Some Places More than Others

by Renee Watson
First sentence: “‘New York City is no place or a little girl,’ Mom says.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some arguing, but mostly it’s pretty good for the age group — 8-12 — that it’s aimed for. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amara wants one thing for her 12th birthday: to go see her father’s home and family in New York City. She’d love to go by herself, but she’ll take going with her father on a business trip. The problem? Her father hasn’t spoken to her grandfather in 12 years, since Amara was born and her grandmother passed away.

It takes a while (probably a bit longer than it should for the pacing in the book, but that’s being nitpick-y), but Amara is on her way to Harlem to see her grandfather, aunt, and cousins (whom she has only spoken to). It’s awkward, especially since her cousins are 14 and 16 and don’t really want to hang out with her. Amara has a few adventures (and mis-adventures) and learns about her own personal history as well as African American history in Harlem.

I enjoyed the book, mostly for the history as well as the class tensions between Amara — who is decidedly upper middle class — and her cousins — who are not. I liked Amara as a character, and I think Watson got the middle grade voice right, even if the pacing was slightly off.

In the end, it was a sweet story about learning the importance of where you (or your people) came from.

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The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

by Karina Yan Glaser
First sentence: “In the middle of a quiet block on 141st Street, inside a brownstone made of deep red shale, the Vanderbeeker family gathered in the living room for a family meeting.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a wee bit of “romance” (one of the siblings “likes” a boy and ends up going to the 8th grade dance). The chapters are short, and there’s a lot of white space. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

The Vanderbeeker family — mom, dad, and five children (four girls and a boy) — are perfectly happy in their brownstone apartment (one of three) in Harlem. They know the neighborhood, and even though they’re a bit squished, they love their home. That is, until their landlord, Mr. Beiderman, tells them a few days before Christmas, that he’s not renewing their lease for the next year and that they have until December 31st to get out. The Vanderbeeker parents are upset and resigned. The kids? Upset, but they’re going to do something about it! They being Operation Beiderman, They set about doing nice things for their grump of a landlord, in hopes that he will realize what a wonderful family they are and not kick them out.

You can probably already guess how this will end, but the plot really isn’t the point of the book. It reminded me of All of a Kind Family or The Penderwicks, where the actual point of the book was this charming, boisterous, delightful family that I loved getting to know. It was sweet and delightful and I loved the family dynamics between all the characters. This one is perfect for those who want a classic feel to their books. And I’m sure this would make a fabulous read-aloud to younger kids.

Definitely recommended.

Finding Orion

by John David Anderson
First sentence: “The night we found out about Papa Kwirk, I had a jelly bean for dinner.”
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Release date: May 7, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a brief mention of kissing. And this one feels more weightier than Anderson’s usual fare. It’s still in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it might be better for older readers.

Orion (call me Rion, pronounced Ryan, please) is the middle child — and only boy — in a very, well, quirky family. His mom runs the local planetarium (hence being named after a constellation; his sisters are Cassiopeia and Lyra) and his dad invents jelly beans at the local candy factory. Cass, his older sister, is super into theater and Lyra is a 10-year-old brainiac. The only person Rion can relate to is his grandfather, Papa Kwirk: he, with is stories of Vietnam and Harley Davidson, at least seems “normal.” The only downside is that they only see Papa Kwirk once a year, at Christmas.

But then, Papa Kwirk suddenly passes away. And Rion and his family head to his dad’s hometown for the funeral, and come to realize that they don’t know Papa Kwirk as well as they thought they did. The next couple of days, as they head around town on a scavenger hunt (no one said the Kwirks do things the easy way), they discover that there is more to Papa Kwirk than they could have ever imagined.

I have adored Anderson’s books — some more than others — for a while now. He’s always a bit odd, and he tackles big subjects (like the death of a grandparent) with humor and heart. It’s not as funny as some of his other books, but I really loved the way the family worked together (chalk this one up with The Penderwicks as a good family book!) to solve the scavenger hunt. It embraces the importance of family and telling family stories, which I also appreciated. There was a slight subplot that was a bit hokey, but it set up a great climatic scene where the entire family worked together.

So, maybe this isn’t a true middle grade book, but it’s still a fun read.

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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

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.