Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Patron Saint of Nothing

Image result for patron saint nothing coverPatron Saint of Nothing
Randy Ribay
Kokila/Penguin, 2019 318 pages
Grades 9-Up

Jay is in the spring of his senior year of high school and plans on spending his final spring break with his best friend, messing around and playing video games, when devastating news reaches him. His cousin Jun has been murdered in the Philippines as a result of the government's war on drugs. Jun's father, a police chief, claims that Jun was selling drugs, but Jay does not believe this. He and Jun were pen pals much of Jay's life and he knows his cousin better than anyone. There is no way Jun got messed up in this lifestyle. To find the real cause of his cousin's death Jay travels to his homeland of the Philippines. Here he reconnects with family and meets a girl with whom he feels an immediate attraction, even though she has a boyfriend. Together with his female cousin (Jun's sister) Jay follows Jun's path, which leads him to the slums and into the secret world of the drug trade and its effect on the Philippine population. Jay eventually finds the answers for which he seeks, yet they are not the ones he wants to find. Through the journey he reconnects with his Philippine roots and family and grows and changes in unexpected ways.

A National Book Award finalist, Ribay offers information about the terrible war on drugs happening in his native country through a carefully crafted mystery. I think this is the first book set in the Philippines that I have read for young people. It highlights the culture, as well as the current social situation. Readers will get to know the state of affairs in the Philippines, all while trying to solve the mystery of what actually happened to Jun. Ribay takes us on quite a rollercoaster as the truth is slowly revealed-in very unexpected ways. Through the story we see that the world is not black and white and all of us humans are both flawed and capable of love and forgiveness. Jay reconnects with his heritage and extended family, allowing him to also reconnect with his nuclear American family in a meaningful way. The answers to Jun's death may not have been the ones Jay was looking for, but he gains closure, perspective, and a direction for his future. I avoided this book, hating the cover, yet once I fell into it, I could not climb out. A completely absorbing read and page turner perfect to recommend to hard to please male readers, though it may require some hand-selling.

Monday, January 27, 2020

When Stars are Scattered

Image result for when stars scatteredWhen Stars are Scattered
Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed
Dial, April, 2020 257 pages
Grades 4-Up
Graphic Novel

Omar and his younger brother Hassan fled war-torn Somalia in the early 90's as small children. Now they are living in a refugee camp in Kenya, where Omar constantly scans the faces looking for his lost mother. Hassan has a history of seizures, as well as other developmental issues and is non-verbal. Omar must care for his brother and try to keep them both fed, hydrated, clean, and safe, along with the help of an elderly foster mother/neighbor. When the opportunity to go to school arises, Omar takes advantage thanks to the help of friends and neighbors. He begins school at ten years old, quite behind the other children, but works as hard as he can to catch up. His efforts pay off and both Omar and two of his friends are promoted to secondary school. Another friend, the smartest young lady in the class, cannot continue with her education since she is forced by her family to marry. Omar continues to study, care for his brother, and survive camp life when an amazing development occurs, he is selected for an interview for possible resettlement in another country! After a grueling process and much waiting Omar's dreams come true and he and Hassan say goodbye to all they know and love, ready to begin the next chapter of their lives.

Graphic novelist, Jamieson, switches gears from the American tween experience to that of a Somalian refugee. The story is Mohamed's, who shared his narrative with Jamieson and offers family photographs and a personal letter at the end of the volume. American children will have no knowledge of what life is really like for an African refugee and this story brings perspective in an age-appropriate and relatable manner. Life of a refugee and the camp experience is the primary focus of the book, yet the authors also offer a plot, tracing Omar's journey and the struggles of caring for his special needs brother and basic survival. Some of Omar's problems are those that all readers can relate to (friendship troubles), yet some are inconceivable to American readers (sleeping on the dirt floor and not being able to go to school). The full color illustrations are attractive and the panels scan well. I sometimes had a hard time telling the boys apart as well as the girls, but always managed to figure it out through the dialogue. I am not sure if this will be more of a problem for young readers, though they love graphic novels so much, they will not let it slow them down. The photos at the end are a wonderful touch and remind readers that refugee's stories are real. An important topic told in a way that young people can understand and will read.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Image result for wonderful wizard of ozThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum
George M. Hill Company, 1900 213 pages
Grades 4-Up

