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.”
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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.

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Audio book: Leah on the Offbeat

by Becky Albertalli
Read by Shannon Purser
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content:  There’s a LOT of swearing. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This is being billed as a sequel to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and it is, kindof, but I don’t think you need to have read that one to enjoy this one. Sure, there’s some little Easter eggs for those who have, but this — first and foremost — is Leah Burke’s story. And 1) because they’re all seniors now and 2) the book is through Leah’s eyes, this is a lot more angsty than I was expecting from this world.

The basic plot is this: it’s near the end of senior year, and everyone — Simon and Bram, Nick and Abby, etc. — is happy. Except Leah. She identifies as bi, and has a raging crush on Abby, which of course is unrequited because 1) Nick’s girlfriend and 2) Abby’s straight. But after Abby breaks up with Nick right before prom and then kisses Leah on a trip to the University of Georgia (where they’re both going in the fall), Leah’s not quite so sure. About anything.

It’s a lot of ups and downs and angst and friendships falling apart, but I think Albertalli got the uncertainty of the second half of senior year, when everything is just about to change and be different. It’s a tough time (change is always tough), and I think Albertalli caught that in Leah’s story. And I really enjoyed the narrator, as well. She got Leah’s voice down — kind of that apathetic, sarcastic front for someone who feels deeply but who doesn’t want to share — and I found it didn’t really matter that she didn’t do voices for the other characters. It made sense: this is Leah’s story, and keeping the focus on Leah’s voice was something I respected.

I didn’t like this as much as I did Simon, but I did like it.

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang
First sentence: “My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There are some uncomfortable and intense moments, but nothing too graphic. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Mia Tang and her parents are immigrants from China. Which means, even though her parents are highly educated, they’re scrambling for jobs.So, when one comes up managing a hotel — for $5 a room per night, not counting the first week, but they can live there for free — they jump at the chance. Except it’s not as easy as all that. It’s a lot of work for two people (no cleaning staff!) to handle, so Mia takes to running the front desk. Even though she’s only 10. And even though she learns to love the hotel and the weeklies — the people who pay by the week, not by the night — she can’t talk about what her parents do or where she lives at school. Because she’s not like the other kids.

There is a small plot to this one: Mia’s parents take in Chinese immigrants who have fallen on hard times, usually for only one or two nights, and hide them from the owner. Mia wants to be a writer, except her mother doesn’t think she can because English isn’t her first language. and she enters a contest to run a hotel in Vermont. She makes friends and makes choices and learns the power of the written word. There’s not much going on plot-wise, but the characters are compelling, and it’s an excellent look into the things immigrants do (and white/rich people do to them!) in order to make it work here in America. It was definitely enlightening.

So, while there’s not much to talk about, it’s an important — and excellent — book.

Sea Witch

by Sarah Henning
First sentence: “Two small pairs of boots echoed on the afternoon cobblestones — one pair in a sprint, the other in a stumble and slide.”
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Content: There’s some intense action, and a few violent moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

In this small Danish sea town, Evie is a bit of an outcast. The daughter of a fisherman, she grew up best friends with Prince Nik and their mutual friend, Anna. It was tolerated when they were little, but after Anna’s death by drowning, Evie and Nik’s friendship was really frowned upon, and Evie felt the disapproval even more. Especially since she felt she was to blame for Anna’s death. So when a girl — Annemette — shows up out of the blue on the eve of the towns festival, Evie grasps it as her chance at redemption. Especially since Annemette looks and sounds exactly like Anna.

But Evie finds out that things aren’t exactly as they seem, and by that time, it’s too late to stop what has already been put in motion.

I’ve been telling people that what Wicked is to Wizard of Oz, this is to The Little Mermaid. It’s essentially the origin story of the Sea Witch character in the Andersen fairy tale. But, it’s also a re-telling of that fable (with a bit of Disney thrown in as well), and Henning does it extremely well. I haven’t read the original tale in years, but I adored the way Henning wove in the familiar parts of the tale while giving us something completely new. I liked Evie’s internal conflict with her magic and her commitment to her friend, and I loved the nice twist at the end (which I kind of saw coming but was much, much more than I ever expected). The romance is nice, though it’s not really the focus of the story. The friendship between Evie and Anna (shown mostly through a series of flashbacks throughout the book) is, which I also appreciated. It was just a compelling story, all around.

