Be Prepared

by Vera Brosgol
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some awkward pranks, some light bullying, and some kissing. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Loosely based on Brosgol’s youth, Be Prepared follows 10-year-old Vera to Russian camp, nominally so she can “fit in”. Being Russian, she doesn’t quite mesh up with her friends at home, so she figures she’d have a better chance to fit in at a camp where everyone is Russian. Except, once she gets there she finds out that being the new kid isn’t any fun. Everyone already knows the camp traditions, rules, and has friends. She’s perpetually the third wheel and is often pushed around, especially by the older girls she bunks with.  It’s awkward and embarrassing, and Vera just wants to go home.

I can completely empathize with the feeling of not fitting in, feeling awkward, and not knowing how to make friends, and Brosgol captures that perfectly. But, thankfully, she manages to figure things out by the end of camp, mostly by being herself, which is always a good thing for kids to read about. She manages the awkward with humor — there are some laugh-out-loud moments! — and she makes even the annoying kids and the bullies be multi-dimensional.

There is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of this one, so I hope Brosgol gives us a sequel!

All Summer Long

by Hope Larson
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: May 1, 2018
Content: There’s a little bit of romance, and just some themes of growing up in general. It will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore, but the sweet spot for this one is 6-7th graders, I think.

It’s the summer after 7th grade, and Bina’s not looking forward to it. Her best friend, Austin, is off to soccer camp for a month, and Bina’s afraid that summer will be boring without him. They’ve always spent the summer together, making their own fun, but they seem to be… growing up. And things aren’t the same.

Though, eventually Bina finds her own things to do: she makes friends with Austin’s older sister, Charlie, gets some babysitting gigs, and practices her guitar. It’s not the way it was with Austin, but it doesn’t suck.

The underlying conflict in the book is Austin and Bina’s friendship: they’ve been friends forever, but Austin’s been getting some grief from other boys (toxic masculinity is the worst!) for being friends with a girl, and so he attempts to push Bina away — which is part of the reason he’s been acting weird toward her. Larson treats all this with kindness and humor, and puts across a message that it’s okay to be friends with whomever you want to be with. Period. It’s wonderful.

And Larson also captures what it’s like to be young and faced with a long summer of doing… nothing. I like that the parents are concerned and responsible, but not hovering (they also change the Netflix password, so Bina can’t just watch TV all summer… that’s not a bad idea!) and Bina has some freedom to go out and find her own fun, but within reason.

It’s really a delightful graphic novel.

Audiobook: Orphan Island

by Lauren Snyder
Read by: Kim Mai Guest
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Listen on!
Content: There’s some mild violence, and some underlying darkness (that I may have noticed because I’m an adult) and some more mature themes (like growing up). It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) at the bookstore, but is probably better for the upper ends of the age range.

Nine orphans live on this island. No less, no more. And once every year (or so) a green boat mysteriously appears, bearing a new young orphan, and the oldest one on the island, the Elder, is supposed to get on the boat and leave, while the new oldest takes care of the new little one. When the book opens, Jinny is saying goodbye to her best friend, Deen, and hello to her Care, Ess. It’s a bittersweet opening: Jinny doesn’t want to say goodbye to her friend, and Ess isn’t happy about being there. And yet, they must go on.

The book covers a huge swath of time, but Snyder does it incredibly elegantly. Jinny struggles with teaching Ess the things she needs to know, and struggles with being the Elder.  In short: she doesn’t want to grow up. For that’s what this book is: an extended metaphor for that transition through childhood. It’s elegant and lovely, and sometimes frustrating and sad (Jinny breaks the rules, and has to deal with the consequences, which aren’t pretty) and annoying. But it’s always a lovely, lovely book.

And the narrator was spectacular. I don’t know what the text is like, but with the narrator, I could not only tell each of the nine kids by her voices, but she caught Ess’s transition from little kid to slightly older one. It was an absolute delight to listen to and one I would recommend.


shortby Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence: “I spend a lot of time looking up.”
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Release date: January 31, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some more “grown up” stuff that 3rd graders might be confused about (well, nothing specific; it just felt more that way), but it’s good for the 5th grade and up. I’ll probably put it in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, for now.

