Violet Diamond is growing up different. She is a mixed race child in a predominantly white family and town. Her Black father died before she was born and she has never met his family. Her white mother and sister and grandparents love her and treat her like normal, but Violet often feels anything but normal. She gets frustrated when people look at her funny when she is out with her blond haired mother or sister. She gets frustrated when people think she is adopted instead of her mother’s natural child. Her family tries to tell her that race doesn’t matter, but to her it does since she is the one who is different. One day she overhears her mom and grandma talking about her other grandmother. She convinces her mom to let her meet the grandmother who has rejected her her entire life. At first Bibi is standoffish and distant as she blames Violet’s mother for her father’s death, but she does warm up to Violet and invite her to visit. Violet gets to meet her African American family and get to know her grandmother.
Even though I am white as can be, I did feel like I understood Violet just a bit. I grew up in a small town that had exactly two Black families. There was only one Black kid in my high school when I was there. I always wondered how they felt when they looked around the classroom or the cafeteria and saw no one like them. At least the one Jewish kid could hide in plain sight, but they were not able to blend in. Thankfully my small town as become more diverse in the past twenty years, but I am sure there are other towns out there just like it. Living in a city with a more diverse population you don’t think about race nearly as often. I see people of many colors, religions, and economic circumstances everyday. That isn’t to say there aren’t still problems, but it feels more like there shouldn’t be.
I thought this book did a wonderful job of portraying Violet’s frustration with her situation. There is never any doubt that she loves her family or that they love her. It is the people outside her immediate circle that bother her. Mixed race families can make people curious and sometimes rude; they will wonder if the children are biological, fostered or adopted. There are so many blended families today that I do wonder if this will become less and less of an issue. I thought this book was a good introduction to race for young readers. It doesn’t delve too much into negative aspects of black vs. white, but does show how it can impact a child’s life.
Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful novel in verse memoir of her childhood. She moves from her birthplace in Ohio to her mother’s people in South Carolina to New York. It is a story of leaving things behind as she leaves her father behind in Ohio and her beloved grandparents behind in South Carolina. It is a story of love and loss and hope and dreams. Woodson dreamed of creating stories and being a writer from an early age but struggled with a learning disability. The book also shows the struggle of Blacks during the Civil Rights era. We are shown what it means to be Black in South Carolina and how that is different in New York. Woodson’s story is beautiful and lyrical and a wonderful story to read. I’m not sure how much traction it will get with the elementary/middle school readers as novels in verse are sometimes a hard sell.
Nate loves musicals and dreams of being on Broadway. He concocts a scheme with his friend Libby to escape Jankburg, PA and run away to New York City and audition for E.T. the Musical. Nate is bullied at home and at school for being gay even though he says he is undecided on his sexuality. In New York, Nate realizes just how different the big city is. He is exposed to both the good and bad of city life as he sees how diverse the city is. His audition goes better than expected, but is still wonderfully strange. Nate’s dreams are coming true just as his scheme is coming to light at home. He is helped along the way by Libby and his Aunt Heidi. Then his mom shows up in New York and family secrets come to light.
I actually loved Nate. I thought he was an awesome mix of innocence and curiosity. I admit I laughed out loud when he did his first audition. I also really liked how Federle brought up the issue of sexuality in such a nonissue kind of way. It is a topic I think needs to be dealt with more in middle grade fiction. Thankfully it is slowly making its way into the mainstream, but there are still very few books that deal with it for this age group. Nate is called a fag and lady Nate and homo and all the other terrible words you can think of. Even his family uses derogatory language with him. I like that Nate is undecided, but obviously kind of interested in boys; he at least checks them out occasionally. Even so this is a very gentle introduction that is couched more in bullying then exploring your sexuality. I think it is a good way for kids to think about it and wonder how much bullying they do themselves without realizing it.
