Strawberry Girl

by Lois Lenski
First sentence: “‘Thar goes our cow, Pa!’ said the little girl.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s written in dialect, which might throw some readers off. It’s in the Newbery award section at the bookstore.

I remember reading this one when I was really young, maybe 2nd or third grade, when I was going through my pioneer stage. I was fascinated with old fashioned life, and the way settlers lived, and this one, though set in the early 1900s, fit that bill.

Birdie and her family have bought a house and land in mid-Florida, intending to start a strawberry farm and orange orchard. Their neighbors, the Slaters, who have lived on the land for several generations (though probably squatting, technically), have issues: they don’t like Birdie’s families uppity ways, their fences, their ambition. It’s only through long-suffering, hard work, and kindness that Birdie and her family make it through their first year,

Honestly, I think this one holds up pretty well. Lenski interviewed a lot of “Crackers”, original white settlers in Florida, and used their stories as a basis for this book, which gives it an understanding that would be missing if she hadn’t. I liked Birdie, her fire and her determination, and I was surprised at just how spiteful the Slaters were towards these outsiders. There’s also a strong class division running through the book — one I’m sure I didn’t pick up on as a kid — with Birdie’s family being able to afford nice things because they were disciplined. This plays into the “American dream” narrative — if you just work really hard, you’ll be rich — which I’m not sure is a good narrative to have around anymore. And the ending was surprisingly religious: you find God, you can be saved and change your evil ways. Even so, it was a sweet little book.

Advertisements

All’s Faire in Middle School

by Victoria Jamieson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 5th, 2017
Content: There’s some mild bullying and some kissing by background adult characters. It will be in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Imogene has grown up in the Florida Renaissance Faire. Literally: her father is an actor in the permanent troupe, and her mother runs a shop. Imogene has been homeschooled up until now, but has decided that she wants to give middle school a try for sixth grade.

Possibly predictably, Imogene finds out that middle school isn’t a nice place. She’s teased for being homeschooled, for wearing her hand-made leather boots every day. She starts to make friends, but it’s with the “in” group. Which means (also predictably) that there will be conflicts when their desires conflict with the values Imogene has been taught.

Back at the Faire, Imogene has been promoted to be a squire, which means that she’s part of the “show”. Sure, it’s just to scoop poop in the joust and to wander around interacting with the guests, but Imogene loves it. And it seems that she’s making a friend of one of her classmates who comes every weekend.

Sure, the plot is predictable — I’ve read this same story a hundred times before — but that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable. Jamieson has a way with art and words and I cared very much about Imogene and her story. (Though I think I liked the minor characters — her parents and younger brother especially — better.) It was fun to read, and fun to see a little inside the workings of a permanent Renaissance Faire.

Young Jane Young

by Gabrielle Zevin
First sentence: “My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s swearing, including several f-bombs, as well as some off-screen sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Release date: August 22, 2017

The relationship between mothers and daughters (and between women in general) is not a new topic for fiction. It’s been Done.  And yet, Zevin — through this tale of an intern, Aviva, who has an affair with her boss, who just happens to be a congressman — manages to make this tired trope fresh. We get the story from four perspectives: Rachel, Aviva’s mother ; Aviva — both then and now, as Jane; Ruby, the intern’s daughter; and the congressman’s wife. It’s a unique way of telling the story, in bits and pieces (you don’t get Aviva’s then perspective until the very end, and it comes as a sort of “choose your own adventure” tale, one in which she wishes she could change her decisions), and from different perspectives. Choices have consequences, more so for women in these situations (so, whatever did happen to Monica Lewinsky?) than for men. It’s a fascinating study of our scandal-obsessed culture (really, are famous people’s private lives really news?) and how we’re much more willing to forgive men than we are women. (I think that’s the most biting thing: that Aviva is much more harshly judged than the congressman ever was.) And how relationships between mothers and daughters are not always straightforward. And what one person says isn’t always what the other person hears.

I love the way Zevin spins a story, and the way she is able to make characters pop to life. She doesn’t dumb down the kids (or make them too precocious; Ruby was the right balance of nerdy and eager), and she makes everyone sufficiently complicated.

Definitely highly recommended.

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “I’m officially resigning from love.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a bit more, well, mushy than your usual middle grade fare, but it doesn’t smack of YA quite yet. While it’s in that nice spot for 10-12-year-olds, it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore. I may change that and put it in the YA. We’ll see.

It’s the summer after 7th grade, and Arturo Zamora is ready to have a good one. He’s working at his family’s restaurant, hanging out with friends in his Miami neighborhood. That all changes, however, when a big developer decides to make a bid for the lot next door to the restaurant, the one which the Zamora’s were hoping to purchase from the city for their expansion, and has plans to put in a fancy new “exclusive” building. All of a sudden Arutro’s summer has turned into fighting this developer, and figuring out his place in the family. Not to mention his burgeoning feelings for his mother’s goddaughter, Carmen. It’s going to be quite the summer.

