A High Five for Glenn Burke

by Phil Bildner
First sentence: “Let’s do this, Silas,’ I say to myself.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 25, 2020
Content: There are some awkward moments. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sixth-grader Silas Wade has a loving family (though his parents work too much and his younger sisters are sometimes annoying), and a great best friend in Zoey. He loves playing baseball with his team, the Renegades, and and his coach, Coach Wade, is the best. But Silas has a problem: he has realized that he is gay, and doesn’t quite know how to tell everyone.

Enter a report on Glenn Burke: a real-life professional baseball player (and the inventor of the high five!) in the 1970s who was run out of the major leagues after he came out as gay. Learning about Burke gives Silas the courage to come out to Zoey and then to Coach Wade. It’s not all roses, however. There are ups and downs to this process as Silas figures out how to be his authentic self.

This is a really good book as well as being an Important One. I think there needs to be more sports-oriented books that have LGBT themes, partially because I think there still is a stigma about being LGBT and playing sports. (It’s probably less than it was, but it’s still there, I think.) It’s good to have a book — and one that is written so that kids can grasp what’s going on — that shows that an LGBT kid can play ball well and be gay. And not necessarily fit all the stereotypes that normally come with being gay. I also appreciated Silas’s growth arc; he starts out terrified that people will find out his secret, but as the book goes on, he becomes more and more comfortable with himself.

Bildner knows how to write for kids in a way that makes all of this make sense. And perhaps that’s the most important thing.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

by Karina Yan Glaser
First sentence: “In the middle of a quiet block on 141st Street, inside a brownstone made of deep red shale, the Vanderbeeker family gathered in the living room for a family meeting.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a wee bit of “romance” (one of the siblings “likes” a boy and ends up going to the 8th grade dance). The chapters are short, and there’s a lot of white space. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

The Vanderbeeker family — mom, dad, and five children (four girls and a boy) — are perfectly happy in their brownstone apartment (one of three) in Harlem. They know the neighborhood, and even though they’re a bit squished, they love their home. That is, until their landlord, Mr. Beiderman, tells them a few days before Christmas, that he’s not renewing their lease for the next year and that they have until December 31st to get out. The Vanderbeeker parents are upset and resigned. The kids? Upset, but they’re going to do something about it! They being Operation Beiderman, They set about doing nice things for their grump of a landlord, in hopes that he will realize what a wonderful family they are and not kick them out.

You can probably already guess how this will end, but the plot really isn’t the point of the book. It reminded me of All of a Kind Family or The Penderwicks, where the actual point of the book was this charming, boisterous, delightful family that I loved getting to know. It was sweet and delightful and I loved the family dynamics between all the characters. This one is perfect for those who want a classic feel to their books. And I’m sure this would make a fabulous read-aloud to younger kids.

Definitely recommended.

Finding Orion

by John David Anderson
First sentence: “The night we found out about Papa Kwirk, I had a jelly bean for dinner.”
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Release date: May 7, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a brief mention of kissing. And this one feels more weightier than Anderson’s usual fare. It’s still in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it might be better for older readers.

Orion (call me Rion, pronounced Ryan, please) is the middle child — and only boy — in a very, well, quirky family. His mom runs the local planetarium (hence being named after a constellation; his sisters are Cassiopeia and Lyra) and his dad invents jelly beans at the local candy factory. Cass, his older sister, is super into theater and Lyra is a 10-year-old brainiac. The only person Rion can relate to is his grandfather, Papa Kwirk: he, with is stories of Vietnam and Harley Davidson, at least seems “normal.” The only downside is that they only see Papa Kwirk once a year, at Christmas.

But then, Papa Kwirk suddenly passes away. And Rion and his family head to his dad’s hometown for the funeral, and come to realize that they don’t know Papa Kwirk as well as they thought they did. The next couple of days, as they head around town on a scavenger hunt (no one said the Kwirks do things the easy way), they discover that there is more to Papa Kwirk than they could have ever imagined.

I have adored Anderson’s books — some more than others — for a while now. He’s always a bit odd, and he tackles big subjects (like the death of a grandparent) with humor and heart. It’s not as funny as some of his other books, but I really loved the way the family worked together (chalk this one up with The Penderwicks as a good family book!) to solve the scavenger hunt. It embraces the importance of family and telling family stories, which I also appreciated. There was a slight subplot that was a bit hokey, but it set up a great climatic scene where the entire family worked together.

