Thursday, March 22, 2018

Ghost Boys

Image result for ghost boys coverGhost Boys
Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little Brown, April, 2018 224 pages
Grades 5-8
Magical Realism

Twelve-year-old Jerome does not have an easy life. Although his family has more money than some, they live paycheck to paycheck. He and his little sister must walk through their urban neighborhood past drug dealers and gang members to get to school and once at school, Jerome is constantly threatened by bullies. He spends his lunch in a bathroom stall and it is here that he meets a new boy who becomes a friend. His new friend scares off the bullies with a toy gun, which he lends to Jerome to play with. It is in the park with the toy gun that Jerome is shot by a white police officer, who claims that the twelve-year-old looked like a threat and does not attempt to administer first aid. Jerome dies, but even though his body remains and is buried, his soul becomes a ghost. Jerome's ghost watches his family through the grief process and befriends the only human who can see him, the daughter of the police officer who killed him. Jerome also befriends other black boy/ghosts, who were killed by racism just like himself, led by Emmett Till, the shooting of whom triggered the Civil Rights Movement. Jerome observes his killer's trial and verdict, as well as his family's suffering and is unable to do anything about it. By story's end many characters find some sense of peace and although there are no easy answers they are moving forward towards, hopefully, a better world.

Written in different time periods flashing back from the past to the present, Jerome tells his sad story of how he was shot and the aftermath. The subject matter is not easy nor light, yet the book is timely and important. This is the first book I have read on the Black Lives Matter movement for a middle grade audience and it is perfect for readers not ready for The Hate U Give or American Boys. Certainly Rhodes wrote this book with an agenda in mind, yet the ghost aspect will draw in middle-grade readers and help to entertain them, even as they are being exposed to some of the ills of our society. There are no clear-cut solutions, but Ghost Boys may at least get the conversation started. Beyond the obvious Black Lives Matter theme, Ghost Boys also questions gun use in the United States, including the use of toy guns as playthings, which is another timely controversy. This book reads quickly and I didn't find the jumping between time periods confusing at all. The story ends with the actual shooting, thus building up to a moving final scene. Great for classroom use and as a read aloud, it is a book to be shared. Readers will be encouraged to learn more about Emmett Till and some of the other Ghost Boys, who are no longer with us to tell their own stories. An important book that educates as well as entertains.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Related imageBob
Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead
Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, May, 2018
199 pages
Grades 3-6

Ten-year-old Livy travels back to the Australian Outback to visit her grandmother for the first time in five years. She can remember very little about that long ago visit, much to the disappointment of her grandmother, and feels like there is something very important she has forgotten. The strange feeling leads her upstairs to her old room, where she opens the closet door to find a little green creature in a chicken suit waiting for her. The creature is relieved that Livy is back and has been patiently waiting for her all of these long five years. His name is Bob and both he and Livy aren't sure exactly what kind of creature he is (zombie? imaginary friend?) or where he comes from. Livy and Bob quickly become reacquainted and she is determined to help him find his identity and home. Remembering Bob seems to be linked to a chess piece and gradually, as Livy rolls the black pawn in her hand, the details and adventures of her prior visit begin to return. When a neighbor boy disappears, Livy and Gran join the search and, of course, Bob follows behind. What they find becomes so much more than simply the lost boy. They stumble upon the key to Bob’s lineage and Livy at last has a chance to set things right.

Two powerhouse children's book authors have teamed up to write a creative and fresh new story. Stead wrote the Livy chapters and Mass wrote the Bob chapters, yet you would never know that two different authors penned the different voices. Alternating chapters and narrators reveal the story and readers are always clear whose eyes we are seeing through, yet the transitions feel seamless. As I read this story I was not sure what Bob would turn out to be. My money was on an imaginary friend. I was surprised at the outcome and pleased with the satisfying integration with another plot-point. Readers of all abilities and genders will enjoy this book. The finished product will have illustrations contributed by Nicholas Gannon, which should be great judging from the cover art. As someone who forgets everything, let alone events from five years previous, I appreciate the conveyance of a magical chess piece and envy Livy the gift of her memories returning. Readers will enjoy discovering more of Bob's story right along with Livy and draw their own conclusions along the way. The two protagonists are likable characters, loyal friends, and fun playmates. Livy learn to grow up as the story progresses and recognizes the differences between herself now and the five-year-old Livy, helping her to accept the responsibility of becoming a big sister and sharing her beloved mother. A little gem of a book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Image result for spinning waldon coverSpinning
Tillie Walden
First Second, 2017 392 pages
Grades 8-Up
Graphic Novel

