Tuesday, June 15, 2021



Nidhi Chanani
First Second, 2021
224 pages
Grades 3-8
Graphic Novel

Shaheen's father goes missing without a trace and it is up to her to find him. Luckily, she has her bestie, slightly older cousin Naz, to help. The investigation leads the girls to Dad's favorite record store, where as a collector he is a regular customer. Upstairs they find a mysterious jukebox that plays full albums. Plugging in the jukebox and putting on an album magically transports the girls back to the time the album was pressed, where they stay until the album finishes playing. Since the jukebox was unplugged they deduce that Dad is trapped in a different time period. There are albums scattered all over the floor. Which one was the album that transported and trapped Dad? The only way to find out is by trial and error and the girls are determined to spend their summer trying each one. They travel to many important time periods including Civil Rights and the fight for Women's Liberation. Unfortunately, all of this time traveling is causing physical pain to Naz. Can they find Dad before she can no longer time travel?

This is my kind of book. I love both music and time travel and it is clear that Chanani feels the same. Music is very powerful and can bring us back to the time that we listened to a particular song or artist. For this reason, a magical jukebox seems like the perfect conveyance for time travel. I love the events chosen by Chanani and readers will learn a bit about lesser known events of the past. Presented in full-color, the illustrations are vibrant and eye-catching, managing to illustrate music in an understandable way. I am a fan of the author/illustrator's other graphic novel for middle grades, Pashmina, and feel that this lives up to the original. A playlist at the end of the volume will lead readers to the songs highlighted within the pages and may broaden their musical tastes. The girls are diverse and Naz, who is older than Shaheen, is discovering that she is bisexual and eventually tells her conservative family, a plot-point told subtly, that will go over the heads of younger children. Lots of fun with something to say, this graphic novel is the perfect summer read for music lovers and non-music lovers alike.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Firekeepers Daughter

Firekeeper's Daughter
Angeline Boulley
Holt, 2021
496 pages
Grades 10-Up

Daunis has recently graduated from high school and is rearranging her college plans to be closer to home in order to help her mother and ailing grandmother after the tragic loss of her uncle. As the daughter of a mother from the white first-family in town and a father from the local Ojibwa community, Daunis has lived a lifetime of balancing between cultures and codeswitching. Life gets more complicated as young members of the Ojibwa community fall prey to meth addiction and are dying from overdoses. After a death hits too close to home Daunis is destroyed, finally agreeing to help the FBI in an undercover investigation to find the source of the drug's distribution. A handsome hockey playing undercover agent poses as her new love interest, gaining her further access to the team she was once a member of, and serving as a contact. Even though the relationship is all business, real feelings start emerging. Undercover work proves tricky and complicated, forcing Daunis to lie to friends and family as she works through the case, finds her identity and deals with the losses of her past. Twists, turns, and danger are around every corner. Will Daunis uncover the truth? And, most of all, will she survive the investigation?

Wow! What a debut! First time novelist, Boulley, sets the bar high with this highly readable, yet layered, novel. After long being ignored, books about indigenous cultures are trending. I figured that this novel was published to address the trend, yet when I kept seeing it starred, I began to take notice. Boulley creates a mystery set above the usual teenage fare that is both compelling and complex. I listened to the audio book and found myself catching bits and pieces whenever I had a chance and thinking about it through the course of my day. The action never stops and there are enough plot twists to delight even the most hardened mystery reader. There are a lot of characters and details to keep straight, but the author makes it all pretty clear and I was not confused. The length may turn off some teen readers, but the book reads quickly and is hard to put down. The reader will be as confused as Daunis in determining who are the good guys and who are the bad, yet it ends satisfactorily--not perfect, yet with closure and hope. At times disturbingly violent with instances of sexual abuse, this is a book for older readers and not for the faint of heart. Firekeeper's Daughter would make a great movie with it's exciting plot. So far, the best teen book I have read this year!

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Da Vinci's Cat

Da Vinci's Cat
Catherine Murdock
Greenwillow, 2021
288 pages
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction/Fantasy

Federico is a young nobleman, held as a political prisoner by the pope in sixteenth century Rome. Though not free to return home, he is welcome to come and go at will around the grounds, making friends with many of today's well-known Renaissance artists. One day to his surprise a man in strange clothes with an unfamiliar accent pops out of a mysterious wardrobe crafted by Leonardo Da Vinci accompanied by a cat. Federico makes friends with both man and animal and is sad when they return home via the same wardrobe. The man returns the next night, only to seek a signature from the famous Raphael on a sketch of a mysterious teenager said to have been created by the master. Meanwhile, present day Bee has moved to New Jersey and experiences a very strange encounter with the old lady next door, who seems to know her. When Bee discovers the wardrobe in the lady's attic, she travels in time and meets Federico. The two become friends and work together to get the coveted signature, preserving the chain of events in order for Bee's world to be untarnished. All hinges on the scruffy Michelangelo. Can two young people and a time traveling cat pull off the tricky scheme?

