The Agony House

by Cherie Priest
First sentence: “Denise Farber stomped up the creaky metal ramp and stood inside the U-Haul, looking around for the lightest possible box.
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils. 
Content: There is some violence, but it’s not bad. And some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. 

Things I really liked about this: I liked that it was set in New Orleans, post-Katrina, and that white people moving into underdeveloped neighborhoods and displacing the black population was an issue, if only in passing. I liked the subtle feminism in the story, as well as the fact that the parents were really good. I liked that Priest highlighted a New Orleans that wasn’t voodoo or jazz music. And I liked the way she wove the graphic novel into the story.  

Things I didn’t like: it just really didn’t work terribly well as a ghost story, for me. I never felt terribly threatened or scared by the ghosts, or even terribly worried for the characters (even though the ghosts were causing a LOT of damage to the house). I also didn’t like that the main character was balancing her new life in New Orleans — her mom and step-dad moved her there right before her senior year — and her old life in Houston. It was realistic, sure, but it felt unnecessary to the overall plot (which was the ghost story). 

It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t as good as I was hoping. 

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Isle of Blood and Stone

islefobloodandstoneby Makiia Lucier
First sentence: “The outing had been planned on a whim; an afternoon lesson up in the ills, away from the smoke and stink of the city.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing and violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, even though the characters are 18/19 years old.

Eighteen years ago, the two princes of Island of St. John del Mar were kidnapped with the chief navigator and their nurse, never to be seen again. The king (and everyone, really) presumed them to be dead and went to war with a nearby island, Mondrago, ravishing it. Fast forward, and the king’s remaining son, Ulises, has become king, and his two friends, Mercedes — half Mondragan and Ulises’ cousin — and Elias, the son of the former chief navigator, have discovered some maps with a riddle about that fateful event 18 years ago. And, at the king’s command, Elias begins to look into it.

What he finds is a complex and tangled riddle, full of lies and information that will shake not only Elias’s beliefs, but perhaps the entire kingdom.

On the one hand: this was a compelling book, and a fantastic idea. I liked both Elias and Mercedes (who were roughly our narrators; it was written in third person, but we never followed Ulises around), and I loved the twists and turns as Elias uncovered information about the princes’ disappearance.

What held me back from really loving the book, however, was that I felt that Lucier told me what was going on rather than showing me. There was a LOT of exposition, and a lot of narrative, which isn’t necessarily bad, but what it did was keep me at an arm’s length. Like, Elias and Mercedes ended up falling in love (mild spoiler), but I had absolutely no connection to that. At all. There were strains of racism and sexism, but I felt like it was all at a distance, and never really connected with any of it.

Which is too bad. I really wanted to love this one.

Sheets

by Brenna Thummler
First sentence: “It’s difficult to list, in order, the things I hate.”
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Review copy picked up at CI6
Release date: August 28, 2018
Content: There is a slight romance, and some bullying. It’ll be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Marjorie Glatt’s mother has recently died and her father has gone into mourning. Which means that 13-year-old Marjorie is left taking care of everything: school, her five-year-old brother, and running the family laundromat. It’s a lot for a 13-year-old to take on, especially when one of the town’s residents, Mr. Saubertuck, keeps trying to put her out of business so he can start his 5-star spa and yoga center.

Walter is a recently deceased ghost, who doesn’t like being a ghost. So, he skips ghost town (yes, there is a ghost town!) and heads to the nearby city where he finds the Glatt’s laundromat, which turns out to be a ghost’s paradise. What they discover is that a girl and a ghost can, in fact, help each other out, and make both of their lives easier.

This is a super charming little graphic novel. It deals with a tough subject — grief and death — but in such a way that it’s accessible to kids and gets them to think  (and laugh!) in ways that a prose novel wouldn’t have. I love Thummler’s illustrations, from the ghosts who have personalities in spite of being covered with sheets to Marjorie and Mr. Saubertuck.

Delightful.

