Monday, July 22, 2019

Operatic

Image result for operatic kyo coverOperatic
Kyo Maclear
Byron Eggenschwiler, illustrator
Groundwood, 2019 160 pages
Grades 5-8
Graphic Novel

Charlie is given an assignment in music class to choose a song that defines this moment in her life. This is a very hard assignment in that she does not connect to music in a person way and is undergoing so many changes. Charlie and her friends are finishing eighth grade and about to enter high school with all of the changes and fears that entails. Meanwhile, she is still struggling with a crush on her classmate Emile, even though he doesn't seem to notice her. She also struggle with the empty desk pushed against the wall. That desk formally belonged to Luka, who was different than the other boys. His wore his hair long, sang embarrassing songs in a feminine way, and dressed in a style that other eighth grade boys teased. After sever bullying, Luka stopped going to school and Charlie not only misses him, but wishes she stood up for him. Meanwhile, the music teacher keeps playing different genres of music to find what resonates with the students. Surprisingly, it is the unusual beauty and rawness of Maria Callas that speaks to Charlie and she becomes interested in both opera and the life of her new idol. Maria Callas' struggles are highlighted as her life is told with red highlights. Charlie's life is told in yellow and the past with Luka's backstory is told in blue.

This may be the most beautiful graphic novel I have ever read. The story with its message of accepting people despite their differences, feeling like an outside, and the restorative power of music is lyrically told. We all have songs that define parts of our lives and I love that the teacher alerts his students to them. I also love a school where the music program is such that the kids all learn to play guitars and listen to different genres. Both author and illustrator are Canadian, so maybe that country puts more of an emphasis on the arts, unlike the stem-mad USA. Music certainly saves Charlie and brings her friends together in a healthy and healing way. The illustrations help to tell the story with beauty and intention and perfectly reflect the author's words. Although music is heard throughout the entire book, it is never directly represented by musical notes. Eggenschwiler depicts the music through creative, yet appropriate means allowing the reader to experience the notes visually without being hit over the head. The use of color helps to separate the three stories/time periods and help to place the reader in the proper timeline. A few wordless panels and amazing full-page spreads give the reader a chance to rest and take the book in, while spending a minute in the beauty of the music. The cover is lush and appealing, the pages are thick and creamy, and the design is exceptional. A true gem of a book in every way.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Secret of Nightingale Wood

The Secret of Nightingale Woods
Lucy Strange
Chicken House, 2017 304 pages
Grades 4-7
Mystery/Historical Fiction

It is 1919. The Great War is over and England is trying to put its pieces back together. Henrietta's (Henry) family has too many loose pieces to count since her brother Robert died the year before. Her mother has been suffering from a long and serious depression, so father moves the family out of London, where all of the memories lie, to a seaside town once visited in happier days. Father cannot bare the sadness and brokenness of the family and escapes abroad for business, leaving mother, Henry, and baby Piglet in the care of competent Nanny Jane.  Nanny Jane has her hands full and allows herself to be influenced by a local doctor, who believes that the best course of treatment for mother is to keep her in a drugged state in a locked room for "rest". He makes plans to take the baby and give her to his wife for "safe keeping", while conspiring to commit mother to a mental institution, where questionable methods are employed. Henry feels helpless and desperate. A walk in the woods leads her to a crumbling trailer where a woman resides, who is rumored to be a witch. Henry becomes friends with the witch, who offers her hope and advice. Who is this witch? And who is the mysterious man hovering on the cliff who appears to be watching Henry's small family? And what can she do to save mother and Piglet from the clutches of the evil doctor and his creepy wife?