Newbery honor winner, Murdock, follows up The Book of Boy with another middle grade novel from the far past, this time leaving the Middle Ages for the Italian Renaissance. As before, she perfectly captures the mood and voice of the time and transports her audience to the Renaissance. Readers will enjoy seeing the human side of these great painters (I know I did!) and may be encouraged to learn more about their work. The time travel element brings another dimension to the tale and will draw modern readers into the story and make them feel more at home. The cat from the title is a minor character, yet serves to bring both timelines together, as he travels freely between both times and is the connecting thread. What is it about wardrobes that they are such a trusted vehicle for time travel? Maybe because they are contained and can hold a full person. Folks always seem to hop dimensions through either a wardrobe or a phonebooth. Regardless, I love the concept of time travel and find that young people do as well. This book will make their imaginations soar and dream about where they would like to go, given the chance. Adventure, fantasy, history, art, and gentle humor all rolled up in one carefully constructed package.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Leak

The Leak
Kate Reed Petty
Andrea Bell, Illustrator
First Second, 2021
Grades 3-6
Graphic Mystery

Ruth is an inspiring journalist. She puts out a weekly on-line paper called The Coolsletter and is working on building up her readership. While fishing with her friend Jonathan they discover weird sludge in the water at the local pond. Ruth suspects it is coming from the nearby golf course and is determined to delve into some investigating work. An interview with the owner of the golf course is less than satisfying and after she and Jonathan get caught snooping around it looks like they are at a dead end. Meanwhile, suspicious side-effects such as dental cavities and cancer are pointing to tainted drinking water. With help from a science teacher Ruth tests the water and is determined to share her results with the public. Big business opposition wants the results kept secret, but Ruth has her professional integrity to consider, as well as public health. What is the best course of action to proceed and can one middle school girl take on such a big problem?

Petty and Bell take on a weighty topic ripped out from the recent headlines in Flint, Michigan. Big business' effect on the environment is a concern to our world and clean water is essential to all life. Young readers will learn more about this crucial issue through this highly readable graphic novel. Ruth's passion and enthusiasm are contagious and readers will immediately cheer for her as she uncovers the clues in her investigation. Beyond the environmental theme, other topics include navigating boy/girl dynamics in middle school, family conflict, journalistic integrity, and making the ethical choice, even when grown-ups tell you something different. Ruth puts it all on the line to get to the truth and is rewarded, eventually, for her efforts. The full color illustrations are pleasing and help to convey the story. An author's note at the end delves further into journalistic integrity and determining "fake news", as well as challenging young people to stand up for the environment, tell the truth and speak up. An important message for the world today that will, hopfully, ispire young people to turn off their video games and make a difference.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Everywhere Blue

Everywhere Blue
Joanne Rossmassler Fritz
Holiday House, 2021
246 pages
Grades 5-8
Narrative Poetry

If seventh grade weren't confusing enough, Maddie's brother walks off his college campus and disappears. Where did he go--and why? As Maddie's family falls into chaos and confusion, she feels neglected and overlooked. Always an obsessed counter, her OCD kicks into high gear and she becomes consumed with playing her Oboe and possibly getting a solo, thinking that this will bring Strum back. Mom leaves to try to track Strum down, eventually joined by Dad. Teen sister Aria is distracted and starts to fall in with an unhealthy group of friends. As Maddie's continued feeling of helplessness continues, new relationships take hold and offer her guidance and support. A new club brings unexpected connections and slowly she starts to get a hold of herself. The police think Strum is dead, but Maddie and her family refuse to believe it. By book's end the truth behind Strum's disappearance is revealed and the family starts the healing process.