While chasing her lovable, yet rambunctious, dog Toto, Dorothy get swept up in a twister that whisks her from her desolate Kansas farm to the faraway Land of Oz Much to Dorothy's surprise, the house parks right on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. The kind Witch of the North and the residents of the land, the Munchkins, greet Dorothy and celebrate the demise of the terrible tyrant. Dorothy takes the dead witch's silver shoes and travels down the road of yellow brick, which leads to the Emerald City, where the Great Oz can grant her wish of returning to Kansas. Along the way Dorothy meets a Scarecrow in need of brains, a Tinman in need of a heart, and a Lion in need of courage. The three new friends face many perils and tricky situations as they journey along, finally reaching their destination. Oz does not immediately grant their wishes, but sends them on another even more dangerous task. Will the team succeed in that which Oz has demanded? Will they all achieve the dreams for which they have traveled to the Emerald City? Will Dorothy ever make it back to Kansas?

Classic month continues as I have re-read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in preparation for a book club. Often thought of as the first "modern" children's book, this title was an immediate bestseller, eventually spurring sequels and adapted to the stage and screen. Certainly a member of the classic cannon of children's books, it is beloved and has become part of overall American culture. Although one hundred and twenty years old, the book continues to be enchanting and magical. The language is certainly dated, but it reads like a fairytale and is, indeed, now part of the American folkloric tradition. The Wizard of Oz begs to be read-aloud and is a comforting a cozy choice for families to share together. The story is sweet, yet danger is around every corner. Our feisty characters react to every situation with common sense, teamwork, and fierceness. Readers are in on the joke that the characters already possess what they seek all along and will cheer once they finally get the confidence to believe it themselves. Richer than the movie, there are full chapters that Hollywood left out, including The Dainty People, which is my favorite bit. As part of the American conscience as apple pie, Dorothy reminds us the "There is no place like home" and demonstrates the power of loyalty, kindness, friendship, and that good always will overcome evil.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Book of Three

Image result for book of threeThe Book of Three
Lloyd Alexander
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964 217 pages
Grades 4-Up
The Chronicles of Prydain #1

Taran resides at Caer Dallben, taking care of livestock and learning to make horseshoes. He longs for adventure and danger, much as he has read about in The Book of Three. His dissatisfaction is rewarded with a promotion to "Assistant Pig Keeper". After his charge, a rambunctious pig named Hen Wen, who possesses more powers than she is letting on, disappears into the forbidden forest, Taran has no choice but to follow. It is here that he first encounters the dreaded Horned King and his minions. A welcome surprise is finding the legionary hero and crowned prince Gwydion and the two new companions travel together to the castle of an evil sorceress. At the castle Taran is imprisoned, only to be saved by the sorceress's niece, a confusing and fearless girl. The two youths travel through the land of Prydain back to Caer Dallben, collecting more companions along the way, avoiding the Horned King, searching for the magical pig, and finding danger and adventure at every turn. Is the Assistant Pig Keeper up for the task of saving the land of Prydain from evil forces?

High Fantasy at its best, this is the book that set the bar for the genre in children's literature. Considered a classic, many adults grew up loving this series (me included). I recently re-read this book with my bookclub to see if it stands the test of time. None of the kids liked it or were even able to get through it-with the exception of one boy who listened to the audio. The story is written in old English and although the plot is adventurous, the writing feels dense and dry. Based on Welsh folklore, the kids found the names confusing and struggled with keeping the characters straight. I think super-smart kids who love King Arthur legends and The Hobbit would still enjoy this series, though it is clearly not for the average reader. That said, I enjoyed it. It brought me back to my youth, when I devoured the entire series and I appreciated the clear-cut battle between good and evil. Children's fantasy has evolved and is now much more approachable, but it is important to note that we would not have Harry Potter or Percy Jackson without Taran and his pals. On a side note: the character Gurgi (the Jar Jar Binks of the book) is, perhaps, the most annoying character in children's literature. He lightens the heavy mood, but I found myself wishing for his demise. Ironically, he was the only part of the book the kids enjoyed. A perfect book to read on a cold winter's night, patient readers will be rewarded with a classic grand adventure.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Best Books of 2019

The Best Books of 2019
After much reading and musing I have finally compiled my list of what were, in my humble opinion, the best books of 2019. I read primarily middle grade, yet this year more teen books made my list. This may be because I read widely in the category of middle grade, yet only read the "best of the best" in teen. It is also interesting to note that my favorite picture books are all book related. Coincidence? Done with predicting the Newbery or Printz, what follows are my personal favorites.