So, maybe this isn’t a true middle grade book, but it’s still a fun read.

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.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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. 

All’s Faire in Middle School

by Victoria Jamieson
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Release date: September 5th, 2017
Content: There’s some mild bullying and some kissing by background adult characters. It will be in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Imogene has grown up in the Florida Renaissance Faire. Literally: her father is an actor in the permanent troupe, and her mother runs a shop. Imogene has been homeschooled up until now, but has decided that she wants to give middle school a try for sixth grade.

Possibly predictably, Imogene finds out that middle school isn’t a nice place. She’s teased for being homeschooled, for wearing her hand-made leather boots every day. She starts to make friends, but it’s with the “in” group. Which means (also predictably) that there will be conflicts when their desires conflict with the values Imogene has been taught.

Back at the Faire, Imogene has been promoted to be a squire, which means that she’s part of the “show”. Sure, it’s just to scoop poop in the joust and to wander around interacting with the guests, but Imogene loves it. And it seems that she’s making a friend of one of her classmates who comes every weekend.

Sure, the plot is predictable — I’ve read this same story a hundred times before — but that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable. Jamieson has a way with art and words and I cared very much about Imogene and her story. (Though I think I liked the minor characters — her parents and younger brother especially — better.) It was fun to read, and fun to see a little inside the workings of a permanent Renaissance Faire.

The Best Man

bestmanby Richard Peck
First sentence: “Boys aren’t too interested in weddings.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There’s some bullying and it’s not really action-heavy. But I’d give it to a 4th grader and up. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Archer Magill is just trying to figure things out. As a 5th (and then 6th) grader, he’s kind of clueless. About girls, about friends, about life. And so, he’s looking for role models and he’s found three: his dad (who’s a really great dad), his grandpa (who’s pretty awesome), his Uncle Paul (who’s incredibly cool). And then, a student teacher, Mr. McLeod comes into his life.

Actually, this isn’t a book about an awesome male teacher, thank heavens. Event though there’s an awesome male teacher. No, it’s more about Life, and Figuring Things Out, and Friendship. And how other people’s lives intersect with ours. And the Chicago Cubs.  It’s a Slice of Life novel, one that is full of charming characters and a great family. And one that, refreshingly, treats a LGBT relationship as something that’s to be celebrated. No, our main character isn’t gay, it’s not a coming out book for kids. There’s no angst in this book. It’s a story where the LGBT relationship is a part of who the people are, and that’s okay.

It’s a funny, sweet, refreshingly charming novel, and I adored it.

Wolf Hollow

wolfhollowby Lauren Wolk
First sentence: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: May 3, 2016
Content: There’s some death and bullying and one pretty intense injury scene. Probably not for the younger set. It will probably go in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s the fall of 1943, and Annabelle is living a happy, quiet life on her farm in Pennsylvania. Sure, the war in Germany is raging, seemingly without end, but it doesn’t really touch Annabelle’s life. What does touch her is Betty, the new girl who has moved in with her grandparents. Betty has decided that Annabelle is her target, and demands things from her. And when Annabelle refuses to give in, Betty turns her ire on bigger targets. Like Toby, the World War I veteran who Annabelle’s family has taken care of for the past few years. And so when Betty goes missing, it’s Toby who gets blamed.

On the one hand, this really grew on me. It took about 100 pages, but I finally got to where I was invested in Annabelle’s story, and curious about the direction it was taking. The writing is excellent; Wolk really does know how to spin a story. And I thought that, even though it’s a work of historical fiction, the themes of acceptance of others and defending the innocent were incredibly timely.

My problem with it? It’s not really a children’s book. Our narrator is reflecting back on her childhood, so everything is kind of infused with adult sensibilities. (At least: I thought so.) I appreciated that the parents were good parents, helping out when Annabelle confessed the bullying to them. But, it just doesn’t feel like a book I can give to a kid (maybe that special, precocious kid? The 9-year-old who likes Harper Lee, maybe.). Maybe I’m being too sensitive, dumbed down by Diary of a Wimpy Kid-like books. Maybe this is like Pax, which I had a viciously violently negative reaction to, but it turned out it was just me.

Though I didn’t have a negative reaction to this. I liked it, I thought it was well-written and the story incredibly powerful. I just don’t think it’s really a kids’ book.