This was a really fun book. I enjoyed Arturo’s attempts to figure himself out. I loved the Cubano culture that threaded itself through the book. I loved Arturo’s relationship with his grandmother and mother. Even the slight romance wasn’t overdone. I loved that the Spanish was woven seamlessly in the book, often without English translation. It felt more authentic that way. And I also thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the Zamora’s and cheering the little guy in the fight against Big Man. Definitely one to check out.

Raymie Nightingale

raymieby Kate DiCamillo
First sentence: “There were three of them, three girls.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 12, 2016
Content: The publisher suggests 10 and up, but I think a 4th-grader would be able to handle it. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Raymie has a plan. She will take baton lessons — it’s the summer of 1975, after all — and enter the Little Miss Central Tire competition, and win. That way, her picture will get in the paper and her father — who recently ran off with a dental hygienist — will see it and want to come home.

The thing is: her plan (like most plans) doesn’t go as she thought it would. She meets two other girls: Louisiana, whose parents have died and who wants to win the competition as much as Raymie because that means she and her grandmother will have money for more than tunafish;  and Beverly, whose mother is insisting on the competition, but who secretly hates it all and would much rather sabotage the whole thing. Together, the three of them have a summer they will never forget.

In many ways, this is vintage DiCamillo: quiet and unassuming, and yet it reaches something deep inside you. I didn’t want to put it down, not because I was thoroughly invested in the plot or the characters, but because this longing to belong, to figure out what life Means, to find and have friends all spoke to me. It’s a common enough theme, but in DiCamillo’s deft hands it transcends the ordinary. (I don’t know if I can praise this highly enough.) And yet, I think it’s going to be one of those books that adults like but kids just don’t quite get. I think this one sits better with some life experience, and some perspective coming to it. But I may be wrong.

Who ever reads it will definitely be touched, I think.

Sunny Side Up

by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 25, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s some implied drug and alcohol abuse by the character’s older brother, so it’ll probably engender some discussion. It’ll be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

It’s 1976, and Sunny is being sent to live with her grandpa in Florida. It’s not something Sunny wants to do; she’d rather be at the coast with her best friend. But, her older brother’s been having problems with drugs and alcohol (that’s putting it mildly), and so Sunny is being sent away for her own safety. On paper, it’s okay: Florida has Disney World, right? But, in reality? Her grandpa lives in a retirement community, and that’s just boring. Trips to the post office or the grocery store, early all-you-can-eat buffet dinners, a kid-less pool. Thinks look up when she meets Buzz and he introduces her to comic books. But, she’s still haunted by  her brother’s actions and the secrets she keeps. Can Sunny make the most of the summer she’s been given?

The Holm siblings have come up with a semi autobiographical novel addressing some pretty heavy issues. Granted, they do it in such a way that’s accessible to kids and that engenders discussion. K read this one, too, and we talked a lot about how other people can hurt us but that it’s not our fault. The only complaint we had, though, was trying to figure out how the flashbacks fit into the present story line. It was a bit confusing at first, but we eventually figured it out. We did like the relationship between Buzz and Sunny as well as Sunny and her grandpa. The other residents of the community were delightfully quirky, and it’s also great that Buzz and his family were immigrants from Cuba.

It’s not the Holms’ usual fare; it’s more like Raina Telgemier’s books. But, it’s a very heartfelt and sweet look at a very dark subject.

Boys of Blur

by N. D. Wilson

First sentence: “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some intense moments, some violence, and some reference to abuse. It’s pretty intense, so while it’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, I’d hesitate giving it to the younger part of that age range.
There’s so much going on in this slim book, that it’s difficult for me to know where to start. 
There’s Charlie Reynolds, who had an abusive father, but whose mother was strong enough to leave and who found Mack, a former professional football player from a small town in Florida, to help keep her and Charlie safe. They got married and had an adorable little girl, Molly.
There’s Cotton Mack, the homeschooled son of one of Mack’s cousins, whom Charlie meets when he’s in Florida to attend the funeral of Mack’s former football coach.
It’s after that funeral that things start getting weird for Charlie and Cotton. Like ancient mythical men on mounds wielding swords weird. Like panthers that are tame and the zombie-like Stank (aka Gren) who feed off of envy and greed. And somehow it falls to Charlie and Cotton (well, mostly Charlie) to stop the Gren from rising and destroying their town.
In many ways, this one is reminiscent of The Dark is Rising: an ancient force pitted against a boy, who didn’t know he had it in him to face that ancient force. The difference is that this one is very southern, and is liberally scattered with African Americans. Which brings me to my one problem: why did the white kid have to be the one to save the world, in the end? Why did Cotton have to be taken out of commission? Although I really liked the book, with its mix of football and mythology and family, I was disappointed by this.
I don’t know how much that affected my enjoyment in the end, because Wilson does know how to pace a book, and he’s incredibly tight in his timing, and he knows how engage a reader. So, overall, I’d consider this one a win.