Picture Books:

Image result for read book kwame cover
Image result for important thing brown mac
How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander/Melissa Sweet, Illustrator
Kwame Alexander and Melissa Sweet. Need I say more?

The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett/Sarah Jacoby, Illustrator
Image result for planting stories coverI wasn't sure about a picture book about Margaret Wise Brown, but once I took a look inside its pages, I was hooked. Barnett writes a biographical account of the famous author's life in her style of writing and the illustrations compliment her work. A gem of a book.

Planting Stories:the Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise/Paola Escobar, Illustrator

A lushly illustrated biography of a librarian I have always found inspirational. Will kids find it relevant? Not sure, but this librarian loved it!

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Middle Grade:

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
This book was released early in the year and completely captured my heart. I don't know if it is the raw brokenness of the main characters, the quirky supporting cast, or my fantasy of riding around the country in an old bus that got to me, but I still think about the book and its characters often. My first significant cry of 2019.

Image result for line tender allenLine Tender by Kate Allen
My second significant cry in 2019. This book is beautifully written in a fully realized New England setting with lovable characters. Debut author, Allen, takes the reader on an emotional roller-coaster, all while leaving an environmental message. A story not easily forgotten.
Image result for look both ways reynolds

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynold
Okay, I love Jason Reynolds and may be a bit bias, but I think it may be his year for a win (not that I am making a Newbery prediction). Short stories that interweave to make a cohesive book, Reynolds steps out of his usual style to create a work of art. This book may be a bit too abstract for kids, but the writing is tight, the concept is great, and Reynolds leaves us with some powerful messages.

Image result for queen sea dylanFavorite Graphic Novels:
There were so many great graphic novels to come out of this year. I am hearing a lot of buzz about New Kid by Jerry Craft. This is a great graphic novel, but there were others I loved just as much that are possibly of an even higher caliber:
Pie in the Sky by Lai
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis
This was our Pact by Ryan Andrews
Which was the best if I had to pick one? I would probably have to go with Queen of the Sea, since this is the book I keep thinking about. I fell into the story and the world melted away. Loose plot thread hint at a sequel, which I will eagerly read.

Image result for fountains of silence
The Fountains of Silence by Ruth Sepetys
I learned about the Spanish Revolution as I fell into this story of love, grief, and family secrets. More adult than teen, it was beautifully and carefully crafted, leaving a tremendous impact on the reader.

Image result for lovely war berryLovely War by Julie Berry
Image result for on the come upLove this author, love the concept of the story within the story, love the different characters points of view, and love a book set in WWI featuring facets of the war that I knew nothing about. Rich, absorbing, sad, and beautiful. And the cover is my favorite of the year.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
I wasn't prepared to enjoy Thomas's sophomore novel as much as I did. I appreciated the flawed, yet relatable protagonist and enjoyed the glimpse into rap culture. I screamed at the main character as she made poor choices and rooted for her success and happiness. I had a hard time putting this book down and it has stayed with me long after I closed its cover.

