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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A modern twist on Cinderella: It Started With Goodbye December 1, 2016

started-with-goodbyeIt Started With Goodbye, by Christina June, (May 2017, Blink Books), $12.99, ISBN: 9780310758662

Recommended for ages 12+

Tatum Elsea’s not having a great summer. Accused of a crime she didn’t commit – she was trying to get her best friend away from her sleazy boyfriend, to add insult to injury! – she’s under her step-monster’s house arrest for the entire summer, AND her best friend won’t speak to her. She’s working on pulling invasive plants as a community service during the day, and at night, quietly launching a design business to keep from going crazy. Things start looking up when she gets a few nibbles for her design business, including a flirty exchange with a musician who needs a portfolio made to submit to colleges. Her stepmother’s mother is also staying with them for the summer while Tatum’s dad is away on business, and she brings got just a little bit of fairy abuela magic with her, whether it’s a little extra money from her bunco winnings to help Tatum out, or warming up the relationships in the house. Maybe Tatum’s summer will end on a high note, after all.

This is a very sweet, very fun, modern take on Cinderella. Tatum’s stepmother isn’t really evil, she’s just really, really strict; her stepsister is a ballet dancer that’s not as uppity as Tatum thinks she is; her fairy godmother plays bunco and watches Golden Girls while dispensing real talk. There’s a music fest instead of a masked ball, and a cute take on the glass slipper. I had a great time reading this; you’ll just feel better when you’re done. It’s very clean – my conservative readers and my tweens will absolutely embrace this – and the characters are all very likable, even if they are in need of some serious loosening up in the beginning.

A fun, light romance to add to your collections or pass along to teen romance readers. There’s some fun content coming down the pike from author Christina June, including a graphic design contest, playlists, and launch party in the DC area. Keep an eye on Christina’s author page and Blink’s webpage for updates.

 

When activism goes too far? Flip the Bird, by Kym Brunner November 23, 2016

flip-the-birdFlip the Bird, by Kym Brunner, (Noc. 2016, HMH Books for Young Readers), $17.99, ISBN: 9780544800854

Recommended for ages 11+

Issues with hunting, falconry, and animal rights activism all come together in Kym Brunner’s Flip the Bird. Fourteen year-old Mercer Buddie wants two things out of life right now: he wants a girlfriend, and he wants to be a falconer, like his father and brother. He’s training as an apprentice to his father, a master falconer, but feels like his dad favors his jock of an older brother and is too critical of him. He captures a red-tailed hawk that he names Flip – to show his dad that falconry doesn’t always have to be a Very Serious Business – and has a few short weeks to train him for the big falconry meet; he’s got his eye on the Best Apprentice Award. Then he meets Lucy, who’s gorgeous and has a great personality and seems to be just as interested in him; the only problem is that she and her family are part of a fanatical animal rights organization called HALT. Mercer tries to play both sides to stay in Lucy’s and his family’s good graces, but sooner or later, the two halves of his life are going to converge. His mother is a scientist at a university lab doing medical research, and his father has a raptor rehabilitation center in addition to being a falconer – which means, a hunter. There are a lot of difficult choices in Mercer’s immediate future.

Flip the Bird brings together a lot of hot button topics to create a moving story about family and going with the crowd. Told in the first person by Mercer, the narrative is humorous while discussing the frustrations of being the little brother; the struggle to be treated like a responsible young adult, and the difficulty in making decisions that may be unpopular with the people you want to impress the most. To impress Lucy, Mercer joins the HALT collective she forms at school, but this puts him at direct odds with his family, and they let him know it. There are consequences to his actions, and we see Mercer grow as he faces those consequences. There’s interesting information about falconry and raptor rescue here, which will appeal to fans of animal fiction and birds. While the author gives a shout-out to some of her research sources in her acknowledgements, and does emphasize the extreme commitment that falconry requires, I’d have liked to see links to information about raptor rescue at the end of the book. I did some quick searching and came up with a quick list for anyone interested: The Raptor Trust, Wild Bird Fund, and A Place Called Hope. PBS’ Falconer’s Memoir page offers a map of states permitting falconry and links to classroom activities for using “A Falconer’s Memoir” in the classroom. The World Wildlife Fund is an organization that works with wildlife conservation and endangered species, and most large zoological preserves pioneer conservation and rehabilitation practices for animals in the wild. Kym Brunner is also a seventh grade teacher, and her author website offers presentations that you can use in the classroom.

