Friday, August 11, 2017

Wild Beauty

Image result for wild beauty Anna-Marie McLemoreWild Beauty
Anna-Marie McLemore
Feiwel & Friends, October, 2017 352 pages
Grades 9-Up
Fantasy

Estrella lives with her four female cousins, their mothers, and grandmothers on the La Pradera estate, where they have tended the lush gardens for generations. They are so amazing at gardening that folks claim them to be witches. The ladies admit to have a special touch with plants and trees, but only they know the real secret behind their powers: they are bound to the land by a magical force and whenever they love a man too much, the man disappears. All of the five cousins. who all are named after flowers with the exception of Estrella, have fallen in love with the young female owner of the estate, Bay. Bay's black-sheep male cousin is sent to the estate to take it over, forcing out Bay and jeopardizing the tranquility and future of the family. Meanwhile, Estrella accidentally pulls a figure out of the ground. It is a mysterious boy with no memory of his past beyond his name: Fel. The mothers and grandmothers know what to do with Fel and seem to understand that he is one the the men from the past who has disappeared. Fel and Estrella fall in love, yet Estrella is scared. Will she force Fel back into the ground by loving him, losing him forever? Will the girls find the missing Bay and banish the evil cousin? What is the truth behind the curse of the Nomeolvides women? All is revealed by book's end in a satisfying conclusion filled with magic and romance.

Critically acclaimed author, McLemore, offers a modern fairy tale that could be described as magical realism. The writing is beautiful and the mystical mood of the storytelling will draw readers right it and hold them through the conclusion. The curse/magic is believable in a folklore-ish type of way and will provide a perfect escape for whimsical readers. McLemore plays with blurred gender and race, allowing for the book to break through cultural expectations. The truth behind Fel and the curse is revealed in a satisfying manner and I felt a delicious sense of closure at the end of the story. Patient readers will best enjoy this book as it is quiet and lyrical and relies more on mood than plot. It took me a while to read this story, I think because of the dense writing, but even though I would put it down for a while while I read something lighter and faster, I always came back to it. I had a hard time keeping the cousins straight and finally gave up as it did not matter to the plot. The main characters are clearly defined and that is what matters most to the story. Dreamy teenage girls are the audience and they will find much to enjoy here. The real star of the story is the breath-taking cover, which is what encouraged me to pick the book up in the first place. The beautiful cover will draw in readers and the lyrical telling will sweep them into this magical and gorgeous world.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Invisible Emmie

Image result for invisible emmieInvisible Emmie
Terri Libenson
Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 2017  185 pages
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel

Two very different girls recount the same day at school with some interaction, yet very different points of view and experiences. Emmie is shy and awkward. School is torture and she struggles with asserting herself and feels invisible. The only way to cope is by drawing and submersing herself in her artwork to get through the day. In direct contrast is Katie, who is athletic, popular, and confident. We see the different takes on the same school day as related by the two different girls. Katie gets asked out by Emmie's crush. Emmie writes a love letter, partly in jest, to said crush, only to have it fall into enemy hands and lead to exposure and severe humiliation. Help surprisingly comes from Katie, who encourages Emmie to stand up to bullies and to speak-up for herself. Emmie gains the needed confidence, pushes Katie away, and finds the courage to actually talk to the crush herself and to make a new friend. A surprise ending shows the reader that we are all a little Emmie and a little Katie and that no one is completely perfect or hopeless. Emmie pulls through her humiliation with more confidence and strength and she has opened up and made a few new friends in the process.

The latest in the popular trend of semi-autobiographical novels geared primarily towards girls, first made popular by Raina Telegemeirer's Smile, Invisible Emmie is the same, yet different. As typical for this genre, the main character struggles with fitting in with her peers, lacks self-confidence, and is suffering through middle school. The difference lies in the contrasting characters and points of view. The ending is a twist that readers will love and it is executed really well. Libenson pens both characters differently. Emmie has more text with smaller doodle-like illustrations in muted colors. Katie is large splashy cartoons in vibrant colors. It is beautifully and thoughtfully designed and this also sets it apart from the average fair. The book reads quickly, yet has a bit more text than the standard graphic novel, working more as a transitional chapter book to move this audience into reading books with more girth. Readers will relate to Emmie's struggles and suffer right along with her when the love letter is confiscated. It is surprising that Katie proves to be so nice to Emmie, even though she has a crush on Katie's BF. This makes more sense as the twist ending is revealed, yet also shows that all popular kids are not necessarily evil. We all have many sides to our personalities and no one is completely black and white. Invisible Emmie is proving to be a hit with the target audience. In my library consortium thirty-nine libraries have added this title since its May release and only nine copies are currently not checked out to readers. A sure-fire win for older elementary and middle school girls.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Miles Morales

