Dear Mr. Henshaw

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Dear Mr. Henshaw,  My teacher read your book about the dog to our class.”
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Content:  It’s simple without being simplistic, and deals with some tougher themes like bullying and divorce. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

Even though I was the perfect age when this came out (I was 11 in 1983), somehow I missed it. Maybe I didn’t pick it up because by the time I was 11 I was reading Agatha Christie and trying to read War in Peace, and this would have seemed too simplistic for me. (Also, maybe the boy on the cover turned me off? I don’t know.) But, having read it now (for the first time!), I’m sorry I missed out on it.

It’s the story of a boy, Leigh Botts, who writes to his favorite author, and over the course of the book, figures out a bit about himself. His parents are divorced; his dad’s a trucker and his mom works at a catering company. He doesn’t see much of his dad at all, and because he’s in a new school, he’s finding it difficult to make friends. And so he turns to Mr. Henshaw, his favorite author, writing him letters. Eventually, those letters become a journal, and eventually that journal helps Leigh figure out things. At least a little bit.

This is the sort of book I needed when I was 11. We had just moved and I was starting a brand-new school in sixth grade, one where everyone had grown up together and I was most definitely the outsider, so I could completely empathize with Leigh. No, my parents weren’t divorced, but I understood his loneliness and his desire to be accepted and loved. I loved that there was a teacher who was good to Leigh, but didn’t play the “inspiring teacher” role. Leigh did figure things out by himself, with just a bit of guidance by the author and his teacher and his mom.  It was delightfully different from the other Cleary books I read this summer, more weighty and less, well, simplistic. It ended hopefully but not happily, and it gave me things to think about. And I think it definitely deserved the Newbery Medal it won.

Excellent.

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Alex, Approximately

by Jenn Bennett
First sentence: “He could be anyone of these people.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of drug use (by a minor character), some teenage drinking, and some non-graphic sex. There is also some mild swearing and two f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Bailey has just moved to California to live with her dad, and it just happens to be in the same northern California surfing town as her on-line BFF (and crush), Alex. He’s everything she thinks she wants: they share the same taste in movies, they love to banter… the only thing is that she doesn’t know who he is.

And then she meets Porter Roth. He’s everything Alex is not: annoying, irritating, and a surfer. And Bailey’s stuck working with him at her new summer job. But then, she finds herself falling for him and starts to wonder whether or not she needs Alex after all.

That kind of sounds lame, doesn’t it? But, truthfully, it’s the perfect mix of retro, sassy repartee, and romance (with a few steamy bits). There’s California surf culture (though it felt more southern than northern, but that’s nit-picky), there’s a bad egg of a former best friend to keep things exciting. There’s a friendship story as well as a boyfriend story and it’s summery and just perfect. And yeah, the “big” reveal at the end is pretty obvious (you can figure it out a mile away), but you know what? I didn’t care.

It hit the spot.

Like a River Glorious

likearivergloriousby Rae Carson
First sentence: “Sunrise comes late to California.”
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Others in the series: Walk on Earth a Stranger
Content: There are some difficult scenes of emotional and physical abuse. The book is in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’d let people know about the abuse before handing it to them.

Lee Westfall and her friends have made it to California, and Lee, with her “witchy” gold sense, have found them a pretty prime spot for gold hunting. Things are going well, until Lee’s awful (doesn’t even begin to describe it) uncle sends his henchmen to fetch her. They kill a couple of her friends, set fire to the camp, and basically kidnap Lee and a couple of others, including her beau, Jefferson. They end up at Lee’s uncle’s camp, which being run horribly, to say the least. He’s kidnapped Native peoples to do the work, and beats them while keeping them in squalor and nearly starving them. He’s “hired” Chinese workers, but doesn’t treat (or pay) them well at all. Lee is horrified, and doesn’t want to help this awful man, but he beats up Jefferson and her other friends in order to gain her cooperation. It’s awful, but it works. The question is: how can she survive in this situation while looking for a way to get out.

I’ll be honest: this one was slow starting. I picked it up and put it down several times, but after about 50 or so pages, it picked up considerably. So much so, that I didn’t want to put it back down. Carson doesn’t airbrush the treatment of the native peoples, and she is quietly feminist as well. Hiram (Lee’s uncle) is horrible, awful, and downright scary (I was thinking he was going to rape her at one point…) and while the ending is a bit too pat, it does wrap things up nicely.

A solid historical fantasy.

Ghosts

ghostsby Raina Telgemeier
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 13, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s frank talk about death, so maybe it’s not for the younger kids (that depends on your kid). Otherwise, it will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Cat is resentful (and feels guilty about it). Her younger sister has cystic fibrosis and the climate in northern California is going to be better for her. Plus she’ll be closer to better doctors. But that means Cat has to upend her life and move. And she doesn’t want to have to start over. Especially since their new town seems to be a bit… obsessed… with ghosts.

But, as she settles in and makes friends, she discovers that maybe things aren’t always as they seem (and maybe sometimes they are), and that maybe she and her family can find a home here.

I love Telgemeier’s work. I love that she took something as series as a sibling with an incurable illness and made it not only accessible to kids but entertaining. She uses the Dia de los Muertos celebrations to talk about those we love who have died, and how we can honor and celebrate their lives. There’s also the usual pre-teen adjustments: making friends, handling school, boys… And it all balances out to an absolutely delightful graphic novel.