Family dynamics can be very tricky-especially when navigated by a twelve year old who does not understand everything that is happening. Debut author, Fritz, tells the story of this family's tragic struggles through verse. This lyrical form is a perfect way to convey the story, since Maddie and her family are musical. The book reads like music. It is beautifully and carefully written, yet still tells a story and never loses the narration or voice. The mystery of what happened to Strum is solved, perhaps a bit too neatly, but certainly satisfyingly and a clear-cut motive is offered. Readers will identify with Maddie's fear and frustration and experience first-hand what life with OCD feels like. Though finding solace through her Oboe, this also becomes a further vehicle of compulsion. The Environmental Club that Maddie joins to please her best friend becomes a saving grace and a healthy outlet. A well meaning friend suggests counseling for this family and after first reacting negatively, this seems to be the path they are thankfully willing to take, offering hope by book's end.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Taking Up Space

Taking Up Space
Alyson Gerber
Scholastic, 2021
259 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Sarah's whole life is basketball and relationship with her two best friends, who are also on the team. The team is slated to win the championship this year, only something is different. Sarah isn't as quick on the court and her body is unreliable. Coach explains that its just puberty and she will eventually settle into herself, but she hates sitting on the bench. Sarah's mom has always had weird food issues. There is often nothing to eat in the house-except sweets. Dinners leave Sarah feeling hungry and sometimes Mom even forgets to cook. Is Sarah not worthy of being fed? Meanwhile, Sarah's crush invites her to partner in a cooking competition. The problem is-one of Sarah's best friends likes him too. Should Sarah agree to partner with Benny? And how does she tell her friend? Sarah decided the answers to her problems will be to eat less, sticking to the short list of Mom approved foods. Disaster strikes in the middle of a game thanks to Sarah's new life-style choices, forcing her to seek outside help. Both Coach and the school counselor help Sarah and her family work through her troubles with both food and self-worth.

Alyson Gerber is the new Judy Blume or Norma Fox Mazer. This book, as well as Gerber's two previous titles, are reminiscent of the problem novels I came of age reading in the 1970's. Young people love these books: a kid has a problem and then learns to fix it. In Taking Up Space Gerber explores issues of changing bodies and self-confidence as kids enter puberty. All the women I know have issues of one sort or another about food. It is important to educate our girls (and boys) about healthy eating and embracing diverse body types. An author's note at the end touches on Gerber's own experiences and continued struggles. Beyond the obvious intention of the book, this is also a story of friendship and navigating the troubled waters of middle school relationships. Sarah solves both her relationship problems and eating struggles a bit too maturely and neatly to be realistic, but this is a kid's book. Readers will learn how to solve these dilemmas by following Sarah's example and find comfort in the clean resolution. Taking Up Space is a bit like watching an afterschool special, but will be gobbled up by the intended audience and raises awareness about unhealthy eating practices.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Houdini and Me

Houdini and Me
Dan Gutman
Holiday House, 2021
211 pages
Grades 3-6

Eleven year old Harry Mancini has always been obsessed with Harry Houdini, and not just because he lives in what was once the famous magician's house. After an unfortunate incident involving a train and a loose shoelace Harry wakes up in the hospital. A strange flip-phone is among the gifts and cards left by well-wishers. Harry is not allowed a cellphone. Has Mom changed her mind? Only one person texts him on the ancient phone--and that person identifies himself as the one and only Houdini. Is it really him? Harry isn't sure what to believe, but if anyone could contact him from the great beyond, it would be the world's all-time greatest illusionist. Before Harry knows what's happening he agrees to a time swap with the famous magician. Houdini takes over Harry's body and time for one hour and Harry finds himself upside down hanging from a skyscraper in a straight jacket. HELP! All of the 1920's onlookers think that he is the actual Houdini and think he is teasing that he can't get out. Harry must use his wits to get out of this sticky situation. Will he ever make it back to his own time? And how can he get rid of this pesky new friend?

Dan Gutman is truly the best. He is a prolific writer of children's books who knows what kids like to read. From the silliness of My Weird School for the chapter book crowd to the exciting Genius Files for older middle grade readers to Rappy the Raptor for emerging readers, Gutman puts out quality merchandise that is highly readable with lots of child appeal. This latest stand-alone novel features time travel, Harry Houdini, and a protagonist with a best friend who make questionable choices: a sure-fire formula for success. I enjoyed the story very much. The conveyance of Houdini communicating through a flip-phone is brilliant. Readers will know when Houdini is speaking because it comes through in ALL CAPS. The book ends like the Wizard of Oz with readers wondering, "Did that really happen?" Actual photos from both the time period and actual places in New York City will help to flesh out the story and encourage readers to keep turning pages. The cover, itself, is enough to attract and audience (it drew ME in). An easy sell to reluctant readers, Gutman hits another homer.