Stargazing

by Jen Wang
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Content: There are some awkward moments, and a bit of violence by one of the characters. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section at the bookstore.

Christine is an Asian-American girl, who lives a very stereotypical Asian-American life: she plays the violin, her parents expect her to get good grades, she takes Chinese class on Wednesday nights, and so on. And then she meets Moon, the daughter of a single mom who comes to live in the small house behind Christine’s. Moon is unlike everyone Christine knows: impulsive, loud, creative, outgoing, and most of all, seemingly unstoppable.

They become best friends, but when Moon seems to move on from Christine, she gets jealous, and then Moon ends up in the hospital. Is there any way Christine can salvage their relationship?

I adore Jen Wang’s books, and this is no exception. She’s tackling immigrant issues, but they’re not at the forefront. Christine and Moon’s friendship is, and the conflict between their families. It could be because Moon’s family is a single mom or Buddhist, or because Christine’s parents are strict. I liked that they were both part of the Asian community, but the story is universal. There are some absolutely perfect art spreads — I liked it, especially, when the girls went to the planetarium on a field trip — and I think Wang tackled the issue of friendship, especially new friendship, perfectly.

Oh, and bonus points for including K-Pop as part of this! A really good graphic novel.

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Pumpkinheads

by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks
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Content: It’s a friendship story and a little bit of romance, but it’s more sweet than anything. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to 6-8th graders, if they were interested.

I picked this up because of the authors, and because it looks, well, cute. And it definitely lived up to that: Josiah and Deja are “seasonal best friends”: every fall, they work at the local pumpkin patch attraction through Halloween. They’ve been working in the succotash barn since freshman year, enjoying time together. Except Josiah has always gone on about the “Fudge Shop Girl” that he’s had a seasonal crush on every year. This year is different: it’s the last night of their their last fall; next year they’re off to college and won’t be able to work the pumpkin patch. So Deja decides: Josiah is going to talk to the Fudge Shop girl, and let her know how he feels.

Except, things get derailed: everyone is moved around, and Josiah and Deja spend the evening taking in the pumpkin patch for the last time as they reminisce about their years at the pumpkin patch.

It’s homey and sweet and cute and just a warm pumpkin spice hug of a book. Nothing spectacular (except that Deja is not your typical rom-com lead: she’s black and tall and not slim at all!) but it is charming. And worth picking up.

Some Places More than Others

by Renee Watson
First sentence: “‘New York City is no place or a little girl,’ Mom says.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some arguing, but mostly it’s pretty good for the age group — 8-12 — that it’s aimed for. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amara wants one thing for her 12th birthday: to go see her father’s home and family in New York City. She’d love to go by herself, but she’ll take going with her father on a business trip. The problem? Her father hasn’t spoken to her grandfather in 12 years, since Amara was born and her grandmother passed away.

It takes a while (probably a bit longer than it should for the pacing in the book, but that’s being nitpick-y), but Amara is on her way to Harlem to see her grandfather, aunt, and cousins (whom she has only spoken to). It’s awkward, especially since her cousins are 14 and 16 and don’t really want to hang out with her. Amara has a few adventures (and mis-adventures) and learns about her own personal history as well as African American history in Harlem.

I enjoyed the book, mostly for the history as well as the class tensions between Amara — who is decidedly upper middle class — and her cousins — who are not. I liked Amara as a character, and I think Watson got the middle grade voice right, even if the pacing was slightly off.

In the end, it was a sweet story about learning the importance of where you (or your people) came from.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
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Release date: August 27, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s kind of hard to tell imagination from reality and the print is a bit on the small side for a middle grade book. It’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore, but I’d give it mostly to 5-6th graders.

Ebony-Grace lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her mom and grandpa, who works at the NASA space center. He’s only an engineer — there’s no black astronauts in 1984 — but he inspires Ebony Grace. They have their own imaginary world, where he is Captain Fleet and she is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and the go on Star Trek-inspired adventures throughout space. Except, now Ebony is being sent to her father’s in Harlem, which seems like a whole new planet — she dubs it No Joke City — with a whole bunch of “nefarious minions” that she can’t quite figure out. It doesn’t help that the friend she made last time she was in Harlem (three years ago!), Bianca, has moved on from space adventure games and is now jumping Double Dutch, breakdancing, and rapping with her crew, the Nine Flavas. Ebony has no idea how to fit in and just wants to go home.