Highly, highly recommended.

Tell Me Three Things

tellmethreethingsby Julie Buxbaum
First sentence: “Seven hundred and thirty-three days after my mom died, forty-five days after my dad eloped with a stranger he met on the Internet, thirty days after we then up and moved to California, and only seven days after starting as a junior at a brand-new school where I know approximately no one, an email arrives.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: April 5, 2016
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including a dozen f-bombs, some teen drug use and drinking, as well as talk of sex. It’ll be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Two years after Jessie’s mom’s’ death, her father decides to move on, marrying a woman from L. A. that he met on one of the grief chat boards. What that means for Jessie, however, is being uprooted before her senior year, forced to leave her Chicago home and friends and forced to move in with a stepmother she doesn’t know and a stepbrother who loathes her and go to a private school where everything she does is wrong. Then she gets an email out of the blue from someone who calls himself “Somebody Nobody” and they start a conversation. One that, over the course of the fall, becomes increasingly important to Jessie. `

The big mystery, though, is who this Somebody Nobody is. Jessie’s pretty sure it’s a guy, but which one? And, as they get closer and she spills more of her secrets to him, will the ever meet?

I fell head over heels in love. Sure, it’s a bit 99% with the private school and the rich California kids, and sure there’s the whole dead-parent thing, but it’s a good picture of a girl trying to get past her mom’s death (rather than her mom dying) and moving on. and I liked how Buxbaum dealt with the whole blended family thing. But, what I really liked was the romance. I adored the conversations between SN and Jessie (is it bad that I peeked at the end to find out if it was who I hoped it was?) and I felt that Buxbaum found a creative and clever way to make their relationship grow without it feeling trite or cliche.

It really was a delightful read.

Audio book: Wild

wildby Cheryl Strayed
Read by Bernadette Dunne
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Content: Drug use, sex, drinking, yeah: it’s all in here. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

I was wandering around, looking for a new audio book, and stumbled on this one. I figured so many people have raved about it that it couldn’t be terrible. So, I picked it up.

If you’ve been under a rock, it’s Cheryl’s personal story of her redemption, of sorts, after her mother died and her marriage fell apart (due to her infidelities and drug addiction). She decides that what she needs to do is hike the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington (actually, Oregon came later, after she discovered that the Sierras were snowed in) alone. She has no experience, she has no idea what’s in store for her. And yet, you have to admire her for going through with it, even when — especially when — the going gets hard.

But I couldn’t get past the “poor me” vibe that I felt was under the whole book. Maybe it’s because Cheryl didn’t narrate her own book and I never really got past that. Or maybe I’m just too judgmental (which I am, unfortunately). But while I really enjoyed the moments when Cheryl was battling against the trail, and mostly succeeding, I didn’t have much patience for Cheryl herself. (Now that I write this, it sounds really judgmental. Maybe it’s just wrong time wrong book?) I was talking to someone who had a similar experience with Eat, Pray, Love (which I really liked). Perhaps we’re more apt to judge women who travel because their lives are broken than those (men?) who just up and leave (I’m looking at you, Bill Bryson) to go experience the world.

I don’t know. I just know that I didn’t connect with this one as much as I hoped it would.

Peas and Carrots

peasandcarrotsby Tanita S. Davis
First sentence: “By the door,on the other side of the sheet that divides the room, Baby cries in his car seat.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 9, 2016
Disclaimer: I’ve met the author, working with her for KidlitCon in Sacramento and I find her an absolutely delightful person.
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There are several instances of mild swearing, plus some illusions to adult drug and alcohol use. Because there are no f-bombs, it’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8, though it might be better for the older end of that spectrum) of the bookstore.

Dess is a 15-year-old girl stuck in the foster care system. Her deadbeat dad’s finally in jail, as is her mom. Dess’s grandmother gave up trying to care for her and her baby brother years ago. Dess is determined: she doesn’t need anyone. And so when she gets placed in a new home, one of an affluent family, she figures it’s not going to last.

Hope’s parents are stable and happy and take in foster kids, including Dess’s brother Austin, to give back to the community. Hope’s used to the revolving door of kids, but there’s never been one close to her age. Until now. And since Dess is doing pretty much everything to keep people at arm’s length, Hope knows that living with Dess is going to be a challenge. She just doesn’t know if she’ll be able to adjust.

First test: which one of these girls is African American and which one is white? (Answer: Dess is white. Did you pass?) That’s actually one of the first things I liked about this: Davis takes your (my) assumptions about foster care, about the State of the Country, and turns it upside down. In this story, the white girl is the one who’s on the run from an abusive family and the black girl who has the stable life. And Davis doesn’t leave it there; there’s discussion about race and class and belonging, which I respect.

And, as an unofficial foster parent myself, I found myself nodding and agreeing and loving the entire book. Yes, the kids come with baggage and a backstory that usually isn’t pretty. Yes, their lives can be changed by living in a stable, more affluent (though we’re not nearly as well off as Hope’s parents) situation. But Davis also got the corollary to that: having a foster kid in your home is challenging, sometimes disruptive, but is also life-changing. And, if you let yourself — as Hope and Dess eventually find out — you will be better off for it.

Definitely worth reading.