Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Retake

The Retake
Jen Calonita
Delacourte, February, 2021
272 pages
Grades 4-7

Welcome to the most disastrous first day of school ever! Zoe is starting seventh grade without her best friend Laura, who has ditched her to hang out with the cool, yet nasty, "Drama Queens". She has forgotten both her bus pass and her schedule, has a stain on her white pants, and drops her tray while trying to figure out a place to sit at lunch. Just when all seems desperately helpless, a pink app appears on her phone, allowing her a much-needed "do-over". Can Zoe get the friendship back on track if she goes back a bit in time? The first attempt yields even worse results and makes her phone really hot. Zoe tries again, this time going back even further. The same even worse results and a hotter phone. Will she be able to fix this mess before her phone implodes? Finally, Zoe goes back far enough and, with a little dishonesty, secures Laura's exclusive friendship, only it is not all it's cracked up to be. And is Laura really the friend that Zoe needs right now?

Calonita, of Fairy Tale Reform School fame, offers a new stand-alone title that will speak to all middle school girls. At this age friendships are the most important relationships in a young person's life. Calonita explores the agony and confusion experienced by the friend who is left behind as one of the pair matures and grows in a different direction. The thought of a "do-over" will certainly appeal to the target audience, who will sympathize with Zoe and groan as her day goes from bad to worse. This middle-grade "Groundhog Day" is realistically portrayed, even though fantastical elements are at play, and the use of a phone app is both relatable and the stuff of genius. Readers will long for the app on their own phones, yet will hopefully learn, as Zoe does, to be content with their lots and learn to change course. I greatly enjoyed this story and am convinced that the target audience will as well. Even though this was the book I read at bedtime, which usually means I fall asleep after a few sentences, I cruised through, staying up way past usual. The ending was satisfactory and I breathed a sign of relief as Zoe finally lets go of her past and finds a new path. A great choice for reluctant readers, The Retake will be enjoyed and passed around middles schools everywhere.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Phoenix First Must Burn

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope
Patrice Caldwell (editor)
Viking, 2020
Grades 8-Up
Fantasy/Short Stories

As the title indicates, Caldwell presents sixteen stories by African-American female authors featuring black women (or non-gender conforming individuals) gaining  strength through magic or science fiction. Many of the featured characters are in some way repressed and find power or revenge through magical or scientific means. The tales are diverse, from re-worked tales of folklore to mythical creatures and to future worlds. A brief biography of the contributing authors, who are both famous and unknown (to me), are included at the back of the volume, leading readers to other works by the authors of their favorite stories. An introduction by the editor will lure readers in, as she describes the power of storytelling and its influence on her own life.

I love short story collections, yet rarely read them. I appreciate the brief time commitment and instant gratification of a short story, especially one with a twist ending. This collection was fun to read and of the highest quality. The stories were all completely different, yet each one was an exquisite little gem. I honestly liked all of the stories, yet my favorite one was Hearts Turned to Ash by Dhonielle Clayton, which boasts a Cajun Voodoo vibe. More fantasy than science fiction, there is a little of everything not of the tangible world, sure to connect with readers on some level. The stories are all appropriate, more or less, for a younger teen audience, yet some are more sophisticated than others. I started the collection on a summer camping trip. It lived in my car through the autumn, where it accompanied me on many catch-up doctor's appointments. I finally finished the volume last week, in-between cleaning my house and preparing for Thanksgiving. A different short story collection than what was formally available for young people, diverse readers will appreciate being seen within its pages and take a much-needed break from the patriarchal main-stream. An entertaining, unique and high-quality gem of a collection.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Cinders and Sparrows

Cinders and Sparrows
Stefan Bachmann
Greenwillow, 2020
368 pages
Grades 3-6

Twelve-year-old Zita has suffered a difficult life. Orphaned as a toddler, she is now a servant, regulated to a life of drudgery.  All of this changes when she is summoned by a bewitched scarecrow to a magical castle as it's heir. Apparently Zita is the long-lost youngest and only surviving member of the Brydgeborn family, a notable and wealthy clan of witches. Zita has inherited magical abilities, as well as the castle and family riches. Her late mother's best friend, Mrs. Cantanker, is assigned to serve as guardian and tutor, yet seems to have wicked intentions. Her only allies in the dusty old castle are a black bird and two young servants, who appear to be under a spell, ceasing them from sharing any important information. Zita is led to a secret library, which may hold the clues to her powers and safety. Only, what, exactly, is meant to help her? Mysterious ghosts appear to help-or confuse-and magic lessons prove dangerous and incomplete. How will Zita ever discover the truth behind Mrs. Cantanker and her missing family? And who can she actually trust to help her in her quest for knowledge and security?