Young Tillie is a competitive ice skater. Her day begins at 4:00 am with private lessons. After a grueling school day it is onto synchronized team skating practice. The summer after fifth grade Tillie's family moves from New Jersey to Texas. The regiment continues, only now she must make new friends and break in with a new team. Texas is less competitive than New Jersey and the coaches are kinder, but the schedule is still unrelenting and the pressure intense. To make matters worse, Tillie becomes a target for the school bully. Her parents are less than involved and she must find her own way both in navigating social waters and those of the world of competitive skating. After feeling very much alone, Tillie develops a relationship with a girl from school and finally finds love and acceptance. When her girlfriend's mother discovers the true nature of the relationship, she forbids her daughter from seeing Tillie, forcing the loneliness and self-doubt to resurface. Relief comes in the form of weekly cello lessons, art class and the occasional win on the ice. After twelve years of constant pressure and exhaustion Tillie can take it no longer and makes a move to quit, but will she be able to walk away? And who really is she without skating?

Dance Moms, ice version, this book exposes the dark side of competitive ice skating. Admittingly, my favorite park of the winter Olympics is the ice skating and I watched it breathlessly this past month, loving every minute. Now it makes me feel dirty to think about it. To become a superstar in any chose field requires a certain amount of sacrifice. For ice skaters the career starts young, so training starts practically at birth. Walden demonstrates exactly how much determination and suffering is involved in being a contender. To further complicate Tillie's experience, her parents are not directly involved in the process, so she does not have an adult to help her navigate this tricky world. The other moms are nasty. Tillie manages to make friends with one girl, whose mom is kind to her, yet she realizes that the only thing she and this friend actually have in common is skating. Tillie must look inside herself to see if there is more to who she is. Beyond the skating story is a coming of age tale and learning to embrace and own a non-traditional sexual identity. The story is honestly and beautifully told. Although heart wrenching in places, readers will empathize with Tillie and cheer for her all the way. Walden's illustrations work with the text in conveying the emotions and plot of the tale. The artist primarily uses the color purple, adding yellow as emphasis, mostly for light or to add highlights or interest. It felt a little unrealistic that the parents would shell out so much money and bother to get Tillie to the rink so early every morning to never go to a competition, making me think that there is more to the story that Walden is leaving out (depression maybe?). It is also strange after investing in skating for so many years at such an extreme level that they let her just up and quit, but this is Tillie’s story, so I’ll let her tell it. It certainly made me feel less guilty about not being able to afford the time and money involved in skating when my younger daughter begged to have lessons. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and think readers will as well, especially graduates of Raina Telgemeier.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Image result for socks clearySocks
Beverly Cleary
HarperCollins, 1973 156 pages
Grades 2-6

Socks, a recently weaned kitten, is sold in front of a grocery store by a little girl named Debbie and her brother George to a nice young couple for 20¢. The Brickers spoil Socks and life is good, until a fateful day when everything changes. It is then that Mrs. Bricker disappears, only to return days later with a new pet whom the couple appears to love more than their old loyal pet. At first life isn't so bad, as Socks gets the dredges of Charles William's bottles, but once it is discovered that the cat is getting pudgy, even this luxury stops. Now Socks has no treats, no affection, and no attention. Making matters worse is a visit from crusty old Nana. After Socks has a hilarious run-in with Nana's wig and bites Mrs. Bricker out of frustration, he is banished to the outside. Living rough is hard for the once adored feline. The final straw comes when Old Taylor, a nasty Tom Cat, tussles with Socks over his food and the Brickers feel compelled to take their bloody charge back in the house. It is then the Charles William says his first word "Ticky" (Kitty). All is forgiven and Socks is welcomed back into the fold. The friendship with Charles William is cemented as the two have a rambunctious naptime together and discover that life is more fun when you share it with a pal.

