Posted in Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Hearts Unbroken is strong, smart #ownvoices YA

Hearts Unbroken, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, (Oct. 2018, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763681142

Ages 13+

High school senior dumps her jock boyfriend when he makes disparaging comments about Natives in front of her. You see, she’s Native: Creek nation – Muscogee – to be precise. She shakes off his badmouthing and focuses on the school year: she’s on the school newspaper staff and she’s paired with Joey Kairouz, the new photojournalist. Her brother, Hughie, is a new freshman at the same school, too, and lands a coveted spot in the school play: he’s going to be the Tin Man in the school production of The Wizard of Oz. Not every parent is thrilled with the diverse casting, though: a group calling themselves Parents Against Revisionist Theater starts lodging complaints and pressuring local businesses against supporting the play. Hughie and other actors of color start receiving anonymous hate mail. Battle lines are drawn throughout the student body and faculty. Joey and Louise try navigating a relationship while they work on the paper together, but Louise’s worries about “dating while Native” may cause more hurt to Joey than she expects.

Hearts Unbroken is just consuming. I didn’t want to put it down until I finished it. There are such rich, realistic characters, and Louise is just brilliant. She’s no simpering heroine – the book starts with her breaking up with her boyfriend for disparaging Natives, and she never looks back. Cynthia Leitich Smith creates such textured, layered characters and educates readers on Native life and language, giving me an even deeper respect for #ownvoices work than I already had. She gives Louise and her family challenges both common and unique: Louise has a bad breakup; she is self-absorbed and isn’t a mindful friend when her friend Shelby needs her; she works through her feelings about sex and when she will be ready. Louise and her family also deal with racism and whitewashing among their own neighbors and classmates. Hughie agonizes over discovering that L. Frank Baum, who created the wonderful world of Oz, so rich in its own diversity, was a virulent racist who published pro-genocide editorials surrounding the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to read, but it’s real, and she transfers this ache and this anger to her characters, giving them big decisions to make on their own while educating readers, too.

Cynthia Leitich Smith, who, like Louise is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, provides a Mvskoke/English Glossary to help readers with some of the phrases that appear in the book, and an author’s note that talks about parallels between Louise and herself, and the writing of Hearts Unbroken. Dr. Debbie Reese has a fantastic write-up of Hearts Unbroken on her page, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

An absolute must-add to your YA collections. Read a sample chapter and the author’s note on the Candlewick page.
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Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Astrid the Unstoppable gives #kidlit a new fiery redheaded heroine

Astrid the Unstoppable, by Maria Parr, (Nov. 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536200171

Ages 7-11

“The Little Thunderbolt”, as she’s nicknamed, Astrid is a 9-year-old girl who lives in the town of Glimmerdal, Norway, with her farmer father and her marine scientist mother, who’s often away on research adventures. She spends most of her days with her best friend, Gunnvald, who also happens to be her 70-something year-old godfather; she also spends quite a bit of time aggravating the mean old Mr. Hagen, who runs a resort – ADULTS ONLY! – nearby, but Astrid can’t be bothered to be upset when he yells at her: she’s got too much living to do! She’s a fun, spunky, free spirit, until Gunnvald has a terrible fall that lands him in the hospital. Secrets are revealed that send Astrid into a tizzy, but not for long: she relies on her new friends to help her set things right.

Astrid the Unstoppable is like the books I read when I was a kid. Classics like Heidi (a book which also plays a part in Astrid), Pippi Longstocking, and Caddie Woodlawn, all seem to have inspired Maria Parr and her beloved Astrid. She’s smart, yet not afraid to be vulnerable; she’s got a wonderfully upbeat personality and view of the world, and she’s not afraid to speak her mind, whether it’s to another child, or an adult who’s behaving badly. She’s got great relationships with most of the adults in the book, and even the ones she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with can’t stay too mad at her. She’s got an infectious personality, in all the best ways.

Astrid the Unstoppable is kidlit done right, and Astrid herself will be a character kids will be reading about in school and on reading lists for years to come. Make sure to add this one to your to-buy lists, and talk up our classic female characters, too: don’t let anyone be left out! Perfect for your more sensitive readers. The book has been translated into 19 languages and adapted for the stage (so why not look into some reader’s theatre with your copies?)

