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

YA in dual narratives: Between Before and After

Between Before and After, by Maureen Doyle McQuerry, (Feb. 2019, Blink), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0310767381

Ages 12+

Told in two narratives across two timespans, Between Before & After is the story of Elaine, a girl raising her younger brother, Stephen, after losing her mother and baby sister to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and her grief-stricken father to a drunken brawl, and Elaine’s teenaged daughter, Molly, as she tries to unravel her mother’s secret past. The narratives shift between fourteen-year-old Elaine’s story from 1918-1920, and Molly’s in 1955. Molly sees her journalist mother as an enigma, going so far as to create a “biography box” to hold clues to her mother’s story. Elaine’s story is a heartbreaking one, beginning with her mother and baby sister dying, and her father’s spiral into alcoholism and neglect and ending with his death. When Elaine finds work reading to a blind man in a wealthy family, she is relieved at being able to support her and her brother, but a turn of events separates Elaine and Stephen. In 1955, past and present converge when Stephen finds himself at the center of a religious controversy that shines a spotlight on the family.

Between Before and After is a solid piece of historical fiction that examines social class and mental illness. The subplot involving Elaine’s brother Stephen was interesting, but only served a small plot forwarding device for Elaine’s – and, to a degree, Molly’s – story. The characters drew me right in, and anything about New York in the early 20th Century gets my attention. I enjoyed Maureen Doyle McQuerry’s storytelling, especially Elaine’s story; she was a fully realized character.

If you have historical fiction readers, this is a good pick for you. There’s much to discuss about social class, stigma, and childhood poverty here, making this a good extension/book discussion choice for social studies/history classes.

Advertisements
Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Middle Grade Quick Takes: Toy Academy, Ask Emma, Confusion is Nothing New

Every now and then, I dive into my TBR, which accumulates at an astonishing rate. This week, I managed to read a few more from the TBR, and wanted to give a quick take on them, since they’ve been out for a while but still deserve some mention.

Toy Academy: Some Assembly Required (Toy Academy #1), by Brian Lynch/Illustrated by Edwardian Taylor, (Jan. 2018, Scholastic), $12.99, ISBN: 978-1-338-14845-9

Ages 7-10

This is the first in a new intermediate/middle grade series, and it’s SO much fun. Grumboldt is a stuffed animal of some sort – he has a somewhat amusing and dubious origin – and desperately wants to belong to a kid of his own. He meets a transforming car robot named Omnibus Squared, who, as it turns out, is recruiting toys for Commander Hedgehog’s Institute for Novelty Academia – The Toy Academy. Grumboldt manages to talk his way into admission, and tries desperately to be a great toy, so he’ll be assigned to a great kid, but he’s got some challenges. There’s a bully (it’s always a soldier, isn’t it?) named Rex constantly bugging him, and he can’t stay awake during Bedtime Prep. When Commander Hedgehog’s arms go missing, though, Grumboldt sees a chance to help out and make good at Toy Academy after all.

Have readers who love Toy Story? (Seriously, who doesn’t?) Give them Toy Academy. It’s sweet, hilarious, and loaded with toy references that everyone – kids and grownups alike – will recognize and get a laugh out of. Brian Lynch is a screenwriter with Minions and The Secret Life of Pets to his credit, so he knows how to write things that kids like. Edwardian Taylor’s art is a perfect match for the wacky, fun storytelling and gives us characters we’ll know and love for books to come: Grumboldt is a lovable plush with mismatched parts; Micro is a lively action figure whose collectable status limits her movement – she’s stuck in a plastic bag, because she HAS VALUE; Commandant Hedgepig is a knockoff, off-brand version of Commander Hedgehog who insists on being called his proper name rather than his emerging nickname, Bootleg. The second Toy Academy book, Ready for Action, is also available, so put these on your series purchase lists if you don’t have them already.  The kids will love them.

Ask Emma, by Sheryl Berk & Carrie Berk, (May 2018, Yellow Jacket), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-4998-0647-2

Ages 8-12

Emma is a 13-year-old seventh grader who loves to give advice, whether or not it’s asked for. She decides to start an Ask Emma column, so she can make herself available to all of her classmates at Austen Middle School, but quickly discovers that she’s a bit tone deaf in the process; she tends to push her best friends into doing things her way. She even tries to get the cute new guy, Jackson Knight, to join all the groups she thinks he should and tell her all about himself, but he gives a little pushback, which adds to his mystery. Emma starts getting some negative comments on her blog, and things start going haywire in Emma’s real world, too. When a hurtful picture of Emma starts making the rounds around the school, she decides to nip a potential cyberbully in the bud and takes action.