Arty is obsessed with space and finding life on Mars. His best friends Tripp and Priya support his obsession as does his dad who works in an observatory. When dad loses his job and decides to move the family to Las Vegas, Arty is devastated. There are too many lights in Vegas for stargazing. Arty is left with a mysterious neighbor when the parents go house hunting. Turns out the neighbor is not a zombie who will eat your face, but a retired astronaut who never made it to space. Arty and Cash bond over the stars and build a machine to make alien contact.
This is a lovely story about friendship not just with people your own age but who share your interests. It is also a story about not giving up on your dreams or letting others destroy them. I really enjoyed Arty’s family and their obsession with space. All the kids are named after stars even though they have shortened their names. I liked Arty’s friends as well. Tripp provided a nice comic relief and Priya was a great girl friend who isn’t a girlfriend. Cash was probably the most interesting character as he went from a gruff, unfriendly possible zombie/serial killer to a dying man trying to encourage his young friend. One editing quibble: at one point Arty says something about realizing Cash was as interested as he was in astrology…pretty sure it should have been astronomy. That threw me off and really stuck with me.
Astri and Greta live with their aunt and uncle on a farm in Norway. Their mother has died and their father has gone to America to find a better life. The aunt sells Astri to a goatman, Mr. Svaalberd, who doesn’t treat her very well. On the goatman’s farm she finds Spinning Girl who doesn’t talk but spins beautiful wool. Astri is determined to run away and find a better life for her and Greta. When she does finally get away, she is pursued by the goatman throughout her journey. Astri, Greta and Spinning Girl make their way to the coast and a ship to America. Turns out the money Astri stole from goatman will not get them all on the ship. Spinning Girl is left behind as Greta and Astri sail for America. Throughout the story Astri recounts tales and legends, mainly East of the Sun West of the Moon, to help her get through her horrible days. This is a time in history when the old ways have not given way to the new Christian beliefs completely. There is talk of trolls and huldrefolk and magic spells and rituals. It is an interesting mix of fantasy and reality in this historical tale. I found a lot of the historical information really interesting, especially how people had to supply themselves for voyages to America. I am not sure how many fans this book will find among the intended age group though. It is a little confusing with the mix of fantasy and reality and is plenty violent. I really wanted to like it more than I did.
I received this book from Netgalley.
Octobia May lives with her Aunt Shuma who runs a boarding house. Octobia is obsessed with Mr. Davenport, one of the boarders. She believes he is a vampire for much of the book. Octobia and her best friend Jonah start following Mr. Davenport and belief he killed a girl. No one believes them until Mr. Davenport and banker Mr. Harrison try to railroad Shuma when she goes for a loan. There is a lot of mystery and intrigue in this book as Octobia and Jonah try to figure out what is going on with Mr. Davenport. Octobia is a strange child who seems obsessed with death; she died for a little while and talks to the statues in the graveyard. There is a lot of important topics discussed in the book that aren’t often talked about in middle grade fiction. Some of the boarders are holocaust survivors, no one will loan Aunt Shuma money because she is black and single, schools are segregated, there is talk of passing as white for light skinned Blacks, mixed race children and what it means to be free. You would think all of that would make this a more enjoyable story. It doesn’t! I think Octobia’s vampire obsession at the beginning of the book just made the whole thing seem more unrealistic and put me off the rest of the story. It was a bit on the long side and seemed less cohesive than I would have liked.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley.
Mortal Heart is the conclusion to one of my favorite trilogies. I am not sure you can go wrong with a series about medieval assassin nuns. This is Annith’s story. We have seen Annith get left behind each time one of her sisters has gone out on a mission. Now she wants to know why. Annith is the most skilled of all the initiates of Mortain. When a young, unskilled sister is sent out in her stead Annith rebels and confronts the Abbess. She learns she is meant to be the order’s seer and locked in the convent for the rest of her life. Annith wants none of that and sets out on her own to find answers. Along the way she rides with the Hellequin (Death’s riders) and the followers of St. Arduinna. She joins her sisters Sybella and Ismae in the service of the Duchess of Brittany. She discovers the truth of her origins, why she was held back at the convent and true love on her journey.
