Thursday, September 22, 2022

Jennifer Chan is not Alone

Jennifer Chan is Not Alone
Tae Keller
Penguin Random House, 2022
274 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction/Mystery

Different timelines relate the first person account of Mallory Moss, who is reeling from the disappearance of her former friend and neighbor, Jennifer Chan. Current chapters show the disappearance of Jennifer, the community's reaction, and Mallory's involvement in the search. Through the chapters set in the past we get the backstory of the girl's initial friendship, Jennifer's preoccupation with alien life, troubles at school, and Mallory's eventual desertion of Jennifer in order to not be ostracized socially. Mallory eventually makes the choice to abandon her school friends, who she realizes are not nice people, to reunited with a former nerdy, yet smart friend, to get to the bottom of the disappearance. The two join forces with another girl and, through reading Jennifer's journals, attempt to figure out if she really did make contact with aliens. The plot reaches a crescendo as Mallory's worlds collide in order to save Jennifer, once she figures out where she is. Can Mallory get to Jennifer in time?

This is a deceptive book. At first glance it seems like a possible alien story with a mystery, but at its core is a friendship tale. Readers will experience firsthand what bullying looks and feels like, along with the possible motivations and consequences. Both sides of the equation are explored. An author's note relates Keller's own experience from middle school, which inspired this story and will bring authenticity to the tale. There are parts that were hard for me to read, as Mallory finally takes ownership of her actions and the reader gets the full truth behind Jennifer's disappearance. What I love about the book is that although there are some permanently severed relationships, the protagonists find redemption and forgiveness of sorts. Readers will see that no matter how horrible their life is-or they are-this time is not forever and there is hope for the future. in a time of tween/teen suicide, this is an important message. Other messages include identity, the importance of community, and accepting differences. Timelines are clearly labeled and easy to follow, interspersed with excerpts from Jennifer's journal. An important and surprising contribution from a Newbery Medal winning author.

Friday, September 16, 2022


Varsha Bajaj
Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2022
179 pages
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction

Minni lives with her parents and brother in the slums of Mumbai. She is blessed to go to a private school; the fees being paid by her mother's employer. Life is hard. Water is scarce and women must wait hours to obtain just enough to keep their families clean-ish and hydrated. The situation seems to be getting worse as the planet gets hotter and the water begins to run from the town pumps at a trickle. One night Minni's brother witnesses illegible operations by the water mafia and is spotted. He is no longer safe and must retreat to the country to lay-low for a while. Meanwhile, Mom is tired and ill. She cannot continue to care for the family and travels to her sister's house to rest and recuperate. Could it be cancer? Now Minni is left to care for the household and her father. To make matters worse, she must cover her mother's job working as a maid for a rich family until Mom returns. Minni is lonely, makes a terrible maid, and is performing badly at school. If she doesn't pass her tests, she will be forced to drop out. When all seems lost, help comes from unexpected places and Minni learns to fight for what is important to her.

I foolishly thought that this was a science fiction book set in the future where the planet was running out of water. To my surprise, it turned out to be a realistic contemporary story set in our current world. As Bajaj points out in an author's note at the end of the book, one in ten people on the planet live without access to clean water. It was an eye-opener to me (as it will be to young readers) that this is still a problem in 2022. Readers will identify with Minni, who is a typical young girl, yet must rise to very real challenges. She finds solace in her friendships and mentors, working through her problems with the help of community. Minni also has some ethical dilemmas to figure out, which she does successfully. Readers will walk away with a greater appreciation of basic resources that we take for granted, such as safety, water, food and education. Bajaj fully realizes the Mumbai setting and the struggles of daily life. A wonderful window for American kids into another area of the world of which they may not be familiar.

Monday, September 12, 2022

A Secret Princess

A Secret Princess
Margaret Stohl & Melissa De La Cruz
Putnam, 2022
389 pages
Historical Fiction
Grades 6-Up

Sara Crewe is sent to boarding school from the Philippines to learn to be a proper English lady and to continue her education. As a young woman of means, she is given the best of everything and is the target of spite and envy. Her only friend is loner and misfit, Mary Lennox, who arrived from India and also struggles to make friends among their peers. Their trio is completed by Cedric Erroll, who is confined to a wheelchair and has struggles of his own. The three friends mange to get in and out of trouble, all while writing plays, escaping the school for adventures in the dead of night, and generally finding fun within the confines of the bleak environment. When tragedy strikes Sara--and then Mary, all seems lost. They decide to run away together, only to find troubles and financially difficulties on the road. Eventually, Cedric reveals a secret identity and offers a place of sanctuary for the group of friends. It is here that romance blossoms, as a magical garden is discovered and healing finally can begin for all of the players.