This is the first book in a new series from The Cupcake Club authors Carrie Berk and Sheryl Berk, and it left me a little wanting. Emma never really sees how self-absorbed she is, or apologizes for the things she does to her best friends. Her friends turn their backs on her when another student that Emma tries to “help” lies to make herself look good, but she never has that aha! moment when she examines her own behavior. A few negative blog comments and one mean picture become an overblown cyberbullying campaign, which, in this day and age, is forward thinking – catch cyberbullying in its early stages, before it becomes something out of control – but her related blog entry makes it sound like she endured a hateful campaign where she was bullied day and night. This one is a little out of touch; maybe an additional purchase where the authors are popular. The additional characters, including Jackson Knight and Emma’s best friends, Izzy and Harriet, seem interesting and I’d like to read more of their stories.

 

Confusion is Nothing New, by Paul Acampora, (May 2018, Scholastic Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-338-20999-0

Ages 9-13

Fourteen-year-old Ellie Magari just found out her mother, who left her and her father when Ellie was a baby, has died. Never having known her mother, Ellie tries to figure out who her mother was, especially when her father presents her with a box of her mother’s memorabilia, mysteriously sent to Ellie. She discovers that her mother was the singer in an ’80s tribute band, married her *other* high school sweetheart, and that the band is playing the local college soon. Ellie struggles with learning about her mother and how to grieve someone she never knew, while expressing frustration with her father’s reluctance to talk about her at all. Thankfully, Ellie’s friends, her principal, and an interesting new music teacher are there to help her put together the rest of the missing pieces.

Confusion is Nothing New is good, and yes, I say that partly because I love all things ’80s. (I would make a heck of a playlist to booktalk this book.) But aside from the music, it’s got a solid, readable story, and the characters have incredible heart and humor. Ellie is a likable, relatable character who takes no foolishness when a teacher treats her friend badly; she’s also vulnerable and working her way through big revelations dropped on her throughout the book. I loved her school band friends and the ease of their relationships; their humor, and their loyalty to one another. This one is a good read for tweens and teens – it’s on the cusp of being YA, but not – who want to read about another character figuring it out as best as she can.

 

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

March graphic novels look at the power of relationships

The Breakaways, by Cathy G. Johnson, (March 2018, First Second), $12.99, ISBN: 9781626723573

Ages 8-12

This Bad News Bears of Soccer story stars Faith, a child of color who joins her school team at the urging of Amanda, one of the school’s popular girls. Thinking it’s a great way to make new friends, Faith signs up, only to discover that there are different soccer teams, and she’s been put on the Bloodhounds, which is made of up the lousiest players in the school. They may be horrible at soccer, but the group gradually comes together to form a tight friendship unit, and that’s the heart of the story.

There’s a fantastic diversity among the group. There are queer characters, including one who’s transitioning, and characters of color. The storyline is moved forward by each character’s quest for identity and acceptance within their families and the group, making for some deeply heartfelt moments. It’s a book about friendship, self-awareness, and acceptance, set in a middle school – often a battleground for kids who want to stand out without being “different”.

This one’s a must-add to your shelves. Talk this one up to your Lumberjanes fans.

The Mary Sue has a great write-up and preview of The Breakaways, and you can visit author/illustrator Cathy G. Johnson’s website for more info.

Kiss Number 8, by Colleen AF Venable/Illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw, (March 2018, First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781596437098

Ages 12+

Mads is a Catholic school teen who whose dad is her best friend. They go to minor league baseball games together, watch TV shows together, and generally just hang out together. It rocks her world when she discovers that her dad is hiding a secret, and it couldn’t have come at a harder time: Mads is also discovering that she may be attracted to her friend, Cat.

Kiss Number 8 looks at a sexual awakening within a close Catholic family. Mads tries out different kisses with different guys, trying to feel something, because her wilder friend, Cat – the archetypal Catholic school bad girl – encourages it, and it’s because what Mads feels like she’s supposed to do. While she torments herself over what she thinks her father’s hiding, she and Cat fall out, and the rumor mill goes wild, leading Mads to admit to her feelings and attractions to herself, and to Cat. Once Mads accepts herself, she has to deal with her father’s secret, his reaction to her emerging identity, and his overall mindset; luckily, she has support from a place she never dreamed of.

I really enjoyed Kiss Number 8. The characters are real, and Mads’ struggle with her own identity and sexuality works seamlessly with the family secret, revealed in all of its emotional pain. Mads has to come to realizations about herself, her relationships, and her own father, in order to move forward, but she’s a smart heroine that navigates these challenges to come out on top. Kiss Number is an exploration of teen sexuality, families, and relationships. A necessary book for your collections.

Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw‘s websites both offer some sneak peeks at Kiss Number 8 and their additional work.