Annith is a fantastic character. She is strong and righteous and a true believer in the old gods. It is her faith that plays the biggest part in this book as she comes face to face with the old gods and learns what her role is. I love how this series ties actual historical events into the story. Duchess Anne really was besieged by the French and on the brink of losing her country. I thought the fantasy elements really worked with this story. I loved the Hellequin, which seemed like a wonderful mix of a biker gang and an old west posse. I wasn’t sure how the whole romance thing was going to turn out but I loved how it did. My only complaint about the book was the loose ends. I wanted everything tied up by the last page and it wasn’t. We never found out what really happened to Matelaine for instance. Those are just small quibbles though as this was a wonderful end to the series. I do hope the author returns to this world in future books as she really made this time period come alive and I want to know more.
So I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this book. I found the story itself intriguing, but there were aspects of it that were kind of annoying. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t truly hate it either. We Were Liars is the story of four cousins who spend their summers on a the family’s private island. So yes they are the rich elite of the East Coast. Grandma and Grandpa Sinclair have built houses on the island for all their pretty daughters and grandchildren. But of course the daughters are not happy with their lots in life basically because they are selfish, self-centered and living off daddy’s money. Their children aren’t as bad yet but you can see the potential. For of the kids are all the same age: Cadence (the oldest), Johnny (the first boy), Mirren and Gat (the sort of Indian step-cousin). Cadence and Gat fall in love the summer they are 15, but something happens that summer. Something no one will talk about to Cadence. All she knows is that she woke up on the beach with some kind of head trauma and now suffers from amnesia and migraines. She heads back to the island two years later and tries to figure out what happened and what no one is telling her.
So that all sounds intriguing and it is. However, you are told from the beginning that there is some kind of twist; the book was marketed that way so of course you know there is some kind of twist. I figured out the twist early on but not the how or the why of it. The truly annoying thing about the book was Cadence herself. She is our narrator and a very unreliable one. She is also prone to being overly dramatic and imaginative. The first time she describes being shot and bleeding out on the lawn you wonder what the heck just happened. When it keeps happening in different ways you realize she is talking about her feelings. Then there is the way the book is written. I listened to the audio which I think helped tremendously as you don’t notice the weird structure of the prose as much. It seems to be written in a very conversational tone with streams of consciousness and lack of punctuation or sentence structure. I can definitely see where that would get old fast. The other problem with the book, and this could have been completely intentional, was that the characters were not likeable. Cadence is a poor little rich girl who did something stupid and got away with it. She is almost as selfish and self-absorbed as her mother and aunts. All the adults in the book are manipulative and greedy. I am not sure who we are supposed to empathize with if anyone but I found I really could have cared less about the beautiful, special Sinclairs.
Todd’s room has got to be the grossest ever. There are dirty clothes and dishes everywhere, he has food stashed under his bed, and I am not sure he has ever cleaned. All this filth leads to new life however when Todd discovers his gross gym sock has created a race of tiny people. The Toddlians worship Todd as their supreme creator. Todd has no idea what to do with them so he enlists the help of is homeschooled neighbor Lucy. Unfortunately, Todd is also bullied and has to let bully Max Loving use the Toddlians for their science project to survive middle school. Max, being the bully he is, also bullies the Toddlians. Todd has to come to terms with his responsibility towards the Toddlians and save them from the evil clutches of Max.
This book is definitely geared towards boys as I think girls would just be grossed out. It reminded me a lot of other books with tiny races like The Indian in the Cupboard, The Carpet People or The Borrowers. I liked Todd’s struggle with his role in the lives of the Toddlians. I also really enjoyed his younger sister Daisy and the three main Toddlian characters. I thought the bullying story seemed pretty realistic but I wanted more repercussions for Max at the end. Definitely not my favorite book, but not the worst thing I have read either.