Image result for miles moralesMiles Morales: a Spider-Man Novel
Jason Reynolds
Marvel/Disney, 2017  261 pages
Grades 6-Up
Super Hero/Adventure

The latest in Marvel's novelizations of popular and teen-friendly superheroes, seen earlier in the year with Shannon Hale's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, penned by established authors in the field. Miles Morales is a reboot of Spider Man, first created by Marvel's Ultimate series as a spin-off alternative to the standard Marvel universe. A biracial teen living in Brooklyn, Miles takes the mantel of Spider Man over from Peter Parker and fights crime, while also struggling with normal teen problems. In this first in a projected series, Miles is not sure that he wants to continue on as Spider Man. His spider senses have been acting up and he is still morning the loss of his formally estranged uncle. Strange happenings result in Miles getting suspended from his prestigious Brooklyn boarding school and putting his scholarship in jeopardy. Miles' parents are not pleased with him, so it is a surprise when a cousin that Miles never knew existed reaches out and Miles' father agrees to take him to juvie to meet him. Meanwhile, a creepy history teacher is imparting racists lessons about slavery and Miles suspects that maybe he is part of a larger ring. His roommate is challenging him to have more fun, his crush is challenging him to write poetry and his parents are begging him to stay out of trouble. What is a young super hero to do? Fight some bad guys to try to clean up his neighborhood and get to the bottom of the ring of racists in order to secure his position in the school and keep it a healthy and safe learning environment. Oh, and to get the girl.

I love Jason Reynolds. This book is a departure for him and proves Marvel's commitment to finding quality writers to fictionalize their comic books. Much like with Hale's Squirrel Girl, their are no illustrations, which is a surprise for a book based on a visual format. The action is communicated with words alone, drawing in fans of the comic and possibly turning them into traditional readers. It is helpful when reading this book if you already have knowledge of the franchise. It feels almost like a sequel and I kept checking to make sure that this was actually the first in the series. This may be because Marvel is assuming that prior knowledge of the characters is known by the reader picking up this book. I was expecting non-stop action, but much of the book is centered around Miles' personal life and troubles and there is not as much fighting bad guys as I was anticipating. Reynolds writes the way teenagers talk and his language is hip and cool, making his characters believable and likable to teen readers. Miles is typically teen-angsty and struggles with the mantel of being Spider Man. The fact that he is half African-American/half Hispanic offers much needed diversity to the very white genre of super heroes and the field of books for young people as a whole. The character of Miles' roommate, Ganke, offers comic relief and a sub-plot involving his crush adds a bonus dimension to the story. I like how Reynolds infuses the power of poetry into the book and stresses the need for a good education. Miles is a good kid with a tough job, who loves his family, has crush on a girl and is trying to figure out his place in the universe. And he just happens to be a superhero on the side.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Swing It, Sunny

Image result for swing it sunnySwing It Sunny
Jennifer & Matthew Holm
Scholastic, September, 2017  218 pages
Grades 4-Up
Graphic Novel

Sunny, heroine of the smash-hit semi-autobiographical graphic novel Sunny Side Up, must begin middle school. Older brother, Dale, who we first meet in the previous title, is still struggling with substance abuse. His parents out of desperation send him away to military school in the hope of straightening him out. Sunny continues to feel sad, angry, and guilty about her brother's addictive behavior and is trying to process these feelings, all while attempting to adjust to the new school environment and life as a budding teenager. As 1976 changes to 1977 Sunny spends time with her best friend watching television, bonding with her baby brother, and confessing her feelings to her grandfather in Florida. A visit home from Dale is disappointing and only when an older new neighbor moves in and befriends Sunny does she start to feel hopeful. Through the neighbor Sunny learns how to twirl color guard flags and discovers that she is good at it. Through the passing of time, the acceptance and friendship of her new neighbor, and her success in learning a new skill, Sunny starts to heal and let go of the feelings of responsibility and constant sadness brought on by Dale. By the school year's end Sunny has grown in confidence and maturity and Dale seems a bit less angry and maybe willing to try to mend his broken relationship with his family.