I enjoyed the book and the characters. I’ll be adding this to my shelf; if you’ve know realistic fiction, animal fiction, or middle schoolers looking for something new and different to read, add this one to your shelves and shopping lists.

 

Gifted versus Ashkind: Helena Coggan’s The Catalyst November 22, 2016

catalystThe Catalyst, by Helena Coggan, (Oct. 2016, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763689728

Recommended for ages 12+

A dimensional cataclysm on our world turned the human race against one another: some are green-eyed Gifted, who wield magical powers; others are dark-eyed, non-magical Ashkind. A fragile peace is in place after a great war between Gifted and Ashkind, but there seems to be signs that something’s brewing again. Rose is a 15 year-old girl whose father, David, is in charge of the Department, a brutal law enforcement agency. David and Rose are gifted, and something… more. Something they must keep others from finding out. A mysterious murder suspect knows their secrets, though, and he’s blackmailing Rose into helping him – putting her loyalty to her father, and the Department, to test.

Helena Coggan was 15 years old when she wrote The Catalyst, and that alone makes it pretty darned impressive. She’s got some solid world-building in this first book (the second, The Reaction, has already been released in the UK), and I liked a lot of her character development. The action is well-paced, and the dystopian elements of the individual leading a group against the shadowy government is tweaked to include magic elements, a nice update to the genre. There was quite a bit to keep sorted for me at first, especially with the introduction of other groups like the Host; it took me a few re-reads of some pages to set them within the frame of the book. All in all, a good addition to dystopian/sci fi collections for those with strong readerships.

Helena Coggan’s got a WordPress site that has a nice photo and description of The Reaction, for anyone who wants to know more about the Angel Wars series.

 

My Dad is a Clown heals bodies and souls November 17, 2016

my-dad-is-a-clown-coverMy Dad is a Clown/Mi papá es un paysaso, by José Carlos Andrés/Illustrated by Natalia Hernández, (Jan. 2017, NubeOcho), $14.95, ISBN: 978-84-944137-6-6

Recommended for ages 4-8

A boy with two dads is proud of what they do for a living, and wants to be like them both when he grows up. Both of the boy’s dads are healers: one dad, Pascual, is a doctor and heals his patients’ bodies; his other dad, whom he refers to as simply “Dad”, is a clown, and heals people’s souls. Pascual and the boy sneak into Dad’s rehearsal one day, where the boy realizes the hard work that goes into being a performer, and decides that he will combine the best of his fathers’ professions when he grows up.

This is a sweet story about a boy who loves and is proud of his parents. We also see a loving relationship between the boy’s parents, who happen to both be men. The cartoony two-color art, primarily black and white with reds added for visual interest and emphasis, is both sweet and dramatic. The family is tender with one another, unafraid to show affection. It’s a gratifying, emotional read, particularly when the family reunites after Dad’s rehearsal and they share happy tears.

This third edition of the story is a bilingual edition, translated into English and includes the Spanish text directly beneath the English text, both featured in a highlighted typewriter font that makes for easy independent and cuddle time reading. It’s good for English and Spanish language learners, and is a sweet story about family love to add to your bilingual collections and your storytime rotation. Put this 0ne on your shelves: there are families out there who need and deserve to have their stories told.

 

The Last Cherry Blossom remembers Hiroshima November 7, 2016

cherry-blossomThe Last Cherry Blossom, by Kathleen Burkinshaw, (Aug. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781634506939

Recommended for ages 10-14

Narrated in the first person by 12 year-old Yuriko, The Last Cherry Blossom tells the story of a family living in Hiroshima during the last year of World War II. Yuriko lives with her widowed father, her aunt Kimiko, and obnoxious 5 year-old cousin, Genji. She and her best friend Machiko stealthily listen to American Jazz records; Machiko’s father got rid of (almost) all of their records because the government wants to be rid of any American influence. She’s used to the air raid drills, even if they annoy her, but when her neighbor is called to fight for Japan, and then Machiko is called to leave school to work at the factory, Yuriko starts feeling the impact of war. She hears whispers from the neighborhood – and her father does run a newspaper – that Japan is not faring as well as the radio and newspapers would have you believe. When the true horror of war is brought to Yuriko’s door, we see, through her eyes, the devastation that the bombing of Hiroshima brought.

