The Aquanaut

by Dan Santat
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Content: There’s a death of a parent, and mistreatment of animals. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Ever since her father, an marine researcher, died in a boating accident while out on the ocean, Sophia (and her Uncle Paul, who is taking care of her) has been just trying to survive. The place Paul and his brother built, Aqualand, is being run by a team of investors who don’t care about science, and Sophia’s grades are becoming worse and worse. And then, one day, a team of underwater creatures show up in Sophia’s father’s old diving suit.

It would just be easy to say: And then all havoc breaks loose. But it’s more than that. Paul and Sophia learn they need to actually try and grieve their loss and grow together as a family. Paul stands up to his investors, and less aqua land, but gains his dignity back. And the animals work together as a crew, while Sodapop (a hermit crab, I think) faces his fears of a giant squid. It’s about growth and togetherness and grief, with an underlying message about conservation and science, and maybe amusement parks that capture wild animals to put them in cages are bad.

I adore Santat’s heartfelt storytelling, and enjoy his art as well. This one is definitely one to hand to everyone, kids and adults alike.

Challenger Deep

challengerdeepby Neal Shusterman
First sentence: ”
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Content: There’s some talk about drinking, but none actual. And there’s some mild swearing. But the reason it’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore is because it’s an extended metaphor. I’d give it to someone in 7/8th grade if I thought they’d “get” it.

Very seldom does a jacket flap so succinctly sum up a book, but in this case, I think whomever at HarperTeen did this, was spot on:

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

This book. I’ve been avoiding it for months, and I really only picked it up because Pop Culture Happy Hour did a recent podcast on it. But this book pulled me in and didn’t let me go. I don’t know of a more accurate, a more compelling, a more beautiful rendering of the spiral that mental illness — it really doesn’t matter what Caden’s diagnosed with — is. Shusterman gives us an allegory with the ship that is compelling and intriguing and maybe a little confusing. But the confusion is part of the trip; Shusterman not only wants us to read about Caden’s descent into illness, he wants us to feel that with him. And feel I did.

Powerful. And definitely one that will stay with me for a long time.

Lifesaving Lessons

by Linda Greenlaw
First sentence: “Confrontation was imminent.”
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Content: There’s some swearing, including a number of f-bombs. Plus some discussion of sexual abuse of an adult and a minor.

I read a few of Linda Greenlaw’s books way back when and although I didn’t keep up with what she was doing, when I found that she was coming to the store for the paperback version of her latest memoir, I snagged at the chance to both see her and read the book.

This one is a memoir of how she became a mother, of sorts. It’s the story of a girl who came to the island from an abusive family, with an uncle who was seen as a savior. That is, until she escaped one night, and the truth came out: her uncle was sexually and emotionally abusing her. It’s not a pleasant story to read; Greenlaw pulls no punches when talking about the abuse. She’s not graphic either, but rather giving us the full emotional heartache that her daughter — and the island — went through because of this. And how she ended up the legal guardian — and eventually feeling like a mother figure — of the girl.

It’s a hopeful book in the end, though. It’s not an easy road, with a lot of ups and downs, but Greenlaw takes us along for the ride in her frank, yet engaging way. I was drawn into her island way of life again, and worked through her problems with her. I wanted things to work out the best for Greenlaw and her ward, and it was that desire that kept me plugging through what usually would be considered Other People’s Problems.

I’m not sure it’s a book for everyone. But I did find the journey interesting.

Magic Marks the Spot

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book 1

by Caroline Carlson
First sentence: “Ever since the letter had arrived from Miss Pimm’s, Hilary had spent more and more time talking to the gargoyle.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils
Content: There’s a couple of swordfights where no one gets injured. For a pirate book, it’s really quite tame. It’s shelved in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.
Hilary Westfield has one dream: to become a pirate. Unfortunately the league of pirates in Augusta has one rule: no girls. Girls are sent to Miss Pimm’s finishing school, because that’s Where Girls Go. Thankfully, Hilary has Pluck and Determination and doesn’t let the Rules stop her. (This book insists you talk about Things in Capital Letters.) As soon as she gets a chance, she runs away from Miss Pimm’s and finds a pirate — Jasper, the Terror of the South Seas — who doesn’t care that she’s a girl. 
There’s more to this book — magic and treasure and an Enchantress and a Wicked Parent — but really, what I loved most about this book was that Hilary set out to be a pirate and succeeded ON HER OWN TERMS. No dressing up like a boy. No bowing to Tradition. No Resigning Oneself to her Fate and Making the Best of It. Nope. Not for Hilary. She (and her talking gargoyle, whom I really loved) decided that they wanted to be pirates, and Dang It, they became pirates. 
I liked this one an awful lot, mostly because of the above reason. But — aside from the unnecessary letters that were written in cursive, which is a real turn-off for kids These Days; the book got much better after I started skipping them — I really enjoyed all of it. There was humor (Miss Greyson, the governess/chaperone, was hilarious), sword fighting, a wee bit of romance (but not overstated; it was between the adults), and most of all Hilary being Awesome.
Yeah, it was a bit slow at the start, and I really don’t like that it’s yet another one in a series, but I thought the story wrapped up well enough, and I’d be willing to see where Hilary’s piratical adventures take her. 

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Neptune Project

by Polly Holyoke
ages: 10+
First sentence: “I wake to an urgent tap at my window.”
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Nere Hanson (a terrible name, that, as A pointed out) has never understood why she felt more at home in the sea, with the dolphins. Her parents are scientists who study the ocean, but that’s not the whole picture. Nere has problems breathing on land, and it’s just getting worse. Then the government of the Western Collective (roughly some futuristic dictatorship that came out of the US; this is set along the Pacific coast) demands that everyone who lives by the ocean move inland, to help with “food production.” So, Nere’s mom pushes forward her plans, breaking the news  to Nere and her friends Robry and Lena that the reason why they struggle to live on land is that they’re genetically altered to survive — like breathe seawater and everything — under the ocean.

I’m going to stop here for a minute. I’ve read books about exploring the ocean as an option for when global warming takes over and turns this planet into one gigantic mass of water, and I’ve read books that deal with genetic mutation of people (and I think I’ve read one that combines the two in some search for Atlantis, now that I think about it), but this one struck me as unique. Holyoke has done her research and this one felt, well, authentic. I appreciated that. I also enjoyed her use of dolphins; they weren’t props, but rather their own characters, which added another interesting layer to the story.

After they make the change, and get away from the Marine Guard (read government thugs), Nere, Robry, and Lena have to figure out how to survive in their new environment. They meet up with another group of kids who have had this change done to them — Nere is resentful for a good part of the book because her mother did this to her, without her consent, and didn’t give her the time to adjust to this. I love Bad Mom Decisions in Middle Grade books — and set out for the rendezvous point. From there, they head north to Vancouver to the colony that Nere’s father is setting up.

Even though it’s a first in a series — I really would love a stand-alone speculative middle grade fiction book sometime — and it’s just an elaborate set-up, Holyoke does a fantastic job creating her world. And I liked the dynamics she created in the group. It wasn’t as middle school-ish as the jacket flap led me to believe, but a genuine portrayal of kids thrown in a new situation and forced to survive. And Holyoke isn’t afraid to kill characters off or have characters betray one another. It was complex, and I enjoyed that.

I only wish I had more of a sense of closure with this one; I’m not sure I’m all excited to read further adventures of Neve and the Neptune Project. But this one was definitely enjoyable.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)