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.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

by Jaqueline Kelly
First sentence: “To my great astonishment, I saw my first snowfall on New Year’s Day of 1900.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s a bit old-fashioned and there are a lot of scientific words, but if you’ve got that sort of 9 year old reader, it’d be perfect for them. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the library.
Others in the series: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

I was super excited to find out that my favorite scientific Texan was back in a second installment. I really adored Calpurnia the first time around, and was very excited to spend more time with her. It’s 1900, and Calpurnia is doing her best to keep up with her scientific studies with her grandpa. It’s hard, especially with pressure from both her parents to be more ladylike. Calpurnia would much rather be tromping around the forests and swamps near their central Texas home, collecting specimens. Or studying the stars and weather.

Then a hurricane hits Galveston (a fact which sent me to Google to find out if it was real. It was.), and Calpurnia’s life changes. In to town blows an older cousin (who is, understandably, distraught) and a veterinarian. All of a sudden, Calpurnia has found a calling. The problem? She has to fight to let people even consider the idea of her wanting to be a vet.

Much like the first one, the charm in this is in the narration. Calpurnia is such a delight to spend a book with. This time, I felt her frustration and pain at being a second-class citizen, in her school, in her house, around the town. It seems that everyone, except grandpa, decided already that girls can’t do anything non-girly, and it was a wall Calpurnia kept banging up against. I admired her perseverance in breaking down barriers.

Also, like the first one, I thoroughly enjoyed all the science and the little historical details that Kelly uses to make Texas in 1900 come alive.


Rain Reign

by Ann M. Martin
First sentence: “I am Rose Howard and my first name has a homonym.”
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Content: There’s really nothing, and the words are mostly simple with lots of white space. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Rose Howard is a 12-year-old fifth grader with high-functio autism. Her mom ran of when she was two, and she’s been raised in a small New York town by her dad. (And her uncle, who’s much nicer than her dad.) She generally makes do in school, at home. Especially since her dad’s gone either at work or at the bar down the road.

He did pick up a dog for her, one day, though. Which she named Rain. And Rain keeps Rose company.

(There is a side bit about Rose loving homonyms but I felt that was more distraction than anything, and didn’t really add much to the plot.)

A big storm hits, the remnants of a hurricane, and knocks power out in the down. Rose’s father lets the dog out, and she never comes back. So, Rose and her uncle set to checking in shelters to find Rain. And when they do, they’re in for a surprise.

I’ve never read any Ann Martin before (yeah, I missed the whole Babysitter’s Club thing), and I really wanted to like this one. But I just… didn’t. Counting by 7s and Anything But Typical did the whole autism spectrum thing so much better. I didn’t care about Rose, I’m tired of missing mothers and bad fathers, and I just. didn’t. care.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book… I did like the way Rose narrated it, like she was writing a report. It was clever, but I found that the form got in the way of the substance. That’s not to say others (especially dog lovers) wouldn’t like it. But it wasn’t for me.

Rebel Island

by Rick Riordan
ages: adult
First sentence: “We got married in a thunderstorm.”
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Tres Navarre has finally married his longtime (on and off) girlfriend, Maia, and now they’re off (with Tres’s brother Garrett in tow) to they’re belated honeymoon to Rebel Island: an old haunt of the Navarre family, and not really one that has good memories. And because Tres is who he is, and trouble seems to follow him around, they encounter a weekend like no other: a major hurricane on top of a killer on the loose.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Except, well, it does. Out of the several things I noticed while reading this, the one that stood out the most was that it really didn’t need to be written. Mission Road was a good stopping point for the series, and while I guess it’s nice to know that Tres and Maia got married, and are having a kid, it’s not really necessary to have a whole book about that point. The other thing was you can tell that Riordan consciously pulled back on these novels; while there’s still language in this book, it’s not nearly as gritty as the earlier Tres Navarre books are. You can almost see him thinking, “Dang! I’ve got kids reading my books. What if they want to read these, too? Better not make them as foul as they used to be.”

On top of that, it just didn’t read as well as the earlier Tres Navarre books. It was a quick read, but unfortunately predicable (at one point, I thought, “Oh, man, I hope he doesn’t make him out to be the bad guy…”), and even the little twist at the end didn’t redeem it for me. It was all ho-hum, formulaic, and not particularly exciting.

It’s not that it was a bad book; I just didn’t feel Tres and company were up to the standard that I’ve come to expect.