Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy

Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy
Angie Thomas
HarperCollins, 2023
351 pages
Grades 3-7

Nic's childhood is far from typical. She is being homeschooled and raised by her single father. Dad is an exiled "Remarkable", possessing magical talents, and must flee whenever an "Unremarkable" catches him performing his craft. This has made it tricky forging relationships, but things have been different in Jackson, Mississippi. Here has Nic has made a best friend, a preacher's kid named JD and she and Dad have plugged into the local magical community. As Nic turns twelve she knows that it's finally time for Dad to teach her how to wield her magic, only he puts her off yet another year. Why won't he teach her? Meanwhile, Nic and JD's favorite author is in town and she is forbidden to go to a local signing. Our fearless hero takes matters into her own hands, unleashing a series of events including hitting the road to fight the forces of evil and the discovery of Nic's true identity. Nic learns who to trust as she must use her reasoning skills and any resources she can muster to save the day and protect those she loves. Does Nic have what it takes to be a hero?

A magical story based on African-American folklore and history, this new trilogy starter has a lot to offer fantasy fans. The magical bits remind me of Harry Potter, yet the folklore element and non-stop action are more reminiscent of Percy Jackson. The dashing around and plot twists don't stop. I could have used a bit of quiet contrast to catch my breath, but it's not that sort of book and young readers will appreciate the adrenaline-induced plot. I liked the characters enough and found the magical creatures interesting. The book felt like it ran a little long and I started to get bored in places, but today's fantasy readers will not be deterred by length. Another negative for me was that I confused some of the words that Thomas uses (such as Msaidizi and Manowari) and thought that maybe a glossary would be useful. I applaud Thomas, who is a very successful young adult author, in spreading her wings and giving middle grade a try. I am sure that this book will find an audience and readership, it just didn't quite land with me. A cliff-hanging ending with some foreshadowing leads the reader to the second volume (yet to be released) in this projected trilogy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Parachute Kids

Parachute Kids
Betty C. Tang
Scholastic, 2023
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel

Feng-Li and her family travel from Taiwan to California for a vacation. They are greeted by friends and spend an exciting time traveling around and going to Disneyland. At the end of the vacation Feng-Li discovers that only Baba is returning home. The rest of the family will remain in the US and start school. When Ma's visa expires, she must also return to Taiwan, leaving the kids alone to navigate the new country. Teenage Sis is in charge and she takes care of all of the household chores, all while trying to succeed in school. Bro is slightly younger and having a hard time adjusting. He makes new shady friends and falls into some bad habits. Meanwhile, Feng-Li, who is now called "Ann", is struggling with English and fitting in. She is lonely and unhappy. Why is the only other Chinese-speaking girl in her class mean to her? What is going on with Bro and his secret life? Life goes from bad to worse as summer sets in and Ann is beyond bored. The financial situation of the small family changes for the worst and then a tragedy forces the kids to confess to their parents that life alone in America is as not smooth as they pretend.

I was not familiar with the term "Parachute Kids" (kids dropped into the US with parents still living in the home country) until I read this book. Inspired by the author/illustrator's actual experiences, readers will see the struggles of immigrating families who are desperate for a better life for their children. Some of the issues presented are intense, but Feng-Li/Ann remains child-like in her perceptions and the serious situations are balanced by humor. The kids find a way out of their problems, which is resourceful, and the story ends with a sense of hope and togetherness. The full-color illustrations will attract readers. I appreciate that Tang uses different color speech bubble/fonts to indicate if the characters are talking in English or Chinese. A author's note at the end of the volume will further educate readers about this experience and two photos of Tang during her youth are included. The story is set in the past (Feng-Li longs for a game boy and there are no cellphones), but feels like the present and young readers will relate to the characters. This story will find an audience, especially among fans of graphic memoirs and the uber-popular Front Desk series by Kelly Yang.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Middle School, the Worst Years of My LIfe
James Patterson & Chris Tebbetts
Laura Park, Illustrator
Little Brown, 2011
281 pages
Grades 5-7

Rafe is starting middle school off with a bang. He and his sole friend Leonardo have decided to make a splash and liven things up by breaking every rule in the school handbook. Leonardo is keeping track of points and issues the challenges and Rafe executes the stunts. This has put him on the radar of the school administration, as well as the class bully. Rafe want to impress his good-girl crush and hopes to get her attention--which he succeeds at, though not the way he envisioned. Meanwhile, homelife is less than stellar with Mom's boyfriend Bear lounging around the house and barking orders, all while mom has to work double shifts to support them. Rafe's stunts and doodles in his top-secret notebook keep him going. Everything changes when the bully gets ahold of the top-secret notebook and starts to extort cash from Rafe. To make matters worse Rafe's poor academic performance is catching up with him. Will Rafe be doomed to spend the rest of his life in middle school?

