Friday, May 18, 2018

The Parker Inheritance

Image result for parker inheritance coverThe Parker Inheritance
Varian Johnson
Scholastic, 2018 352 pages
Grades 4-8

Two stories weave together to solve a mystery and heal a hurt from the past. Candice and her mother must move to Lambert, South Carolina for the summer to her deceased beloved grandmother's house. Her she befriends Brandon, a boy who is constantly bullied for being different. In the attic Candice discovers a letter sent to her grandmother with clues to a fortune left to the city of Lambert should the puzzle be solved. Grandma tried to solve the puzzle as city manager and was fired for her efforts. Now Candace and Brandon must track down the clues and dig up a painful chapter in the town’s history in order to set things right. Alternating chapters travel back to the 1950's when Lambert was segregated and Jim Crow laws were in effect. A historic secret tennis match between black and white players results in tragedy and drastic consequences. Lives are changed dramatically as a result, which leads to the current mystery and connects all of the main players by book's end.

A love letter to the Westing Game, Johnson draws upon this classic mystery for young people, while adding a layer of historic and social importance. I love a book with layers that come together by the end, such as Holes, and this is such a book. It is so satisfying once the book is closed and no threads are left dangling. Candace and Brandon are fully realized characters and their story alone would have been enough for a decent book. Johnson adds the plot from the past, creating a richer dimension and offering historic motivation for the hidden treasure. Readers will experience the Jim Crow south in all of its hateful glory and come to understand what life was like for those living through it and the tough decisions they had to make. Johnson also demonstrates that racism still exists today and also shows the struggle of kids (and adults) working out their sexual orientation, another current area of discrimination and misconception. The mystery itself is not truly solvable by the reader. Characters not previously introduced play a part and answers are discovered that cannot be worked out beforehand. This does not matter. The Westing Game is also like that and is fun to read and so satisfying that mystery readers won't care that they are discovering the answers right along with Candace and Brandon. In fact, since the reader is privy to the alternating backstory, we know more than our two puzzle solvers do. There are plenty of “ah-ha moments”, along with closure and redemption. So far this is my favorite book published this year and it is sure to win awards and land on reading lists.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Blackbird Fly

Image result for blackbird fly erin kellyBlackbird Fly
Erin Entrada Kelly
Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2015 296 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Apple Yengko knows that she would be awesome on the guitar--if only her mother would let her get one. Her deceased father must have been musical, judging from the old Beatles tape, his only existing possession, that Apple brought with her from the Philippines and has played over and over again. Her immigrant Filipino mother feels that music is a distraction from the business of succeeding in school and doesn't understand why Apple doesn't have more friends. As for Apple, she struggles with fitting in. She feels that her mother is too foreign and hates that they are poor, eat "weird" food and that she has Asian features. To make matters worse, she finds herself added to the school's informal "Dog Log": a list of the ugliest girls in the middle school. Naturally, Apple is shattered. Her best friends drift away in order for her low social status to not rub off on them. Reluctantly, Apple befriends a new boy in school and then another Dog Log lister and slowly learns to not define her worth through the eyes of others. An unfortunate decision in attempting to obtain a guitar blows up in Apple's face. She pays the consequences and then finally starts to realize her dream by following an ethical and honest path.

Through chapters subtitled by Beatles’ songs and Apple's first person narration, we learn of the struggle of a young immigrant girl and the transformation and healing power of music. Kelly shows middle readers the motivation behind bullying and that the victims are not alone. The bullying demonstrated in the book, though very true to middle school life, especially in this age of social media, may be a bit strong for an elementary audience, especially the racial slurs delivered by the mean kids towards Apple. Themes include finding your passion and pursuing it, despite opposition, accepting who you are, second chances, making the right decision even if it’s the longer road, the importance of finding nice friends, and, of course, that music, especially the Beatles, can be life-changing. The characters are well developed and we truly get to know the "real" Apple, warts and all. Appropriate for both girls and boys, this book reads quickly and will appeal to a wide audience. It features an amazing teacher and will work well in a classroom setting. I have heard so much about this book, even before the author won the 2018 Newbery award, and felt like I had read it, but hadn't. It was even better than I thought it would be and it made me very emotional. Give to fans of Wonder and Out of My Mind. Playing the The Beatles saved my life in middle school, so I completely can relate to Apple and heartily applaud her great taste in music.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Polly Diamond and the Magic Book

Image result for polly diamond magic bookPolly Diamond and the Magic Book
Alice Kuipers
Diana Toledano, Illustrator
Chronicle, 2018 107 pages
Grades 2-4

A boring Sunday turns exciting as our precocious and imaginative narrator and budding writer, Polly Diamond, receives a magic book in the mail. Dad is too busy taking care of toddler sister and pregnant Mom, as well as cleaning up Polly's pancake mess from trying to "help", to sit with her to look at it. Imagine Polly's surprise when she makes a wish and her room paints itself in her favorite color of aquamarine, complete with live fish on the walls. Things start to really heat up as Mom goes into labor and Dad must take her to the hospital. Polly's beloved teacher and family friend is coming to babysit, but first they need to be looked after by the dreaded teenaged Shaylene. Polly goes invisible, thanks to her book, greatly confusing Shaylene and then turns her sister into a banana. A wish for a perfect (huge) house don't go exactly as planned and chaos results in the babysitter practically losing her mind, when Polly wishes everything right again. Good baby news follows shortly after and Polly prepares to welcome the new family member, as further adventures with her magic book, now named spell, are hinted to follow.

