Mom Read It

If the kids are reading it, chances are I have, too.

Historical middle-grade fiction: Snakes and Stones March 20, 2017

Snakes and Stones, by Lisa Fowler, (Nov. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-1031-3

Recommended for readers 9-12

The year is 1921, and Chestnut Hill, a 12 year old girl, travels with her father and 7 year-old triplet siblings (also named after nuts) across the American south, putting on medicine shows so her daddy can sell his elixir. Daddy’s a snake oil merchant, and Chestnut is sick and tired of living in a cramped wagon, wearing clothes to rags, and going to bed with a rumbling stomach. She’s mad at Daddy from stealing her and her siblings away from their Mama, who must be out of her mind with grief right now. Even when the Hill family meets up with Abraham, a friend of her father’s, who tells her that there’s a lot Chestnut doesn’t know about her Daddy, she refuses to believe it and decides to take matters into her own hands, setting off a chain of events that will change her and her family.

I was happy to see a middle grade historical fiction piece take place in the early ’20s – it’s an interesting time that hasn’t seen a lot of middle grade storytelling just yet. Lisa Fowler has several strong characters here, most notably, Chestnut, who narrates the story. Her father is a seeming ne’er do well, a con man with a heart of gold, who just doesn’t know how to take care of his family; Abraham, an African-American character, allows for a look at the everyday racism and segregation in the South. Readers may get tired of Chestnut’s firm belief that her father’s the bad guy, especially when there’s clearly more to the story that Abraham knows but won’t discuss. While Abraham is a potentially strong character to highlight the racial issues in the Southern U.S., readers may be put off by the way his speech is written, which can be construed as negative stereotyping rather than striving for historical accuracy.

Overall, it’s a story that means well but gets caught up in melodrama and possibly troubling characterization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rescuers play a Hiding Game with the Nazis February 18, 2017

The Hiding Game, by hiding-game-coverGwen Strauss/Illustrated by Herb Leonhard, (Feb. 2017, Pelican Publishing), $17.99, ISBN: 9781455622658

Recommended for ages 7-10

A young girl and her family settle into a new home in the Villa Air-Bel in France. They’re used to hiding things: the radio, a cow, anything of value that the Nazis could seize. Aube Breton – the daughter Dada pioneer Andre Breton – even learns to hide herself in case of a raid. You see, Villa Air-Bel was a safe place for refugees during World War II, a place where those on the run could await passage to safety. Aude spends her days with luminaries like artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst; helping hold art sales to raise money for transport out of occupied France, and playing, as a child should.

A very different experience from Anne Frank and the families ensconced in the Secret Annex, Aude’s story is no less powerful. She witnesses a Nazi raid and hides while her father and other men are rounded up and taken in for questioning, and she faces her situation with love and laughter. The stories of the Villa Air-Bel refugees is a lesser-known part of World War II France, and The Hiding Game is a strong introduction to younger readers. Its message is as strong today as ever.

Herb Leonhard’s illustrations and subdued color palette are gentle on the eyes in some spreads, more powerful in others, enhancing the story with strong images that will lead to deep discussions with school-age readers.

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A historical note and further resources round out this story, and the author explains that her uncle was one of the men who risked his life to bring refugees to safety.

hiding-game-layout-lowres-17-1A recommended addition to history collections.

 

Geronimo Stilton goes to the ends of the earth in his latest graphic novel adventure December 21, 2016

geronimo-stiltonGeronimo Stilton #18: First to the Last Place on Earth, (Nov. 2016, Papercutz), $9.99, ISBN: 9781629916033

Recommended for ages 6-10

Journalist mouse and time traveler Geronimo Stilton’s latest adventure takes him and a group of friends (including his younger sister, Thea!) back to 1911, where they join explorer Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole. They have to beat the awful Pirate Cats, who plan to sabotage the expedition and ruin history, so Geronimo will need to stay extra sharp!

The Geronimo Stilton graphic novels are fun because they’re another addition to the Stilton family of storytelling. The stories are original – no rehashes of the chapter books here! – and offer kids some interesting facts mixed in with their fun. Geronimo is insanely popular, as are all his spinoff titles; your intermediate and middle grader readers will gobble these up. You won’t even need to booktalk this book – just put it out and stand back.

Want to use Geronimo to promote your exploration titles? I don’t blame you. Talk up Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition; Matthew Henson’s exploration of the North Pole, and the lost Franklin expedition of 1845. Nomad Press’ Mysteries and Mayhem: Survival is a good book to talk up, and the I Survived series will always get kids listening and reading.

 

What makes a monster? Matthew J. Kirby explores in A Taste for Monsters December 14, 2016

taste-for-monstersA Taste for Monsters, by Matthew J. Kirby, (Sept. 2016, Scholastic), $18.99, ISBN: 9780545817844

Recommended for ages 12+

Evelyn is a young woman left to fend for herself on the streets of Victorian London’s infamous East End. Orphaned and disfigured by her work in a matchstick factory, she seemingly has few prospects; she applies to London Hospital as a nurse, and is instead assigned to be the maid to the hospital’s most famous patient: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. As she attends to Merrick, she finds a gentle, beautiful soul with whom she shares a love of Jane Austen, easy conversation, and sadly, pain.

And then the ghosts come. They visit nightly, terrifying Merrick and Evelyn, who stays with him to support him through the nightly terrors. Evelyn discovers that the ghosts are the restless spirits of women murdered by Jack the Ripper, whose work makes gruesome headlines. Evelyn takes it upon herself to help these spirits find peace so that they’ll leave Joseph alone, but are they really haunting him? And is Evelyn putting herself in the Ripper’s sights by getting involved?

