Merci Suarez Can’t Dance

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “It was Miss McDaniel’s idea for me and Wilson Bellevue to work together in the Ram Depot, a job that nobody wants.”
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Content: There is talk of kissing, periods, and puberty. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I bet 6th graders would love this.
Others in the series: Merci Suarez Changes Gears

It’s halfway through seventh grade, and Merci is kind of (sort of) figuring things out. She’s not happy with her grandfather’s continuing descent, and her aunt isn’t around as much anymore, leaving Merci to babysit her terror twin cousins. And at school she’s trying to get along with Edna, but it doesn’t seem to be working well. And now, there’s the Heart Ball, the seventh grade fundraiser, which Edna is in charge of, and Merci is trying to avoid. But there’s Wilson, the boy she runs the Ram Depot with and maybe (?) may like-like. It’s all, well, a LOT.

This book had a ton of heart. I loved Merci trying to figure her way out, and I adore her family and the way they have each other’s backs. I loved the way Media wrote a character that was dealing with Alzheimer’s, and how the family worked to make his life easier. You could just tell how much the family loved each other. And I liked the middle school angst of it as well. Merci was delightfully awkward, making the best decisions she could, mostly, and terribly realistic. It was just a delight to read.

I know this book wasn’t really “necessary”, but I’ll take more Merci books any time.

Audio book: Once upon a Quinceañera

by Monica Gomez-Hira
Read by Frankie Corzo
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There are a number of swear words, including multiple f-bombs, teenage drinking, and one off-screen sex scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+ of the bookstore)

Carmen Aguliar has one goal this summer: finish an internship so she can graduate high school. Except her internship is being an assistant for a woman who runs a knock-off Disney princess-for-hire outfit. And, she just hired Carmen’s ex-boyfriend from when she was 15. Who just happens to be behind the reason Carmen’s quinceañera got canceled and she and her mami fell out with her mami’s family. What was going to already be an unbearable summer gets even worse when the “Dreams” get hired to perform at Carme’s cousin’s quince. The same cousin that Carmen and her mami haven’t talked to in three years.

It’s a silly , light romance, one you can see coming from a mile off (lovers to enemies to lovers, gotta love tropes!) but it’s got some heart and soul to it. I liked the portrayal of Cuban-Americans in Miami. Spanish was effortlessly woven through, as was an exploration of stereotypes and expectations (or lack thereof) of Latine women. I adored the narrator; she made Carmen and her friends and family come alive in a way that made me want to keep listening.

Definitely a fun late-summer read.

Clean Getaway

by Nic Stone
First sentence: “It might sound silly, but to William “Scoob” Lamar, the Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful sign looks… well, beautiful.
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Content: There are some uncomfortable moments. It’s i the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

William “Scoob” Lamar is having a rough year at school. First, he got in trouble for beating up a bully who was making fun of Scoob’s st friends’ younger brother. Then, he figures out how to cheat on a programming quiz, and shows other kids how to do it. He doesn’t cheat, but ends up suspended because he was the “instigator” of it all. He’s at hoe, grounded, with the spring break trip canceled. But, just when all hope was lost, his G’ma sows up with an RV asking him to take a strip with her. So, he does. and leaves his phone at home, so his dad can’t stop him from going.

But, things aren’t what Scoob expected.. While the history of his (white) grandma and his (black) grandpa is interesting — his grandma kept the Green Book that helped them travel safely though the south during the Jim Crow era — things aren’t, well, right. His grandma keeps changing the plates on the RV. She won’t answer calls from Scoob’s dad. She is being super cagey. While Scoob enjoys the history, he’s not entirely sure this vacation is all it’s cracked up to be.

This is what I wrote for my class (spoilers): “Scoob’s grandfather was arrested for grand larceny and died in prison but in the end we find out that it was Scoob’s grandmother who had stolen the jewelry. She literally let a black man take the fall for her crimes. A person she was supposed to be in love with! That she had a son with! The ending didn’t provide a lot of resolution; instead of getting punished for her life of crime (she had been stealing jewelry for YEARS), she got cancer and died. And then Scoob found her stash and got his dad to drive it to Mexico to bury it. I have NO idea what to think about this. I get the underlying message is that white people are not to be trusted, even if you’re related. That a white person will always find a black person to blame things on.”

Someone in the class pushed back and said they thought the underlying message was more about how our actions can affect more than just ourselves, and maybe that’s a better way to look at the book. It does make it more age appropriate. At any rate, the book did give me a lot to think about.  