I loved this cat's-eye view of the world story when I read it soon after it was first written and I still love it now. This month's selection for my third and fourth grade book group, I was curious to see if the book has truly stood the test of time. I asked the kids if they had a problem with reading an older book. They hadn't realized that it was an older book. Once I revealed that it was originally written in 1973, you would have thought that I secretly slipped them instant decaf like in the old Folgers commercials. They were properly horrified, but honestly didn't realize it until I brought it to their attention. This is partly because the copies I handed out had fresh covers. The kids loved the story (with the exception of one girl who is a dog lover and is naturally against cats) and all became very emotional when describing Sock's banishment and run-in with Old Taylor. One little girl told me that she read the book with her cat and he loved it, until the "bad part", when he had to leave the room. The scared cat returned once the sad part was over. Whew! Beverly Cleary knows how to write for her audience in a child-appropriate way with honestly and respect. This book is a great level for kids who are ready to move on from chapter books, but not ready for meatier volumes. It is gender neutral and will appeal to a wide range of readers Socks is also a great read-aloud for classroom and family use. The closing scene of Socks and Charles William romping around during naptime paints such a beautiful picture in my head whenever I read this book and as Socks closes his eyes to contentedly fall asleep, the reader will also close the book and sign a contented sigh at the conclusion of a story well told.

Friday, March 9, 2018

One of Us is Lying

Image result for one of us lying coverOne of Us is Lying
Karen McManus
Delacorte, 2017 368 pages
Grades 8-Up

Five seemingly unrelated teenagers are together in detention on trumped up charges when tragedy strikes. One of the boys, who runs a gossip social media sight, has an allergic peanut reaction and his EpiPen is missing, leading to death. Now the remaining four teens are being accused of murder, especially after Simon's site posts secrets posthumously about of them that they do not wish to get out. Which teenager did it? Or all they working together? Meet the prom queen, jock, nerdy brainiac, and bad-boy drug dealer as they react to the accusations in different ways and begin to form relationships with each other. Once the secrets are revealed, their lives are changed forever. More changes ensue after the media grabs hold of the story and the entire country is watching them. The murderer could be one of the four, or a supporting character, or maybe the victim himself. All is revealed by book's end, including motivation. An epilogue shows how the characters fare after the fallout settles and life as they now know it becomes the norm.

A classic mystery meets the Breakfast Club in this very hot teen book. Reading it reminded me of a Lois Duncan story, especially I Know What You Did Last Summer. Readers will enjoy gathering clues and trying to figure out the perpetrator. The person behind the murder is get-able, yet not too obvious, as McManus throws in plenty of red herrings and many folks with motivation. All of the characters grow and change as both a result of the accusations and the revelation of their secrets. They turn out better off for the upheaval and all ends satisfyingly happy. It bothered me that all of the main characters are physically beautiful, which is unrealistic, but reflects American popular culture and is to be expected. This is not necessarily the stuff of great fiction, but teenagers will (and do!) love it. The action never stops and the plot goes through many surprising twists and turns. Readers will have a hard time putting it down and it will appeal to both genders and all reading levels. Because of some sexual situations and drug and alcohol use, this book is not appropriate for younger teens, although I know they are reading it. It came recommended to me by a ten year old and it is most certainly not for her. An entertaining who-done-it that will appeal to a large audience.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Aru Shah and the End of Time

Image result for aru shah coverAru Shah and the End of Time
Roshani Chokshi
Rick Riordan Presents/Disney, 2018
368 pages 
Grades 3-7
Pandava series #1

Aru Shaw struggles socially. When three classmates show up at the Indian heritage museum where her mother is the curator, she shows off to them by lighting the Lamp of Bharata, which is cursed and forbidden. All heck lets loose as the people in her life become frozen and she lands in a mythical Hindu world, where she meets various Gods, including her new spirit guide, a pigeon named Boo. She also meets her new soul sister, a young girl named Mini. Aru and Mini discover that they are reincarnations of famous Hindu demigods: the Pandava brothers. When the lamp was lit, an evil force called The Sleeper was awakened. The Sleeper in turn is bent on waking the Lord of Destruction, who will end the world. It is up to Aru and Mini to stop the Sleeper from completing his evil task. Their adventures land them in many different scenarios, including a bewitched beauty parlor and the Night Bazaar, which is disguised as a surreal Cosco, and meet many crazy re-imagining of evil Hindu Gods. The two would-be heroes work hard to battle the forces of evil, all while learning to trust each other and form bonds, overcoming self-doubt, and finding their inner-courage and hidden magical talents. Other reincarnated Pandava brothers are still unaware of their lineage and will more than likely be acquainted with our heroes in the next installments of the series.