It has always been just Abby and her mom, but an allergic reaction to coconut makes Abby wonder about the father she has never met. Turns out he never knew she existed and has become a huge Bollywood start in the past fourteen years. Naveen wants to meet Abby and arranges for her to travel to Mumbai during Thanksgiving break. India is a completely different world than Abby is used to in Houston. She discovers a second family with Naveen, his mother and his loyal staff. However, the world doesn’t know about Abby either and they have to be careful how the reveal the truth to the press. Naveen has a movie premiering and the plan on reveal the secret at the same time. Of course things don’t go according to plan.
The cover and description of this book led me to believe it was going to be a lighter read. And while it does have its humorous moments it is really a touching story about a girl connecting with her father for the first time. I really enjoy books that give the reader a glimpse into a new culture and this look at Mumbai was wonderful. The book doesn’t shy away from revealing the good and the bad of Indian culture. Abby is exposed to the extreme poverty of India as well as the wealth of her actor father. I like that even though Naveen was an absent father for most of her life (not by choice of course), he doesn’t come across as disinterested. This is really a story about a girl with very loving parents and a good home life, one just happens to be half a world away.
Amira lives with her family in a village in South Darfur. She is envious of her friend Halima who gets to attend school in a neighboring city. Even though her family is fairly prosperous in the village they do not have the money to send her to school, nor would her conservative mother allow it. Their idyllic life is destroyed when the Janjaweed invade the village killing many of the people including Amira’s father. The survivors trek through the Sudanese desert to a refugee camp at Kalma. The camp is nothing like their village and Amira has a difficult time adjusting until she receives a red pencil and a pad of paper from one of the refugee workers. Suddenly Amira’s dream of learning to read and write becomes a possibility.
I really enjoy novels in verse. I think they are a beautiful way of telling a story. I think Pinkney’s verses are lyrical and really illustrate Amira’s thoughts and environment. I also appreciate stories that take place in settings or deal with situations or events that are not often covered in middle grade books. I can’t say I have ever read a middle grade book about the situation in Darfur and it is not one you hear about in general. This was a good introduction to the genocide that has been taking place there for the past decade. I only wish more information could have been included about the conflict, the Janjaweed and what is actually happening to thousands of people. Because the book is told from Amira’s point of view, and she has little knowledge of the conflict, readers do not get a lot of information.
Henry is traveling with his mother and sister on the Lake Erie Shoreliner. He meets chatty heiress Ellie who decides they are going to be great friends. They also meet conductor Clarence and his telepathic cat Sam. When Ellie disappears soon after Henry, Clarence and Sam are determined to find her. Someone has kidnapped Ellie and demanded her mother’s priceless necklace, the Blue Streak, as ransom. There are a lot of characters on the train with secrets and hidden agendas. Our intrepid investigates must sort through all the hidden motivations and identities of the passengers to figure out who is behind Ellie’s kidnapping.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and was a bit skeptical of the telepathic cat, but it all worked here. As an adult reader I was able to pick out the bad guys pretty quickly, but I am not sure younger readers will figure it out quite as fast. There are a lot of twists and turns to this mystery that made it even more fun to read. I especially liked the confined environment of the train as the setting; it gave the mystery a feeling of immediacy as the train got closer and closer to its destination. Train travel in the 1930s was nothing like it is today and the setting highlighted just how much it has changed. The mystery of Ellie’s kidnapping is interspersed with Lantern Sam’s autobiography as he tells of his many adventures and nine lives. This part of the story seemed to justify having a telepathic cat in the plot and added a lot of humor to the story. Sam is a smart aleck calico with a love of adventure and sardines and perhaps the star of this story.
