Solo

by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There’s some drug use and drinking, mostly by adults. It’s in the Teen Section (grades 9+) at the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th/8th grader who is interested.

Blade Morrison is the son of an aging rocker, whose career has been in a steady decline for most of Blade’s life. Drugs, alcohol, and Blade’s mom’s death all contributed to the decline, and Blade has lost patience with his father. Especially when he shows up, mostly naked, at Blade’s graduation. It also doesn’t help that his girlfriend’s father has forbidden her to see him. So, when a long-kept family secret comes out and Blade ends up half way across the world, he is given a chance to figure out his own life and maybe figure out his relationship with his family.

On the one hand, this was a super privileged book, with its Hollywood sensibilities with parties and drugs (mostly on the part of Blade’s dad) and Misratis and paparazzi. And when Blade gets to Ghana, there’s a LOT of “things are solved through the simple people” going on, which didn’t really sit that well with me. (Maybe it’s me?)

That said, Alexander and Hess’s poetry is lovely, and I loved how they incorporated music. There’s a line, near the end of the book about how, in spite of everything, music is something that binds us and brings us together, and that resonated so very much with me. Rock-n-roll, R&B, jazz, classical… music is universal and helps heal, and Alexander and Hess captured that perfectly. Which, in spite of the little complaints I had, really made this book, well, sing.

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Unbound

unboundby Ann E. Berg
First sentence: “When Mama tells me
I’m goin
to the Big House,
she makes me promise
to always be good,
to listen to the Missus
n never talk back,
to lower my eyes
n say, Yes, ma’am
no, ma’am,
n to not speak
less spoken to first.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some tough subjects dealt with here, but there’s nothing graphic. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: I’m uncomfortable with this book. Not because of the subject matter (though I do have to admit that I’m tired of Civil War slave narratives. Not because they’re not important, but because it seems to be the only African American story publishers want to tell.) but because it’s a white woman telling the story. I’m not going to say she shouldn’t be telling this story, but rather because I think this story would have been better served being told by a person of color.

That’s not to say it was a bad story; it was okay, as far as slave narratives go. Berg was trying to tell the story of a community of runaway slaves in North Carolina who settled in the Great Dismal Swamp (where native peoples had settled for thousands of years), living there in order to be free from slavery. But that’s not really the story she ended up telling. It was more of the disgruntled slave who couldn’t keep their place and so they had to leave narrative. Which is fine, but not exactly the narrative of the people in the Great Dismal Swamp.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It does tell a story at a level that children can understand. It does have non-white characters. It does talk about the less desirable things in American history.

I just wish it were, well, More.

Booked

bookedby Kwame Alexander
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Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at work.
Release date: April 5, 2016
Content: There’s a wee bit of romance and some difficult situations with bullying and divorce. Give it to readers ages 10 and up. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The thing that I admire most about The Crossover was the style of it all. The way the poetry flowed on the page, the way that Alexander captured the rhythm of his characters in the ebb and flow of the poetry.

And lest we think lightning only strikes once, Alexander gives us Booked, repeating much of what I loved about his first book.

Instead of basketball, this time Alexander immerses us in the world of competitive soccer. Nick and his best friend Coby are extremely good, playing not only in competitive leagues but also for fun on the weekend plus the FIFA video game. It’s their whole life. Except, for Nick, it’s not that simple. His parents are going through a rough patch, and they separate so his mother can go help train a horse for the Kentucky Derby. His dad is a linguist and insists that Nick read this dictionary that he wrote, something that Nick resents. And, he’s bullied by these twins at school. There are bright spots: his mother makes him take this etiquette class, but there’s this girl he kind of likes (and who kind of likes him back). And the librarian at school is WAY cool. So, maybe Nick can find a balance in his life after all.

Not only is the story complex and compelling, I again, adored the poetry. Alexander has a way of making something as “stuffy” as poetry accessible and cool, which is wonderful.  I loved how the voice and the form of the poems changed depending on the characters (Nick was ostensibly our narrator, but there were appearances from other characters as well). I loved the footnotes with definitions of some of the bigger words (including snarky asides).  It’s fun and engaging, and yet Alexander tackles tough subjects like bullying and divorce with grace and ease. It’s not just a smart way to get reluctant readers interested in books or unsure kids interested in poetry. It’s a fantastic book.

Full Cicada Moon

by Marilyn Hilton
First sentence: “I wish we had flown to Vermont instead of riding on a bus, train, train, bus all the way from Berkeley.”
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Review copy sent to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There isn’t anything objectionable, and it’s a novel in verse so it’d be appropriate for the younger readers. Good for conversation as well. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Mimi Yoshiko Oliver is obsessed with space. It’s 1969, the height of the space race, and she wants to be an astronaut. The problem? She’s a girl. No one takes her desire seriously, especially in her school in Vermont. It also doesn’t help that she’s Afro-Asian, one of the only people of color in an all-white community.

As she goes through seventh grade and the beginning of eighth, Hilton gives us Mimi’s struggles and triumphs, from her attempts to get into shop class — there are some pretty strong gender norms in the late 1960s —
to her struggles to make friends. There are lots of stories about racism in the south in the 1960s. It was actually quite refreshing to be reminded that even northerners had issues with civil rights.

