The Moon Within

by Aida Salazar
First sentence: “There is a locket in my heart that holds all of the questions that do cartwheels in my mind and gurgle up to the top of my brain like root beer fizz.”
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Release date: February 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is frank talk of puberty and the way girls bodies change. It’ll probably be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, though it’s perfectly appropriate for younger kids, if parents don’t mind the subject matter.

Celi Rivera is many things: A bomba dancer. The daughter of a Mexican mother and an Afro-Puerto Rican father. A friend to Magda, who is transitioning and wants to go by Marco and use he/him pronouns. A girl who has a crush on Ivan. Except things aren’t as simple as they seem on paper: Ivan is a bit of a jerk to Magda, especially after he changes his name to Marco. Celi’s mother, whom she loves, has decided that she wants to have a moon ceremony when Celi gets her first period, something which her mother feels is honoring their ancestry, but Celi just feels is embarrassing. Being 11 almost 12 is tough, and Celi’s trying very hard to navigate the transition from childhood.

On the one hand, I loved the language and culture in this slim novel in verse. Salazar has a talent for poetry, and I loved how she effortlessly she worked the Xicana traditions in the book. It was a bit hippy-dippy for even me (a lot of moon lore and nature tradition), but I didn’t mind that. What I did mind was the mom. Chalk this up to years of reading middle grade and YA books, but I get really annoyed when parents just barrel ahead, not listening to the desires of their kids, and do what they want to do, thinking it’s the Best Thing. Sometimes it is (in this case, it turned out well), but often, it isn’t. And it frustrates me. Children, pre-teens, and teenagers have desires too. And wants. And they need to feel like they can talk to adults about them. And the mom, in this book, just didn’t listen. Which really annoyed me.

But that’s me. There is much to appreciate in this book, and perhaps there are kids out there who probably have parents like this who can relate to Celi and her struggles.

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The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch

The Witch Boy
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch)!
Content: There are some intense images of violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’d been seeing this one on a LOT of the best-of 2018 lists and I realized I knew NOTHING about it (I had gotten it in, but really paid no attention to it), so I realized I needed to get this one and read it. And since it looked up K’s ally, I decided to buy both it and the sequel as well.

Aster is part of this old magical family, where the girls are all witches and the boys are all shape-shifters. But Aster, at 13, has realized that his talents lie with being a witch rather than a shape-shifter. Except, because that’s what GIRLS do and he’s obviously not a girl, he’s forbidden. Like actively. Every time they find him sneaking around trying to learn witchcraft, the women shame him and shun him. Especially since the last time a boy tried to be a witch — Aster’s grandmother’s brother — he turned into a monster and was never seen again.

(Yes, I do think this is meant to be a feminist allegory for gender roles and toxic masculinity and how silly they are. If a boy wants to be a witch, then LET HIM BE A WITCH.)

Things get complicated when Aster’s cousins — all of whom embrace the traditional male role and become shape-shifters — start disappearing. And Aster — because he’s both male and a witch — is the only one who can save them.

The story continues in The Hidden Witch; Aster’s family has (kind of sort of) accepted him as a witch and is trying to teach him, when his non-magical friend, Charlie, gets attacked by a bit of dark magic called a “Fetch”. It turns out that there’s a rogue witch in town, and the family has to figure out how to take care of them.

This one, honestly, wasn’t as good as Witch Boy, which I adored. She did wrap up the story of the grandmother’s brother, which was left hanging in the first book, but I’m not sure how much I cared about that. I did like seeing Aster use his witchcraft to help Charlie figure out where the Fetch was coming from, but it just didn’t have the larger conflict that Witch Boy had. Even so, it’s delightful series, expertly drawn (Ostertag worked on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and her art style fits that). I adore the friendship between Aster and Charlie, and I liked how Ostertag worked in diversity without making it a huge “look at me, I’m diverse” issue.

She’s a solid graphic novelist, and someone I’m excited to see more from.

Pitch Dark

by Courtney Alameda
First sentence: “The wake up shock hits like a sledgehammer to the chest.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There is a lot of violence and gore, and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’m going to be up-front with this: I really liked this book. A lot. But I have NO idea how to describe it succinctly. See, it’s kind of Ready Player One meets Indiana Jones meets Battlestar Galactica plus Aliens with a tad bit of Firefly thrown in. It really doesn’t quite know what it wants to be — a space adventure? A horror story? An archaeological adventure? Stopping a terrorist plot? Yes, to all of those — but HEY, it’s an incredible amount of fun while it’s trying to figure it out.

Let’s try with the plot. In the late 21st century, Earth sent people out into space in stasis, with samples of earth, in the hopes that they’d find another habitable planet and be able to terraform it into something livable. They were sent off, and never heard from again.