Bachmann, author of The Peculiar, offers another fantasy sure to appeal to fans. This new book feels old fashioned and Gothic. Readers who like their fantasy dark and atmospheric will find much to enjoy. The time period is unknown, though it feels turn of the (last) century. The setting is in an alternate past, where magic is commonplace, though limited to certain blessed families and fading over time. Zita is a bold and likable character. She is unafraid of being alone or entering a new and hostile environment. Zita gets to the bottom of the mysterious happenings and is not afraid to take on the dreaded Mrs. Cantanker. Eventually, Zita realizes what is really happening at the castle and also discovers the whereabouts of her family. Ends are satisfactorily tied-up and order is restored. Not a light read or particularly cheerful, smart kids who like their fantasy slightly dark and complicated will be the target audience. Give to fans of Harry Potter, Jonathon Stroud and Neil Gaiman.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Fabled Stables

The Fabled Stables: Willa the Wisp
Jonathan Auxier
Olga Demidova, Illustrator
Amulet, 2020 89 pages
Grades 2-4
The Fabled Stables series #1

Meet Auggie, a boy with the unique job of caring for the creatures in the Fabled Stables. All of the mythical animals on the island are fantastical and unique. This would be the best job in the world, except Auggie is lonely and longs for a friend. He is the only boy on the island, belonging to the mysterious Professor Cake, and has no one to play with. Auggie attempts to bond with the curmudgeonly magical stick who assists him in his work, but Fen doesn't want to get attached. He then turns to the kind and mysterious Miss Bundt, but she is far too busy. Suddenly, a magical path appears in the stable to a forest and Auggie must get to work. Upon investigation he discovers a baby Willa the Wisp, who is being tracked by hunters. Willa and Auggie find themselves trapped and the situation looks hopeless. Will anyone come to their aid? And if so, can Willa's life be saved beyond the one day life expectancy? And who are these mysterious hunters anyway? All will be revealed in this exciting new series opener.

A writer of longer fantastical stories, Auxier tries his hand at a new chapter book series. This new series is highly illustrated in full color, resembling the Branches line of books and will certainly appeal to new readers. The story is exciting and fast paced. Who wouldn't want to live on an island full of magical creatures? Kids will relate to Auggie's desire for a friend, especially during these days of isolation, and will instantly bond with this likable protagonist. For some reason Auxier's writing always feels British to me, including this series opener, and I'm not quite sure why. The author is Canadian/American, yet writes with a folkloric quality that feels like a story from yesteryear. This story felt a bit like The Little Prince and if it was not for the full color I would believe that it was a classic from long ago. A fine choice for fantasy-loving new chapter book readers, this title will also serve as a great family read-aloud. The attractive book design will ensure that it will find an audience and I am confident that it will circulate well in my library.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Smartest Kid in the Universe

The Smartest Kid in the Universe
Chris Grabenstein
Penguin, 2020 304 pages
Grades 5-8
Science Fiction/Humor

Jake is the typical student in his middle school: lazy and unmotivated. A new principal seems to prefer the students that way, but why? It turns out that a pirate treasure was buried beneath the school many years before and the principal and her uncle, a real estate tycoon, want the school razed in order to secure the treasure and build a gigantic condominium in its place. The district wants to close and sell one middle school and this seems like perfect timing. Meanwhile, Jake stumbles upon jelly beans at his mother's work place and helps himself. The beans turn out to be a scientific creation by a budding inventor to grant instant intelligence. Suddenly, Jake finds himself the smartest kid in the world. The media instant grabs ahold of him and he becomes famous, drawing the attention of the US federal government. Only the inventor and Jake's best friend know the truth behind his amazing transformation. How long will this gift last? Hopefully long enough to win the state-wide quiz competition and save the middle school. Unfortunately, evil forces are at work and will not give up so easily. Jake's very life becomes endangered. Will he be able to save himself and the day?