I recently read Our Castle by the Sea and loved it so much I wanted to give Strange's first novel a try. Much in the same vein as Castle, this first book is a dark, atmospheric mystery set in Britain's past. Both books feature young female protagonists, who are left with a big mess and must save their families.  Who feel powerless, yet tap into the inner strength they didn't know they had. This book will appeal to fans of The War that Saved my Life with bits of The Secret Garden thrown in. There are mysterious figures, evil doers with whom our hero must battle, and kind adults that lend a hand. Sensitive readers may find the story disturbing in that it deals with severe mental illness and death. The setting is well conceived and readers are offered a slice of British life following the dark days of the first world war. The mystery is the identity of the witch and this is satisfyingly revealed. Another mystery is the exact circumstances of Robert's death, which Strange chooses not to reveal until towards the end. Readers will be frustrated by the behavior of Henry's father, yet he pulls through in a clutch, showing that even adults make mistakes, yet we can attempt to fix them. And indeed-all is fixed by book's end, but poor Henry deserves a happy ending and no one can begrudge her that, even if it is a bit unrealistic. An adventurous and surprising tale, give to kids who like their historical fiction with a dark and mysterious twist.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

With the Fire on High

Image result for fire on high acevedoWith the Fire on High
Elizabeth Acevedo
HarperCollins, 2019 400 pages
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Teen Mom Emoni Santiago is struggling with finishing high school, taking care of her toddler daughter (with the help of her grandmother), and working a horrible fast-food job. Her favorite thing to do is cook and is blessed with the natural talent and ability to make people cry with her food. When a culinary arts class opens up in her magnet high school in Philadelphia, Emoni decided to give it a try, even though she knows she can't afford the week-long trip to Spain that is built into the curriculum. It is here that Emoni meets a cute boy, who seems to see past her looks and baby and is willing to get to know the real person underneath. Meanwhile, something is going on with Abuela. Why does she go to the doctor's so much? Is she sick? As senior year progresses, Emoni grows up and makes decisions about her future. She manages to travel with the class to Spain and that trip, as well as the culinary arts class, becomes a real game-changer. Graduation rolls around and Emoni has a plan. If only she had the money and support to make it work...

Acevedo's follow-up to her outstanding Poet X moves from poetry to prose, yet still embraces the grittiness of the hood. This sophomore novel is a bit fluffier than the first, yet is equally riveting and impossible to put down. Emoni attempts to keep many balls in the air at once, balancing school, motherhood, and work, which is no small feat for adults, let alone a teenager. Acevedo does not shy away from the sacrifices involved with teen parenting and although Emoni's life revolves around her daughter, she misses out on a lot of teen experiences. Readers will be happy to see her find love with a kind and understanding suiter and see her finally have a bit of a social life. They will be exposed to the realities behind teen parenting and the responsibility it entails. Emoni is very lucky in that she has discovered her gift in cooking and even luckier that she had the opportunity to take the class that leads her to her future. Many young people are not blessed with the mentorship that Emoni is offered and will hopefully try to seek out their own opportunities after reading this novel. All ends a little too happily, yet readers will be satisfied and relieved with the outcome. Armchair chefs may be inspired to turn off the Food Network and get into the kitchen to try to whip up something of their own. Sure to find a readership, this book may not be as beautifully crafted as Poet X, but is just as entertaining and certainly time well spent.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse

Image result for me sam-sam coverMe and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse
Susan Vaught
Simon & Schuster, 2019 309 pages
Grades 4-Up
Realistic Fiction/Mystery

Alternating chapters relate the story of Jesse, a middle school who is neurodivergent. Some of the chapters describe the events leading up to "apocalypse", while others tell what happens after the disaster hits. Life has not been easy for Jesse. She is constantly bullied in school, her mother is overseas in Iraq, and her teacher father is accused of and arrested for stealing money from the school's library fund. To make matters worse, she struggles with social cues, human touch and reading emotions. What Jesse does have is a loving and supportive family, a new friend who understands her named Springer, and a winning dog named Sam who Jesse is trying to train to sniff out hidden bombs, like her mother does in the military. Terrified of Dad getting sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit, Jesse and Springer decide to crack the case and flush out the real culprit. Their search puts them in danger by further antagonizing the bullies and stirring up trouble with the school principal. As we see the events leading up to the climax that seems to signal the end of the world, both stories come together as Jesse, Springer, and Sam prove their courage and the mystery is solved. A final surprise awaits Jesse as she and Springer resume their friendship and adventures, both more confident and strong. An author's note at the end explains more about autism and Asperger's.