Sunny Side Up is one of my favorite graphic novels. I can relate to both the 1970's setting and dealing with a brother who is an alcoholic. Sunny and I are the same age and have very parallel childhoods, so of course I love this book. I have asked kids at my library and in book discussion if they can relate to Sunny and am always greeted with a resounding "yes". Sunny's troubles are universal and, unfortunately, still relatable to today's youth. This sequel takes place directly where the first installment ends and traces Sunny's school year. It does not break new ground; the same themes hold true with no new earth-shattering developments. If anything, the 1970's setting is delved into deeper, focusing more on the music and television shows we all watched for hours at a time. Dale does not magically get "fixed", but we do see hope by book's end. Readers in similar situations will gain from watching Sunny come to terms with Dale's condition with the help of family members and learn to let go of some of the negative feelings she is holding onto and find positive feelings from within herself and a new confidence thanks to an acquired skill. Much like the first novel, the cartoons are well drawn, expressive, are in full-color and scan easily. Knowledge of the first book would making reading the second a richer experience, but enough background is given, allowing it to stand alone. A slam-dunk for fans of Sunny Side Up and for readers of the current trend of realistic graphic novels pioneered by Raina Telgemeier.

Monday, July 31, 2017

How to Hang a Witch

Image result for how to hang a witch coverHow to Hang a Witch
Adriana Mather
Knopf, 2016 368 pages
Grades 7-Up
Fantasy/Mystery

Samantha Mather is forced to relocate to Salem following her father's coma after she and her stepmother can no longer afford their New York City Apartment because of the hospital bills. The house in Salem has been left to the family after Samantha's long-lost grandmother passed and she begins to discover her deep roots within this historical community. The cute boy-next-door is welcoming and friendly, yet the reception at Salem High is much frostier. A group of creepy young people, known as the Descendants, are all linked to witches who were killed during the troubles three-hundred years previous. Do they dislike her because she is descended from Cotton Mather, famous judge during the proceedings? Samantha is use to strange things happening when she is near and is convinced that she is cursed. The strange occurrences increase once in Salem. First students get sick from treats Sam brings to class and then all the guests at a party are afflicted by a terrible rash--except for Samantha. Family members of the Descendants begin getting sick and dying and the clique is convinced that it is Sam's fault. Meanwhile a ghost appears in Sam's bedroom who lost a sister in the long-ago trials. At first he distrusts Sam and then the two become reluctant allies, and, eventually, friends with romantic inclinations. Bullying at school by the hands of the Descendants increases, as does the "accidents" to loved ones and the Descendants themselves. Who is responsible for all of the deaths? Is there a real witch in their midst? And how can Samantha finally break the curse once and for all?

Teen books about witches appear to be a new trend. I have seen a bunch of them out lately and have just finished an adult book about five generations of witches (A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan), which I greatly enjoyed. The Salem witchcraft trials have long been a topic of interest to teenagers and this book will plug into this popular topic, while adding a modern twist. Mather (herself a descendant of Cotton Mather) ties-in the injustice of the trials with modern day bullying. History repeats itself as Samantha feels persecuted and judged by the whole town. Sam and the descendants practice spells to try to break the curse and Sam finds that she wields real power. The supernatural element is believably told and gets even more interesting as Samantha becomes involved with a ghost that only she has the ability to see. Readers will try to guess the identity of the actual witch who has cursed the Descendants and the motivation behind it and this mystery is satisfyingly solved after a nail-biting climax involving the near-death of many key players. The prerequisite love triangle necessary to all post-Twilight book aimed at adolescent girls gets a new twist by pitting the boy-next-door against a ghost. A perfect choice for reluctant readers, hand this title to girls needing to read a fantasy who don't think they like fantasy. Enough history is included to prove that Mather did her homework, yet never weighs the book down. Readers may be inspired to learn more about this dark chapter of early America. Slightly shivery, always suspenseful, wistfully romantic and with a touch of mystery this book adds up to a lot of fun and a sure-fire hit with the target audience.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Hate U Give

Image result for hate u give book coverThe Hate U Give
Angie Thomas
HarperCollins, 2017 444 pages
Grades 8-Up
Realistic Fiction

