Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable” language or other-wise, but the main character is 14 years old, and the themes seemed a bit more mature than the usual middle grade fare. So, it’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Marcus Vega is a very large 14 year old. He’s one of those kids that went through puberty early, and he’s the giant in the hallway. He uses this to his advantage: he charges kids for his “protection” services, walking them to school and home again and otherwise being the heavy, enforcing the principal’s rules (for a fee). The money goes home to help out his struggling single mom, and he’s also super protective of his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. So, it’s not out of character for Marcus to punch a kid — the school bully, Stephen — for making fun of his brother. However, it’s his word against Stephen’s, and Stephen’s parents are the super involved, high donors type, and so it’s Marcus who ends up being threatened with expulsion. Thankfully, it’s right before spring break, and Marcus’s mom decides that it’s about time for them to head to Puerto Rico to meet Marcus’s father’s (who left when Marcus was four) family.

Marcus then becomes obsessed with finding and confronting his father, if only for closure. This takes him, his mother, and his brother, all over the island, meeting different members of the extended Vega clan. But, mostly what this book becomes at this point is an extended love letter to Puerto Rico. The book starts with a blurb about the hurricanes that hit the island last year, and how many of these places in the book are no longer like Cartaya describes them. But, as a reader, you can tell the affection that Cartaya has for the island. It’s a charming, sweet, Spanish- and Puerto Rican-infused book. Sure, Marcus has a happy ending but that’s not the point of the book, I think. It’s more to raise awareness: there is a culture and a history in Puerto Rico that’s rich and rewarding and even though they’re different from us, they’re also Americans too.

And while it’s not as good as visiting Puerto Rico, it’s a good second choice.

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Sheets

by Brenna Thummler
First sentence: “It’s difficult to list, in order, the things I hate.”
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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.

Hello, Universe

by Erin Entrada Kelly
First sentence: “Eleven-year-old Virgil Salinas already regretted the rest of middle school, and he’d only just finished sixth grade.”
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Content: There’s some bullying. This will be in the Newbery section of the bookstore. Before that (if I had ordered it in; why didn’t I?) it would have been in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sometimes, fate works in ways that you have no control over.

Virgil is shy, quiet, and the object of bullying at school. He doesn’t really stand up for himself, and doesn’t know how to change that.

Valencia is deaf, but she doesn’t let that define her. Unfortunately, everyone else does. She doesn’t have any friends because of that.

And  Kaori, a budding psychic and fortune teller, is the one to bind everyone together.

This is a sweet story of making new friends, of figuring up how to stand up for yourself. About fate and connecting to one another. And about not being alone. It’s delightful and even if I completely missed it before it was awarded the Newbery, it’s perfectly deserving of that award.

Strawberry Girl

by Lois Lenski
First sentence: “‘Thar goes our cow, Pa!’ said the little girl.”
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Content: It’s written in dialect, which might throw some readers off. It’s in the Newbery award section at the bookstore.

I remember reading this one when I was really young, maybe 2nd or third grade, when I was going through my pioneer stage. I was fascinated with old fashioned life, and the way settlers lived, and this one, though set in the early 1900s, fit that bill.

Birdie and her family have bought a house and land in mid-Florida, intending to start a strawberry farm and orange orchard. Their neighbors, the Slaters, who have lived on the land for several generations (though probably squatting, technically), have issues: they don’t like Birdie’s families uppity ways, their fences, their ambition. It’s only through long-suffering, hard work, and kindness that Birdie and her family make it through their first year,

Honestly, I think this one holds up pretty well. Lenski interviewed a lot of “Crackers”, original white settlers in Florida, and used their stories as a basis for this book, which gives it an understanding that would be missing if she hadn’t. I liked Birdie, her fire and her determination, and I was surprised at just how spiteful the Slaters were towards these outsiders. There’s also a strong class division running through the book — one I’m sure I didn’t pick up on as a kid — with Birdie’s family being able to afford nice things because they were disciplined. This plays into the “American dream” narrative — if you just work really hard, you’ll be rich — which I’m not sure is a good narrative to have around anymore. And the ending was surprisingly religious: you find God, you can be saved and change your evil ways. Even so, it was a sweet little book.

Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

by Becky Albertalli
First sentence: “It’s a weirdly subtle conversation.”
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Content: There’s quite a bit of swearing, including a lot of f-bombs, and some teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This one is a difficult one to sum up plot-wise. Simon is gay, but he’s not out. He’s being blackkmailed by another student who found out (accidentally) about Simon’s gayness, because Simon is emailing and flirting with a boy, Blue, online. Their relationship is entirely online, even though Simon knows that Blue is a student at his high school… Blue is just more comfortable with the anonymity.

As the book goes on, Simon juggles being blackmailed, and making and keeping friends, and high school drama, as he falls in love with Blue, and tries to figure everything out.

It’s not a deep or complex plot, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved Simon and his loveable awkwardness as he tries to figure everything out. (Being a high school junior is hard.) I loved his relationship with Blue, and once he figured it out, their in-person relationship. I liked Simon’s  family — it’s always nice to see a good, functional family in a YA novel — and his friends, and liked that there was conflict between them, but not of the sort that went against their fundamental relationship. It was sweet and wonderful and just happy-making. Which is what I would call this book. Maybe not perfect, but definitely very very wonderful.

Me and Marvin Gardens

by Amy Sarig King
First sentence: “There were mosquitoes.:
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some bullying, a kiss, and a lot of talk of scat. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Obe (pronounced like Obi-Wan Kenobi) Devlin’s family has lived on their land for generations. But his great-grandfather was an alcoholic (never explicitly stated, but heavily implied) and mortgaged their land away to support his habit. Years later, the land is no longer being farmed but has been sold to developers, and it was then that Obe, now in 6th grade, began losing the life he’d always known.  And it isn’t just the change in landscape; with houses come new kids, who have different priorities and tend to tease (nay: bully) Obe. And with housing, comes pollution.

Obe’s really concerned about the environment (as is K; she’s the one I thought about most while reading this) and on one of his trips to clean up the creek by his house, he finds this creature. A creature that eats plastic. Maybe this is the solution to the Obe’s environmental concerns? It’s not that simple (it never is), but Obe’s finding of this creature, whom he names Marvin Gardens, changes his life.

It was a nice, quiet little book, this.  A bit about being conscious about how you treat the world. A bit about friends. A bit about toxic masculinity. A bit about science. A bit about history. And maybe, in the end, that was why I didn’t connect terribly well with it: it was trying to be too many things. New species (is it an alien? Where did it come from?), friendship, neglectful parents, history…. Decide already.

I can see some people — K, among them — really liking this one, though.

 

Brave

by Svetlana Chmakova
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some bullying, but it’s really appropriate for 4th-6th graders. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section.

I really don’t know what inspired me to pick this up; perhaps it was lack of time, and a graphic novel is easy to get through… I’ve not read Awkward, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this one.

Jason is a 6th grader, and in his dreams he’s got big plans to be an astronaut at NASA and help figure out sunspots. In real life, however, he’s not so great. He’s bad at math, his friends (such as they are) are constantly poking fun at him, he’s often left out of groups, and he’s got two bullies on his tail. But, as the story progresses, things start to look up for Jason. Because he’s left out of the art club planning, he gets to help out at the newspaper. He makes a friend in Jorge, with whom he has nothing in common, but who is kind and interested in what Jason has to say. And, perhaps most importantly, he realizes he’s being bullied (not just by the kids on his tail, but also by his “friends”), and stands up for himself.

It’s that last thing that made this book so good for me. It’s easy for adults to say “stand up to bullies”, but honestly, not many kids realize they’re being bullied. (I sure didn’t, when I was in middle and high school. Neither did C when she was bullied in middle school) A lot of people brush it off as “jokes” or “criticism” but, honestly, it’s just plain bullying. I loved that Chmakova addressed that, that Jason had to REALIZE he was being bullied in order for him to take ownership of his own world. It makes me want to give it to all kids — because maybe those who are doing the bullying don’t realize they are hurting other people — just to get a conversation going.

I really enjoyed this one.