No More Dead Dogs

by Gordon Korman
First sentence: “When my dad was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he once rescued eight Navy SEALs who were stranded behind enemy lines.”
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Content: There is some romance (just crushes and a bit of cheek kissing) and some mild cussing. The text is pretty simple. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I bet 6th graders would like it too.

Wallace Wallace (the poor guy getting stuck with parents who named him that!) ALWAYS tells the truth. Mostly it’s because his father was a horrible liar (well, exaggerator/storyteller) who eventually left his mom, and so Wallace decided to never do that. Unfortunately, his truth-telling doesn’t always come off well. In fact, in seventh grade English class everyone was required to read a “classic” — the made up Old Shep, My Pal — book and do a report on it. Wallace’s report, because he won’t lie: the book was awful. And please, no more dead dogs.

That report lands him in detention with the English teacher, who is also directing a play — an adaptation of, you guessed it, Old Shep — and so Wallace can’t go to football practice and instead ends up at play rehearsal. And, of course, advocates for changing the play. It’s more complex than that; it also involves pranks and Wallace being set up, and everyone not liking him, and a small middle school romance, but that’s the general picture of it.

I hadn’t ever read Gordon Korman’s books before, but I’d heard that he was funny and he gets kids. Well, maybe this was just dated — it was written in 2000 — which is often a problem with contemporary realistic fiction. But whatever the reason it really fell flat. The plot was silly (supposedly funny?). I guessed who the prankster was (was I supposed to? Or was it supposed to be a big reveal?) before the characters. I thought the kids were brats (maybe all middle schoolers are). And I just didn’t find it funny. But, humor is subjective: not everyone finds the same things amusing. So, I can forgive that. I can see how kids would eat this up: what I found annoying as an adult, they could relate to. And so I can see how it has value, even if I didn’t like it much at all.

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A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

by Joe Ballarini
First sentence: “‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word.'”
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Content: There’s some scary moments, and monsters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Those monsters under your bed? They’re real. And they want to eat you. You knew that. Right? But what if there was a secret society of babysitters (yes, you read that right) who are super martial arts fighting awesome people who keep the monsters at bay (literally) and protect their charges (especially those kids with “special” abilities) from the Evil Lurking out there.

Such is the society that Kelly fell into when she accepted a babysitting job for Jacob, who then gets kidnapped by the Bogeyman. She has Halloween night to find him and bring him back, or the whole world will be destroyed.

This was so much fun! If Adventures in Babysitting and Labyrinth and Goosebumps all had a baby, it would be this book. It’s scary, but not overly so, and I loved the idea of a secret cool babysitters society. It really just read like a movie, which isn’t always what I want from a book, but it works perfectly here. This is definitely one to hand to the kids who like scary stories.

Invisible Emmie

by  Terri Liebenson
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Content: It deals with crushes and middle school awkwardness, so younger kids might not be interested. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Emmie is quiet. That’s really her defining feature. She doesn’t speak much, except to her friends. And everyone (from her friends to her parents) is always trying to get her to be more outgoing. But she’s (mostly) okay with being quiet. Until one day, when she writes a note to her crush and then drops it, where it’s picked up by another kid. All of a sudden, Emmie’s no longer invisible.

There’s a secondary story, one that involved Katie, a super popular, put together girl, that’s told in panels (as opposed to Emmie’s story, which is more narrative-driven with side illustrations). The two stories intersect near the end, and do so in an interesting way (though K didn’t like how they resolved).

It’s a good look at fitting in and making friends. I liked the way Libenson told the story (I liked how it resolved), and I felt for Emmie. It’s hard being the youngest (K should know!) and feeling overshadowed a lot. I liked how Emmie found her footing and figured out how to being to make her place in the world.

A good book.

Pashmina

by Nidhi Chanani
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: The main character is in high school, and there is some references to sex. I’m not 100% sure if it’d put it in Middle Grade Graphic Novels, but it doesn’t feel like it fits in with the Teen Graphic Novels either. Hm.

Priyanka Das has a decent life: she and her mom live in America, and whileshe has unanswered questions about her father, or why her mother left India, she has a pretty good life. That is, until Pri’s curiosity about India gets sparked by a magical pashmina Pri finds in her mother’s suitcase. The pashmina gives Pri a glimpse of India, and she desperately wants to go. And she does, eventually. But when she gets there, it’s nothing like she expected, and yet everything she wanted.

