Sunday, January 23, 2022

Amari and the Night Brothers

Amari and the Night Brothers
B.B. Alston
HarperCollins, 2021
408 pages
Grades 4-7
Fantasy
Supernatural Investigations series #1

Thirteen-year-old Amari does not have an easy life. The family is working poor and on the wrong side of the tracks. Her super-star and loving brother has been missing for many months and she is about to lose her scholarship to a private school after a bullying incident of which she was the target. An unexpected visitor brings a package and an invitation to an elite summer camp. The package contains glasses that once she puts on allow her to see an entire supernatural world that exists within our present. The camp is located at the secretive "Bureau of Supernatural Affairs" for which her brother worked. She begins training and auditioning for the position of "Junior Secret Agent", where she will track down the villains of the supernatural world. All campers have a supernatural power and Amari's is revealed to be the ability to wield magic, which is strictly forbidden at the agency for it's evil nature. Amari must prove that she has what it takes to be a Secret Agent, all while proving to the bureau that magic can be used for positive purposes, all while trying to find her brother and learning who to trust.

New author, B.B. Alston hits it out of the park with this new series entry. A cross between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson-yet completely original in its own right- Alston introduces a new supernatural world. This time the creatures are that of legend (Bigfoot, vampires, etc.) and the folks at the agency are trained to keep everyone in-line and the world safe from evil domination. Magic has traditionally been used for nefarious purposes, so Amari finds herself the outcast, yet again, in a program for which she naturally excels. The protagonist is spunky, brave, loyal and able to face challenges outside her comfort zone, serving as in inspiration to readers. There is bullying on several levels, but Amari continues to take the high road and prove herself worthy of her place in the program and does not sell-out to the evil villain. The concept is fresh and the plot is fast with twists, turns, and surprises. The main arc of the story is resolved, yet some plot points are left open, leading readers to the next installment, yet to be released. Highly readable with a contemporary setting and vibe both lovers of fantasy and "Muggles" will devour this book. I can't wait to see what will happen next, now that the world building is out of the way and Amari is established.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Best Books: The 2021 Edition

 Best Books: The 2021 Edition

Reflecting much of the unhappiness of our current world, many of the titles released in the past year were agenda-laden and heavy. Personally, I was looking for a diverting laugh in my reading. Ironically, my young readers have been reading a lot of Horror. It's just been that kind of a year! What follows are what I consider to be the best books that I read in 2021 with hopes that we find more fun, both in real life and publishing, in 2022.

Picture Books:


Milo Imagines the World
written by Matt de la Pena and Illustrated by Christian Robinson
At it's heart this is a sad story, yet Christian Robinson's characteristically colorful and happy drawings bring joy to a somber reality.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
by Carole Boston Weatherford and Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Recognizing the centennial of a terrible chapter in American history, recently deceased illustrator, Cooper, produces some of his best work. Though due to the nature of the subject matter I would never read to a group of children, I predict that this will will the 2022 Caldecott.

Watercress
written by Andrea Wang and Illustrated by Jason Chin
Chin is one of the best living illustrators of picture books. Breathtaking drawings help to tell the story of a young girl's embarrassment of an incident with her immigrant parents.

Middle Grade:


The Beatryce Prophecy
 by Kate DiCamillo
Chances are that kids won't pick this up on their own--and I'm tired of Kate DiCamillo always winning things, but she's so darn good! I loved the medieval escape, feminist message, and--yes--a few laughs.


The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
by Eugene Yelchin
Also little kid appeal, but an amazing book told through both text and illustrations by the author. Yelchin manages to make communist Russia relatable and funny.


Pony
by R.J. Palacio
Quite a departure from Wonder, this book was like nothing else I have ever read. Part ghost story/part western I was enchanted and on the edge of my seat all the way through.


Red, White, and Whole
by Rajani LaRocca
Beautifully written, narrative poetry captures the Indian immigrant experience of a girl who is not sure where she belongs with an ending that will shred your heart.


Teen:


Ace of Spades
by Faridah Abike-Iyimide
This suspenseful book had me on the edge of my seat and forced my jaw to literally drop in several places. Cleverly crafted, highly original, and timely in theme.
Concrete Rose
by Angie Thomas
I'm not seeing this on a lot of "best of" lists, but I loved it. Thomas tells Maverick's story (the Dad in the uber-popular The Hate You Give) nailing the voice and putting me in the story. I only hope that she goes a generation further to the 70's...
Firekeeper's Daughter
by Angeline Boulley
Clearly the best teen book of the year (in my opinion), a Ojibwe teen gets swept up in a mystery involving local murders and traditional medicine that puts her in personal danger and encourages her to embrace her identity. I couldn't put this title down.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Concealed