This book has a lot going on, but somehow it never feels frantic. On one hand it is a realistic problem novel about a girl with Asperger's who is being bullied and on the other it is a mystery to be solved by our amateur sleuth/heroes. There are actually two mysteries: who stole the money and what exactly caused the apocalypse. Readers will guess at what really is happening, yet Vaught does not come right out and tell us until the bitter end. The noise and chaos would certainly feel like the end of the world for someone on the Autistic spectrum and the response to events accurately portrays a person with sensory issues. Readers will be amazed and inspired by Jesse's courage and fierceness. She is a bold character who does not apologize for who she is. Contrastingly, Springer is a gentle giant with parental pressure to "man up". He also finds his inner courage and proves himself by book's end. The supportive friendship is a beautiful element of the novel and it is a gift that these two alternate thinkers have found each other. Vaught never fully reveals if Springer is on the spectrum as well, but evidence supports that he is, even if not formally diagnosed. A mystery on its own is interesting, but seeing it unfold through Jesse's eyes adds another layer. This is a satisfying read. The bullies are finally punished, the mystery is solved, we witness great character growth, and both protagonists’ families are happy and whole. Readers will breathe a sigh of relief and wait for Jesse and Springer to solve another mystery and have their adventures continue. Hand to fans of Erskine's Mockingbird, Draper's Out of My Mind or anything by Lynda Mullay Hunt.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Stargazing

Image result for stargazing jen wang\
Stargazing
Jen Wang
First Second, September, 2019 224 pages
Grades 3-7
Graphic Novel

Christine is a traditional Chinese-American daughter. She plays violin, does well academically, and obeys her parents in every way. When Moon moves next door, everything changes. Moon is everything Christine isn't: carefree, creative, and fearless. The most interesting thing is that Moon talks to celestial beings, who convince her that she belongs more to them than the planet earth. The two girls become unlikely friends. When school starts, Moon's confidence brings her popularity, even though she is different, and Christine feels a little jealous. Suddenly, everything changes as a medical tragedy strikes. Christine feels really weird and struggles with how to relate to her friend. Finally, she processes her feelings, figures it out and all is well that ends well.

This middle grade graphic novel from the highly popular teen author of The Prince and the Dressmaker will be equally as successful. Though written for a younger audience and more contemporary, Wang still throws in some gender-bending touches, as Moon is very androgynous, yet extremely comfortable in her own skin. Fans of smile and other graphic memoirs will appreciate this autobiographical account of the author's own experiences, complete with a note and actual photos at the end. Drawn with a manga feel, this graphic novel will be presented in full color and is well designed for the intended audience. Readers will draw from Moon's confidence and will hopefully learn to embrace that which makes them special, even if it does not align with cultural or familial expectations. The medical crisis comes as a surprise and readers will gasp and worry until the situation is resolved. Both characters are likable and relatable and this title is sure to find an eager audience. I plan on buying two, as it feed my insatiable fans of Roller GirlAwkwardReal Friends, and Pashmina and Be Prepared.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

My Jasper June

Image result for my jasper june cover
My Jasper June
Laurel Snyder
Harper Collins, September, 2019 291 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Leah has very few expectations for the summer ahead. A family tragedy from the summer before has devastated her family and nothing is the same. Her parents have become ghosts and barely notice that she is around. With nothing planned for the summer and all of her friends distant both physically and emotionally, Leah takes to exploring the neighborhood. At a pond by an old farm she meets Jasper, who is living rough in an abandoned house after she escapes from an unhappy situation. Leah and Jasper have an instant connection and spend the ensuing month hanging out, watching tv and eating snacks. They are able to tell each other secrets about their pasts that they can't confess to anyone else and begin to trust and protect each other. Finally, Leah's parents tune into the fact that she has a new friend of whom they have never met and become concerned and curious. Leah meets a creepy homeless man and begins to worry about the safety of Jasper. The action comes to a head as Leah rushes to protect her new friend, just as her parents rush to protect her. Finally, Leah's family talks about the tragedy from the year before and make a plan to move forward. What will become of Jasper now that her homelessness is revealed to Leah's parents and what steps will the family take towards healing?


