Things are amis in the town Stone-in-the-Glen. The neighbors, who used to be neighborly, are now suspicious of each other, and who didn’t really interact as a community. The orphans at the Orphan house are struggling with supplies; the community has gone back on their promise to keep them funded. And the mayor, well, he’s shiny and charismatic, but there’s something Not Right about him. And when an ogress moves in outside of town, everyone (well the mayor) decides that it’s all her fault that things seem to be going wrong.

On the one hand, if you don’t realize that this is a fable, an allegory for the United States in the past few years, you’re probably a clueless reader (or young? Will kids get this?). The fear of the Other, being hoodwinked by the shiny (and corupt), thee reteating into our own holes, and the decline of what it means to be a neighbor. It’s all there. But: Barnhill is a gifted writer, and she has spun this classic fable, this touching story about belonging, about what itmeans to be a nieghbr and a friend, and about community. The ending made me cry, the characters were super charming, and it’s a reminder that we’re not alone in this world.

It may be more for adults, but it’s still a very good book.

The Last Cuentista

by Donna Barba Higuera
First sentence: “
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Content: There are some intense moments and suggestions of killing. It’s in the YA section (but will be moved to the Newbery section, since it won the Newbery medal on Monday) of the bookstore.

Petra wants to be a storyteller like Lita, her grandmother. But the world is ending, and her family is one of the few that found a space on the departing ships because they are scientists. She is put in stasis, which kind of goes wrong, and when she wakes up 380 years later the world has gone sideways. A group called the Collective has taken over the ship, and it’s nothing like Petra — who can still remember Earth — was expecting.

What she found is a ship full of “shrimp” people, who eat this nutritious “biomass” block every day, who have tonics who alter their moods, and who don’t question the word of the Chancellor. All diversity, all difference, all remnants of Earth life have been erased.

In many ways, this is the same old story: diversity is what makes us strong; the acts that get us to sameness are despicable. Butt his adds a layer. Petra is a storyteller, a person who loves to tell the stories that she grew up with. And stories, more than anything else, are what connect us to our past. I loved that Higuera emphasized the importance of stories in addition to knowledge.

There was so much to love. It’s a brilliant world Higuera created, one that I would love to know more about. And she knows how to ramp up the tension. I was quite anxious several times in the story, not knowing how it was going to go. The stakes were real without being harsh. You do have to suspend your disbelief a bunch – can a 13-year-old who has been in stasis for 380 years really do this? – but other than that, it’s an incredible book.

I’m glad I read it.

Starfish

by Lisa Fipps
First sentence: “I step down into the pool.”
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Content: It’s in verse, so good for reluctant readers. Though her mother is… not great.. which may be triggering for some. It’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

This is a book about Ellie. Ellie, who has been called “splash” since her 5th birthday party, when her older sister christened her that, after a huge cannonball into the pool. Ellie, who is bullied mercilessly at school by, well, pretty much everyone. Ellie, whose mother is constantly nagging Ellie about what she eats, how much she weighs, and lamenting that Ellie’s life would be better if she was just, well thinner.

This is a book about Ellie learning — through the help of a therapist (yay!) — that she has worth as a human being, no matter what she weighs; that she can stand up for herself at school and to her mom; and that true friends will have your back always.

Oh my heart, I loved this book. I loved Fipps poetry, the way she made Ellie three-dimensional as a character, though everyone else from teachers and kids at school to her siblings and mom (except her dad; there’s probably a whole essay on why it was her mom that was always picking on her weight and not her dad) kept trying to define her by how she looked. It says so much about society that we can’t see fat people as anything but “fat”, and not as people, and I think Fipps hits upon that. It’s always age appropriate — Ellie is in 7th grade, and she feels like a 7th grader — but Fipps is dealing with bullying, self-acceptance and self-love, and confidence no matter what “people” say about you.

It’s an incredibly rewarding book, which I thoroughly loved.

Orange for the Sunsets

by Tina Athaide
First sentence: “Yesofu glanced at his watch.”
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Content: There is some violence and name calling. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

History I didn’t know about: The British colonized Uganda and brought in Indians to do work for them. When the British left, the Indians stayed, filling the hole that the colonizers left. Then, in 1972, there was a military coup, and Idi Amin took over the country. One of the things he decided was that Uganda was for the Black people who have been oppressed, and the Indians — many of whom were citizens or had been born there — needed to get out. He gave them 90 days.

Asha is an Indian, whose best friend is Yesofu, the son of her family’s (Black) servant. They’re best friends, inseperable. That is, utnil Amin gives the order for the Indians to leave. Suddenly they find themselves on opposite sides: Asha believing she is Ugandan and deserves to stay; Yesovu wanting to have what Asha always has had: a good job, a nice house, running water.

There is more to the plot, as the book follows the 90 day countdown. Asha’s father is involved in getting people out of the country; Yesofu is friends with another kid who is incredibly militant about Amin’s orders, to the point of harming Asha.

