The Three Rules of Everyday Magic

by Amanda Rawson Hill
First sentence: “There’s something about that moment right before the first star appears in the sky.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s got a lot of more mature themes, but they’re handled at an age-appropriate level. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Kate has a lot (a LOT) going on in her life. Her dad left five months ago because his depression got too much and he needed to go away. He didn’t want Kate to contact him, and she doesn’t know where he is, so mostly she just ignores the guitar she used to love to play and writes him letters that she can’t send. Her grandmother has developed dementia that’s advancing, and is no longer able to live on her own, so she’s come to live with Kate and her mother. And (as if that wasn’t enough!), Kate’s best friend, Sofia, has decided that she’s much better friends with another girl, shutting Kate out.

It’s a lot. I know that it’s better to have a lot of conflict in one’s book, but really: depressed and missing dad AND best friend problems AND a grandmother with dementia (and that’s not even mentioning the burgeoning crush on home school friend) is a LOT to tackle in one book.

Hill manages it pretty well. It’s not perfect, though I did appreciate she didn’t tie everything up in a nice little bow at the end. It’s hopeful, but the problems aren’t solved, which is nice.

I liked this one, but didn’t love it.

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Lost Rainforest: Mez’s Magic

by Eliot Schrefer
First sentence: “What’s wrong with me?”
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Content: There are some moments of intense action. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

I picked this one up after hosting Eliot at a few school events last February. I learned SO much about the Amazon ecosystem and the animals in it, and Eliot was so charming and passionate about animals that I thought I really ought to give the book a try.

And? Well, it’s perfect for those who like prophecies and talking animals and friends who work together towards a single goal. It’s MUCH better than the Warriors books, and about as good as the Wings of Fire books (real animals instead of dragons though). Granted, I’m not a fan of talking animals, but even I liked this one. Schrefer knows how to plot really well, and I liked the small things like using “otherpaw” (for example) instead of “other hand”. You can tell, reading the book, that Schrefer knows his animals, and knows how they work together (or not) in an environment. And he knows how to write action, and how to keep the plot moving forward.

So, while this may not be my sort of book, it’s still a good one, and I’m glad I read it.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez
First sentence: “There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s long and sometimes meandering, which might discourage reluctant readers. There are also hints of romance (but none actual) which might turn off squeamish kids. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sal Vidón has just moved to Miami from Connecticut, and is starting his first week at a really cool performing arts and technology school. The problem? It’s the third day of school, and it’s the third time he’s landed in the principal’s office. The first two were reasonable: to meet the principal on his first day, and the second because he was eating Skittles after PE and the gym teacher was unaware that Sal is diabetic. But this time? It’s because he played a prank — put a raw, whole chicken — into the locker of a kid who was bullying him. Sure, as a prank goes it’s mostly harmless. The real catch? Sal pulled that chicken out of a different universe.

And he was being watched: by Gabi Reál, student council president extraordinaire, and puzzle figure-outer. And once she turns her sights on Sal, his life is never going to be the same.

This is one part science fiction book: with multiverses, and calamity physics (is that a real thing?) and warping the space-time continuum, with self-driving cars (I want one, please) and really advanced AI. And one part Cuban family drama: Sal’s mother died six years ago, and he’s been pulling other versions of his Mami out of other universes ever since. There’s also Gabi’s drama with an infant baby brother fighting for his life, and the bully with a bigger backstory. There’s a lot going on in this book, but it all works, and works well together. Hernandez has given us a funny, clever Cuban speculative fiction book, that kept me turning pages and wondering where he was going to go next. There are cool teachers and Gabi’s gaggle of dads (too hard to explain), and it’s all just enormous amounts of fun.

The Size of the Truth

by Andrew Smith
First sentence: “This all starts with my first enormous truth, which was a hole.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 26, 2019
Content: It’s odd, and Smith’s reputation for edgy YA might turn some people off, but there’s really nothing in this that a 4/5-6/7th grader wouldn’t like. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sam Abernathy is known for one thing: falling down a well when he was four and being trapped for three days. It’s not something you want to be remembered for, especially when you are 11 years old and just got pushed up to the 8th grade. No, it’s not something he wanted. He also doesn’t want to go on survival campout weekends with his dad. Or be a part of the Science Club. Or go to MIT to study science something. Or be in 8th grade PE.

What does he want? To cook. But no one seems to hear that.

Yes, this is a very Andrew Smith book: delightfully weird, slightly off-kilter, and yet completely full of heart and soul. There’s a talking armadillo (who may or may not be a figment of four year old Sam’s imagination). There’s another 8th grader, James Jenkins, who Sam’s sure is going to kill him. But what it is really, is a reflection on figuring out who YOU are (and not who your parents or community want you to be) and what YOU want to do with your life. And then sticking up for it.

And it’s absolutely perfect for those fourth-seventh graders who are just trying to figure things out.

I loved it.

To Night Owl from Dogfish

by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s some frank talk about periods, so maybe for the older end of the spectrum? Still, it’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I think older readers would like it as well.

Bett and Avery are happy with their respective lives. Bett lives with her dad in Southern California, surfing and collecting feathers and shells. Avery lives in New York City with her dad and is happy with their super structured life. But when their dad’s meet, everything changes. They arrange for Bett and Avery to attend the same summer camp, hoping that they’ll become best friends. And Bett and Avery are determined to stop them.

Except… they do become best friends. (And have adventures!) But their dads? Well, it doesn’t work out. But don’t worry: Bett and Avery have a plan.

This was a super adorable book! Seriously. Written entirely in emails — between Bett and Avery with ones from the adults in their life every once in a while — it’s oozing charm and delight and just plain fun from every pore. Sure it’s a bit Parent Trap-y, but I think it manages that (it has a nice twist ending that’s quite sweet) without being too cloying. I adore both Bett and Avery, and I loved how their individual voices and personalities came through in the letters. It’s just a super charming book.

(I do have to note that Bett is a bi-racial character, though both the authors are white. Take that for what you will.)

At any rate, I did enjoy it a whole bunch.

New Kid

by Jerry Craft
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 5, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some bullying, and it’s a bit on the longer side. It will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In the letter that accompanied the ARC, Craft wrote that he wanted to draw a graphic novel that featured kids who looked like him because he didn’t find any when he (or his sons) were growing up. He wanted to feature a kid of color, having some of the experiences — that were not just “gritty” — that kids of color have. And I think, with this graphic novel, he succeeded.

It’s the story of a kid — Jordan Banks — who wants to draw and go to an art school but whose parents have decided that a fancy (white and rich) prep school will give him better opportunities in life. Problem is Jordan doesn’t want to go to a fancy prep school, especially one where he’s in the minority.

The book follows the school year — my favorite thing was the chapter titles that referenced movies (Upper, Upper West Side Story; Straight Out of South Uptown were a couple that made me smile) — as Jordan learns the ins and outs of making friends, standing up for himself and others, and the ways in which well-meaning white people just Don’t Get It.

It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s honest, and it’s eye-opening, and Craft is definitely a graphic novelist to keep an eye on.

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.