Grabenstein is one of those authors, like his sometimes writing partner, James Paterson, who knows what kids like to read. This new book is no exception. The title and cover are sure to attract readers and the clever storyline and characteristic humor will keep them going to the end. The fantasy of being the smartest kid in the universe certainly is a lure and if only there were scientifically formulated jelly beans that could make it so! I know that my book club kids will enjoy this story and there is much to discuss within its pages. Seemingly for entertainment purposes only, Grabenstein includes science, math, and history within the plot, making this book a great choice for schools. Ethical questions are raised as well, adding to the books value. At its heart, though, it is simply a fun read that will attract kids of all genders and abilities. The adults are a mixed bag, some who can be trusted and some who cannot, yet the day is saved by pure kid-power. There are unbelievable elements to the story, yet it never goes fully off the rails and readers will suspend disbelief as they journey along with Jake and his pals. The story ends with a surprising cliff-hanger, hinting at a new adventure and, perhaps, a series. Certain to be a hit, recommended for all middle-grade readers.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Twig and Turtle: Big Move to a Tiny House

Twig and Turtle: Big Move to a Little House
Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Paul Franco, Illustrator
Pixel Ink, 2020 100 pages
Grades 2-4
Realistic Fiction
Twig and Turtle series #1

Its only October and Twig and her little sister Turtle are experiencing their third first day of school. The family decided to simplify by building and moving into a tiny house in a small town in Colorado. While the house was being build they had to stay with Grandma, where Twig fell in puppy-love with her uncle's dog, who was also a new resident. Now Grandma must relocate the dog and Twig wants him for her very own. But how do you fit a great dane into a tiny house? Meanwhile, Twig is having a hard time making friends. It seems that some of the other kids are making fun of her and she sits alone at lunch. Turtle is more outgoing and seems to be having an easier time, but is she really? Twig's teacher recommends her for a before-school social skills club, which sounds horrible. Her parents make her attend, where surprises await. Allies emerge for the campaign to "Save Bo" and a brilliant plan is concocted. Can Twig and her team save Bo before it's too late?

Jacobson ventures into chapter book territory with this new series start. Tiny houses are trending and though I know of a picture book, this is the first work of longer fiction featuring characters who reside in one of which I am aware. Readers will be fascinated about life in the tiny house and the accommodations the family must endure to make it work. Kids will also relate to Twig and her anxieties about change and fitting in and the struggle to gain some control over her life. She proves to be a supportive big sister, loyal friend, and terrific brain-stormer. The quest to "Save Bo" doesn't happen exactly the way Twig planned, but is satisfying all the same. The adults in this book are caring and supportive and help Twig to better fit in and solve her problems. The vocabulary in this chapter book for emerging readers and plot arc are right on target for the audience. Black and white illustrations, sometimes full-paged, are captivating and plentiful. This is a fun and loving family with whom young readers will enjoy spending time. Any family that "hurkle-durks", and "snugabugs" is okay in my book. The second installment in the series Toy Store Trouble was released last month with a third projected for release in the near future.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

They Went Left


They Went Left
Monica Hesse
Little Brown, 2020 364 pages
Grades 10-Up
Historical Fiction

Zofia is released from a hospital immediately following WWII and into the care of the Russian soldier who rescued her from the concentration camp where she was held a poisoner. Her rescuer takes her back to the Polish town of her youth, only to find it changed and unwelcoming. Her main goal is to find her younger brother: the only family member thought to have survived and much beloved. Abek is not there, yet Zofia learns of a refuge camp in Germany that is likely to be hosting him. Zofia travels by train to the camp, where she is invited to stay as a refugee. After making inquiries about Abek, Zofia gets settled in and makes a few friends. One such friend is set to get married in a matter of days to a fellow refugee and Zofia rediscovers her sewing skills as she helps to prepare the wedding dress. Meanwhile, Yosef, a young man who tends to the horses, catches Zofia's attention. Is she too broken to start a relationship? And will she ever locate her long-lost brother? Dreamy interwoven chapters slowly relate Zofia's experiences in the camps. Is her memory reliable? Will she ever find healing?

What a book! I was reluctant to pick this title up, knowing that it was a holocaust book and not feeling up to THAT topic this year. This book is different from most holocaust books in that it doesn't center on the camps, but traces a survivor's experience after the war ends. This was an interesting perspective and one that is not common in books for young people. I am a big fan of Hesse and read her two previous teen titles. They Went Left is written as carefully and beautifully as the other two. I love the author's work and consider her a great writer. Unfortunately, her books are not as popular with teens, who may not be drawn to historical fiction or have preconceptions about the genre. There are major plot twists and developments-some which I figured out and some which completely surprised me, and I was not sure how the book was going to end. I was most satisfied with the hopeful ending and young readers will be as well. I would not recommend this book to younger teens in that there are sexually explicit scenes. That said, I would suggest it to twenty-somethings, the protagonist being 22 years old in her own right. Another great title from the teen-queen of historical fiction. Give this book to fans of Elizabeth Wein and Ruta Sepetys.