Julia Marks is short for her age. She’s mostly okay with this, though she is tired of the jokes and tries not to use the word “short” hardly at all. So, when her mother finds something for her and her younger brother to do this summer, in the form of being munchkins in a local performance of The Wizard of Oz, Julia is less than thrilled. Especially since her dog recently died. But then she meets Olive, an adult with dwarfism, and suddenly the summer becomes much more… wondrous. She also meets her neighbor, Mrs. Chang, an older woman who turns out to be a lot more than Julia initially thought. As the summer progresses and rehearsals go on, Julia learns that she’s capable of, well, big things.

Like all of Sloan’s other books, this one is incredibly charming. Sloan has a gift for taking simple situations — a summer play, a girl who is insecure about her height — and making them Grand. It seems a simple plot, but Julia is a fantastic character to spend a book with. And the characters Sloan surrounds her with, from Olive and Mrs. Chang to all the other bit (and not so bit) players, are equally as wonderful. Sloan makes you want to fall into the book and experience life right along with Julia. Sloan has a way of capturing the littlest parts of every day life and making them magical.

A delightful book, one that will hopefully be as beloved as Sloan’s others.

Circus Mirandus

by Cassie Beasley
First sentence: “Four small words.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher. (Plus: popcorn!)
Release date: June 2, 2014
Content: It’s kind of slow, and definitely heavy on the exposition, which may make more reluctant readers, well, reluctant to give it a try. But I’m assuming there will be gorgeous art throughout (I haven’t seen it yet), and so there’s that to give it a boost with those who like pictures with their books. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Micah has been raised by his grandfather since his parents died when he was young. He’s had a good life; his grandfather is one of those Good people who know how to be happy. He was also a storyteller, raising Micah on stories of the grand Circus Mirandus and the Lightbender, who promised Micah’s grandfather a miracle.  Now, when grandfather’s health is failing, he calls in the Lightbender’s miracle. But getting that isn’t as easy as all that. And it’s up to Micah (and his friend Jenny Mendoza) to help grandfather get the miracle he deserves.

I am not a critical reader. I fall head first into stories, and they either work for me or they don’t. I don’t stop to think much about a deeper meaning, or issues, or (sadly) stereotypes and cliches. I like characters (or not), I like the plot (or not), I like the writing (or not). And so, I find myself loving books and not having a real “reason” for it.

This is one of those books. I loved it. Wholly and unabashedly. I fell into the magic and the suspension of disbelief. I understood the magic and the story that Beasley was trying to tell. I cried at the end. I am not sure I’ve felt this in love with a book since I read the first Penderwicks. This book? This book is my people.

I loved it. I loved the Big Fish-esque feel of the story. I loved Micah and his grandpa’s relationship. I loved the flashbacks to grandpa’s time with the circus. Yeah, so some of the characters — Aunt Gertrudis, especially — were pretty much caricatures, but so is Trunchbull in Matilda, and no one complains about that. I loved that Jenny was smart, and that they were just friends and that she wasn’t a romantic interest. I loved her skepticism, and her belief in her friend (if not in the magic). I loved the whimsy of the book. But most of all, I loved the heart of it. It has such a big heart.

I’m sure there are drawbacks, and people who this book won’t speak to. But, for me, this was a little slice of perfection.

The Fourteenth Goldfish

by Jennifer L. Holm
First sentence: “When I was in preschool, I had a teacher named Starlily.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment
Release date: August 26, 2014
Content: I think it’s geared towards younger readers: larger font, lots of white space, and everything is pretty much spelled out. It’ll go in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but could go for strong younger readers.

Eleven-year-old Ellie has a pretty normal life. Her parents — both Theater People — are divorced, but get along. She is dreading middle school, especially since she and her best friend since Kindergarten seem to be drifting apart. But, mostly, it’s just your normal, every-day life. That is, until her mom gets call to go pick up “Melvin”. Who happens to be her father, Ellie’s grandpa. Except now he’s 13. Turns out, he discovered a new species of jellyfish, one when ingested, gives you back your youth.