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “The house always wins.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 5, 2021
Content: There is talk of addiction in adults, some bullying, and a mild “relationship”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

AnthonyJoplin — Ant to his friends, but don’t call him little — comes from a family of serious Spades players. His grandfather, his father, his brother, were all really great at it, winning the local tournament (and then some). But Ant can’t seem to get in the game. He’s “weak”. Or that the way he feels, especially around his dad, his brother, and his friend. That he needs to be stronger, better. He needs to win the tournament, for starters.

He and his friend make a good team, but when his friend is unexpectedly unable to play, Ant turns to the new girl – Shirley – as a partner. Which is its own set of problems. Add to that his father is acting weird, staying up in the middle of the night playing online poker, and Ant is just confused about what he really is supposed to expect out of life.

I love that Johnson gets the middle grade audience, tackling touch subjects like addiction and masculinity without talking down to his readers. I love that he gives us characters that are interesting and complex, which makes them and their problems seem more real. I love that he sprinkles his books with humor, so they are not depressing, but rather reflect life’s ups and downs.

The only think I didn’t like about this book was the narrator: I liked the folksy aspect of it, with the slang and the way it felt like someone telling a story, but I often felt the narrator — who was a character in their own right — got in the way of the story.

But it was’t enough to turn me off of this book. Definitely another very good read!

The Accursed Vampire

by Madeline McGrane
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Content: There is some blood and gore (um, vampires!). It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Dragoslava knows that being a vampire kid has its perks, but sometimes it’s not the greatest. Especially if you work for a demanding witch who sends you on her most unpleasant errands. The most recent being to fetch a grimoire from a former student and then curse the witch who stole it. So, off Dragoslava goes with their friends to do this job. What they find, though, is unexpected: a home and a family.

Oh this book was so charming! (I’m in the market for sweet, adorable, funny stories right now.) K heard about it on YouTube and asked me to pick it up, and I’m so glad I did. It’s sweet, it’s silly, it’s interesting, it’s well-told, the drawings are adorable, and I loved every moment reading this one. Drago and their friends are adorable and charming, and I adored the adult characters. It was a bit about finding confidence in yourself, a bit about found family, and a bit about being kind.

Exactly what I needed.

Go Tell it On the Mountain

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Everyone had always said that John wold be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
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Content: There is violence, some talk of sex, a liberal use of the n-word, and some swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is difficult to describe plot-wise. It takes place over one night, as John, the son of a preacher in New York in 1935, goes to the church to clean and pray with his parents and other church-goers. Over the course of the prayers, we learn that John is not the biological son of his father, who resents his mother for not being more repentant for her sin of bearing John out of wedlock. We learn that John is conflicted about his stepfather, and the idea of church. We learn that John’s mother is just doing what she needs to do, and that his aunt — his stepfather’s sister — has held a lifelong grudge against her brother.

There isn’t much of a plot, it’s more of an exploration of the ways in which racism, enslavement, and patriarchy have affected the lives of these characters and the way they use religion to justify or explain or hide from the world. I’m not entirely sure it comes off as favorable to religious people; religion seems like a crutch to escape and a means of punishment rather than a means of worship and service. But that’s my white privilege talking; I have never been enslaved and I don’t know how religion works in that world. It was a fascinating read (possibly not one that I would recommend while on painkillers) and a complex one, even if it lacked plot.

The Elephant in the Room

by Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence: “What SilaTekin would remember about that afternoon was that she had been wearing her favorite shirt.”
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Content: It deals with heavy subjects, but on an accessible level. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sila Tekin has lived in Oregon all her life, but her parents are immigrants from Turkey. They’re in the United States legally, but one day, Sila’s mom gets deported because her paperwork is not “correct”. It was supposed to be short deportation, but turns into nearly a year as Sila and her dad become more and more depressed. Enter Gio – an older man whose wife passed four years earlier and who recently won the lottery. The three of them – and they add a school mate of Sila’s, Mateo, later – make a sort-of family, helping each other through the process of healing. And then there’s an elephant.

The elephant is a rescue from a family circus, and brings more healing for our characters. I think Sloan was trying to advocate not only against circuses but in favor of humane animal treatment in captivity. She also had a strong case for elephant-human bonding. I just think Sloan really likes elephants.

The story itself was… okay. I think it’s good for a picture of immigration — and as a reminder that not every immigrant comes through from the southern border — and to help kids deal with tough situations. I’m just not sure Sloan was the best person to tell this story. Sloan says she has been profoundly affected by her time in Turkey, but I think this story may have been told better by someone who has had the experience of being an immigrant.

It’s not a bad book, but not my favorite by her either.

Sometimes Brave

by Trista Wilson
First sentence: “It’s‌ ‌super‌ ‌duper‌ ‌helpful‌ ‌to‌ ‌have‌ ‌a‌ ‌good‌ ‌imagination‌ ‌when‌ ‌you’re‌ ‌homeless.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.