 

Posted in Adventure, Animal Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade

Snazzy Cat Capers introduces a new super team-up!

Snazzy Cat Capers, by Deanna Kent/Illustrated by Neil Hooson, (Sept. 2018, Imprint Reads), $13.99, ISBN: 978-1-250-14343-3

Ages 7-10

Ophelia von Hairball V is the world’s greatest cat burglar; she’s a celebrity among her peers at the FFBI (Furry Feline Burglary Institute), the bane of the Central Canine Intelligence Agency (CCIA), and the envy of her cousin and FELLOW FFBI cat burglar, Pierre. Her next challenge: steal a rare Himalayan diamond from the Belle Mew-seum in Paris for the FFBI’s Annual Purr-fect Heist Competition! There’s only one hairball: Oscar Fishgerald Gold. He’s the newest in a series of inventors the FFBI wants Ophelia to work with, but Ophelia is a one-feline show. Oscar is persistent, though, and finagles his way onto the mission. Can this cat-and-fish combo snag the diamond and win the top spot again? Will the CCIA finally catch up to Ophelia? Or will Ophelia’s scheming cousin, Pierre, outsmart Ophelia and win the diamond and the top spot for himself?

Snazzy Cat Capers is the first in a fun new intermediate/middle grade series, and it is too much fun. Ophelia von Hairball V is a fabulous diva with an eye for the good life, and even though she’s a thief, she’s not all bad: the FFBI just encourages cat burglary to keep their skills sharp; the heisted goods are always returned. Eventually. There are black and white graphic novel panels and artwork throughout the story, breaking up the narrative by communicating a chunk of story visually and giving reluctant readers a nice bridge into linear reading. Oscar is a sweet, smart sidekick who won’t give up his chance to be taken seriously – he’s kind of like James Bond’s Q. Every chapter starts off with a life quote from Ophelia that provides some wink-nudge insight into her divahood: “You can’t possibly be your best if you haven’t had a manicure. Or if you’re a dog”; “They say humility is the key. Thankfully, I can pick any lock”; “When all hope seems lost, check the last handbag you used. It might still be there”. There are a lot of laughs, some fun action and adventure, and a whodunit showdown that kids will love. The next installment is out next year, so talk this one up and get your readers on board. And show them some Kim Possible – not an animal show (except for the naked mole rat, Rufus), but still fun to watch. Booktalk and display with Jonathan Bernstein’s Bridget Wilder trilogy or Stuart Gibbs’ Spy School series.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Join NatGeo’s Explorer Academy!

Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret, by Trudi Trueit, (Sept. 2018, National Geographic), $16.99, ISBN: 9781426331596

Ages 9-13

Twelve year-old Cruz Coronado has lived with his dad in Hawaii ever since his mom died in a work-related accident when he was little. Now that Cruz is 12, though, he’s got a big future: he’s been accepted into the prestigious Explorer Academy, which will take him to Washington, DC. The Explorer Academy is no joke: they accept only 24 kids from around the world every year; the students train to become the next generation of great explorers. But someone doesn’t want Cruz at the Academy: there’s an attempt on his life before he even leaves for the school! When he arrives at the Academy, he learns that his mother’s history is tied into his – and this could endanger his life, and the lives of his new friends. But who’s out to get Cruz?

Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret is the first in a new NatGeo adventure series, and I loved it. It’s action-packed, fast-paced, and features a good cast of diverse, interesting characters with loads of cool tech and devices, like Mell, Cruz’s honeybee drone. There are copious tech and nature facts and information found throughout the story, with scientist and technology profiles in a “Truth Behind the Fiction” section at the end of the book. Color illustrations and maps throughout the book make this a solid hit for tweens and early teens. I’m looking forward to The Falcon’s Feather – the second book in the series – in March. Cruz is a likable hero who has a talent for code-breaking and a good relationship with his dad and his aunt, who also happens to be a professor at the Academy. Cruz’s best friend, Lani, isn’t a student at the Academy (yet), and serves as an anchor to home for Cruz. She, and Cruz’s friend and Academy roommate, Emmett, are the gadget masters here: the Q of the series, for you James Bond fans. Talk them up to your STEM/STEAM kids!