On the one hand, this is written by an Indian, and it very much embraces the “India as amazing homeland” narrative that so often comes up in Bollywood movies. The narrative that one can find oneself in India is not a new one, and yet it still is something that resonates. It works here, primarily because it’s not a white person co-opting that (says the white person), but because Pri’s does actually need to go to India to see what it was her mother left behind. I liked that part of the story. The magical pashmina, though, didn’t do much for me. It does have a good reason to be there — it specifically helps women take charge of their lives — but it felt, well, forced. That, and Pri felt younger than she was in the book, which was a slight disconnect.

Even with those (slight) criticisms, it was a good story about family, and about how learning about your family’s past helps accept and understand your present. It was also nice to “visit” India for a bit.

A good debut novel.

The First Rule of Punk

by Celia C. Pérez
First sentence: “Dad says punk rock only comes in one volume: loud.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some lying (by omission) and some middle school drama. It’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, though 6th-7th graders might like it too.

Mariá Luisa (call her Malú please) is NOT happy about moving to Chicago. She wants to stay where she is, in her own school, splitting her time between her house and her father’s record store. But, her mom got a job in Chicago teaching Mexican literature, so they’re moving. And so she has to start over. Which is additionally hard because she’s in a school with a large Mexican American population, and Malú is struggling to find her own identity, especially with her mother always harping on Malú’s love of punk music.

But, she slowly finds her crowd in this new school, and maybe even some friends, although she makes some enemies as well (inevitable). Maybe she can find a balance in this new place.

I loved this one! Malú is a seriously great character, and I loved how Pérez wove in Mexican culture and history through the work. I loved the inclusion of punk music (and lifestyle) and actually really liked the conflict between Malú and her mom (it’s SO hard to let kids be themselves and not what we want them to be). I loved the zines in the book, and Malú’s slow acceptance of her new school and neighborhood. It was just an excellent story all around.

Amina’s Voice

by Hena Khan
First sentence: “Something sharp pokes me in the rib.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There is an act of vandalism (against the mosque) that is handled really well, but might be upsetting. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amina is starting sixth grade, the one time that people associate with change. And Amina’s experiencing it. Her best friend Soonjin is becoming a U.S. citizen and is thinking about changing her name. She’s also becoming better friends with their former grade-school bully’s sidekick, Emily. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to stay with them for three months, and his stricter interpretation of Islam has Amina wondering if her love of music (both playing the piano and singing) is against God’s wishes. And then there’s the fact that she has stage fright, and there’s a Quran competition that her parents are making her enter. Will she survive all this?

Such a delightful portrait of a 12-year-old trying to figure out her place in the world. Khan got pre-teen girls, their anxieties and insecurities, and how they are struggling to find their own, well, voice. I also appreciated the religion in the book; Khan give us a slice of Islam with faithful people, loving parents (and Imam), which is completely relatable to anyone who reads it. This is one of those important books: it’s a great window into an Islamic family and community, and it’s a great mirror not just for Muslim kids but anyone who is religious. But, it’s also a great story, well told.

Very, very good.

Insert Coin to Continue

insertcointby John David Anderson
First sentence: ”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s talk of crushes, and some bullying. It’s got a quick pace, and short-ish chapters. It’s currently in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to the older end of that spectrum. I think 5th-7th graders might enjoy it more. (But I don’t know if it’s worth moving it.)

Bryan Biggins is a gamer. Specifically, he’s a master of the Sovereign of Darkness video game, handily beating the Demon King over and over again. It’s the best part of his day; he’s middling at school, there are a handful of bullies who call him and his best friend Oz names, and he’s got a crush on a girl that he will pretty much never get. Why not spend all of your free time perfecting this game?

Then, one day he breaks through to the secret level. He doesn’t think anything of it, until he can’t get up the next morning before feeding a coin in the slot that has magically appeared over his alarm clock. And that’s just the beginning: his life has become a video game, complete with hit points, experience points, quests, and leveling up.

It’s confusing for Bryan at first, but eventually, he figures out (sort of) how to “play” the “game”. He finds himself making decisions that he wouldn’t have before. And maybe that’s a good thing.

I’ve enjoyed Anderson’s books in the past, and this was no exception. It’s got a clever premise (a really great contemporary-fantasy blend) and Anderson has a great light, fun delivery with this. It captures the difficulty of being a 7th grader, of being someone who hasn’t quite got everything together yet, but the whole gaming element adds a level of fun that makes this one stand out. It was a unique premise, and a delightful book to read.