Rick Riordan takes his popular modernized mythological/adventure format and taps into new cultures and fresh authors from the culture explored. The first in his new imprint is focusing on Indian mythology. It feels as if America is finally waking up and noticing that we have a significant Indian-American population that is invisible in popular culture. From TV, movies, and literature Indian culture is an emerging and welcoming presence. Similar in format and content to the recently released 
Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series, Chokshi explores similar content in a different way that is equally exciting and fresh. There is certainly room for both series and fans of one will migrate easily to the other. Aru Shaw has the Rick Riordan name on it, therefore guaranteeing an audience. I love that the Pandava brothers are reincarnated as girls, giving the series a feminist slant. Even though girls are the main characters, the adventurous aspects will appeal to both sexes and boys will not be put off by the story and may discover that girls can do cool things and be fearless when the situation dictates. Much like Percy Jackson, even though the tales are old, the story is modern, welcoming contemporary kids to the classic stories. Gentle humor and witty dialog is infused throughout, making this an enjoyable read and giving the intense action a bit of lightness. This series will be popular and is a welcome addition to the genre.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Vassa in the Night

Image result for vassa nightVassa in the Night
Sarah Porter
Tor, 2016 296 pages
Grades 7-12

Something weird is going on in New York City. At first it was very subtle, but now everyone can't help but notice it. The night is lasting an exorbitant amount of time and keeps getting longer. Vassa lives with her stepmother and two sisters, one half and one step, in a crowded Brooklyn apartment. Her best friend is a tiny bewitched doll with a huge appetite and sticky fingers, left to Vassa on her mother's death bed to always take care of and to keep a secret. One long night Vassa is sent to the creepy and mysterious convenience store, BY's, for light bulbs. The chicken legs lower to allow her admittance and it is here that she encounters the witch Babs and her severed hand henchmen. In order to leave with her life Vassa strikes a deal with Babs: to work for her for three nights completing whatever tasks the old witch lays out. The tasks are seemingly impossible, but Vassa manages to complete them with the help of her bewitched doll, a group of swans, and some mysterious magic. Meanwhile she has vivid dreams about the circling motorcycling man /security guard out front. Who is he and why won't he talk to her? A group of teenagers enter the store as a dare and barely escape with their life. A member of this group is a boy named Tomin, who returns to help Vassa out of her predicament. Eventually, the identity of the motorcycle man, the cause of the increasing night, and the backstory of the bewitched doll are revealed as magic collides with contemporary reality in this re-imagined version of the Russian Folktale Vassilissa the Beautiful.

I am a fan of Russian folklore and was excited to see a reworking of Vassilissa the Beautiful. This is a largely unknown tale to American audiences and is a welcome change from a reworked Cinderella tale. I'm not sure if teen audiences will get the connections to the original tale, but it won't really matter for the story stands up on its own. Baby Yaga is an awesome villain, no matter the setting, and will properly creep-out readers with her chicken house (store), severed hand henchmen, and unrealistic tasks. There are some seriously violent bits, though all the main characters survive in tact to the end, making this story not the best choice for sensitive readers. I enjoyed the contemporary time period and Brooklyn setting, where there is a large Russian community, resulting in a perfect fit. The mood of the story remains dark throughout, reflecting the unending night and adding to the macabre atmosphere. The magic felt possible, the supporting characters were strange and original, and the plot is fresh, making this a worth-while read. Sometimes I felt the book was a bit dense and it took me a long time to get through. The prelude is beautifully written, yet confusing, so I would recommend that readers skip it and then hit it up again at the end, when it will make more sense. The magical doll was my favorite character and managed to steal the show. A creative and enjoyable re-working of a great folktale that will be enjoyed by serious readers.