Image result for slay morrisSlay by Brittany Morris
Another cool cover that commanded my attention and forced me to read the book. Inspired by the movie Black Panther, Morris creates a virtual world where African Americans can interact safely and comfortable. I loved the integration of the real verses the virtual world and Morris gave me a lot of food for thought on many levels. Beyond this, the plot contains a mystery that kept me guessing.
Image result for wolves behind ruby
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
Ruby writes a beautiful story combing fantasy and historical fiction that was so well written, that I don't think I fully understand it. Yes, parts went over my head, But I still couldn't put it down and appreciated the beautiful writing, interesting plot, and compelling characters.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Flicker of Courage

Image result for flicker of courage coverA Flicker of Courage
Deb Caletti
Putnam, 2020 243 pages
Grades 3-6

Henry lives a lonely and isolated life. He finds great pleasure in watching the rambunctious family next door where super-star classmate Apollo resides. One day Apollo is outside sobbing. His brother has been turned into a lizard by evil ruler Vlad Luxor. Trying to help, yet not knowing what to do, Henry takes Apollo and lizard Rocco to his grandfather's lighthouse home. Along the way they meet up with classmates Jo and Pirate Girl who also want to help. At the lighthouse Grandfather and his friend the librarian tell the children that they are actually this generation's spell-breakers and it is up to them to find Vlad Luxor and break the spell. The young adventurers travel to the ominous palatial estate of Vlad, intending to follow Grandfather's advice of hiding Rocco in plain sight. The scheme does not go as planned and the kids must rely on their wits and instinct to save the day, all while forming true friendships and establishing themselves as this generation’s team of speller breakers.

Caletti is best known for her award winning teen books. Here she tries her hand at middle grade at what appears to be the start of a series. The story is set in an alternative world at an undisclosed time, making it feel as if it really could happen and giving the story a fairytale/timeless vibe. Certainly quirky, this is not your typical adventure story. Readers who enjoy the books by Lemony Snickett and Pseudonymous Bosch will feel right at home and jump into this unusual tale. Caletti adds subtle humor and absurdities that will appeal to readers, all while encouraging them to turn pages. Containing both male and female characters in the team ensures that both genders will crack into the story without hesitation. Vintage black and white photos are included to supplement the text, adding interest and creating a product that feels like Miss. Peregrine-light. The cover has a nostalgic feel that will draw in fans of Stranger Things and it looks as if it will be a science fiction story. In reality, our villain Vlad Luxor claims to not "believe in science" and magic abounds in this strange world. Reader's hearts will ache for main character Henry and it is with relief when he finds his tribe and finally begins to make social connections. There is a romantic repartee between Grandfather and the librarian that I found a little unnecessary, but it will probably go over the head of the intended audience. Give to creative smart kids who enjoy books off the beaten path.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Strangers

Image result for strangers haddix coverThe Strangers
Margaret Peterson Haddix
HarperCollins, 2019 405 pages
Grades 5-8
Science Fiction/Mystery
Greystone Secrets series

Multiple points of view convey the story of the three Greystone siblings as their single mother leaves them in the care of a well-intentioned friend and disappears mysteriously. Stuck at the friend Ms. Morale’s house, the kids make reluctant friends with the sulky tween daughter, Natalie, who accompanies them back home to feed the cat. It is here that they discover a secret room beyond Mom's office and her cellphone. The cellphone contains predated texts to Ms. Morales with excuses of why she cannot return home. The secret room leads to a passageway to a neighborhood similar to their own-yet very different. Meanwhile, three kids sharing the same names, ages and features as the Greystones, have been kidnapped from their home in Arizona. Coincidence? Does the kidnapping tie-in with Mom's disappearance? The four young people decide to investigate to find Mom and then intend to rescue her, only they do not want to get Ms. Morales involved. What they end up finding is beyond their wildest dreams and more dangerous than they could have ever imagined.

I am a longtime fan of Margaret Peterson Haddix. Her unusual and adventurous plots have been popular with young readers for twenty-five years. The Strangers includes a mystery, an alternate universe, and dangerous situations, sure to appeal to fans. The alternating points of view with both male and female narration will invite readers of both genders. Chapter headings are labeled with the current narrator to eliminate confusion. There are plot twists that surprised me that were truly cool. The science fiction/alternative universe element was also fun and interesting. The other universe reminds me of the world of The Handmaid's Tale and will please young dystopian fans. The book was, in my humble opinion, a bit too long. The kids did find Mom, but were unable to rescue her and another complication was actually created insuring that the reader will pick up what is sure to be a second installment in a series. Lovers of codes and alternate worlds will find much to enjoy in this book, though the average reader may give up before the mystery is solved.