On the one hand, this is a fun bit of historical fiction and I appreciated a geek girl main character. I loved that Ebony was super into space and science fiction and super knowledgeable about it. It was nice to see a Black girl be into something that is usually reserved for white boys. So yay for that! And I could relate to Ebony’s feeling of otherness, coming from the South and going to the north. I moved to Michigan from Utah right before 6th grade, and felt a lot of the same sense of outsiderness. I talked funny, I didn’t understand the lingo, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t really listened to the radio (like ever: I mostly listened to my parents records). This one will really resonate with kids who feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

What I didn’t like — what I reacted really viscerally and negatively to — were the adults in the book. I think they’re historically accurate: Ebony’s mom is more concerned with the way Ebony looks and that she’s polite and obedient to her elders, and her father isn’t much better. But I wanted to shake them all. They have a girl who is interested in SPACE! Why are they calling her crazy and telling her she needs to stop with the nonsense?!? Just because she’s a girl?!? The rampant sexism (again: historically accurate) drove me absolutely nuts. And it trickled down to the kids that Ebony met as well: they “grew up” and cared for more “grown up” things — clothes, boys, competitions, and I was so angry that they kept calling Ebony crazy and stupid for liking the things she liked.

I also had issues with the ending — Ebony never finds out what happens to her grandfather who gets in a bit of trouble off-screen and then suddenly dies (WTH?!) — but it’s a middle grade novel, so I can forgive that.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this book. I want to recommend it, because I like Zoboi and I like the idea of a geeky Black girl. I just may not be able to get past my anger at the adults.

The Stone Sky

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “Time grows short, my love.”
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Others in the series: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate
Content: There is swearing and some violence, though none of it brutal. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Well… if I didn’t want to do spoilers for the other two books, that leaves me with very little to say, here, doesn’t it?

Impressions: It’s definitely a book on the evils of colonialism, systemic racism, and oppression. No, it’s not overt, but it’s there. It’s also a book about forgiveness, and if not forgiveness, then maybe a sort of peace. It’s a book about parenting, and what children expect and/or need from their parents, which are not always the same thing. It’s a book about resilience and endurance and sacrifice. (No, I didn’t cry at the end, like a coworker suspected I might.)

It’s still a wildly beautifully written book, though I found this one had bits that pulled me out of the narrative more than the other two. And it was a satisfying conclusion. It definitely deserved all the awards it received.

And I’m going to try and read more Jemisin soon.

The Obelisk Gate

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “Hmm. No. I’m telling this wrong.”
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Others in the series: The Fifth Season
Content: There is swearing, including many f-bombs, and violence. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Again, it’s super hard to talk about this one without giving too much away. Let’s just say it’s about magic, and community, and the end of the world, and forgiveness and how all that fits together.

Things I really liked: the language. Jemisin KNOWS how to spin a story. And this one is super intimate, it’s one character telling it to another, which is why the second person (which usually drives me nuts, but doesn’t in this one). The storytelling is just effortless, even when dealing with tough and complex things.

I liked that Jemisin was fearless about what the end of the world means. Communities will run out of supplies, there will be starvation and cannibalism. It’s refreshing that she’s so frank.

I liked one character, Nassun, who is 10, though I thought she was much like most 10-year-olds in fantasy novels written for adults: super precocious, and not at all believable as a 10-year-old. Even so, she was smart and intuitive and I enjoyed her as a character.

One more book to go in this trilogy! I can’t wait to see how the story ends.

The Fifth Season

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”
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Content: There is some tasteful sex, and a lot of f-bombs. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

As I was reading this, I know I thought at one point that there really is NO way to summarize this book without giving it all away. And it was so delightful — mostly, at first it was a bit confusing — not knowing what was going on and slowly discovering it for myself, that I think I’m going to spare you the plot summary. Let’s just say this book is about a world — the Stillness — that sometimes has catastrophic events they call Fifth Seasons, and at the beginning of this one, a Fifth Season starts. It’s about what happens before and after.

Which really doesn’t give you a sense of this book at all. At one point, early on, I wasn’t sure I liked it, but the writing kept drawing me in — Jemisin is a fabulous writer — and I was intrigued, which really was enough. By the end, though, I was blown away and, of course, I need to read the rest just to see what happens with these characters I’ve come to really enjoy. There are also layers and layers to this book — it was chosen for a book group (actually, they ended up doing all three), and I can see why. There’s a LOT to talk about with people who have also read it.

Which is to say: if you enjoy a good, complex fantasy, you ought to be reading this series.