James Patterson is not concerned with winning awards with his books for young people. He is determined to write books that kids will want to read. This series starter, though over ten years old, continues to be a hit among my middle graders and an easy sell. The premise alone will attract reluctant readers, but throw in the comic-like illustrations and you have a hit. The copy I picked up from my library has pages gone soft from use, rips everywhere, and a spine that stays open wherever you open the book: a sign of many repeated reading. Yes the main character is fresh and a committed underachiever along the lines of also popular Big Nate, but the story is genuinely funny. Readers will feel powerful and confident knowing that at least they aren't as bad as Rafe, who even at his worse, is grammatically correct and not doing a disservice to floundering readers. Rafe proves to have a kind teacher who saves the day, an understanding mother with the patience of Job, and a surprising ally in his goodie-goodie crush. I appreciate that Patterson gives credit to his co-writers, in this case Chris Tebbetts, and helps new talents in the profession get a step up. Over-all a continued winner that kids will read and look for the sequel.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Elf Dog & Owl Head
M.T. Anderson
Candlewick, 2023
229 pages
Grades 3-5

Clay is stuck in his house during a pandemic with only his parents, moody older sister, and kooky younger sister for company. Even virtual school is a problem with his sister hogging the family's sole computer. One day a strange dog shows up in the woods and Clay knows they are meant to be together. No one claims the unusual dog and Elphinore (for that's her name) and Clay escape every day into the woods having adventures. It turns out that Elphinore is from the magical Kingdom under the Mountain who escaped during a wyrm chase. When Clay is with Elphinore he can see paths, creatures, and even other towns that aren't visible to the mortal eye. Through his fabulous dog Clay meets Amos, an old fashioned boy with an owl head. The two become fast friends, exploring the woods together and having adventures. Eventually the adventures lead to trouble, both boys are punished, and Clay is stuck in the house. A plan is concocted for midsummer's night when the veil between worlds is thin and an otherworldly party is planned. Clay's sisters get involved and at first all is festive. When Elphinore's folks from Under the Mountain discover their missing hunting dog they want revenge. What follows is an unpredicted disaster that will change everyone's lives forever.

M.T. Anderson can write. I have been following his career since Feed (a book I still think about often) came out in 2004. All of his books are different in style, genre, and intended audience. This book is different than anything else he has put out, yet still offers interesting characters, a creative plot and stays with the reader long after the cover is closed. Set during the initial days of the Covid crisis, the story is less self-indulgent than other books penned by established authors during lockdown. Anderson manages to capture the feelings of children during this time and not projecting adult feelings onto a child character. Readers will relate to Clay's love of his new dog and desire to find a friend. The fantasy element is creative and seamlessly inserted into modern reality. Illustrations, contributed by Junyi Wu, may draw readers into the book and add to the somber mood, but I found them unnecessary. The book reads quickly, is relatively short, and would make a great read aloud for teachers and parents. The story doesn't end perfectly for the family, but I love that and readers will leave with a sense of hope and that all is as it should be. Similar in structure and voice to The Nest by Oppel, this will probably be one of my favorites of the year.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

World Made of Glass

World Made of Glass
Ami Polonsky
Little Brown, 2023
276 pages
Grades 5-7
Historical Fiction

Iris's life is crumbling. Her parents divorced two years ago when her father realized that he was gay. Dad moved into an apartment with JR in Iris's New York City building in order for them to remain close. Iris hates JR for both taking her Dad away from the family and, now, for infecting him with HIV. It is 1987 and help for those infected by the virus is years away. When the teachers in Iris's school are informed of Dad's illness, some treat her differently, one even thinking that she will infect him when she gets a cut on her finger. Dad's story ends sadly and Iris is devastated. Through her mourning she finds herself growing closer to JR as they both navigate the choppy waters of grief. Some of Iris's friends react strangely once they learn the truth behind Dad's illness, but a new student is sympathetic and everything gets that much more complicated when Iris gets her first crush on this new friend. Iris finds some solace in getting involved with an AIDS awareness group and participating in demonstrations. Getting involved can't bring Dad back, but Iris can fight for rights of those still battling the disease and help to spread the correct information. Everyone thinks Iris is strong, but she knows otherwise. Can she figure out a way to move forward to to make some sense of her broken heart in this broken world?