This is my third Kirby book, and it’s safe to say I am hooked on his writing. His historical fiction places you right in the middle of the action, and his fantastic elements are so believable – especially in an age where spiritualists ran wild – that I had no problem believing that ghosts existed and sought out the kindness of a gentle man like Joseph Merrick. The character development is brilliant and complex; the characters had a depth to them that made we want to sit with them and share tea and conversation. There’s a thread of tension running through the book that will keep readers turning pages, whether it’s the tension between Evelyn and several key supporting characters in the novel, the tension of waiting for the spirits to arrive, and the gripping conclusion. Historical fiction fans that appreciate a touch of the supernatural will love this book; readers interested in the Jack the Ripper story or the Elephant Man will love this book. Conservative readers may shy away from some of the gory descriptions of the Ripper’s victims as read from the newspapers and sideshow attractions. There’s some excellent YA Ripper-related fiction available, including Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star; the graphic novel From Hell is another great booktalking and display choice. There is a children’s picture book about The Elephant Man by Mariangela Di Fiore that would be a good display choice. Get this book on your shelves and into hands.

Matthew J. Kirby is an Edgar Award-winning novelist.

 

 

More manga classics! Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility December 8, 2016

austenSense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen (adapted by Stacy King)/illustrated by Po Tse, (Udon Entertainment/Morpheus Studios, Aug. 2016). $19.99 ISBN: 9781927925638

Recommended for ages 12+

Udon’s Manga Classics line continues to put out the most popular literary classics in manga format, no doubt to the relief to high school and college students everywhere. This time out, I read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. When sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood’s father dies, their family is forced by family finances and turmoil to move to a cottage in Devonshire. Elinor has high hopes for her former romantic interest, Edward, while Marianne falls for John Willoughby – who seems to be hiding something. Colonel Brandon, an older man, also shows interest in Marianne, but she’s initially afraid that he’s too old for her. Similar to Pride and Prejudice, we have romantic entanglements and complicated relationships. Manga fans who also want some reinforcement of the Austen classic will appreciate this more visual layout of all the relationships in this story. Great for middle, high school, and college students.

 

 

Assassin’s Creed goes YA with Last Descendants December 6, 2016

assassinLast Descendants: An Assassin’s Creed Novel, by Matthew J. Kirby, (Aug. 2016, Scholastic), $9.99, ISBN: 9780545855518

Recommended for ages 12+

Owen is going through some rough stuff. He and his mother live with his grandparents; they were forced to after his father was arrested for robbing a bank and died in prison. Owen believes he was innocent, but that doesn’t stop his grandparents from badmouthing his dad whenever they get a chance. His best friend, Javier, has been more distant lately, so he really feels alone until the school IT guy, Monroe, invites him to use his device called the Animus, which will help him explore memories buried in his DNA. He convinces Javier to come along and make sure things sound on the level, and Javier ends up having a shared genetic memory in the Animus with Owen. Use of the Animus sets off some kind of alarm, though, and Monroe brings the two teens to a hideout he’s established, where they meet four other teens who have used the Animus. Monroe explains that the group all have roots in one (or both) of two ancient orders: the Brotherhood of Assassins or the Templar Order. There’s a precious relic that needs to be found, and their group is the only group that can do it through a shared genetic experience. The teens find themselves in the bodies of their ancestors, transported into the 1863 New York City, on the even of the infamous Draft Riots.

This is the first book in a YA Assassin’s Creed series, based on the insanely popular video game. I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed – I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m fairly inept beyond a joystick and firing button – but I love the mythology behind the game, which my eldest has played for years. Having a YA series that follows teens descended from the Assassins and Templars, going through different eras in history? I loved it! We get a look at the Gangs of New York-era Lower East Side through an interesting fantasy perspective, with some nice groundwork about the two dueling factions in place for newbies to Assassin’s Creed (I double-checked some info with my son as I read). Being a Gangs of New York fan and a student of Lower East Side history, I was thrilled to see how Kirby worked the gangs into the main storyline. The story flows through multiple perspectives, yet he keeps everything together so readers shouldn’t be confused by whose voice they’re reading, especially appreciated when characters are in the Animus and living through their ancestors. There’s great character development, action, and he doesn’t flinch from the racism that fueled the riots. The ending leaves no doubt that there will be a sequel, and I can’t wait to read it.

I’ve liked Matthew Kirby’s writing since I devoured Icefall four years ago. He creates great characters and skilfully weaves historical fiction and fantasy. With an Assassin’s Creed movie hitting theatres in a little more than two weeks, this is a book you need front and center on your displays (and on your holiday lists – we all know someone who loves this franchise). Put this one on your purchase lists.

 

Folklore, myth, and memory: Merrow December 5, 2016

merrowMerrow, by Ananda Braxton-Smith, (NOv. 2016, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763679248

Recommended for ages 12+

Twelve year-old Neen Marrey lives with her Aunt Oshag on Carrick Island. Her father drowned and her mother disappeared when she was a baby; now, she and her aunt endure the town gossip – that her mother was a merrow, a mermaid, that returned to the ocean and her father drowned himself trying to reach her. Oshag dismisses the gossip as nonsense, but the myth keeps Neen going; she wants desperately to believe that her mother didn’t just desert her; that maybe even Neen herself has merrow in her, and can reconcile with her mother one day.

Merrow is beautiful and heartbreaking. Braxton-Smith spins a tale that weaves together historical fiction, Celtic folklore, and a coming of age story. Neen and Oshag are both incredibly constructed characters that come alive; characters that you come to ache for. The supporting cast are equally likable and believable, and having such a small group of characters adds to the intimacy of the novel.

This is a gorgeous novel that literary fiction readers, readers of magical realism, realistic fiction, and historical fiction alike will love. Merrow has received four starred reviews: Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Maybe the Printz committee will agree?