Ghost Boys

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “How small I look.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 18, 2018
Content: There are some tough issues here, but all the violence is either handled delicately or is off stage. The publisher has it for 10 and up, so I will probably shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore, but it would be good for curious 4th and 5th graders.

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a white police officer while playing in the park. He had a toy gun, and the officer thought he was being threatened and therefore shot Jerome. If that sounds familiar, it’s intentional.

The book isn’t about the shooting, exactly. It’s told from Jerome’s perspective, after his death. He’s a ghost, hanging around, angry he is dead, and wondering what his purpose is. From there, we learn in flashbacks how he came to be shot, as well as following the preliminary hearing (in which the white officer gets off), and learn about Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi in 1955. The point of the novel, however, isn’t about the story. It’s about the feelings this kind of murder generate. The sadness and anger in Jerome’s family. The questioning by the daughter of the officer. The sheer number of black boys that have been murdered. But also hopeful feelings: the friendships that come out of a tragedy like this.

While it’s a bit on the heavy-handed side, I think that was done intentionally. Rhodes wants to get her readers — many of whom are young — thinking about why this happens. About underlying racism. About seeing the “other” as, well, not “other”. And I think she wants to get a dialogue going, because if we don’t talk about these things, our culture won’t change and black men and boys will keep getting murdered.

It’s a quick read, and definitely a worthwhile one for kids (and adults!) to read.

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Ninth Ward

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove.”
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Content: There are some intense moments, but it’s written very simply. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lanesha lives in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, one of the poorest sections of the city, with her Mama Ya-Ya, who is the woman who delivered her, because Lanesha’s mother has passed on and her extended family doesn’t want her. But, even though they’re poor, Lanesha’s happy. That is, until a storm — Hurricane Katrina — comes riding in. Mama Ya-Ya passes on in the middle of the storm, and Lanesha is left to figure out how to ride out the flooding that came after the hurricane by herself.

I adore Rhodes, and the way she takes tough issues and makes them really accessible to younger readers. She knows her audience, knows how to talk to her audience, and knows how to make difficult subjects into a gripping, interesting, compelling story. This one is no exception (I hadn’t read it before!). The only difference with this one is that it has ghosts. Lanesha has the ability to see those who have passed on, and can even talk to them. (Which makes me wonder why this one ended up in the “realistic fiction” section of my children’s lit class…) Even so, the ghosts don’t seem out of place; it is New Orleans after all. And even though the ghosts play a role in resolving the ultimate conflict, I think Rhodes did an excellent job in making this a real middle grade novel, with the action being propelled forward by the children.

Excellent. But that’s no surprise.

Winterhouse

by Ben Gutterson
First sentence: “When Elizabeth Somers tugged open the gate to her aunt and uncle’s yard and saw and envelope taped to the front door of the shabby house she shared with them, she knew it was bad news.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 2, 2018
Content: There’s some mild scary parts. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Elizabeth is an orphan (of course) living with her neglectful (of course) relatives when she (of course) gets a mysterious invitation to visit the Winterhouse hotel, a posh, somewhat charming (of course) hotel out in the middle of the country. Her aunt and uncle (of course) send her (they got a mysterious Christmas vacation out of it), glad (of course) to be rid of the Burden that she is. Once at Winterhouse, Elizabeth (of course) discovers the gigantic (of course) library, makes a friend in the genius inventor (of course) Freddy and the mysterious, eccentric (of course) owner Norbridge seems nice enough. There’s some other guests who are (of course) creepy, and a mystery looming which (of course) Elizabeth is drawn to solve.

All those of courses kind of make it seem as if I didn’t like this one, except event though the plot/concept seemed really familiar, and Been There Done That, I still enjoyed the book. I liked the puzzles that Freddy and Elizabeth solve. I liked the mysterious codes and word games that they played. I thought the ghost story was a bit much, but it didn’t bother me overly much. Maybe the story was a bit trite but Guterson knows how to engage a reader, and keep the pages turning. Which is possibly all a story really needs.

Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 1

I’ve been reading LOTS (well, not as much as some years) for the Cybils, and I haven’t had the time to write down reviews of all of them. Here are a bunch I enjoyed, but didn’t have the time to write a whole review of.

A Properly Unhaunted Place
by William Alexander
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Content: It’s a ghost story, but it’s not scary, and it’s short enough not to scare off reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Basic plot: there’s this town, Ingot, that doesn’t have ghosts. Which is unusual in this alternate world where ghosts are incredibly prevalent. Jasper, who grew up in Ingot, doesn’t mind, but Rosa, who just moved there, does. And so when ghosts start appearing at the Renaissance Faire, Rosa is ecstatic: appeasing the ghosts (not banishing!) is her family’s business, after all. And she enlists Jasper’s help to figure out the ghost problem in Ingot.

It’s a fun enough book; short and sweet and simple, and I could tell that Alexander wanted to make it diverse (props for that, but it felt forced) but it just wasn’t, well, interesting.

Dominion
by Shane Arbuthnott
First sentence: “They had been chasing the font for days, and Molly knew the engine was getting tired.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, and some intense moments. It’s not at the store, but if it was, it’d be in the YA (grades 6-8) section.

This book takes place in a world — perhaps our own? — that has been taken over by spirits. Except, these aren’t ghosts (I thought they were, at first). They’re more like djinn, except they don’t have magic powers. What the people of this world do is capture the spirits, and then force them into iron containers (so they can’t escape) and then use them to power airships and robots. Molly is the engineer on her family’s airship, when she realizes (over a course of a few events) that what they’re doing is essentially slavery. So, she sets out to stop it.