Lucy has the biggest day of her life when she meets Tom behind the shed and kisses him in front of her entire 4th grade class. It is sure to cement her as one of the popular kids. Then her mom has her baby sister Molly and Lucy has to miss a couple of days of school. When she gets back her status has fallen. Tom has broken up with her and her best friend Becky treats her like dirt. If that isn’t bad enough her home life is in an uproar because Molly has Down’s Syndrome and her parents were not prepared at all. Lucy loves her little sister no matter what and can’t understand what the fuss is about. At school Lucy is firmly in with the dork crowd and her only options are nose-picker April and super-quiet Sam. When she and Sam team up to do a project on wolves Lucy learns all about packs and forms her own pack of dorks with the outcasts from her class.
I loved this book! I thought Vrabel truly captured the world of 4th grade girls and just how unpredictable they can be. I sympathized with Lucy when Becky turned against her. She leaves school on Friday on top of the world and comes back the next week at the bottom of the pack. I also really enjoyed her reaction to her sister. There aren’t a lot of books that deal with siblings with disabilities and this one was really touching. Lucy is a character that readers really take an interest in and want to come out on top. I think her journey of discovering herself and what is really important to her was a very satisfying one. Definitely a book I would recommend.
Super Schnoz is a kid with a huge nose. It allows him to sniff out just about anything and catch the winds and fly. Unfortunately, he has started snoring and his big nose is causing earthquakes around town. He and his friends investigate and discover aliens are putting something up his nose every night to cause him to snore. They must battle the aliens to save the earth. I am sure this book will find excited readers from fans of The Adventures of Captain Underpants and the like but I am not one of them. It just seemed so ridiculous for me to get into the story. Maybe because I am not an eight-year-old boy or maybe because I just like a little more believability in my books.
Grace has always moved around a lot with her mother. She thought they had finally found their forever home with Mrs. Greene and Lacey when her mom decided to move again. Grace is finally able to stand up to her mom, but ends up losing her in a tragic accident. Grace is sent to live with a grandmother who she has never met and who kicked her mother out when she was seventeen and pregnant. Grace does everything she can to sabotage her new home and get back to Mrs. Greene. However, he new home keeps creeping into her heart as she makes friends and finds out more about her family. She embarks on a treasure hunt throughout the town and hopes it is a message from her mother who used to always create treasure hunts for Grace. Along the way Grace comes to terms with her situation and her family’s past.
I loved this book. I seem to gravitate towards dead parent stories and this one ranks up there with Counting by 7s and A Million Ways Home in my list of favorites. Grace is a character that sticks with you and makes you hurt along with her. Her reactions to her mother’s death and her growing awareness of her family’s past seem so realistic. Your heart will break with her and slowly mend as she becomes more and more a part of her new family. My only complaint about the book is one I think kids will make and that is that it is a bit long and a slower story. This isn’t a book with a lot of action and some readers might get bored by the slower pace. The right readers will really appreciate the story though.
The Girls of Gettysburg is the story of three girls who experience the Battle of Gettysburg in different ways. Annie is a Southern girl who has disguised herself as a boy and joined the Confederate Army. She has run away from her mother and set out to live up to the hopes of her brothers who have died in the war. Grace is a free black living in Gettysburg. She has the chance to flee North but stays and helps two runaway slaves. Tillie is a rich white girl living in Gettysburg. Her world changes the most as her life of privilege is swept away with the tide of battle. Each of the girls goes through a lot and I really appreciated the different perspectives of the battle. I thought Annie’s tragic story would have been the one to move me the most, but it was actually Tillie’s growth from a snobby girl to a battlefield nurse and helper that really touched me. This book reminded me a lot of Will at the Battle of Gettysburg 1863 with its detailed descriptions of what life was like before, during and after the battle.
Mr. Bro. Wiley is the last former slave in the Low Meadows of North Carolina when he dies in 1940. He has been living with the Jones family and when he dies they are devastated as is the rest of the community. The area starts planning for his sitting up (a week of gatherings before the burying). Twelve-year-old Bean is pretty excited about the sitting up even though he is sad at the passing of Mr. Bro. Wiley. This will be his first sitting up and proof that he is becoming a man. His friend Pole will also be able to attend and they get to help with the preparations. As everyone gathers for the sitting up a storm is approaching. Since the Low Meadows is right on the river this is cause for concern. Mrs. Jones is also heavily pregnant which of course complicates things even more.
