Sometimes Brave

by Trista Wilson
First sentence: “It’s‌ ‌super‌ ‌duper‌ ‌helpful‌ ‌to‌ ‌have‌ ‌a‌ ‌good‌ ‌imagination‌ ‌when‌ ‌you’re‌ ‌homeless.”
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Review copy provided by the author, who also happens to be one of my co-workers.
Content: There’s some talk of crushes. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hazel is going into 5th grade, but her life has been upended: her dad, who is a government employee, is not getting paid due to a government shutdown. Because of this, money is tight enough that Hazel and her parents are evicted from their apartment and now are living in their car, trying to make that work. It’s a difficult thing, and Hazel feels isolated and alone. Until she makes a friend at school who is in a similar situation. That, and starting to volunteer at an animal shelter, reading to dogs, helps Hazel get the courage to face her family’s situation head-on.

i thoroughly enjoyed this little book. It’s a great look into something most of us don’t think about: homeless kids. And, the nice thing (okay, there’s nothing nice about homelessness) about this is that there didn’t have to be a tragic event to make it happen. (Which is probably more realistic.) The family was doing fine until 1) medical bills in the past probably made things tight and then 2) a lost income pushed them over the edge. The parents weren’t dead or sick (mom had cancer but had recovered years before), there wasn’t a storm or a war. It was just Something That Happened. But it was a Big Deal to Hazel and I appreciated that Trista (I feel weird writing Wilson, like I do with other authors) focused on the mundane reasons for becoming homeless.

She also focused on the stigma that’s attached to it: Hazel was embarrassed to tell people that she was sleeping in her car, and showering infrequently. And that it was hard to get homework done because of her living situation. This book goes a long way to showing kids that being homeless is not a failure of theirs (or their parents!), but rather something that happens and that there are ways to help.

I also really enjoyed Trista’s voice in the book. I think she captures a 5th grader quite well, from their early crushes to making and losing friends. It was a delight to read.

Twins

by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright
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Content: There’s some talk of crushes on boys. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Maureen and Francine are identical twins and have done everything together. Same friends, same classes… they’re identical, so they must be the same. Right?

Wrong. It’s the start of sixth grade and all of a sudden, Francine wants to be called “Fran” and they are no longer in all their classes together. And Maureen is left wondering why now? Why the sudden change?

And when both Francine and Maureen — independently, for different reasons — decide to run for class president, sparks start to fly, not just at school but at home, too.

I usually adore Varian’s books, and this is no exception. It’s a great story — he and Wright capture not only what it means to be siblings, and the unspoken competitions (even where there shouldn’t be any — at least from a parent’s perspective), but also what it means to be a twin searching for her own identity. The stakes aren’t terribly high — who will win class president? Can Maureen pass Cadet Corps? Will Francine ever talk to her again? — but they are absolutely reflective of what an 11-year-old might feel. And I liked that they addressed racism — there’s a scene where Maureen and a couple friends are at the mall and they get dissed by a White mall worker not only because they’re young, but because they’re Black. It’s not a big scene, but it helped paint the picture of Maureen’s personality and give the book some weight. (I also really really appreciated the twins’ parents. They were awesome. It’s always nice to have good parents show up in a kids’ book.)

I loved Wright’s illustrations as well. She gave the twins each their own personality, and distinguished them not only in physical ways (Fran wears earrings), but also in subtle ways — the way they position their bodies, for example. Wright just *got* what Varian was trying to get across with the words, and brought it all to life.

I can’t wait to read more about Francine and Maureen. I hope there is more!

Black is the Body

by Emily Bernard
First sentence: “This book was conceived in a hospital.”
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Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. Also, an entire chapter is devoted to teaching and talking about the n-word. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This has been on my radar for a while; everyone — well, all my coworkers — said it was a really good exploration of one person’s experience as a Black woman moving through White spaces.

And it was that. Bernard grew up in Nashville, but went to college at Yale, and teaches in Vermont, so she is often the only (or one of the only) Black people in a space. In this series of essays, she explores what that means. She talks about an act of violence she experienced, the adoption of her daughters, her relationship with her White husband, and tells the stories of her mother and grandmother’s lives.

It’s an interesting book, one that is very personal to Bernarnd’s own experience. She doesn’t pretend to have answers, but does ask a lot of questions about how White people treat and react to Blacks. It was worth a read if only to think about how I am reacting to others.

That, and it’s a series of personal stories, which I always enjoy. So while this was not my favorite book about race, it was a good book. Because everyone’s perspective is worth hearing.