I am uncertain what I think about this. On the one hand, it’s a story about a part of history I knew nothing about. I do think it’s important to tell those kinds of stories. But on the other hand, this book wanted me to sympathize with the colonizers, to feel bad that Asha and her family, the Indians who had lived in Uganda, were getting expelled from their home. And I did, but. well, Yesofu had a point too: it wasn’t fair that the native people, the Black people of Uganda were kept in lower positions. I think Athaibe wanted to balance both sides of the story, but I think it kind of felt maudlin at times: Asha and Yesofu trying to hold on to an obviously doomed friendship. I also think Athaibe hammered the corruption of the soldiers home too hard: the last scene is a soldier taking Asha’s mother’s gold bangles as a “payment” to let them leave. It may be true, but it was a bit heavy-handed.

So: conflicted on this one. It wasn’t badly written, but I’m not sure I liked it.

Amina’s Song

by Hena Khan
First sentence: “As I reach for a pair of silver earrings that my best friend, Soojin, might like, Zohra smacks my hand away.”
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Others in the series: Amina’s Voice
Content: There is some talk of “liking” boys. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amina has spent the last month or so in Pakistan visiting her family. She’s enjoyed her stay, though there are frustrating things: she doesn’t speak Urdu well, and everyone would rather practice their English than let her practice her Urdu. And, even though her family is Pakistani, she feels, well, too American.

But when she gets back home and starts seventh grade, no one seems interested in her trip and her stories. On top of that, for her history project, she chose to research Malala Yousafzai, but her classmates only want to focus on the negative parts of the story How is Amina going to keep her promise to her uncle to champion the good things about Pakistan?

Amina struggles with balancing the two parts of her life: the side that loves Pakistan, and her family and her faith; and the side that feels American and loves living here as well.

I love how Khan balances the conflict within Amina; it must be what many children of immigrants feel. I liked that there was a boy that Amina was friends with, and in spite of her friends thinking there was something “more”, all it was is friendship. It was refreshing to read about a seventh grader who wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. I was thoroughly charmed by this sone, and by Amina. I hope there are more stories of hers to tell.

The Length of a String

by Elissa Brent Weissman
First sentence: “Dear Belle, All my life I’ve shared with you.”
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Content: There is talk of death and the Holocaust, and some crushing on boys. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Imani is stuck on what to do for her bat mitzvah project until her great-grandma Anna passes on, and Imani finds an old diary of Anna’s. Anna came to America, by herself, in 1941, sent by her parents to live with “cousins” in New York City right before the Jews in Luxenburg were deported to ghettos and then to concentration camps. Imani is fascinated by Anna’s story not just because of their religious connection, but because Imani is adopted, and has been wondering about her birth family. Anna’s story is told through a series of letters she wrote in a journal. As Imani dives deeper into Anna’s story she has more and more questions about what makes a family.

This was pretty good. I liked the Jewish aspects of it; the preparing for a bat mitzvah, Hebrew school, and the connections made there. I didn’t mind the historical aspect, because it made the Holocaust relevant to today, as opposed to being stuck in the past. I didn’t mind the adoption story, but I did wonder why a white woman author felt this story needed to have a Black main character. I suppose it was good to let readers know that all Jewish people aren’t white presenting, but I don’t know if it was Weissman’s story to tell. That said, it wasn’t a bad book.

Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai

by Debbi Michiko Florence
First sentence: “Heartbreak is for suckers.”
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Content: There is some talk of first romance and divorce. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore. But it’d be good for 6-7th grade as well.

Jenna Sakai has sworn off relationships. First, her parents got a messy diverse and her dad “abandoned” her by moving to Texas from California. Then her boyfriend, Elliot, who she thought she was super compatible with dumped her right before Christmas. After a very lonely winter break at her dad’s house, she’s back in California, at her school, determined to make a fresh start. No more relationships. No more Elliot (except he keeps popping up in places where she thought were Elliot-free). Just focus on the things she’s good at: journalism. Then she discovers a cute diner, and takes to going there as an escape from all the other stress in her life. It’s a great place, until she discovers that Rin Watanabe also uses the diner as a refuge, specifically what she’s come to think about as “her booth”.

Thus begins a tumultuous friendship between Jenna and Rin, as Jenna writes an article digging into a donation his family made to their school. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that gets the gist of things.

I thought it was cute. I was a little “meh” at the beginning — boyfriends/girlfriends in 7th grade kind of turns me off, but Florence kept it pretty age-appropriate with just hand holding. But it was a really good story about a girl learning to trust other people again, after a couple of very big heartbreaks, first with her parents’ divorce, and then with the breakup with someone she thought was super compatible with her. I liked that it showed that middle school romances aren’t always great (thought there was an example of a good, healthy relationship as well). I also think that Florence does a good job capturing the complicated emotions and friendships that middle school has while not making everyone super annoying (which is easy to do). My only complaint is that I didn’t know this was a companion book to another one, and I kind of felt like I didn’t quite have the whole picture sometimes. But that was more my problem than the wriring.

It was a fun book, overall.