Debut author Angie Thomas pens an important and timely novel reflecting current news headlines and the Black Lives Matter movement. The title refers to a song by Tupac, which delivers the message that how society treats its citizens as youths will directly affect how they turn out as adults: hate breeding hate. Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who resides in a poor urban neighborhood where her family has always lived and goes to school in the suburbs in a mostly white private school where she has met a white boyfriend. She is a different Starr depending on where she is. After a neighborhood party Starr accepts a ride home from her childhood friend Khalil. They are pulled over by a white police officer on a deserted street for no apparent reason and after being harassed a series of events leads to the shooting of Khalil. Starr is the only witness and must decide whether or not to come forward with the truth. She is afraid of the police if she relates the prejudice and harsh treatment of one of their own and she is afraid of the neighborhood gang who promises to mess up her family if she tells the truth about Khalil's gang affiliations, or lack thereof. Starr must decide who her friends are from both sides of her life and learn to stand up and fight appropriately for what is right. Meanwhile, Starr's family must decide whether or not to continue living in the neighborhood, especially after the mass destruction caused by the result of the trial verdict.

A story ripped straight from the headlines, Thomas fleshes out the Black Lives Matter movement in a relatable way to all teens, regardless of race. The reader feels, right along with Starr, what it is like to straddle both lives and to experience the violent death of a friend. Much more happens within the story than what time allows in my brief summary. This is not only a book reflecting our current social climate, but it is a family story and one of a community close-knit, yet in trouble. Thomas shows both sides of the issue and offers a character of a good cop by including Starr's beloved uncle, who is a man of integrity. While delivering a balanced account of the issues, Thomas makes sure the reader understands that prejudice is never okay. There are no easy answers and street life is respected, yet not glorified. Starr exhibits much character growth within the novel and finds her identity, courage, and voice as the story unfolds. This would be an important book for all young people to read and will be enjoyed by both genders. Although the topics raised and high quality of the writing would make it perfect for book discussion and classroom use, the length may deter such use. Because of the strong language and a little bit of sex, this book would be a better fit with slightly older teens, yet the message is important for all. Emotional, timely, and moving, this current best seller deserves its place on the list.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Wishtree

Image result for wishtree applegateWishtree
Katherine Applegate
Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Sept. 2017 
209 pages
Grades 3-6
Fantasy

Meet our narrator, Red, a very old and established oak tree inhabited by owls, opossums, raccoons, his best friend a crow, and a neighboring skunk family. Red is a "wishtree' and every May 1st folks come from all over to hang wishes on her branches. The tradition was started many years ago by an Irish immigrant named Maeve, who longed for a baby. She hung the wish on Red's sturdy branches and a little baby was left for her in a hole in the tree by a fellow immigrant from Italy. Now Maeve's great-granddaughter, Francesca, want to cut the tree down. Francesca is tired of cleaning up after the tree, disposing of its wishes, and paying a plumber for fixing the pipes destroyed by Red's roots. Moreover, a vandal has recently carved a word intended for a neighboring Muslim, family: "leave". Francesca doesn't want trouble and thinks it might be easier to cut Red down. Samar, a young member of the immigrant Muslim family, has already made her wish: for a friend. Red and his crow buddy, Bongo, meddle in Samar's and fellow neighbor Stephen's lives helping them to forge a friendship. In order to cement the friendship Red must break nature's code and demonstrate to the two young people that she can actually talk, sharing her and Maeve's story. Wishday arrives and with it the tree removal company. All seems lost for both Samar and Red until help arrives from unexpected places, proving that friendship and community are what matters most and may just be worth a regular visit from the plummer.

Katherine Applegate, winner of the Newbery medal for The One and Only Ivan has penned another beautiful story, perhaps worthy of a second Newbery. This is the first book I ever remember reading with a tree as a narrator. I was skeptical at first, but it works. All of the animal friends have distinct personalities and make their own contributions to save Red's life and that of their home. The writing is thoughtful and lyrical and the book reads rather quickly. Applegate manages to include within this short volume many ethical themes such as anti-Muslim discrimination, America as an immigrant nation, the importance of friendship and community, loyalty, making the right choice even if its the harder choice, and tolerance. Animal lovers will especially devour this title, but really any young reader would find something to enjoy and on which to ponder within its pages. Red is an eternal optimist and will serve as an inspiration to readers. Applegate is able to inspire emotion within the pages of this tightly woven tale and at the climax, when the neighborhood bans together, I felt a bit choked-up. Perfect for classroom use and as a read-aloud, this story has a timeless quality that will insure its permanent place on library shelves. Beautiful pencil illustrations by Charles Santoso are meant to be included in the actual finished product. The preview copy I was able to read only included a few, but they were lovely. A timely book that explores the present discriminatory climate of our society, all while keep the message at an entertaining and child appropriate level.