The Murmur of Bees

by Sofia Segovia
Translated by Simon Bruni
First sentence: “That early morning in October, the baby’s wails mingled with the cool wind that blew through the trees, with the birdsong, and with the night’s insects saying their farewell.”
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Content: There is some violence, but none on-screen, and some mild swearing. (There may have been one or two f-bombs, but honestly? I’m not remembering any.)

This is a sweeping family saga, set in Linares, Mexico, and following the Morales family over the course of many decades. It’s not exactly linear, though it nominally follows the life of Simonopio, an abandoned baby that was found covered in bees, and how his life affected that of the Morales family. It’s told through reminiscences by the youngest of the Morales children, Francisco, as he heads back to Linares after many many years away.

It has a loose plot, but mostly it’s just small stories connected together to tell the tale of a family and a time — the late 19th century and early 20th — in their history.

And all of this makes it sound less than it was. Segovia’s writing is gorgeous, and even the magical realism elements — Simonopio talks to his bees, and has an uncanny ability to sense and predict things — added to the overall sense of wonder this book created. Maybe because it was nominally told as a series of flashbacks, with Francisco interrupting to explain and comment upon his family that it all worked together seamlessly.

It truly was a delight to read, and I’m glad I did.

Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

by Jessica Kim
First sentence: “I should have known better than to think anyone would listen to me at the Korean beauty salon.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There are some awkward moments and second-hand embarrassment. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Yumi Chung is the youngest of two daughters of Korean immigrants. Her parents run a Korean barbecue restaurant in LA, and they expect Yumi — like her older sister, Yuri — to be excellent. The problem is that Yumi wants to be a stand-up comedian, which is something her parents neither understand or respect. Instead, they send her to hagwon — a Korean summer tutoring program — that will help her get a scholarship to the best private school in LA. Yumi is miserable until she discovers a new comedy club is running a summer camp for kids, and the person teaching it is Yumi’s favorite YouTube comedian! She ends up going — pretending to be Kay Nakamura (which gives some interesting, if subtle, insight into how white people lump all East Asians together) — until things all fall apart, including her parent’s restaurant being on the verge of closing. Can Yumi fix the mess she’s made for herself?

Oh, this was so very delightful. It addressed so many things — from not living up to your older sibling’s achievements, to finding your own space int the world, to owning your mistakes — without ever being heavy-handed. Yumi was a totally believable character with completely understandable parents. The conflict came from not just the immigrant to first-generation divide, but their honest desires that their kids wouldn’t have to slave away in a restaurant to make their living. I liked how Kim never made the parents out to be villains, and how Yumi (and Yuri) was able to figure out how to balance her parents’ wishes with her desire to follow her own path.

And excellent middle grade book.

Audiobook: Wandering in Strange Lands

by Morgan Jerkins
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Release date: August 4, 2020
Content: There is some swearing including a few f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It will be in the biography section of the bookstore.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer, but she’s also the daughter of a New Jersey woman and a North Carolina man. The central question she grapples with in this book is this: how has moving away from her families’ roots in the South (after slavery, but mostly during the Great Migration) affected their connection to the land, to their communities, and to each other? She explores this question by visiting South Carolina and talking with and trying to understand the histories of the Gullah people there. She heads to Louisiana to talk to Creole, and to Oklahoma to explore connections between African American freed slaves and the Cherokee nation. And she finally heads to Los Angeles. Through all this, she unearths her family history and stories, as much as she can, and that it was White Supremacy and Institutional Racism that was the driving force for much of what her ancestors experienced.

A friend once told me that you can talk statistics and data at people, but it’s the stories that really matter. And this book brings that home. Yes, I knew there was (and is) Institutional Racism and white people were (and are) discriminatory and prejudiced against black people to the point that they want to push them out. But, hearing Jerkins’ stories gets that point home in a way data just doesn’t do. It also reminded me of the importance of knowing where you’re from and knowing your family’s stories. (I have been very bad about passing this on to my children.)

It’s an interesting story, and Jerkins is an interesting narrator to guide the story along its path. I’m glad I read it.

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott
First sentence: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
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Content: It is very long and old-fashioned (well, it was written in the 1860s). It’s in the fiction section as well as the middle grade classics section.

I have had an affection for this book for a long time. Maybe since youth? I’m not sure, but I think my youth affections were more for Laura Ingalls Wilder and L. M. Montgomery than Louisa May Alcott. I know, as a mother, I have tried to be like Marmee: supportive and loving, but letting my girls be their own individual selves, giving advice and comfort as needed.