This is a story about a community coming together over a man that was loved by all, even the degenerates of the area. It is a story of a forgotten time when people came together and knew each other intimately. The entire Low Meadows population is almost more like a family than a community. It is also a coming of age story as Bean and Pole take their place in the community as adults and become familiar with what that entails. I enjoyed the story, but had a few issues with it. I wish Mr. Bro. Wiley’s name would have been explained. I assumed it was Brother, but have no idea if that is right or not and it is not his real name. The other nicknames are explained in the book but not this one. I also had very skeptical reactions to all the carrying on in the book. Maybe that is how people in the Low Meadows really reacted to a death in the family but it seemed so extreme to me. I think the dialect the book was written in could also throw off younger readers. I didn’t have any trouble with it but the book is geared towards elementary age readers and they might have some trouble. They might also think the book is a little slow as there isn’t a lot of action until the very end.
Star Mackie has just moved from Oregon to California. The kids at school make fun of her because she lives in a trailer park and has a blue mullet (even though she insists it is a layered cut!). Her sister Winter is going to an alternative school after being expelled from public school for writing violent stories. Star decides to start a club in order to make friends, but her first effort of the Trailer Park Club doesn’t go over so well. After a poetry lesson on Emily Dickinson, she decides to start an Emily Dickinson Club. Through the club Star finally starts making friends with brother and sister Genny and Denny and older boys Langston and Eddie. Star is also on the hunt for her father. She has only ever had one glimpse of him so she and Winter make a plan to visit him. The visit doesn’t turn out like they had hoped as several things are revealed during the visit that rock Star’s world.
Star Mackie is one of those characters that doesn’t come around that often. She comes from a loving family, but is poor and doesn’t make excuses for that. There is a lot of discussion on single-parent families, food banks, shopping at thrift stores and wearing hand-me-downs, and all the other things that go along with not having enough money. This isn’t a book with a lot of action or huge revelations, but it is a wonderful story. I really enjoyed Star’s journey through the book as she comes to terms with her family life and starts to make friends at school. This is a story about hope and dreams and how you have to work towards both.
Hope is a Ferris Wheel –
It takes you Low and High;
And when you reach the Top,
It’s like you can touch The Sky!
And when it takes you Down –
Hope becomes A Thing
That, When you’re getting Off,
You take With you to Bring.
Zane is visiting his great grandmother in New Orleans when Katrina hits the city. He and Miss Trissy and his dog Bandy are being evacuated when Bandy leaps out of the van and heads back to Miss Trissy’s house. Of course Zane follows his beloved dog and ends up in the Ninth Ward at the worst possible time. The flood waters send him to the attic without food and water. Fortunately, he is rescued by musician Tru and his ward Malvina. They navigate the flood waters in search of supplies and shelter evading drug dealers, private security and looters. They end up at several shelters including the Superdome before trying to get out of the city.
This is an excellent look at what it was like in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Philbrick doesn’t shy away from the horrible details like bodies in the flood waters and the dangers the survivors faced. I really enjoyed Zane and his companions journey through the flood. I liked the look at the different neighborhoods of the Big Easy and how they responded to the disaster. I did think it was a little unlikely that a big time drug dealer would care so much about a little girl like Malvina to come after her in the flood, but it added an additional element of risk to their story.
Chuck and Dakota are off on their second adventure. This time they stow away on Marco Pollo’s ship the Swashbuckler in search of the Coral Crown. They are pursued by catfish Kingfisher who wants the crown for himself. Another fun adventure for new chapter book readers. Dakota and Chuck are really cute characters and their adventures are fun ones kids will enjoy.