Concealed
Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Scholastic, 2021
304 pages
Grades 4-7
Mystery/Adventure


Katrina is use to keeping secrets and moving, since her family has been part of the witness protection program for the past three years. Because of an accident, she retains no memories of the time before and only knows life under the radar. Now Katrina and her parents find themselves in a trailer park and she has the opportunity to make her first friend. Parker is a boy with troubles of his own. After losing his mother to addiction he has been bounced around foster homes. An expert computer hacker, he has also had run-ins with the law. Parker agrees to help Katrina discover the secrets to her past, only before they can dive in too far what appears to be FBI agents swarm the traitor park and take Katrina's mother. The two youths hit the road and escape to what Katrina knows as a safe house. Their contact at the safe house "X" is fishy. Should they trust him? What is the truth behind Katrina's family's situation and her actual identity? All is revealed as Katrina and Parker work together to find safety and answers.

I was attracted to this title by the hook of the Witness Protection Program. I love books on this topic, Hush by Woodson being one of my favorites. To my surprise this book is so much more. Concealed is a mystery thriller that takes off at a break-neck speed, gains momentum and keeps getting better. The plot contains twists and turns that connect with real scientific advancements (as explored in an author's note) that read like science fiction. The truth behind Katrina's identity, "X", and her parents is really cool. There are surprises along the way that caught me off guard and will keep young readers turning pages. Reluctant readers, especially, will enjoy this book and it will easily appeal to both boys and girls. I was surprised to discover that more libraries in my system did not pick this title up. Maybe the cover doesn't help it? I have it on order and will certainly hand-sell it once it arrives. Hard to put down, give to fans of James Paterson and Margaret Peterson Haddix.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

One Great Lie

One Great Lie

Deb Caletti
Atheneum, 2021
384 pages
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction/Mystery


Growing up in a working-class dysfunctional family, Charlotte never truly trusted that her dreams of becoming a writer could come to fruition. On a lark she applies for a scholarship to attend a summer workshop run by her favorite writer, who is an international sensation, on his private island in Venice. To her surprise she wins! Charlotte finds herself in awe as she gets close to the great writer in a truly magical setting. To give herself courage she brings along a medieval book of poetry, her family legacy, by an unknown Venetian poet/ancestor. Can she find out more information about the long-dead poet and perhaps prove that her famous lover stole her work? A young librarian and potential love interest helps Charlotte navigate the investigation. Meanwhile, although the charismatic author is sharing time and energies with his charges and the extra attention he is showering on Charlotte is flattering, something seems a bit "off". When the opportunity for a day alone with this powerful man presents itself, Charlotte feels honored to be in his presence, but what are his true intentions? And how should be best handle them?

Printz honor winner, Caletti, presents a new novel with a lot going on. One main plot arc involves a mystery, as Charlotte and her new love interest, Dante, track down the facts of her ancestor's poetry and work to prove that her work, as well as her body, were stolen by a more powerful man. Meanwhile, in the parallel present Charlotte experiences her own hopeless situation, as the powerful male writer feels entitled to take whatever he wants, while dangling his connections and expertise as bait for Charlotte's compliance. After Charlotte escapes Italy, we see the aftermath and hopelessness of her situation, proving that what was going on in the medieval days is still happening within present culture. The true star of the book is the city of Venice. The author's love of the city comes though, as she paints it in vivid colors and the reader can nearly feel the rising waters. Each chapter is introduced by a brief tragic biography of a long-forgotten female Venetian poet, adding a layer to the narrative. The book was well written, but took me a while to get through. It was not a fun read and I was constantly nervous for the recent high school graduate as she navigated through the tricky waters. I also did not feel a connection between Charlotte and Dante, though that relationship offered contrast to the creepy advances of the much older man. A timely book with a lot to say in a beautiful city, though certainly not a light read.

Friday, January 7, 2022

The Genius Under the Table

The Genius Under the Table
Eugene Yelchin
Candlewick, 2021 
201 pages
Grades 4-7
Biography/Narrative Memoir


Newbery honor winner, Yelchin, relates his childhood growing up behind the iron curtain in Leningrad, USSR. Young Yevgeny's family must share a room in a communal apartment, where a soviet spy lurks behind the door waiting to report their secrets. In order to secure a private apartment in the communist nation, people have to be "extraordinary" by either moving up through the government or displaying a talent. Yevgeny's brother is an amazing figure skater and is sure to excel up the ranks of success, yet the parents are concerned about Yevgeny. He does not seem to display any exceptional trait. Mother, who in her past had dreams of becoming a ballerina, Works for the most important ballet company in the nation and feels that it may become a path for Yevgeny, who could be the next Baryshnikov. The problem is, Yevgeny is not particularly coordinated. He spends his nights on his cot under the large table in the family's room drawing on his wooden ceiling with pencil. Could he be a talented artist? His art teacher doesn't think so. What is a lively boy with no skills to do in order to stand out in this tricky society?