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

More Moomins! The Moomins and the Great Flood

The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson, (July 2018, Drawn and Quarterly), $16.95, ISBN: 9781770463288

Ages 7-12

This Moomin tale is an illustated novel, rather than a picture book or graphic novel, and gives us a bit of a Moomin origin story. Moominmama and little Moomintroll are in search of a winter home, and in search of Moominpapa, whose restless nature led him to wander off with the Hattifatteners. As they wander through a precariously dark forest, they meet a small creature who joins their journey, despite being a bit cranky; they also meet a beautiful, blue-haired girl who lives in a tulip. Throughout the arduous journey, Moominmama and Moomintroll face each adventure with courage and kindness, helping every creature they meet, always hoping that maybe… just maybe… their journey will reunite them with Moominpapa.

Originally written during the 1939-1940 Finnish-Soviet Union conflict, The Moomins and the Great Flood was author Tove Jansson’s escape from the horrors of war. She uses a catastrophic flood to unite her characters, who could even be seen as refugees, all experiencing some kind of loss, displacement, or danger from the flood. The sepia and white artwork lends an old-world feel to the artwork, and the prose reads like adventure stories I read growing up. The book is relentlessly optimistic, with moments of near despair; it illustrates perseverance and the strength of family units when facing adversity. I’ll booktalk this with picture books like Nicola Davies’ The Day War Came and the Children in Our World book series.

Posted in Uncategorized

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

As I write this, it’s almost 70 degrees in New York. In November. So what’s left to do when you’ve unpacked all your Fall and Winter clothes? Think SNOW. So, join me in thinking chilly thoughts with some of these books.

How to Build an Elf Trap, by Larissa Juliano, (Oct. 2018, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $9.99, ISBN: 9781492663904

Ages 4-8

This fun nonfiction companion to Adam Wallace & Andy Ellerton’s How to Catch an Elf (2016) is all about STEAM for the holidays! Learn how to build 12 elf traps this Christmas, and take your pick of 12 bonus Christmas activities! Projects tend to run fairly simple, with most of the materials being found around the house. The projects encourage you to experiment with materials, too: swap things out! Add things! Take each construction and make it your own! Difficulty is measured in candy canes (1 for easy, 2 for intermediate, 3 for difficult) and Elf Appeal (how it will appeal to the elves you’re trying to nab). Projects are laid out step by step, with photos to guide you along, and digital artwork adds a fun flavor to the festivities. There are STEAM connections that explain how each project connects to science, and Did You Know? facts boxes add some fun Christmas facts throughout. Make an Elf Door, stick some tea light snowmen on your fridge (or locker), and get to work on your Elf Snatcher 500 while you snack on a Reindeer Cupcake.

Librarians and educators: PROGRAM IN A BOOK. This, my friends, is your December STEAM programming, right here!

One Snowy Day, by Diana Murray/Illustrated by Diana Toledano, (Oct. 2018, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $17.99, ISBN: 9781492645863

Ages 3-7

Two siblings enjoy a snowy day in this rhyming counting story! The story begins, as the best ones do, with a snowfall, while two children of color sleep snug in their beds – until their ONE pup wakes them up! The kids rise and shine, play with the pup and eat their breakfast, then it’s time to go out and play, as sister and brother meet their SIX friends for some winter fun and games. The text is light and fun, counting everything from a pup to ten snowballs – and then we count backwards, from nine buttons on a snowman’s chest to one sleepy puppy at the end of the day. The children are a multicultural group, and the detail on their clothes and the scenery itself is breathtaking. The mixed media artwork brings winter scenery to life, from sweaters with intricate Fair Isle designs, and beautifully detailed snowflakes. One Snowy Day pairs up nicely with other snowy day books and makes a nice winter concept book for your shelves.

Holiday Heroes Save Christmas, by Adam Wallace/Illustrated by Shane Clester, (Oct. 2018, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $10.99, ISBN: 9781492669708

Ages 4-7

Sourcebooks is rocking the Christmas picture books! This is the latest book by How to Catch… series author Adam Wallace, and this time, Santa needs help from his fellow holiday heroes! Santa’s too sick to deliver Christmas presents, so it’s up to the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Witch, and Leprechaun to save Christmas – but they’re not so great at this Christmas thing. The Tooth Fairy is hiding presents under pillows, and the Leprechaun is taking spare change from the houses they visit. Santa’s got to step in, but is it too late? Is Christmas done for? C’mon, you know it’s not. The gang gets their act together after a quick pep talk from Santa, and each hero plays to his or her strengths to make Christmas amazing! This is a fun story about teamwork, and a laugh out loud comedy of errors. (Psst… if you want to screen the movie, Rise of the Guardians, you can compare the heroes in the book versus the ones in the movie.) The digital art is bright, kid-friendly, and cartoony; end papers offer brief character descriptions of Santa and the gang. The book is set up with graphic novel-type panels and word balloons, so you can offer this one to your fledgling graphic novel readers to get them in the holiday spirit. This one’s a fun take on the “Santa needs help!” story theme, and should go over pretty well in libraries (and as a stocking stuffer).