Display and booktalk with the Nick and Tesla series from Quirk; the HowToons comic series, and the Book Scavenger series by Jennifer Chambliss Berman. And talk up the Explorer Academy website! There are character profiles, book trailers, a chapter excerpt, gadget talk, and a crack the code challenge. It’s a good series to wrap a program around… just sayin’.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Zora and Carrie have more adventures in Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, by T.R. Simon (Sept. 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763643010

Ages 10-14

Is it any more perfect that the latest installment in a series starring a young Zora Neale Hurston is out right before Banned Book Month? Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliant classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is both a staple on high school reading lists AND a book that’s landed on Banned and Challenged lists since 1997.

Zora & Me is the story of young Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie. The year is 1903, and the two live with their families in Eatonville, Florida, in the first African-American city to be incorporated in the state. Even as a child, Zora is every bit the storyteller, the grand designer of adventures; Carrie likes to play it safer, but always follows Zora into an escapade – or a mystery. In this second novel, author T.R. Simon examines hate, white privilege, and history. It begins when Mr. Polk, their mute neighbor, is attacked and his horses set loose. When the girls go investigate and help Mr. Polk, they discover he can speak – he speaks to Old Lady Bronson, a woman rumored to be a conjure woman. When Mr. Polk breaks his silence, it sets other pieces to a long-unsolved puzzle into motion. The narrative shifts between the events in 1903 and the story of a Lucia, a young woman sold into slavery in 1855. In 1903, Zora and Carrie discover an abandoned plantation mansion on Mr. Polk’s property; at the same time, white men come to Eatonville and demand more of Mr. Polk’s land, claiming a right to it. Tensions rise, and the people of Eatonville prepare to stand up for themselves and their home. As the narratives move back and forth, the puzzle comes together and everything becomes heartbreakingly clear.

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is intense and raw, with brutal honesty about slavery and its aftermath. T.R. Smith writes about the roots of racial violence and the “enduring wounds of slavery” that persist to this day. Zora Neale Hurston is an intelligent, headstrong 12-year-old, and Carrie finds her strength and voice. They’re strong protagonists, strong African-American young women, and fully aware of the danger that whites present to them, even if slavery is now something they’re only hearing about: many parents were born into slavery, and freed as very young children. This generation knows that they weren’t “given” their freedom. They weren’t given anything: they will fight for everything that is theirs. Lucia, the third main character in The Cursed Ground, tells a sharp, painful story about family lost and found; about freedom taken; about people who would diminish a whole race’s humanity, and about discovering and defending one’s sense of self. It’s an incredible story. A biography of Zora Neale Hurston and a timeline of her life conclude this story. I hope to read more of Zora’s and Carrie’s adventures. This is definitely on my Newbery shortlist, and I hope it’s on a Coretta Scott King Award shortlist, too. It’s a must-add to historical fiction collections and would make a stellar African-American History Month reading assignment for classes.

Posted in Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Guest YA Review: Picture Us in the Light, by Kelly Loy Gilbert

My colleague, Amber, is back with another YA review! Enjoy as she talks about Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Picture Us in the Light.

Picture Us in the Light, by Kelly Loy Gilbert,
(April 2018, Disney-Hyperion), $17.99, ISBN: 9781484726020
Ages 13+
I picked up “Picture Us in the Light” as an ARC at PLA last March. The cover popped, and I grabbed. I’m so glad I did. To my delight, just as I finished reading it, the finished copy showed up from central purchasing, all laminated and ready for my teen shelves!
 
The plot: Danny Cheng is the son of immigrant Chinese parents. His best friends, Harry and Regina, are dating. It’s a tad awkward because Danny has a secret crush on Harry. His parents are thrilled because Danny got into a prestigious art school, but Danny hasn’t been able to draw in a year. He’s harboring major guilt over his role in a tragedy that affected his whole friend group.  When Regina asks Danny to draw a portrait for the school paper related to the tragedy, Danny worries that his inability to do so will be seen as insult to those affected most. Then Danny finds a mysterious box of papers in his father’s things and his parents clam up when he asks about it.
It’s Danny’s senior year. He might not see his friends again because his college is across the country. Will he tell Harry he likes him? What about hurting Regina? Can he break his dry spell? What’s with that secret box of his dad’s? Why won’t his parents tell him anything? 
 