Fast forward 400 (!) years, and one ship, the USS John Muir, has just woken up out of stasis, and realized that Things Didn’t Go Quite To Plan. Like, most of the crew is dead, and while there were some survivors, many have turned into mutant beings who terrorize the rest of the survivors. Thankfully, Tuck, the son of one of the premier scientists, was a survivor, and has Things Figured Out.

Enter the ship Conquistador, captained by the Cruz family, who are archaeologists in search of the lost ships from the Exodus. Their daughter, Laura (lao-ra, please, not law-ra) is passionate about history and is excited to see what there is when they discover the Muir. But then a hacker gets into the ship’s systems (and frames Laura) and crashes the Conquistador into the Muir. And suddenly everyone is fighting for their lives.

So, yeah. Hot mess of a plot — things just kept happening and happening and happening and while it kind of made a weird sort of sense but not really — but it was all just so much dang fun that I couldn’t put it down. So, I liked it, in spite of the fact that I can’t figure out a really simple way to make it sound appealing aside from it’s just a fun read!

Merci Suarez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “To think, only yesterday I was in chanletas, sipping lemonade, and watching my twin cousins run through the sprinkler in the yard.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some difficult situations with Merci’s grandfather and some intense moments and older themes. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5), but it would probably be better for the older end of the spectrum.

Merci Suarez likes her life: she lives with her parents and her older brother next door to her aunt and her twin sons on one side and her grandparents on the other. They’re happy as a family, with their traditions and squabbles, and she doesn’t want things to change. But, she’s started 6th grade, with all the pressure that brings, and her brother is a senior in high school and is going to be leaving for college. And, then her beloved grandpa starts forgetting things and acting strangely. And then there’s that girl (THAT girl) at school who Merci thought she was friends with, but turns out to be nothing but a thorn in Merci’s side.

The question is: how is Merci going to deal with everything being different?

This is a perfect little book about friendship and family and figuring out how to manage change. Merci isn’t perfect, which I appreciated, and I enjoyed the fact that the conflict came from something other than bad parents. Merci’s parents are supportive of her, and encourage her in her education. I felt for her at times, especially because she had to make sacrifices with friends and school because of her family. It’s a very realistic portrait, and one I appreciated. I liked how Medina captured the Latinx family experience; it’s a good example why Own Voices is so important. I liked Merci’s story, and felt for her experiences, and I loved how Media wove in culture and heritage as well.

It’s an excellent book.

The Penderwicks at Last

penderwicksatlastby Jeanne Birdsall
First sentence: “Lydia believed in dancing wherever she could — on sidewalks, in supermarket aisles, libraries, swimming pools, parking lots.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardham Street, The Penderwicks at Point Moutte, The Penderwicks in Spring
Release date: May 15, 2018
Content: There’s some romance (all tasteful, of course), and it has a bit of an old fashioned feel. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

When we last left the Penderwicks, Batty was in 5th grade and Lydia was two. But since a two year old would make a horrible narrator of a middle grade novel, Birdsall has fast-forwarded time again: Lydia is eleven now, and everyone else is duly older. In fact, Rosalind, the oldest, is about to get married. Which she wants to do at the place where everything started: Arundel. Lydia, Batty (who is 19 now), and the dogs (Sonata and Feldspar, who is the BEST) are the advance guard: heading to the mansion to clean and get ready and hopefully ward off (the awful) Mrs. Tifton. It’s delightful to be back at Arundel, and Birdsall weaves in all the stories from the first Penderwicks book — Lydia has grown up hearing the stories but not seeing the places — which gives the book a sense of nostalgia without just rehashing the same stories. We get to see Cagney again — he’s married with a daughter Lydia’s age — and it’s just absolutely delightful. But then, the Penderwicks usually are. And I loved getting to know Lydia who is simultaneously so very Penderwick but also different because she wasn’t surrounded by sisters the way the others were.

There are, of course, Penderwicks things: an out of control soccer game; lots of music and wandering around outside (no one EVER watches TV!); friendships and family. It’s absolutely delightful and I want to be a Penderwick. I thought it would make me cry to have to say goodbye to this lovely family, but I  didn’t. It was all so perfect, so right, so very comparable to Little Women (but no one dies!), that it just made me happy all over.

This series is such a wonderful modern classic. I’m so glad Birdsall had this story to tell.

Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “Don’t nobody believe nothing these days which is why I haven’t told nobody the story I’m about to tell you.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: While there isn’t any swearing or on-screen violence, the themes are quite intense. I go back and forth as to where this should go. One of my co-workers insists that 10-year-old kids shouldn’t be reading it, so doesn’t like it when I stick it with the Newbery Books (even though it got an honor). I’m not sure it needs to be in the Teen (grades 9+) section, though, so I may compromise by putting it in the YA (grades 6-8).

Will’s older brother, Shawn, has been shot dead. And so, Will believes, it’s his duty to hunt down the person who shot Shawn (and he’s sure he knows who it is) and kill them. After all, that’s part of the rules: Don’t cry, don’t snitch, and always get revenge. But, on the elevator with a gun tucked in his pants, Will encounters ghosts of his past, every single one of whom has been killed by gunshot.

The ending is left open: will Will follow through, or won’t he? But, it’s these conversations with the ghosts — all told in verse — that left me shook. The toxic masculinity is rampant and obvious (at least to me, an outsider): if someone shoots someone who then shoots someone, then (of course) someone else will have to shoot that someone. It’s a vicious cycle that just leaves everyone dead. (What is that adage? An eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind?) It’s awful. And culture, tradition, racism, oppression, expectations… they don’t let these boys grieve the way they need to grieve. (And don’t get me started on gun culture.) I’m not entirely sure that’s what Reynolds was trying to get across, but that’s what I (again, as an outsider) got out of it.

Hopefully, books like these will help bring awareness to this. And maybe we can all stop killing each other just because of the color of our skin.

Module 2: The Middle Moffat

Estes. E. (1942). The Middle Moffat. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Classic, realistic fiction. It is definitely a classic, not only because it was published more than 70 years ago, but also because it won a Newbery Honor, thereby bestowing upon it “classic” status. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but will discuss that more later. It is definitely realistic fiction, as there is no fantasy elements.

Book Summary:  Jane Moffat is the third of four Moffat children, but has decided that she’s the “middle one”, because she’s neither the oldest or the youngest or the oldest son (which describe her three siblings). Over the course of a year, Jane has a myriad of experiences as the Moffats get used to their new house after the death of their father: she makes, loses, and regains a best friend; she develops a good relationship with the town’s “oldest citizen” (he’s 99!); she plays  on a basketball team; and she better figures out her role in her family. 

Impressions: I desperately wanted to like this one. I generally do like stories like this: I adore All of a Kind Family and read the Betsy-Tacy books to all my daughters. I don’t mind the historical setting; I often find it fascinating to see how authors perceive their present and recent past (I’m thinking this was set in the 1930s, though I may be wrong). However, this one just didn’t click with me.  Perhaps it was because I just finished Beezus and Ramona before diving into this one, but Jane just fell flat. Even though I intellectually could see that Estes was trying to be humorous, like when the Moffats received a hand-me-down organ, and Jane was instant on having an organ recital, which ultimately failed due to overuse and because the organ was filled with moths. That, to be fair, should be funny. But, it just didn’t work for me. Intellectually, I could see that Jane was sweet and charming and tried hard, and  I wanted to like her and be interested in her experiences, but I just found I didn’t care. I can see value in the book; there are children who love this sort of story, and perhaps if I had read it when I was younger, I would have as well. 

Review: It was challenging finding a review of a book this old. I went with a blog post, from Into the Book, in which the reviewer gave The Middle Moffat a glowing review, stating “This book is a series of snapshots of these escapades, brilliantly portrayed in a way that draws readers in, and connects them to the lovable, clumsy ten-year old’s world.”  Additionally, she loved the serial nature of the book, and praised Estes’ writing, saying “What I love about Estes’s writing is that she grabs hold of those indescribable childlike emotions and impulses we all have experienced, masterfully putting them into words, capturing moments that allow us to re-live those happy Christmas mornings, those victories in an all-important sports competition, those moments when we make up with our best friend after a fight.”

Joyce, A. (2013, December 14). The Middle Moffat. Retrieved from: http://intothebook.net/the-middle-moffat-
eleanor-estes/.

Library Uses: It would be great in a display of classic books, Newbery books, or one one about stories featuring families. 

Readalikes:

  • The Penderwicks by Jane Birdsall: A more contemporary version of the Moffats, the Penderwicks are four sisters who have Mishaps and Adventures and are Absolutely Delightful. This one is similar in tone and subject, but has a more contemporary feel. 
  • All of  a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor:  Set in a slightly early time period than the Moffats, around World War I, this is the story of an immigrant Jewish family living in the Lower East Side of New York. They have a similar dynamic as the Moffat siblings, and the books are similarly about every day life.
  • The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy: Another contemporary family book, this one with all boys and LGBT themes, as the parents are a gay couple. It deals with the every day lives of the Fletcher family, but with a diverse twist.