So, I haven’t read this for at least 25 years; I think the last time I cracked open the book was soon after the 1994 movie came out. And, well, now I remember why. See, I think I have a fondness for the story, and for the movies (I really enjoyed the new Greta Gerwig one!). But the book, I find, well, dull and long-winded and more than a bit preachy. I tell myself it’s because it’s 150 years old, but I don’t feel the same way about Jane Austen and those are more than 200 years old! There are moments of sweetness and sass (which is why the movies can distill the story so well), but the book is overlong, and full of passages that I ended up skipping.

And can we talk about the end? The whole book spent championing girls and women and their lives, and Jo decides to open a school for BOYS? It just didn’t sit well with me, but maybe that’s because I’m reading it with 21st century eyes.

So, yes to the story (and the movies). But it may be another 25 years before I read the book again.

The Girl with the Dragon Heart

by Stephanie Burgis
First sentence: “Once upon a time in a beautiful dirty, exciting city full of people and chocolate and possiblities, there was a girl so fearless and so daring that…”
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Others in the series: The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s some tense moments. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

So Silke has managed to help make peace with the dragons, and she and Adventurine are happily helping make chocolate. Except, Silke still wants more: she misses her parents who disappeared with the Elves six years ago. She wishes she had a better home than on the riverbank with her brother. She just wants… MORE. So when the Crown Princess asks her to be a spy during the “diplomatic” visit from the Elves, Silke jumps at the chance: If she succeeds, not only will she get to live permanently at the palace, she might find out where her parents are.

But, it’s not all roses and chocolate (well, there is some of that). It’s hard fitting into court culture, especially for someone who needs to move as much as Silke, and it looks like the Elves may be able to trick their way into and out of just about everything. And maybe, just maybe, Silke’s talents like in something other than spying.

This is still a super sweet (but not cloying!), super fun middle grade series. I adore the characters — there was probably not enough Adventurine here, but I’m curious about Sofia, the younger sister princess, because she was whip-smart and intriguing. I did want to shake Silke sometimes, but overall, I enjoyed where the book went.

The other nice thing about this series is that it doesn’t rely on the previous one. Sure, the events of Dragon played into this, but it really was its own stand-alone story, and it came to a very satisfying conclusion.

I definitely will be picking up the next one. Eventually.

Twenty-One Truths About Love

by Matthew Dicks
First sentence: “Ways to keep Jill from getting pregnant”
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Release date: November 19, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

10 Reasons you should read this book
1. It’s told in lists. Seriously
2. And yet, there’s a plot with character development.
3. Which is really quite brilliant, if you think about it
4. It’s about a not-quite 40-something man stressing about his life.
5. Which sounds boring, but really isn’t because of the lists.
6. They range from “books of the month” — Dan, the main character owns a bookstore — to “Songs you would think have great lyrics but don’t”.
7. It’s charming and sweet and funny but isn’t all happiness and roses.
8. And about being honest with your spouse and how having friends is important.
9. And maybe a little bit about forgiveness.
10. But really, it’s that it’s told through lists that makes it so incredibly unique and worth spending your time on.

I loved it.

10 Blind Dates

by Ashely Elston
First sentence: “Are you sure you won’t come with us?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is kissing and some inference to sex (but none actual). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Sophie’s parents are off to take care of her older sister as she’s bedridden with pregnancy issues, which means Sophie gets the run of the house over Christmas break. She’s supposed to be in Shreveport with her grandparents (and huge Sicilian family), but what she really wants to do is hang out with her boyfriend, Griffin. That is, until she overhears him saying he wants to break up with her.

So, she takes off for Shreveport, and once there her Nonna hatches a plan: 10 blind dates, each set up by a different member of the family, in between December 21st and 31st. Sophie may not find her perfect man, but it will at least take her mind off of Griffin, right?

This book is, at turns, super hilarious (oh my goodness, some of these dates!) and super sweet (okay, so the boy next door, Wes, holds a lot of appeal). But what I loved best about it was that Elston caught the huge family dynamic super well. They were loud and somewhat oppressive, but super supportive of Sophie and just a really great family overall. I loved the way the cousins and aunts and uncles all bounced off each other, had fun with each other, and humiliated and loved each other in turn. It was sweet and wonderful and made a very very cute YA romance that much better.

A great Christmas romance. Or anytime romance.