Review: This book made me feel so many ways. Kelly Loy Gilbert gets right to the heart of the teen experience. Her bio says she “believes deeply in the power of stories to illuminate a shared humanity and give voice to a complex, broken people.” That is certainly what happens here. While Danny is the center of the story, his parents are the heart. If anything, Danny’s position emphasizes how important he is to them and makes their sacrifices for him hit harder as they are uncovered.  Did they make the right decisions? Did their decisions hurt Danny? You decide. There are plenty of opportunities for debate in this book, which would make it a great choice for book club.  Here is a boy who deeply needs his parents’ open love and support, but because of secrets they are forced to keep from him, their relationship  with him, while loving and devoted, is not supportive in the way he needs.  Danny reflects that closed nature, keeping his own secrets from his parents and his friends. No one has any idea he hasn’t drawn in a year or why.
 
The best thing about “Picture Us in the Light”, in addition to the wonderful characters and how they are all real and recognizable, is the unfolding story. Mystery upon mystery come to light (yes, I did that, omg I just realized that ‘in the light’ here probably refers to the characters’ dawning awareness—look, I never claimed to be sharp about this kind of thing). OK, sorry. Had a moment there. I’m not going to name the mysteries because part of the joy is discovering them. If  you savor mysteries stemming from secrets so deep they can tear a family apart if they’re kept and might do the same if they’re discovered, you’re in for a treat. 
 
Recommended for teens 12 and up. Good for readers who enjoy: Mystery. Coming of age. LGBT. Personal relationships. Teen friendship issues.  Parent/child issues.  Chinese-American and Chinese immigrant experiences. Family secrets.
 
Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Middle graders, make way for Merci Suarez!

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina (Sept. 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763690496

Ages 8-12

Sixth grade Cuban-American Mercedes “Merci” Suárez lives in South Florida with her family in Las Casitas: three houses, side by side, where Merci lives with her brother, Roli, and their parents; her Abuela and Lolo; and her Tía Inéz and her crazy twin 5-year olds, Axel and Tomás. She and Roli also attend an exclusive private school, Seaward Pines. In order to help pay their tuition, Merci has to take part in Sunshine Buddies, a community service program that matches her with a new student from Minnesota, Michael Clark. Merci has a pretty full plate with Sunshine Buddies, practicing for the soccer tryouts at school, and tolerating the school’s resident mean girl, Edna Santos, but things get even more complicated when her grandfather, Lolo, starts acting differently. He forgets his glasses in the refrigerator; he falls off his bike, and he tries to pick up the wrong twins at school one day. Merci finds herself with mounting family responsibilities and pushes back against the frustration of school and home life, but she and her family will work together, like they always do, to get through life’s challenges.

Meg Medina creates the most memorable, likable characters, from Piddy Sanchez (Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass) to Mía and Abuela (Mango, Abuela and Me). She creates an atmosphere that immediately feels comfortable and tactile; reading her books feels like home for me. The peppered Spanglish throughout the narrative; the mouth-watering descriptions of food, the chaotic, crazy family life all fit like a comfortable sofa that I sink into to read my books. She creates strong Latinx girls and women who run businesses and raise families, who have straight talk with their families and friends, even when those conversations are painful, and they know the strength that family provides. Every character in Merci’s story feels real because these characters are real: they’re the kids next to you in school, or who live down the block. Meg Medina uses humor and authentic voices to create a story about a tween girl who has insecurities, worries, and frustrations; she’s also funny, smart, and creative, with a whip-smart wit. Merci Suárez Changes Gears is a story about growing up and about how much it hurts to see your grandparents aging. Put this in every kid’s hand, because it’s that good. This one’s on my Newbery 2018 short list.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears has starred reviews from Kirkus, Horn Book, and Booklist. Meg Medina has an author site where you can learn more about her books and read her blog, and make sure to check out the Girls of Summer website; a project co-designed by Meg Medina and author Gigi Amateau. Girls of Summer reviews 18 titles for strong girls (picture book, middle grade and YA) every year, in early June; there are also giveaways and weekly Q & As with selected authors. The blog is active from June until Labor Day every year, but you can still check out the content (from 2011-present) no matter what time of the year!