But things aren’t all roses and unicorns for Melvin: being 13 is not the same as being in your 70s. There are some upsides: a good digestive system, and the lack of a need to pee in the middle of the night. But the downside is that Melvin has lost access to his lab, which means if he can’t get the jellyfish, he can’t prove his theory, and he won’t win the Nobel Prize.

While Ellie is our narrator, it’s Melvin who drives the action. He’s the one who introduces Ellie to Science; gets Ellie to talk to her new friend, Raj; the one who needs to break into the building. One of my problems with this (aside from being Too Old; I do think younger readers will love it) is that Ellie is not proactive, but rather reactive in her own life. She’s a sweet girl, and a nice person to read about. But the book just wasn’t exciting.

It was, however, charming and informative. Holm managed to put a ton of science in her science fiction book: everyone from Galileo and Newton to Oppenheimer and Einstein make an appearance. And she explains some basic scientific concepts in pretty general — and clever — ways. So, while it wasn’t exciting, it was interesting. It did take me a while to figure out the title, why it was called the 14th goldfish (since goldfish didn’t play much of a role), but I thought the ending was sweet and Holm did explain it.

Not my cup of tea, but I’m glad I read it.

The Riverman

by Aaron Starmer
First sentence: “Every town has a lost child.”
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Content: There’s some alcohol usage and talk of murdered children. Also, it feels really adult in its sensibilities. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’m not happy with that. On the other hand, it’ll languish in the YA (grades 6-8) section too, so I might just leave it where it is.

Alistair Cleary  is the kind of kid who blends in. He’s not popular at his middle school, but he’s not reviled, either. His best friend is a gamer — which is quite unusual, since it’s the fall of 1989 — but Alistair has managed to escape certain geek doom. He’s content to slide through life. Until Fiona decides that it’s Alistair who needs to write her sad tale down.

And what a tale: Fiona insists that she’s been going to this imaginary land, Aquavania, which is absolutely real. She’s added months to her life in her trips (which become years later in the book). And that her friends in Aquavania — who also happen to be real people in the Solid World — are disappearing because someone called the Riverman is sucking their souls away.

I had Issues with this book. It compelled me enough to finish it, sure, but it was one of those books that I threw across the room when I was done. I’ve been trying for days to figure out how to write about my issues, and to boil my problems with the book down into a neat, concise package, but I don’t think I can. There will be spoilers.

My initial problems come from the incongruity between the cover and the book itself. The cover screams middle grade, but the content is very… adult. On some level, I feel like Starmer should have gone all the way, made this incredibly dark and sinister, used the metaphor that he was building — that Aquavania is a crutch for Fiona, who uses it to escape horrible things in her life — and made it an adult book.

But, even though that is the set up for most of the book, Starmer doesn’t follow through. He pulls what I have come to think of as a bait-and-switch, a “HA! It’s Really REAL” moment. For which he has given us no basis in the rest of the book. Our narrator, Alistair, believes Fiona is making it up. He believes in the dark understory, so I do too. And so it’s incredibly unsatisfying (for me as an adult; would an older kid?) to have the rug pulled out from underneath you.

I’m sure there I have other complaints (did it really need to be set in 1989? REALLY?), but that’s the main one. Going in, I didn’t know what to expect, but by the end I hoped for a lot more than what I got.

The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin

First sentence: “The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east.”
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Content: There are about three mild swear words, and some talk of murder. Plus a couple of bombs. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore (actually, I have a Newbery Award Winner section; it’s in that), and I can see no reason for this not to be there. 
Review copy provided by the publisher as a complimentary copy for my bookgroup.
There are very few books I have fond memories of from when I was a kid. The Little House books, and Wrinkle in Time are a couple. And this one. I’m not sure why I remember it so well; maybe it was because it’s a pretty decent puzzle book/mystery, or maybe I just liked the spunk that Turtle Wexler has. Either way, this one has stayed with me throughout the years as a charming, fun little book.