A new chapter book series a cut above the usual fair. Perfect for magical kids not quite ready for The Magic Tree House, but can't stomach gooey fairy books, this new series will find an audience. Both boys and girls will enjoy the story and premise and readers will chuckle along at Polly's antics as they are dazzled by the magic of the book. Making wishes are a child's fantasy and Polly will get them dreaming about what they would wish for if they could get their hands on such a book. Polly, both an aspiring writer and an artist, clearly has a vivid imagination. Is the book really magical or is the magic happening in her mind. Who cares? The story is fun and kids will enjoy wishing right alongside Polly. The mixed media illustrations are also a cut above the usual comics seen in books for this age group and are reminiscent of Lauren Child. There is an illustration on every page, encouraging emerging readers to jump in and read. The design is well crafted and the pages feel lux. Kids will identify with Polly's dissatisfaction of having to share a room with her sister and the lack of attention brought on by the impending arrival of the new baby. The message clearly is "be careful what you wish for" and to appreciate your family. Polly is bi-racial, yet this is not the point of the book and is known simply through the illustrations, further welcoming a diverse readership. A great series starter that is sure to grow legs.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue

Image result for gentlemans guide to vice and virtueThe Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue
Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins, 2017 513 pages
Grades 9-Up
Historical Fiction/Adventure/Mystery

The eldest son of a British noble in eighteenth century England, Monty leads a life of drunkenness and debauchery. His father has tried repeatedly to beat this lifestyle out of him to no avail. Finally, Father decides to send Monty, his best friend of mixed race Percy, and his sister Felicity, who prefers learning and medicine over female pursuits, on a tour of the continent. Monty sees this tour as an extension of his previous behavior of excessive drinking and bedding every man and woman he can get his hands on, but this is not the case. A strict chaperone is assigned and the educational tour begins. After an unfortunate incident where Monty humiliates the family and pinches an important item from a French Lord at Versailles, the party is intercepted on the road by dangerous highwaymen, where they get separated from the chaperone while running for their lives. What follows is an adventurous romp through Europe where the three young people have encounters with gypsies, pirates, and various characters with their own personal agendas. Meanwhile, Percy has a secret to reveal and Felicity proves that she is suited for more than sewing and being pretty. Monty slowly comes to terms with the abuse at the hands of his father and his feelings for his best friend, all while learning to take responsibility for his actions and to think about someone other than himself.

More “new adult” than “young adult”, The Gentleman's Guide is a delicious romp through the Europe of the past. The reader will have a hard time deciding whether to like the main character or not. Monty is selfish and often behaves badly, but his first person narration is always hilarious and never boring. He grows throughout the book and it is impossible not to root for him and his relationship with Percy. The action never stops and surprises abound. The mystery surrounding the box pilfered by Monty is revealed and the reader discovers why so many people will go to such lengths to obtain it, including Monty once he realizes its purpose. Felicity is a strong character and her relationship with her brother grows throughout the book. Percy demonstrates the blatant racism of the day and provides a gentle contrast to Monty's bullish nature. My one complaint with this book is that its loooong. Too long for me, yet teen readers, with more time on their hands, will never want it to end. Enjoyed by both male and female readers, there is certainly something for everyone and is not a traditional historical fiction. Because of the excessive drinking and sexual scenes, I would strongly recommend this for older teens and adults. A sequel featuring Felicity, A Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, is due to be released in October of this year.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

All Summer Long

Image result for all summer long larsonAll Summer Long
Hope Larson
FSG, 2018 172 pages
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel

The summer before eighth grade is turning out to be a disaster for Bina. Her next-door-neighbor/best friend Austin is going to soccer camp for a whole month. Every other summer the two friends have kept a summer fun index. This year Austin doesn't want to do it and is acting weird and distant. While he is gone, Bina strikes up a friendship with Austin's previously despised older sister, Charlie, who is stuck at home with a broken arm. The two discover that they both have similar tastes in music and adventure. Eventually Austin returns, yet is even stranger than before and Bina is confused. She falls into her music, listening to new bands and practicing her guitar. A concert and face-to-face encounter with her favorite musician is a game changer for Bina and she begins to embrace her true self. Finally, she and Austin talk it out and begin a new and different chapter in their relationship, while Bina finally believes that maybe she is cool enough to be a friend to Charlie. Bina begins eight grade headed in a direction more true to her real interests and happier and more mature than she was a few short months previous.