This story ran very close to my heart. I lived through the AIDS crisis and traveled on the journey with an infected close friend. I love that there is an approachable novel for young people that shares that experience with this current generation. The time is ripe. Today's kids have just lived through a pandemic and will have a new appreciation for those that loomed before. Iris is a likable yet flawed protagonist to whom kids will relate. Her anger at her Dad's partner is realistic and the author shows Iris's gradual acceptance of JR in a believable way. The discrimination faced by Iris and her family for both their lifestyle and exposure to the disease also has relevance today. I love that Iris and her father (and eventually JR) exchange poems, encouraging readers to break out a few of their own to help process feelings. There is a crush, but the situation remains innocent and age appropriate. The story does not end fully on a happy note, though Iris has found some peace and a better sense of who she is. Yes, my heart broke while reading this novel, but there are young readers who love a sad tale and this will more than fill the bill.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Big Tree

Big Tree
Brian Selznick
Scholastic, 2024
525 pages
Grades 4-Up

Caldecott Winning, Seznick, offers another text/illustrated hybrid where the words and pictures work together to tell the story. Louise is a tiny Sycamore seed. Her brother Merwin is her best friend and helps to interpret the world from the safety of their big mother tree. The siblings life is shattered when a huge fire forces them from their mother and out into a big and dangerous world that does not make sense. They must battle many dangers including dinosaurs, volcanoes, and hostile environments, where seeds cannot take root and grow. Merwin finds himself stuck for many years in such an environment, where he at last learns to listen to the voice of the earth just as he struggles for survival. Eventually Merwin and Louise are united again--and this time a huge surprise is in store for him. The story ends with a child in a city who finds a little seedling in a crack in the sidewalk and the cycle starts all over again.

Selznick is amazing! He is uber-talented and his masterpiece Wonderstruck is, in my opinion, one of the best books ever created for middle grade readers. For this reason anything he creates will be published, even if it may not connect to what is considered the target audience. Big Tree is an important story spanning millenium. It has environmental themes and demonstrates the interconnectivity of the natural world. Any book featuring dinosaurs is a draw, so this alone could help to sell the volume. The problem is the story is a bit too esoteric for kids and will go over the heads of many. The illustrations are plentiful, as beautiful as always, and help to tell the story, but are sometimes a bit muddy and loose and I had a hard time understanding what was going on. The good news is, as with Selznick's other titles, the book reads quickly, but the thickness of the volume will put young readers off. It will certainly take some hand-selling and may work best as a one-on-one read aloud. An afterward offers some scientific explanation to the events in the story, as well as the author's journey writing the book, which kids won't care about. This is a gorgeous piece of literature and illustration that will best be enjoyed by fans of the author or artsy adults.

Monday, April 24, 2023

The Windeby Puzzle

The Windeby Puzzle
Lois Lowry
HarperCollins/Clarion, 2023
186 pages
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction

Newbery award winning author, Lowry, adds personal narration to a real life archeological find: The Windeby Child. Discovered in 1952 in a German bog, these remains are that of a 2,000 year old teenager, first thought to be a girl and later discovered to be a boy. Lowry suggests two connected tales that may explain how the young person died, only to be preserved by the bog and discovered centuries later. The first tale features Estrild, a young teen on the brink of maturing. She resents the choiceless and drudgery-filled life of women in her village and disguises herself as a boy, trying be inducted into the team of warriors. The second stories stars Varick, an orphan with a physical disability. His life choices are also severely limited and he works for the blacksmith for his meager existence. Always interested in nature and science, when his boss is injured, he knows what to do to fix the problem from observing animal anatomy. The blacksmith survives, but life deals Varick a different hand. The stories are linked on either end by the author's narration and commentary, providing a journey to the iron age that is fictional, yet seeped in fact.

Beginning with a full-color photo of the discovery of the Windeby skeleton on the endpapers, I was instantly intrigued. Lowry sets up the premise and puzzle (How did the Windeby child die?) and then offers two possible explanations. Both characters are featured in each other's stories and the bones of the ancient German village remain the same. Beyond the commentary, the stories are held together by compelling illustrations of an owl, contributed by Jonathan Stroh, who is also present in the tales. Lowry clearly did her research before hopping onto the iron age and extensive backmatter gives further information, photos of relics, and a bibliography. Book discussion questions are also included, which I always appreciate. I am interested in archeology and found this book compelling and a quick read. That said, I'm not sure that the target audience will feel the same way. Kids struggle with a long-winded introduction and will not appreciate the author's commentary. I enjoyed the non-traditional approach to storytelling, but am not sure if kids will care. They prefer an exciting story with maybe some true information at the end. Another potential problem is that the "puzzle", as advertised in the title, never gets solved. I thought the book would be a mystery. It was of sorts: a real-life historical mystery. The problem is that there is no clear-cut solution, which will frustrate middle-grade readers. A fun book for the archaeologically or historically minded, but maybe not for the average tween.