Thank goodness Yelchin finally discovered his talent and brought it to the United States, because his books are truly wonderful. He is an excellent author, as well as illustrator.  Though not as extreme as the boy in the Newbery honor Breaking Stalin's Nose, Yevgeny is an unreliable narrator, as he does not understand many of the secrets lurking underneath his day-to-day life. As he makes sense of his world and eventually finds his place in it, readers will be encouraged to discover their own talents and be inspired to know that life can get better. Even though the subject matter is serious, there is humor running through the narrative. Black and white comic illustrations, drawn by the author, grace the pages and enhance the text and reading experience. The story is nuanced and we see Yevgeny's understanding of his world unfold slowly as he grows and matures. All of the characters are expertly drawn and readers will feel as if we know them. No matter how great it is, kids will not pick up this book on their own--and if they do, chances are they won't understand it. The Genius Under the Table would be best shared with grown-ups and would make a terrific read-aloud.  Give to fans of the childhood memoirs of Jerry Spinelli and Gary Paulsen. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Van Gogh Deception

The Van Gogh Deception
Deron Hicks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
306 pages
Grades 4-8
Mystery/Adventure
Lost Art Mysteries series #1

A young boy is found alone in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Guards alert the police, who discover that he has amnesia and place him in a temporary foster situation. The foster family, consisting of a mom and a feisty ten-year-old named Camille, help him to find his name in his backpack: Art. To discover more memories the temporary family returns to the National Gallery to see if anything is stirred up. No memories return, but a kidnapping attempt forces Art and Camille to run through the streets of Washington dodging bad guys. Who is this boy, why does he have amnesia and why does he have an extensive knowledge of fine art? More importantly, why are the bad guys chasing the children? Art's backstory is finally revealed as he slowly regains his memory and he and Camille rush to avoid capture and solve the mystery, all while saving the day.

I always enjoy art heist mysteries. What made me pick up this book, which I missed when it was released, is discovering QR codes in the latest series installment (The Crown Heist). I am a sucker for an interactive layer in a children's book and wanted to see where the codes lead readers. Upon scanning, readers are taken to the art piece in question, exposing them to photos of the actual piece and further information directly from the host museum's website. I love this touch, though felt it was a bit under utilized. Possibly the book could have had codes leading to a map of the area as the kids dash around DC? At any rate, it is a great hook and will attract kids. The mystery is solid and the action never stops. The lost boy's history is satisfactorily revealed and the bad guys are captured, thanks to the kids. Readers will learn about art as they flip pages and the QR codes guarantee that they will check out the real info-instead of just skipping over back matter. Will I go on in the series? Probably not, but I will recommend it to reluctant readers that need a mystery suggestion. Diverting fun with an extra layer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne
Jonathan Stroud
Knopf, 2021
432 Pages
Grades 5-8
Fantasy/Adventure


In a dystopian England, teenaged Scarlett is alone and living by her wits. After robbing a bank and with the law on her heels, she escapes into the wilderness, carefully avoiding the "Tainted" (zombie-like creatures) and human-eating wild beasts. While exploring a bus, who suffered an unfortunate run-in with beasts, she encounters a fellow teenager locked in the bathroom. Albert Browne is much less savvy than Scarlett and must rely on her to get out of the wilds alive. The two youths begin to work as a team, narrowing escaping beasts, Tainted, and hitmen. But are the hitmen after Scarlett for the bank heist-or does Albert carry secrets of his own? Albert is not as he appears and he needs Scarlett's help if he is to survive. Scarlett, herself, is running out of options. She might as well hitch her cart to Albert's horse and escape with him to the free British Islands-if only they can find a boat and make it there alive.

I am a long-time fan of Jonathan Stroud and love his previous two series. This is a solid start of what appears to be a new series in a brand new fully realized world perfect for fans of Rick Riordan and James Dashner. Stroud's depiction of future England is bleak. Warring factions and weather disasters have made a post-apocalyptic nightmare, where citizens struggle for safety and the barest existence. Within this framework Scarlett is a fierce character who will dazzle readers with her courage and fighting prowess. Albert harbors interesting secrets that provide a twist and equals the playing field with his bold companion. The action moves quickly and violence is displayed at every turn, making this title more appropriate for older children and younger teens. The plot is great and the added magical elements are cool. I could see this story being made into a movie. Meanwhile, though the main arc of the book is concluded, readers can tell that there is more in store for our heroes and threads of both of their backstories are left dangling. Readers will eagerly wait for the next series installment to find out what is next-and what came before- for both Scarlett and Albert.