If you like fairy tale retellings, definitely pick this one up.

Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths

by Graham Annable
First sentence: “Rabbit.”
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Content: There’s a lot of pictures, and simple words on each page. It’s in the Beginning Chapter Book section (grades 1-2) of the bookstore.

I have to admit that I picked this one up primarily because the title makes me smile. Making two sloths the subject of a graphic novel? How delightful! How absurd! And that perfectly describes the book.

Peter & Ernesto are two sloths, friends living in a tree together. They have their games and traditions, and it’s all good. That is, until the day that Ernesto decides he wants to see more of the sky than the small patch above their tree. So, he leaves. He has some interesting adventures, and makes a lot of new friends, as he explores all the sky. Peter, on the other hand, is worried when Ernesto doesn’t come back. So he follows him, at least until he can’t. Then he waits until Ernesto comes back. And when he does, he shares all the things he learned by being away.

it’s super simple, and the illustrations and text reflect that. I adore Annable’s sloths; while they’re more cartoonish than actual renditions, it captures the, well, slothiness of the animal. And I like the dichotomy between Ernesto — who is more adventuresome — and Peter, who is just a bundle of anxiety. It’s delightful. My favorite interaction is when Ernesto meets a fox and a raccoon when he’s exploring a mountain sky. They say,  “I thought sloths were lazy.” And Ernesto replies, “We’re content. There’s no need to move much when you’re content. But I’m not content. So I’ve been traveling.” I love that sentiment.

It really was a charming little beginning graphic novel.

Lions & Liars

by Kate Beasley, illustrated by Dan Santat
First sentence: “Frederick Frederickson was thinking about strawberry daiquiris when the dodgeball slammed into his face.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence and some mis-adventures, and a few intense moments. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Frederick Frederickson (whose mother wanted a name everyone would remember, bless her heart) is not high up on the totem pole of popularity. And this bothers him. Even though he has a couple of friends, he wants more: people who laugh at what he says (and not because they’re being mean), to be respected, to be Liked. To not be the bottom of the totem pole. So, when the one thing he looks forward to every year — a cruise with his family — is taken away (poor pity Frederick) he gets into a fight with his friends and ends up adrift on a river… and lands at a weekend camp to Reform boys.

Pausing here for a minute:  I’m sure his parents were frantic when he goes missing (though there’s hardly a word about that), and I know middle grade books can only happen with bad or absent parents, but the fact that Frederick so casually integrates himself into the camp and COMPLETELY FORGETS ABOUT HIS FAMILY kind of doesn’t make me like him. At all. In fact, I kind of just wanted to smack his spoiled, privileged face. (REALLY? You’re pitching a fit because your cruise got canceled because a HURRICANE is coming? I know you’re ten but give it up already.)

Frederick ends up impersonating a kid called Dash, and discovers that maybe the kids in cabin 13 — who go by Ant Bite, Nosebleed, Specs, and The Professor — aren’t so bad, after all.

I know this was supposed to be a heartwarming story about a kid who learns how to be a decent friend (because he’s pretty dang awful to his friends, and they’re pretty dang awful back) and I’m sure there are kids who will like this a lot (because who doesn’t want to run away from home and go to a weekend camp?) but this was just not for me.

Bob

by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
First sentence: “I feel bad that I can’t remember anything about Gran Nicholas’s house.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s written perfectly for the younger age group. It is in the middle grade  section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Livy hasn’t been to her grandmother’s house in Australia in five years, when she was five years old. She doesn’t remember much from the last time she was there: not the room or the toys or the landscape, and especially not the green creature in the closet. Bob (the green creature in the closet) remembers Livy though. She told him to stay put, which he did. For five years. In the closet. But now that Livy’s here, he’s sure she can help him find his way home again.

Bob (the book not the character) is a charming little story about friendship and growing up, but also home and family. And it’s a delightful twist on fairy tales. In Mass’ and Stead’s hands, it’s not saccharine, but simple and sweet and tender.  Livy was more complex than I expected, pulled between her childhood self and a desire to be “older” and the responsibility of being a big sister. And Bob was charming and delightfully innocent. I liked that the fairy tale had rules: even though they were never spelled out in the book, Mass and Stead were consistent with who could and could not see Bob. It was incredibly well done, and a delightful read. .