I am a big fan of Snyder's book Orphan Island from 2017 and, in fact, picked it as one of my top books of that year. Judging from the cover and the previous book I was expecting something slightly magical and fantastic. This new title is very different from this last work by the author. Snyder turns to gritty reality as she explores family tragedy and teen homelessness. Much of this book is sad, which will appeal to many of today's readers, who are clamoring for such titles. Leah is a very lonely and lost character with who the reader will sympathize. Luckily, positive resolution happens for both her and Jasper, which will allow the reader a sigh of relief, as most of the plot threads are sewn up in a satisfying manner. Not a lot happens in the book. It is more about character development and traces the friendship between the two girls. Readers will worry about Jasper and keep turning pages to see if she gets a forever home and finds safety. At nearly 300 pages the book felt long to me, but is a perfect representation of those long summer days that fall into each other with not much happening and feel as if frozen in time. It’s too bad it will not be released until September for it is a perfect summer book and I know a lot of readers I could recommend it to right now. At any rate, this is sure to be a popular title with middle grade readers and will circulate well in my library.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Year We Fell From Space

Image result for year we fell from space coverThe Year We Fell From Space
Amy Sarig King
Scholastic, October, 2019 262 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Sixth grade Liberty, feels as if she fell from space, just like the meteor that fell from the sky, breaking windows in her home as it crashed. Dad has left the family for reasons not fully disclosed to her and nothing is the same. Both younger sister Jilly and Liberty miss him so much and as he keeps canceling schedule visits, they feel very confused and hurt. To make matters worse, Liberty is ostracized from the sixth grade when she refuses to have a boyfriend or be bossed around by her boy-crazy friend. When the friend loses her mother's diamond ring at a pretend wedding and Liberty picks it up, she makes a poor decision. Back home the meteor starts talking to her and navigates Liberty through the feelings she is experiencing about both her changing family and lack of friends. Seventh grade brings on the start of middle school and more transitions. Relations with Dad resume, only not in the way Liberty plans. The truth behind Dad's leaving is revealed and everyone is hurt, yet now can start to travel down the road to healing.

Critically acclaimed teen author, A.S. King, writes her sophomore novel for middle grade under the name Amy Sarig King. Still keeping her quirky plot touches (in this case a talking meteor), her middle grade is a bit less stream of consciousness and more tangible than her teen books. In this case, the title indicates the moment her dad left the family and the year that they attempt to reconstruct their family. Readers will recognize early on that the meteor isn't really talking: it is Liberty's subconscious revealing truths that she is not always ready to handle. As she mentally begins to cope with her new family dynamic, the meteor stops talking and goes back to being a meteor. Liberty is not the only fully developed character in this book. All of the characters are interesting, experience growth and contain many shades of grey. Adults are supportive, yet flawed, and even our protagonist makes bad choices, yet owns and fixes them by the end of the book. Chapters are short, helping the book to read quickly, with much of the action written in dialog. They are separated by beautiful black papers with stars, making for an unusual design. Liberty is interested in outer space and this will help draw-in scientific kids, who may not naturally gravitate towards fiction. Readers will learn truths such as that romance is not necessary for sixth graders and it’s okay for boys and girls to be friends, divorce effects the whole family, and everyone makes mistakes. Beyond this, sometimes, no matter how hard we want something, it doesn't always come out the way we hoped, but the new normal can be okay after all.