Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The List of Things That Will Not Change

Image result for list of things that will not change coverThe List of Things That Will Not Change
Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb/Penguin, April, 2020 224 pages
Grades 3-6
Realistic Fiction

"The List of Things That Will Not Change" is written in a notebook given to Bea two years ago by her parents as they announce their divorce, brought about by the Dad's discovery that he is gay. Now it is the present day and Dad is planning his wedding to Jesse, bringing Bea not only a stepfather, but an aunt she adores and a new sister. As an only child Bea has always longed for a sister, yet Sonia seems difficult to get to know, even though they are the same age. To complicate matters Bea's cousin is suffering from Bells-Palsy and she feels responsible from an incident that happened the summer before. Bea struggles with anxiety and eczema, which seems to flare up when under stress. Visits with her therapist seem to help, yet she still has a hard time adjusting to change and is sensitive to the needs of others. Will this wedding be the joyous occasion Bea hopes it will be or will external factors, other family members, and Bea’s anxiety mar the happy event?

Stead generally writes layered stories that contain a fantastical element or a mystery. This is a sweet linear story that is character driven and delivers exactly what is promised. Readers will enjoy getting to know Bea, who truly feels like a friend by book's end. Bea is a fully realized character who suffers from worry and ill-placed guilt. Many children will sympathize and relate to her. The chapters are short with interesting names and the book reads quickly. Though the plot is simple and quiet, the story is enchanting and I could not put it down. This is the second book in a row that I have read with a divorce/gay father, proving that this is an issue that many children are currently dealing with. Growing up in the 1970's, divorce became common, yet there were few books previously written on the topic. Suddenly, the market was flooded. Kids are still struggling with divorce, yet in new and different ways, and the market is reflecting this. In both recent books the divorce is extremely friendly and the child is protected and emotional needs are met. This is a positive example for the best way to dissolve a family and Bea is made to feel safe and loved at both of her homes. Stead also deals with issues of anxiety (a wide-spread problem in today's children) and misplaced guilt in a reassuring manner. Although a terrific book to hand to kids in similar situations, all readers will enjoy spending time with Bea and her family.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Dear Sweet Pea

Image result for dear sweet peaDear Sweet Pea
Julie Murphy
Harper Collins, 2019 282 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Sweet Pea is preparing to graduate seventh grade and begin eighth in her Texas combined high school. Life has been extra confusing ever since her parents have divorced and now Dad lives in an identical house two doors down. Sweet Pea's best friends are loyal Oscar and Cheese the cat, ever since she fell out with her former BFF, the class Queen Bee. To make matters worse, she feels conspicuous and vulnerable because of her unconventional body type and very public family situation. When an elderly neighbor and the town's advice columnist asks for her help when leaving town, Sweet Pea takes the job seriously. The neighbor's home becomes a solace and she takes a crack at answering some of the letters. One such letter comes from her former BFF and Sweet Pea begins to see life from someone else's perspective and understand and sympathize with her nemesis. The old friendship is restored, yet Oscar feels slighted. How can Sweet Pea balance two separate homes and two separate friends, all while keeping her secret writing a secret?

Julie Murphy is an established writer for young adults, who is now bringing the world of body positivity to middle grade. Kids will applaud Sweet Pea's character and feistiness, while coping with weighing more than her peers and processing her parent's very public divorce. The reason behind the divorce-Dad's discovering that he is gay-has rocked the small Texas town and Murphy tackles the issue of small-town homophobia. Sweet Pea's teacher is comfortably gay and in a committed relationship without drama and Oscar is working out his sexuality, all while being a teenage wrestler, displaying that this is part of life and does not have to be a scandal. Murphy nails the different characters and shows that people have layers and are not always what they seem. My favorite character is the elderly neighbor, who is understanding with a cool taste in music, though outwardly gruff and eccentric. It is a bit unrealistic that Sweet Pea successfully fills in for the neighbor writing the column, as well as the situation’s remedy, yet readers will enjoy putting themselves in the same situation and may even try their hand at writing on their own. Filled with gentle humor, kids will fall into Sweet Pea's world and appreciate this quiet story, which is more about dealing with friends and family issues than the advice column hook. A comforting story for kids struggling to navigate the world in which they are thrust and feel as if they have little control.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Harry Potter Revisited

Image result for harry potter seriesHarry Potter Revisited

My entire professional career has revolved around Harry Potter. I was only four years into the library biz when the Sorcerer's Stone hit American shores, bumped Goosebumps off the trending series list and started the mania for fantasy. The children's book industry was never the same, as readers became comfortable with longer books, the market became clogged with new fantasy titles, and adults started to secretly read children's books on the subway. An instant classic, the series popularized the sub-genre of magical realism to a young audience. I personally read each title as it was released--quickly in order not to have the ending spoiled by an enthusiastic young reader-- and even stood on line for hours, eight months pregnant, to meet J.K. Rowling and get Prisoner signed. With every new release, including the accompanying movies, I hosted a Harry Potter themed event at my library. Our biggest event of all was a Harry Potter lock-in to celebrate the release of the Deathly Hallows in 2007. Over one-hundred kids attended the event and attended classes at Hogwarts all evening, led by teenage prefects. At midnight we released the new title and Dumbledore read the first chapter.

