Dear Sweet Pea

by Julie Murphy
First sentence: “I’ve counted my birthday savings three times, and at this rate, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough money to clone myself.”
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Release date: October 1, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Most of the problems are with parents and friendships, and so while it may not be interesting to the younger end of the middle grade (grades 3-5) it’s not inappropriate.

As she finishes up seventh grade, Sweet Pea is trying to figure things out. Her parents are getting a divorce, which is hard. But she’s fighting with her best friend, Oscar, while making up with her ex-best friend, Kiera. It’s all super confusing. It doesn’t help that Miss Fannie Mae, who writes the local advice column, has asked Sweet Pea to watch her house while she’s gone, but asks her not to tell anyone, which just puts a huge wrench in the whole situation.

I haven’t read any other of Murphy’s work (why not?) but this one truly tickled me. I loved that she got the middle grade voice down: the real problems are friendships and trying to figure out how to navigate those, as well as trying to understand her family’s new dynamic. They stakes aren’t terribly high, but they’re still meaningful. I appreciated that her parents weren’t awful, but honest and open about their differences and reasons they were splitting. And I loved Sweet Pea. She was charmingly not perfect, but she tried her best and that’s really all that counted.

It’s really a delightful middle grade book.

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Autopsy of a Boring Wife

by Marie-Renee Lavoie
translated by Arielle Aaronson
First sentence: “I’ve always thought it terribly pretentious to gather all your loved ones in one place in order to say: the two of us, right new right now and in spite of the overwhelming statistics, declare that we, temporarily bonded by the illusion of eternity, we are FOREVER.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s talk of sex and some swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The publisher is calling this a “Quebecois Bridget Jones Diary” so I went in expecting a quirky heroine who’s a bit of a hot mess and trying to get her life in order. I expected it to be funny. It’s neither of those things.

On the eve of their 25th anniversary (which seems like not a long enough time, considering they have three kids and two are out of college and only one is starting college… I suppose their oldest could be 23, but he seemed older than that.), Diane’s husband tells her he’s leaving her. She’s boring, he says, and he’s found Better Love with his 30-year-old secretary. At age 48 (again, seems young, but that’s just me), Diane has NO idea what to do with her life, which had (even though she has a full-time job) revolved around her husband and children.

What follows is a pretty interesting (though not funny) exploration of the five stages of grief from a woman who is mourning the loss of her marriage. It wasn’t until the end that I realized it: Diane went through each stage as she tried to right her life back and tried to figure out where to go from here. It was thoughtful, yes, and bittersweet, but nothing like what I was expecting.

Which doesn’t make it bad. It just isn’t what the publisher promised.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Module 7: The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister

Agell, C. (2010). The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.

Genre: Realistic beginning chapter book.

Book Summary: At the end of her fourth grade year, India McAllister — named for the ink not the country — tries to figure out friendship, especially since her best friend is a boy and that seems to be an unacceptable thing in fourth grade; whether or not she can like her dad’s new partner, Richard;  and wonders if she will ever have an adventure (until she gets lost in the woods!).

Impressions: The reviews and summaries I read focused mostly on India’s friendship with Colby and her rivalry with Amanda, but I think that short-changes the book. India is concerned with every aspect of her life: her relationship with her parents, especially her dad who’s left and has a new partner, Richard, among other things. I liked how this one was very nondescript with that: India’s dad is gay, and has a male partner, but there isn’t a huge issue surrounding it. I thought Beatrice Bird was delightful, and enjoyed India’s relationship with her pets. And I could understand  her annoyance and confusion surrounding Colby’s sudden hanging out with Amanda, but I think it was less boy/girl friend thing and more just friend thing — if Colby had been a girl, the dynamics and feelings that India has would probably still be the same. It was a delightful story, overall; I loved the diary feel of it, including the sketch drawings.

Review: Reviewer Phelan praised the book, calling it ” rooted in a tradition that goes back to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories”, and praised it for being nuanced emotionally, especially around relationships, and called it a strong start to a series.

Phelan, C. (2010). The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister. The Booklist. 106 (21), 55, 58.

Library Uses: This one would be good on a display of fun girl characters boys would like, or LGBT families, or just first in a series books. It would also make a good book for a book group for younger kids.

Readalikes:

  • Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker: Clementine is slightly younger than India (eight instead of nine) but this book has the same sort of whimsy and charm that India has. Clementine is a hilarious free spirit and the books are delightful to read.
  • Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary: The true first of the Ramona series, in which we see Ramona tackle kindergarten. The Ramona books don’t have to be read in order, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 or Ramona and her Father are probably more closely like India.
  • Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder: There aren’t many realistic fiction books featuring boys that aren’t also survivalist or some other extreme situation, but Charlie and Mouse is a great example of one. It’s younger than India, but has the same sort of down-to-earth, yet whimsical and often hilarious, feeling that India has.

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.

Booked

bookedby Kwame Alexander
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at work.
Release date: April 5, 2016
Content: There’s a wee bit of romance and some difficult situations with bullying and divorce. Give it to readers ages 10 and up. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The thing that I admire most about The Crossover was the style of it all. The way the poetry flowed on the page, the way that Alexander captured the rhythm of his characters in the ebb and flow of the poetry.

And lest we think lightning only strikes once, Alexander gives us Booked, repeating much of what I loved about his first book.

Instead of basketball, this time Alexander immerses us in the world of competitive soccer. Nick and his best friend Coby are extremely good, playing not only in competitive leagues but also for fun on the weekend plus the FIFA video game. It’s their whole life. Except, for Nick, it’s not that simple. His parents are going through a rough patch, and they separate so his mother can go help train a horse for the Kentucky Derby. His dad is a linguist and insists that Nick read this dictionary that he wrote, something that Nick resents. And, he’s bullied by these twins at school. There are bright spots: his mother makes him take this etiquette class, but there’s this girl he kind of likes (and who kind of likes him back). And the librarian at school is WAY cool. So, maybe Nick can find a balance in his life after all.

Not only is the story complex and compelling, I again, adored the poetry. Alexander has a way of making something as “stuffy” as poetry accessible and cool, which is wonderful.  I loved how the voice and the form of the poems changed depending on the characters (Nick was ostensibly our narrator, but there were appearances from other characters as well). I loved the footnotes with definitions of some of the bigger words (including snarky asides).  It’s fun and engaging, and yet Alexander tackles tough subjects like bullying and divorce with grace and ease. It’s not just a smart way to get reluctant readers interested in books or unsure kids interested in poetry. It’s a fantastic book.