Veteran graphic novelist for young people, Hope Larson, presents a coming of age tale sure to appeal to the fans of Smile, Roller Girl, and El Deafo. The latest in a string of graphic autobiographical realistic books for late elementary students, All Summer Long will speak to budding musicians and anyone who feels as if their friends are leaving them behind. Larson captures the emotions and language of this age group perfectly and the novel is truly believable. I grew up across the street from two sister and became best friends with them out of proximity and at different times was better friends with one over the other, depending on interests and where we were in maturity, so I completely relate to this scenario. I also remember those endless summer of boredom, discovering new people and interests and returning to school a different person. Larson's illustrations are expertly drawn. They are colored in different hues of orange, a color often associated with the season of summer. The cover of the book feels a bit retro-in a cool way- and will attract readers. The title of the book feels is reminiscent of a song title and fits perfectly with the story. Bima is a creative spirited character who kids will relate to and like. She is bicultural and has a married gay brother who is in the process of adopting a baby, giving the book an extra rich layer. A summer filled with music and no responsibility sounds like heaven, although nothing is heaven when you are thirteen. Larson captures this sentiment brilliantly.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Worst Class Trip Ever

Image result for worst class trip ever dave barryThe Worst Class Trip Ever
Dave Barry
Hyperion/Disney, 2015 214 pages
Grades 4-6

A typical eighth grade class trip to Washington DC goes array for narrator Wyatt and his best friend Matt. On the flight they encounter two strange men from a strange land who have an unrecognizable devise that they fear will blow up the plane. After causing a ruckus the men are proven innocent, yet Matt takes the device secretly. Imagine Wyatt's surprise to discover that the weird guys are following them. They must stay a step ahead of them. Once Matt is kidnapped as ransom for the device, their roommates and Wyatt's crush Suzana get involved. Using ingenuity and depending on the flakiness of their chaperones, Matt is tracked down--only to lose both the device and another member of their party. They now must rescue their missing friend and stop the bad guys from blowing up the White House. It’s hard to protect the president when you are just a kid and the adults around you don't take you seriously. It is up to Wyatt and his pals to save the day, which they do in a most unconventional and hilarious manner. Twists and surprises abound as the situation turns out to not be as the young people initially thought.

Famous writer and humorist, Dave Barry, turns his skills to penning a children's novel, turning a traditional class trip to Washington DC on its ear. Part mystery, part adventure story, and always funny Barry will entertain readers and keep them turning pages. The writing is snappy and often in dialog, making it quick to get through. The bad guys are from a fictional country called "Gadakistan", allowing for a traditional cold war era espionage vibe, with a bit of Home Alone type antics thrown in. The mystery involves finding out who the bad guys actually are, figuring out what they are up to, and tracking down the missing friends. Barry presents all of the adults in the story as bumbling. The chaperones are so incompetent that they are easily fooled and our heroes have the run of the city. As readers run around Washington hunting down clues with Wyatt and his pals they learn a bit about our nation’s capital along the way. There is a bit of innocent romance as Wyatt has a crush on Suzana and often falls apart while talking to her. A brief epilogue at the end shows Suzana agreeing to go to the eighth grade dance with Wyatt and kissing him, which although innocent seems unnecessary and doesn't ring true to the rest of the book. Although the characters are not particularly developed, kids will relate to Wyatt, who is short and considers himself a nerd and will rejoice when he saves the day. All readers will enjoy this book and I plan on using it in my book discussion group next year. Fans can turn to the sequel The Worst Night Ever if they want to continue the madcap adventures of Wyatt and his friends.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

You Bring the Distant Near

Image result for you bring the distant nearYou Bring the Distant Near
Mitali Perkins
FSG, 2017 303 pages
Grades 7-Up
Realistic Fiction

Multiple generations and narrators tell the story of a Bengali family who immigrates to the United States in the early 1970's. Our first narrators, Tara and Sonia, relate what life is like with their demanding and strict mother. After moving to Queens they are not allowed to leave the apartment alone. They finally learn to fit in, only to move to the New Jersey suburbs, where there are a different set of rules--and then tragedy strikes. We see the girls grow into women, who find their places in the world, fall in love and have daughters of their own. The next section takes place in the late 1990's as the next generation relates how it is growing up bi-cultural in the United States Chantal is half African-American and half Bengali and does not feel fully at home in either world. Anna is raised in Dubai and joins Chantal's New York City high school as a freshman. She must learn to adjust to American life without compromising her modesty or sense of self. The story wraps-up in current times by the matriarch Ranee, who finally has her say and plays matchmaker to one of her grown granddaughters.

I wanted to read this book ever since I heard the author speak a year ago at Book Expo and have been hosting the ARC on my bedside table since then. Finally, I got to it and was SO glad that I did. This story is reminiscent of The Joy Luck Club in that it presents interwoven generational stories of women from another culture in America, yet is for a younger audience. Most of the book is set in the past, but I would not call it historical fiction. It is at its heart a realistic family story. The characters are richly drawn and the relationships that they share with each other are complex. Perkins beautifully conveys the immigration experience and young people straddling two cultures and struggling to communicate with their traditional parents and grandparents will find much to relate to here. I appreciate any book speaking to my Indian patrons and am happy to see this particular culture represented. Non-Indian readers will enjoy the story and feel as if they have made new friends after reading this beautifully crafted story. There is not much to the plot. It is a simple slice-of-life tale that focuses on the day to day events of life. Yet, somehow, it never gets boring and I loved every word.