After living with the boy wizard and his friends for ten years I needed a break. I stopped hosting Potter events and waited for the mania to die down and fade away. Thirteen years later I am still waiting. I have ordered and reordered countless copies of the various titles. My library currently owns twelve copies of The Sorcerer's Stone and only one copy is presently in. And this is our slow time of year. After taking a break from Harry, I gave into the pressure to host another event last year. "Holidays at Hogwarts" was planned during Christmas break 2018. Approximately fifty want-to-be wizards arrived, dressed in Harry Potter gear, excited to share their knowledge and to get together with other enthusiasts. As I asked the children trivia questions--and they knew so much more than I could remember--I realized that in order to do my job effectively, I needed to re-read the series. I managed to put this off for about six months, yet this fall I finally got to it: finishing The Deathly Hallows only yesterday.

Does the series hold up? Is it still worth the hype? I have to say: absolutely YES! I think I even enjoyed the books more the second time around, not being pressured to plow through as quickly as possible. The funny thing about this series is each title starts off like any other book, but something truly “magical” happens towards the middle of the story. I don't know how Rowling does it, but they become addictive, almost like a drug, and you can't stop reading until you get to the end. For some reason, the books become impossible to read slowly or put down. The plots are well formulated, the characters are distinctively endearing, and Hogwarts immediately becomes a cozy home that readers will want to visit again and again. A wonderful read-aloud, as well as a read-alone, families can share the series together. I would recommend reading the books before the movies. The movies are fun, but the books are richer. Also, parents should be aware that J.K. Rowling intended her readers to be the same age as Harry, which starts at sixth grade and moves up a grade each book, and they get a bit scary. Also, the reading level is high and the vocabulary is advanced. Kids often start the books before they are ready and then think that they don't like them. For my money, it is my favorite series of books and will be enjoyed by all readers, even if they don't think they like magic. Harry is a regular boy and brings magic to a typical and grey "Muggle" world. We can all use escapist magic in our life and this series fills the bill perfectly.

I managed to fall in love with the Harry Potter series all over again. A sorted Hufflepuff, I would love to take over Madam Pince’s position in the Hogwarts library, especially since she is so crabby and unworthy of the cool job. This re-read has inspired me to plan another major lock-in for this coming summer to coincide with Harry's 40th birthday on July 31st. Recently a young man came into the library who told me that the Deathly Hallows lock-in was the highlight of his childhood. I invited him to participate in the upcoming lock-in as a professor and he excitedly agreed. The Harry Potter series has produced generations of fans and the original readers now read the books to their own children and are librarians and teachers. J.K. Rowling has not only changed the face of children's literature, but completely shifted our culture, bringing magic to the Muggle world. Thank you, J.K. Rowling! If you haven't read Harry Potter yet, please do! If you have read Harry Potter, maybe it’s time for a re-read. I can’t think of a better way to escape the winter doldrums and rekindle the imagination.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Magic Mirror

Image result for magic mirror branchesThe Magic Mirror
Anna Staniszewski
Macky Pamintuan, Illustrator
Scholastic/Branches, 2019 90 pages
Grades 2-4
Fantasy/Fairy Tale/Mystery
Once Upon a Fairy Tales series #1

Bookworm, Kara, ventures to her best friend Zed's house to escape a heatwave. Zed, a royal messenger, discovers a letter from Aspen, the Ice Princess. It has melted open and explains that winter cannot come because her magic mirror is broken. Kara and Zed decide that they must travel to the Ice Palace in order to save the world from heat and draught. Once they arrive Princess Aspen is rather nasty and not grateful for the help. She suspects that her sister, Princess Sola, is responsible for the broken mirror to keep summer in the land forever. The two sister-princesses have been feuding for many years over custody of their shared pet monkey. Will they ever work out their differences in order to set the weather to rights? And can Kara and Zed discover the true culprit behind the broken mirror?

First in a new series in the Branches line of early chapter books from Scholastic, Once Upon a Fairy Tale delves into a magical fairy tale kingdom unconnected to the world of Disney. Newly independent readers will appreciate the linear plot and gentle mystery that is solvable, though not too obvious. Although the story involves a magic mirror, it is not Snow White's tale and the series seems to incorporate traditional fairy tale elements without the same old reimagined characters. Kara and Zed will appeal to a wide range of kids and offer many readers someone to identify with. The illustrations are plentiful and can be found on literally every page, making this choice perfect for emerging or reluctant readers. This coming summer's reading club theme will be fairy tales and this new series will fit in nicely and find an enthusiastic audience. The Branches series is high interest with a low reading level and we buy multiple copies of all of the titles at my library as they fly off the shelves. This new series will be no exception and is an easy sell. A second in the series has been released this past December with the third and fourth set for release in April and August 2020.