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.

 

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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.

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.