Once Upon a Snowstorm, by Richard Johnson, (Nov. 2018, Faber & Faber), $16.95, ISBN: 978-0-5713-3928-0

Ages 2-7

A boy and his father go into the woods to hunt, and are separated during a snowstorm. The boy is rescued by a group of animals, who care for him and befriend him. When the bear in the group takes the boy back through the snow to find his father, Dad is grateful, and befriends the animals, too.

The art says it all in this stunning, wordless story. As father and son head into the woods, the snow comes down in the shapes of woodland animals: deer, foxes, hares, ethereal in their delicacy and beauty. Lost, the boy sleeps, shivering, under velvet skies with constellations creating animal shapes around him. When the animals accept the boy into their group, they dance, feast, and paint on cave walls; at that moment, the boy remembers his father and how desperately he misses him (Mom is present only in old family photos hanging in the home), signaling to his new friend, Bear, that it’s time to find Dad. At the story’s end, father and son enjoy a spring day, sitting on a hill with their animal friends.

The artwork alternates between panels and full bleed pages and is dreamlike in its subdued beauty. The endpapers bookend the story, with driving snow on the front papers, and a cave painting of the boy, his father, and the animals, playing together, on the back papers. The artwork is soft, and goes from the cold outdoor artwork to warm interiors both in the family home and in the company of the animals.

I love this book, and can’t wait to share it with my little readers, so I can hear their stories. This one’s a wonderful add to your winter collections – booktalk this one with Raymond Briggs’ wordless classic, The Snowman.

Posted in Uncategorized

Little Whale has a long voyage ahead of him…

Little Whale, by Jo Weaver, (Oct. 2018, Peachtree Publishers), $17.95, ISBN: 9781682630495

Ages 4-8

Little Whale and Gray Whale are heading off to the North to join the rest of their family. It is not an easy journey, and Little Whale doesn’t know where this place called “home” is; the only thing he knows is that his mother is next to him, keeping him safe. Through underwater forests and midnight skies, cold and dark waters and menacing orcas, Gray Whale urges Little Whale on, keeping him safe and guiding him home, until they hear their family welcome them home.

Little Whale is as much a story for parents as it is for children. Gray Whale is a strong, silent presence, leading her little one through an exhausting journey. Little Whale is afraid of the unknown – he’s surrounded by it! – but implicitly trusts his mother. Like a child on a long journey, he often asks, “are we there yet?”, but Gray Whale never grows impatient; she just keeps swimming. Little Whale is also an exploration of the ocean: the gray-blue and white charcoal art reveals shadowy coral reefs, murky underwater plant life, schools of fish, and a mother guiding her baby on. A brief author’s note talks about gray whale migration.

A nice cuddle-time story that sea life fans will enjoy. See more of Jo Weaver’s artwork on her website.

 

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Bigfoot Files searches for Bigfoot and even mother-daughter ground

The Bigfoot Files, by Lindsay Eagar, (Sept. 2018, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763692346

Ages 10-13

Mirando Cho is tired of being the parent. The 12-year-old student council president is dead set on securing a spot in a leadership camp this summer that will get her out of the house and away from her cryptozoolist mom, Kat. Kat’s obsession with mythical monsters, especially the ever-elusive Bigfoot, has taken center stage in her life: bills have gone unpaid, the house is in danger of foreclosure, and neither her father nor her grandmother is interested in helping out. It’s time for Kat to grow up, and Miranda has a plan to make it happen. The two set off together for another Bigfoot hunt, where Miranda plans to confront her mother with everything; once she breaks her down, she’ll help her get back on track to being a responsible adult. But nature has a different plan, and Kat and Miranda end up lost in the woods together. Miranda may have a thing or two to learn about magic after all.

The Bigfoot Files is an interesting take on the “irresponsible single parent, stressed out smart kid” story. We’ve got a mom who still has that spark of magic in her, but she’s let it take over her life, to the detriment of her daughter and the family finances. She’s always ready for the big score: the picture of Bigfoot, the big research grant, the one moment where the proof will magically appear. Miranda has overcompensated for her mother’s flightiness by becoming an overachiever with compulsive tendencies – she pulls her hair out to soothe herself and obsessively focuses on her planning, research, and lists, lists, lists. Kat is frustrating, and Miranda isn’t always sympathetic, which – let’s be real – is spot on. Both parties need to give a little to get somewhere, hence the trip into the woods. And that’s where things get interesting. Miranda is the ultimate skeptic – and as readers, so are we – until a pivotal moment that threatens to turn everything upside down. We get a touch of the speculative in our realistic fiction, inviting readers to keep the faith; there is magic to be found out there, if you’re willing to find it. Ultimately, readers and our characters come to a compromise and understand that somewhere in the middle lies the best way to go: bills still need to be paid, and magic can still exist.