The Last Cherry Blossom is powerful. Even as an account of a family’s life during World War II, it’s a strong book, because it shows readers – in parallels we can make today – that the “enemy” isn’t an entire country; an entire group of people. The enemy were children teasing one another, rolling their eyes at annoying aunts and cousins, worried about their parents remarrying, and secretly listening to music that their parents may not approve of. The enemy loved eating sweet treats and held celebrations and cried when they lost people they loved in war, just like we did. Inspired by the author’s mother’s own life living as a child in Hiroshima, Ms. Burkinshaw writes so beautifully, yet packs a literary gut-punch that left me biting back tears.

There has been some strong World War II realistic/historical fiction for middle grade in the last couple of years, for which I am grateful. I’m very happy to see fiction that explores life outside the U.S. during World War II: we need perspective; reminders to look outside ourselves; to see the cost that war demands on everyone.

An author afterword tells readers about the author’s mother, and how her daughter’s class visits eventually led to the book being written. There’s also a bibliography, notes on the use of honorifics in the story, a glossary, and statistics about Hiroshima, complete with sources.

This is a good add to historical and realistic fiction collections. Booktalk with Sandy Brehl’s World War II books, taking place in Norway under the Nazi occupation; Sharon McKay’s End of the Line, taking place in Amsterdam, and most closely related to Burkinshaw’s work, Sadako and the Thousand Cranes (and please have tissues available).

 

A Realist who plans to survive: Radical, by E.M. Kokie October 21, 2016

radicalRadical, by E.M. Kokie, (Sept. 2016, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763669621

Recommended for ages 14+

Bex is in a constant state of readiness. She just knows the Big Thing is coming – worldwide crisis, breakdown of society, whatever you want to call it – it’s coming, and she’s going to be ready. She trains, she preps, she plans. She’s the only one in her family that seems to have her eyes open, after all. Until her older brother Mark discovers Clearview, a new group that seems to take survival as seriously as she does. She’s not sure how she feels about a stationery place, at first; she feels like she’d do best on the move, in a smaller group, but she’s drawn in by the group, who seem to welcome her. They don’t appear to be like most survivalist camps – they don’t have a problem with Black members, for starters, and no one seems to care that she doesn’t look like most girls should – at least, according to what her mother thinks a girl should look like.

Bex is training and working at her uncle’s gas station when she meets Lucy – Lucy, who doesn’t have a problem holding her hand in public or with kissing another girl. While Bex lets herself get lost in Lucy, her brother, Mark, is falling in with some more extreme members at Clearview. He’s becoming more hostile and more secretive. Bex knows she should say something, but she’s used to her parents choosing Mark over her. There will come a time where Bex has to draw the line, though: can she save herself, even if it comes at the cost of her family?

Radical is a different kind of novel on several levels. Bex is a brilliant, breakout character, for starters. She’s a butch lesbian, a character we don’t normally see in LGBTQ YA fiction. She’s comfortable with herself, and frustrated with the discomfort of everyone around her: most notably, her mother, who constantly compares her to her more feminine, average teen cousin. Her father shares some of Bex’s survivalist interests, but treads between loving Bex for who she is and trying to smooth things between Bex and her mother; sadly, both parents fail her where their son is concerned. Her Uncle Skip is a strong supporting character and is the parental figure Bex needs: concerned and loving, he knows to give Bex her space while communicating his concerns about Clearview.

The novel has elements of YA romance in it, to be sure, but it’s not a YA romance. It’s a gritty, taut work of realistic fiction that takes readers into the mind of a teenage survivalist who finds herself questioning everything she’s understood to be true: who to trust, what to believe, and whether or not family is forever. Radical is a strong entry into YA fiction and breaks new ground in LGBTQ fiction. Add this to your LGBTQ collections and booktalk this as the breakout work it is.

Author E.M. Kokie’s website has information about all of her books, links to social media, her blog, and an events calendar.