It’s a lovely novel in verse, as well. Hilton captured Mimi’s sense of wonder an awe at the world around her as well as her desire to go into space. It wasn’t overly detailed, something which might bother some readers but I found I didn’t mind. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, and I remember what it was like (sort-of). But, I also think it was a conscious choice on Hilton’s part to make it more accessible to those reading it. So, on the one hand, it’s historical fiction. But the other, it didn’t really feel all that much like it.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Mimi and her family, as they adjust to a new home, broaden their horizons, and have a memorable year.

The Conference of the Birds

by Peter Sis
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s nothing. I found it in the kids poetry section, but it’s more an adult poem; something to ruminate on. So I moved it to the adult poetry section.

So, I blame Books on the Nightstand bingo for this. I started my card back in May, and the one I ended up with has a square for “written for adults but with illustrations”. I had no idea what to do with that. Then, we got a competition of sorts going at work (we all have bingo cards going and the first one to blackout wins… something), and I was doing inventory in my sections (the kids books are basically my fiefdom. Seriously. I have had  many coworkers tell me they just “don’t mess with Melissa’s sections”.) and discovered this book. It’s not a children’s book, so it fits the bill: adult book, with illustrations (but not a graphic novel).

Bascially, it’s an adaptation of a 12th-century Sufi poem, about an epic flight of birds, who fly through thick and thin, through days, through the deepest despair, in order to find their True King, Simorgh. You can pretty much sense the allegory dripping off of this poem (Deeper Meaning for my mother). And I’ll admit: I needed to read this poem this week. It gave me the reminder that I can get through all the valleys of my life, and maybe there will be fulfillment in it all.

But, what I truly loved was Peter Sis’s art. The book itself is gorgeous: thick pages, that are just luxurious to touch (and should be, with such a high price for a slim book). And the paintings were done in muted earth tones, with layers of depth to them (at least to my untrained eye). It’s a book I could imagine going back to when I just wanted to page through something lovely.

It’s not something I ever would have picked up on my own, so I’m grateful for the extra push from the bingo game. Sometimes getting outside of your comfort zone is a good thing.

Enchanted Air

by Margarita Engle
First sentence: “When my parents met, it was love at first sight.”
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Content: It talks indirectly about drugs, sex, and teen pregnancy, as well as the violence of war, but it doesn’t dwell on that. It’ll be in the children’s biography section of the bookstore

I noticed that Abby had read this one and liked it, so I pulled it off my pile to give it a try. I mostly wanted something I could finish in one sitting, and this one — being a memoir in verse — fit the bill.

I didn’t expect to be thoroughly delighted by it.

Margarita is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and the son of Ukranian holocaust survivors. Needless to say, she had an interesting story to start. Add to that the conflict in the 1950s with the Cuban revolution and the subsequent cold war, she definitely had  a story to tell. But: she chose to tell it through travel, through depictions of the island itself (which she described so lushly) as well as her family’s vacations to Mexico and Europe. She portrayed herself as an awkward child, caught between two countries and then unexpectedly cut off from half of her family. I can only imagine what her mother felt.

Elegantly told, beautifully imagined, it’s a love story to the power of words and images and home. (And I’m glad that her hope in her afterward for more normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba may slowly be coming to fruition. I would love to visit there someday.)

Crossover

by Kwame Alexander
First sentence: “At the top of the key, I’m MOOVING & GROOVING, POPping and ROCKING — “
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Content: It’s poetry, which is a plus and a minus: plus, because it means it’s a quick read. Minus, because you have to convince kids that it’s okay to read poetry. There’s some kissing, but I’d give this to kids ages 10+. It’ll be in the Newbery section of the bookstore (yes, we do have one!).

I really didn’t know what to expect going into this. I’m sure it would be good — it won the Newbery, after all — but is it one of those good books that are just all style and no substance?

Because this book does have style. You can tell that right from the first page. Alexander’s not only writing a novel in verse, he’s playing with form. There’s style to these poems, it’s not just words on a page; they sometimes (like in the opening poem) leap right off the page. (There’s one poem, about 2/3 of the way though, that can be read in two different directions. I love that!) But, there’s also substance as well.

Twins Josh and Jordan Bell are inseparable, both in life and on the basketball court. Sons of a retired (due to injury) Euroleague player, basketball is their Sport. Their Religion. Their Life. But, during their 8th-grade year, things change. They drift apart, mostly because Jordan — JB as he wants to be known — starts going out with a girl. And their dad has serious heart problems. All of this weighs on Josh, and he lets it interrupt his game.

It’s a simple story, but one with tremendous amounts of heart. Josh is a complex character, who worries about his parents, misses the connection with his brother, and wants to be the top of his game. And yet, he has a temper, one that gets in the way of his wants and desires sometimes. There’s a depth to him that makes him real, which I appreciated it.

I did have a couple of complaints… I didn’t like the portrayal of the girlfriend, but I do understand it’s from Josh’s point of view, and he didn’t really like her intrusion into the relationship with his brother. So, I can understand why she was a bit of a caricature.) The other thing I didn’t really care for — and this is a spoiler — was the dad dying in the end. I did like that there wasn’t a “neat and tidy” ending, but it was a bit, well, Dramatic.

But aside from those two little complaints, I loved this one. I loved the style and the characters and just immersing myself in this world. For the Bells, the highest compliment is that they are Da Man. And this book is definitely that.