Some Places More than Others

by Renee Watson
First sentence: “‘New York City is no place or a little girl,’ Mom says.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some arguing, but mostly it’s pretty good for the age group — 8-12 — that it’s aimed for. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amara wants one thing for her 12th birthday: to go see her father’s home and family in New York City. She’d love to go by herself, but she’ll take going with her father on a business trip. The problem? Her father hasn’t spoken to her grandfather in 12 years, since Amara was born and her grandmother passed away.

It takes a while (probably a bit longer than it should for the pacing in the book, but that’s being nitpick-y), but Amara is on her way to Harlem to see her grandfather, aunt, and cousins (whom she has only spoken to). It’s awkward, especially since her cousins are 14 and 16 and don’t really want to hang out with her. Amara has a few adventures (and mis-adventures) and learns about her own personal history as well as African American history in Harlem.

I enjoyed the book, mostly for the history as well as the class tensions between Amara — who is decidedly upper middle class — and her cousins — who are not. I liked Amara as a character, and I think Watson got the middle grade voice right, even if the pacing was slightly off.

In the end, it was a sweet story about learning the importance of where you (or your people) came from.

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My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
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Release date: August 27, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s kind of hard to tell imagination from reality and the print is a bit on the small side for a middle grade book. It’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore, but I’d give it mostly to 5-6th graders.

Ebony-Grace lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her mom and grandpa, who works at the NASA space center. He’s only an engineer — there’s no black astronauts in 1984 — but he inspires Ebony Grace. They have their own imaginary world, where he is Captain Fleet and she is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and the go on Star Trek-inspired adventures throughout space. Except, now Ebony is being sent to her father’s in Harlem, which seems like a whole new planet — she dubs it No Joke City — with a whole bunch of “nefarious minions” that she can’t quite figure out. It doesn’t help that the friend she made last time she was in Harlem (three years ago!), Bianca, has moved on from space adventure games and is now jumping Double Dutch, breakdancing, and rapping with her crew, the Nine Flavas. Ebony has no idea how to fit in and just wants to go home.

On the one hand, this is a fun bit of historical fiction and I appreciated a geek girl main character. I loved that Ebony was super into space and science fiction and super knowledgeable about it. It was nice to see a Black girl be into something that is usually reserved for white boys. So yay for that! And I could relate to Ebony’s feeling of otherness, coming from the South and going to the north. I moved to Michigan from Utah right before 6th grade, and felt a lot of the same sense of outsiderness. I talked funny, I didn’t understand the lingo, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t really listened to the radio (like ever: I mostly listened to my parents records). This one will really resonate with kids who feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

What I didn’t like — what I reacted really viscerally and negatively to — were the adults in the book. I think they’re historically accurate: Ebony’s mom is more concerned with the way Ebony looks and that she’s polite and obedient to her elders, and her father isn’t much better. But I wanted to shake them all. They have a girl who is interested in SPACE! Why are they calling her crazy and telling her she needs to stop with the nonsense?!? Just because she’s a girl?!? The rampant sexism (again: historically accurate) drove me absolutely nuts. And it trickled down to the kids that Ebony met as well: they “grew up” and cared for more “grown up” things — clothes, boys, competitions, and I was so angry that they kept calling Ebony crazy and stupid for liking the things she liked.

I also had issues with the ending — Ebony never finds out what happens to her grandfather who gets in a bit of trouble off-screen and then suddenly dies (WTH?!) — but it’s a middle grade novel, so I can forgive that.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this book. I want to recommend it, because I like Zoboi and I like the idea of a geeky Black girl. I just may not be able to get past my anger at the adults.

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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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?
Support your local independent bookstore: by it there!
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.