My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Advertisements

The Stone Sky

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “Time grows short, my love.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Black Card

by Chris L. Terry
First sentence: “I was finally black again.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 13, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are many f-bombs, and several instances of the n-word. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, but I think mature teens will be interested in it as well.

Our narrator — whose name I thought I knew, but looking through things, I’m not so sure now — is a bi-racial punk musician drop out, working at a coffee shop as a barista, and who is trying quite desperately, to figure out who he is. Is he white? If so, what does that mean? Or is he black? Again, if so, what does that mean? He’s not white enough to fit in with his white friends and other band members, especially when they pay at places outside of Richmond, VA where the Civil War is still being fought. (For the record, it is never never never okay for a white person to use the n-word. Ever. Even ironically.) But he’s not black enough because he works as a barista and plays (and likes) punk music, and doesn’t really understand street talk.

So where does that leave him? Mostly just floundering trying to find a direction.

It’s an interesting book, introspective, and challenging regarding race. It’s a quick read, with short chapters, and there’s a bit of magical realism going on that was odd but didn’t really bother me. I liked it, though, for the way Terry tackled race by looking at one person’s experience. It’s definitely a book worth picking up.

Sea Sirens

by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some intense moments, but the language is actually pretty simple. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section, but I’d give it to the younger end of that set.

Trot is a California girl through and through. She spends the days (when she’s not in school!) at the beach with her grandfather while her mother works — he fishes, she surfs. Except there’s a problem: her grandfather has the beginning stages of dementia and doesn’t always remember where he is or that he’s supposed to be watching Trot. After one experience where her grandfather goes missing, Trot’s mom grounds them both to the house. So, Trot sneaks out with their cat, Cap’n Bill, and they go surfing. Except, they end up in the underwater world of the Sea Sirens. The are mortal enemies with the Sea Serpents, and Trot and Cap’n Bill help defeat them. So, they’re taken in as heroes for an underwater adventure with the Sea Sirens. (And Grandpa comes too!)

As I mentioned in the content, this is almost a beginning chapter Graphic Novel (does it belong with the other beginning chapter books? Perhaps.) — the language is basic, there are a lot of illustrations and not a lot of text, and the adventure is pretty simple. I think it serves the same function as the Babymouse books: it’s there to help beginning readers find a footing in the world of graphic novels. It’s fantastic that the main character is Vietnamese-American, and that her grandfather sometimes slips into Vietnamese when he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. It’s a cute book — I bet the full-color finished is quite gorgeous — and it’s a start of a series of adventures that Trot and Cap’n Bill will have. It’ll be a good one to put into the hands of those 1-3rd graders who are looking for something fun to read.

Other Words for Home

by Jasmine Warga
First sentence: “It’s almost summer and everywhere smells like fish, except for right by the sea where if you hold your nose just right you can smell the sprawling jasmine and the salt water instead.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s talk of periods starting. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jude lives in a seaside Syrian town, and she’s happy with her life: her father runs a store that caters mostly to tourists, and she and her best friend and her brother love what they can get of American culture. But then the civil war breaks out, and Jude’s older brother disappears and Jude’s parents decide to send her and her mother to the U.S. to live with family. They say it’s for a “visit”, but that visit turns into months as the situation in Syria gets worse. Jude learns English, starts the seventh grade, and figures out how to navigate both her family life — her American, half-white cousin isn’t terribly thrilled about Jude coming to live with them — and her school.

This is a very sweet novel in verse, telling the story of a new immigrant and how she learns to adjust to life in the U. S. I read several of these sorts of stories for my multicultural children’s literature class, and I have to say that while this has many similarities, it’s also a different story. Jude is dealing with post-9/11 Islamophobia and so when she chooses to wear the hijab after her period starts, she has to deal with the fact that she’s wearing a visual representation of a religion that is often maligned in the U.S. It also deals with her everyday difficulties: understanding slang, getting along with classmates, trying to figure out where she belongs all while dealing with uncertainty about her brother and father back in Syria. It’s done quite well, and in a way that I think kids will relate to. It’s not just an important book, it’s a very good one.