The thing I liked best about this was the world. Arburthnott has created a unique world where he mixes magic (of sorts) with steampunk technology, and then thrown in a capable and interesting heroine (whose main antagonists end up being her family, which was also interesting) and it turns out that this is a pretty fantastic speculative fiction adventure.

The Unicorn in the Barn
by Jacqueline K. Ogburn
First sentence: “My dad always told me, ‘Never surprise anybody swinging a hammer; something is liable to get smashed.'”
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Content: There’s one adult smoking and a hunting accident. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is a charming little story about a boy and a girl, some woods, a unicorn, and a vet clinic that helps (among other animals) magical animals. It was very sweet and tender, and lovely, and would be perfect for the sweet, tender, animal-loving reader. I enjoyed the push-and-pull relationship between the main character and the daughter of the veterinarian, and I liked that the conflict happened in spite of the parents, not because of them. (They were actually really good parents.) I’m not much of a horse/unicorn lover (anymore; my 4th grade self would have loved this book), so I wasn’t completely enthralled, but I do like that there’s a charming, sweet horse story starring a boy out there.

The Great Hibernation
by Tara Dairman
First sentence: “The bear was dead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s some bullying and sleeping parents. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This was a delightfully odd story about a northern town (maybe in the Yukon? Or northern Alaska?) which, every year, all the adults, 12 years and 4 months and 6 days old  and up eats bear liver to honor a long-ago event by their forefathers. It’s considered a punishable offense to not do so, and so when Jean throws it up, she’s worried. Until everyone who ate the liver falls asleep and the kids — especially the mayor’s kid, Magnus — take over. Then, it’s up to Jean to figure out why the adults are all asleep and stop the vote on the new thistleberry plant before it’s too late.

A highly improbably premise with a scientific solution, this one was silly fun. I enjoyed reading how Jean and her new Thai friend, Isara, figure out the truth behind the sudden “hibernation” and how to wake up the adults. It’s a clever mystery and a silly story, even if it is full of improbabilities.

Journey Across the Hidden Islands
by Sarah Beth Durst
First sentence: “Don’t fall.”
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Content: There’s some intense moments with scary monsters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

As a general rule, I enjoy Sarah Beth Durst’s writing, and this one is no exception. She’s excellent with her world building — this one being a world of islands protected by a magical barrier which is sustained by a dragon — and her writing propels the reader forward. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of twin sisters, daughters of the Emperor, and their journey to the dragon. I liked that Durst explored the nature of the stories we tell each other and ourselves, how a shared history can differ depending on where a person is from,  how perceptions can often be wrong , and how change is sometimes for the best. It was a delightful story, the only negative side being (and this may be a big negative) the vaguely Asian feel to it, which I think could have been done better by an Asian author. That said, overall, it was very good.

Spirit Hunters

by Ellen Oh
First sentence: “‘Harper! Come quick!'”
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Content: There’s an abusive relationship, and it’s quite scary in parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t give it to the faint of heart.

Harper and her family have recently moved from New York City into a Washington, D. C. house. It’s nominally for her parents’ jobs, but it’s also because Harper had a couple of incidents — at school and at the mental health hospital — that were kind of sketchy. However, she can’t remember anything about the fire at school that landed her in the hospital. And now, her younger brother is acting unlike himself, and no one can quite figure out why.

(Though you can probably guess from the title!)

This was SO good! I loved the characters, even the clueless/controlling/close-minded parents, and I loved that the main character not only figured out the problem, but also solved it, with the help from her friend and her estranged grandmother. I liked the historical detail that Oh wove into the book, and I loved the suspense that she built throughout the book. An excellent ghost story.

 

Ghosts of Greenglass House

by Kate Milford
First sentence: “Frost was pretty much the worst.”
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Others in the series: Greenglass House
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a bit slow moving and long, so while appropriate for the age, probably not good for the reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s been a year since Milo has seen his ghost friend Meddy, and the adventures of the last Christmas. He’s mostly doing okay, except for a bit of a problem at school with a teacher who isn’t terribly sensitive (Milo is Chinese American, and adopted). But it’s Christmas break (again), and Milo is looking forward to a guest-free (mostly), teacher free break. That is, until his old friends Clem and Georgie show up (again), having robbed the legendary smuggler Violet Cross’s stash. Things kind of go downhill from there, with the arrival of the Waits, a group of traditional carolers, when they turn everything at Greenglass House upside down.

It’s a solid book. taking place over just a couple of days, with a strong mystery. It was fun to revisit the characters again (I don’t even remember the first book all that well, so it’s really not necessary to read it before reading this one), and I loved how Midwinter it was. There’s a whole subplot with the running of the deer, and the hobby horse, and the holly and the ivy that I thoroughly enjoyed.

It was just a delightful story to read.

The Empty Grave

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “Want to hear a ghost story?”
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Others in the Series: The Screaming StaircaseThe Whispering SkullThe Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow
Content: Scary stuff and violence, of course. They’re in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I always make sure the kids can handle scary stuff before selling these.

There’s not much new to say about this series that I haven’t already said before. I adore Lockwood, Lucy, George (and now Holly and Kipps, too!). I love that Stroud knows how to pace a story, giving us smaller ghosts and mysteries that all link together in a big huge climax. I love that while this one feels like a good ending, it’s also a good story in its own right. I will definitely miss this world and this series and I’m SO glad I started it all those years ago. If you’ve been waiting until all the books were out to start this series, now’s the time. Go do it. You won’t be sorry.