I’m happy to say that this is still — even after all these years — a charming, fun little book. For those who don’t know the plot, it’s this: Sam Westing has died, and 16 people –all connected to Sam Westing in some way — are called into solve the mystery of his “murder” in order to win his inheritance. It’s a rag-tag collection of people, from a judge to a doorman, to a dysfunctional family, to a couple of restaurant owners. There are several sympathetic characters: Doug Hoo, the resident jock/track star; Theo Theodorakis, an incredible support to his disabled older brother; and (my favorite) Turtle Wexler, 13-year-old spitfire. There are also some despicable characters, most notably Turtle’s mom. She is the epitome of overbearing mothers who have good intentions but go about it all wrong. Pushing her older daughter (at age 19!) into a marriage she doesn’t want, and emotionally abusive to Turtle… I disliked her with every fiber of my being.

I’m not sure if the puzzle was terribly well-plotted. I knew the answer, having remembered it from a previous read (maybe 10 years or so ago), but A read it and kind of felt the answer came out of nowhere. That didn’t much matter; she enjoyed the story for the characters. And perhaps that’s the real charm of the book. Raskin created a group of people that we can’t help but identify with and either love or hate. Either way, we’re more than happy to go on a bit of an adventure with them. 

Just One Year

by Gayle Forman
First sentence: “It’s the dream I always have: I’m on a plane, high above the clouds.”
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Content: There are a half-dozen f-bombs in addition to a handful of other milder swear words. Also there’s off-screen sex and some drug use. For these reasons, the book is in the Teen (ages 14+) section of the bookstore.
Others in the series: Just One Day

The book opens with Willem de Reuter, Dutch actor and playboy, waking from a coma. For those who have read Just One Day, you know exactly what point in the overarching story of Willem and Allyson that this picks up. The question is: where does Willem go from here?

While I’ve known that this book was coming out since reading Just One Day, I have to admit that I’m not sure it needed a companion book, or that Willem’s side of  the story needed to be told. That said, I was curious about Willem as a character, and the path that he took over the year that Allyson was trying to figure herself out. It turns out that while Willem’s path was more adventurous than Allyson’s, it essentially was the same: he needed to figure himself out.

However, it was Willem’s adventurous lifestyle that made the book for me. He couldn’t shake the memory of Allyson — or Lulu as he called her — and the searching for her (and, inadvertently, the healing from the grief of his father’s death three years before) took him to Mexico and India as well as through rural Netherlands and Amsterdam. I’m a sucker for books like these, ones where the main character gets to travel the world, giving himself over to the experience of seeing things.

And even though Willem is uncertain about his direction and, admittedly, a bit angsty (or in a funk a we’d call it around our house), he’s a pretty amiable character to be traveling the world with. I love how he picks up friends as he wanders from place to place. And how he just falls into experiences. It seems so… effortless.

I do understand that in many ways this is a fantasy. Not only the love-at-first-sight thing, but also the Fate/Kismet/Karma thing. No one’s life is that effortless, that charmed, that fate-driven. But, it was a nice fantasy to immerse oneself in for a while to get away from the drugery of “real” life.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

By Catherynn M. Valente
ages: 11+ (I’m not sure the younger set would like this one. Just saying.)
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.

It’s been a year since September has left Fairyland Underneath, and she aches to return. The Real World just isn’t as fun or as interesting as Fairyland. And she’s been told that she can return every year, so she waits. And waits. But no one comes. Until, one day, long after she’s expecting them, someone does come, but won’t let her in. So, desperate as she is, she breaks in. Which means she’s a Criminal. She finds that things aren’t the same as they were, encounters the Blue Wind (who’s quite obnoxious), gets sent on a Mission, and tries to fight a Yeti on the moon. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds.

But, even though there were passages I found amusing (most specifically, the description of the Lopsided Library) and characters (like the car Aroostook) I liked, I just wasn’t as charmed with this one as I was with the other two. Maybe it’s because September is Getting Older, and Valente tried to bring in not only romance (Saturday, the Marid, is in love with September), but also the Trials of Getting Older, and it just didn’t Work. (This book makes me want to Emphasize with Capital Letters. It’s an unfortunate side effect.) I skimmed more than I read, I rolled my eyes more than I laughed. I wanted to Love Ell the Wyvery and Saturday again; I wanted to Enjoy September’s journey. But my heart wasn’t in it.

I don’t know if that means it’s the writing or just that I’m getting tired of this series. Could be either. Or both.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)