The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle

by Christina Uss
First sentence: “The front door to the Mostly Silent Monastery was missing.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 5, 2018
Content: It’s got a few fantasy elements, but is more realistic fiction. It’s probably longer than emerging readers can mange, but I think it’d make a great read-aloud. It will be in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

This book, for a myriad of reasons, is highly implausible. A 12 year old girl biking alone across the country? Making friends with  a ghost? Ending up with a super high-tech bicycle? Attending the Kentucky Derby for free? All probably not going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean this first book by Uss, an avid biker herself (she biked across the U. S.!) any less enjoyable. Bicycle is a delightful character to spend a book with as she branches out (maybe in an overly extreme way) and tries to make friends and experience things for herself. Though, to be fair, I wouldn’t want to be sent to the Friendship Farm, either. It’s incredibly charming and ultimately heart-warming and inspiring as Bicycle (and Uss) finds the best parts of this vast country.

(One small quibble: if Bicycle was going through Kansas in late May/early June, she wouldn’t pass fields of sunflowers… that’s more an August/September thing. At least it wasn’t corn fields, though.)

Hand this to anyone who wishes they had the time and freedom to see the country the slow way.

 

Dying to Meet You

by Kate Klise, Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
First sentence: “By turning this page and the pages that follow, you hereby release the compilers of this correspondence from all liability related to thoughts, ruminations, hallucinations, and dreams (good or bad) of or pertaining to ghosts, friendly or otherwise.”
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Content: So, this is a weird one: the narrator’s an older man and there’s a bit of a love story, but the skill level is beginning chapter plus it’s full of illustrations. My professor has this as a middle school-level book, and the vocabulary level is a bit high, but I’d be tempted to put it in the Beginning Chapter books (Grades 1-3) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: the best part of this book is the names. Celebrated children’s author I.B. Grumply is looking for a house to rent so he can finish the latest book in his best-selling series. He rents 43 Old Cemetary Road, which is, unfortunately, haunted by the ghost of a librarian and unpublished writer, Olive C. Spence. It also comes with a kid,  Seymour Hope, whose parents (awful as they are) have up and left him. The basic plot is this: I. B. Grumply wants peace and quiet, doesn’t believe there’s a ghost, and rages at Seymour until his convinces Grumply that the ghost is real (and cooks a mean dinner) and then they set about purchasing the house so they can all live happily ever after.

So, this was one of the books in the mystery unit for school, and I have to disagree: there is NO mystery here. It’s a ghost story, plain and simple. And it works as a ghost story. I liked the humor — the names are the best — but otherwise, this one was entirely forgettable.

Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “Don’t nobody believe nothing these days which is why I haven’t told nobody the story I’m about to tell you.”
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Content: While there isn’t any swearing or on-screen violence, the themes are quite intense. I go back and forth as to where this should go. One of my co-workers insists that 10-year-old kids shouldn’t be reading it, so doesn’t like it when I stick it with the Newbery Books (even though it got an honor). I’m not sure it needs to be in the Teen (grades 9+) section, though, so I may compromise by putting it in the YA (grades 6-8).

Will’s older brother, Shawn, has been shot dead. And so, Will believes, it’s his duty to hunt down the person who shot Shawn (and he’s sure he knows who it is) and kill them. After all, that’s part of the rules: Don’t cry, don’t snitch, and always get revenge. But, on the elevator with a gun tucked in his pants, Will encounters ghosts of his past, every single one of whom has been killed by gunshot.

The ending is left open: will Will follow through, or won’t he? But, it’s these conversations with the ghosts — all told in verse — that left me shook. The toxic masculinity is rampant and obvious (at least to me, an outsider): if someone shoots someone who then shoots someone, then (of course) someone else will have to shoot that someone. It’s a vicious cycle that just leaves everyone dead. (What is that adage? An eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind?) It’s awful. And culture, tradition, racism, oppression, expectations… they don’t let these boys grieve the way they need to grieve. (And don’t get me started on gun culture.) I’m not entirely sure that’s what Reynolds was trying to get across, but that’s what I (again, as an outsider) got out of it.

Hopefully, books like these will help bring awareness to this. And maybe we can all stop killing each other just because of the color of our skin.

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.