This new book is a mashup of the three most famous books of Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy by the authors of the popular Jo & Laurie. I was very excited to crack into this title, being a fan of the originals author since childhood. The story takes many liberties and sets the novel when the young people are teenagers together in a horrible boarding school (presumably based on the school of A Little Princess). The characters felt younger to me than teenagers, so once they run away and the romance starts, it felt a little confusing. The Cedric character was also a little confusing. He was meant to be Little Lord Fauntleroy, yet fell into the role of Collin from The Secret Garden. Dicken also shows up and offers a romance of his own. I like that the authors put a bit of diversity into the very white stories and their love of the characters and their worlds clearly shows through. The voice is clearly set in the 1800's of the original books and the story is firmly set in the past, yet with the sensibilities of the present. This is the stuff of imaginings and dreaming about what could come next for some of our favorite characters and may inspire young readers to try their hands at some fan-fiction.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022


Ali Standish
HarperCollins, 2022
348 pages
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction/Mystery

Danny has reached a crossroads in his Appalachian childhood. His beloved father is off fighting in WWII, his mother is working at Dad's job at the paper while preparing to have an unexpected baby, he's fighting with his best friend, and dodging the town bullies. The brightest spot in his life is his friendship with older boy, Jack. Though a town hero for rescuing drowning twins, Jack lives with an abusive father, who is living with PSD from WWI. Jack often talk about "Yonder", a mythical place that his late mother would tell stories about when life with Dad became too hard. After Jack goes missing and no one in town seems too concerned, Danny takes it upon himself to find his lost friend. Alternating chapters relate the present search for Jack and the past, leading up to the current events. Eventually the truth behind Jack's disappearance is revealed, as Danny learns other secrets concerning respected residents of his community and the true horrors of war. Life becomes less black and white as he must take on more responsibilities at home and find the courage to do the right thing.

Veteran author, Standish, offers a great piece of historical fiction that is really much more. The alternating time periods slowly reveal the past and create suspense as the author leaves chapters at critical places and makes the readers wait to see what happens next. The search and truth behind Jack, as well as the bullies, brings the book into the territory of mystery and I was surprised at the outcome. Standish also raises awareness about the horrors of war, the truth about the Holocaust (and how many folks ion the Homefront didn't know it was happening), the importance of loyalty and standing up for what is right, and that bullying begins at home. The chapters set in the past are in a different font and printed on shaded pages, letting readers in on the switch in timeline. We grow up right alongside Danny, as he slowly realizes certain realities about his world, that he was too immature to previously see, and takes responsibility for his decisions and family. Extensive backmatter includes an author's note, historical information, and a discussion guide.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Cinder & Glass

Cinder & Glass
Melissa De La Cruz
Putnam, 2022
316 pages
Grades 7-12
Fairy Tale Retelling

Cendrillon moves from the French countryside with her father to the court of Louis XIV to learn to be a royal lady. The pageantry and rules of court life are confusing and exacting, made more tedious by unfriendly girls and the rude young prince/future king. Her only friends are servants, a boy of the court named Auguste, and her Godmother-who she hopes will become her stepmother. Those hopes are dashed as Father marries a strange woman he has just met, leaving her with a cold stepmother and mean-girl stepsisters. Cendrillon's father dies, practically out of the blue, leaving her to the stepmother's mercy, virtually turned into a servant. When a ball is announced, honoring the young future king and launching his search for a bride, Cendrillon is anxious to attend. The problem is, she has nothing suitable to wear and a host of uncompleted chores. Miraculously, her Godmother appears after a year-long hiatus to save the night where she catches the eye of the young prince. Suddenly, Cendrillon finds herself in a contest to become the bride of the future king of France. Will her stepmother stand in her way? Can she tap down the growing feelings that she is developing for Auguste? Most of all, if Cendrillon were to win the contest, does she really want to be the queen and does she have a choice?

Best selling author, De La Cruz, offers a retelling of perhaps the most famous fairy tale in the world, setting it in it's most traditional and well-known time and place. Though entrenched firmly in this world of French aristocracy, it is a realistic retelling with contemporary sensibilities. There is no magic--all of the elements of the traditional tale are explained by actual events. The stepmother is even more devious than in the child's tale, based on a figure from actual events, as explained in the author's note. Young readers will enjoy the obvious connections to "The Bachelor" (reminding me of The Selection) and the plot will quickly become comforting and of high interest. The cover is alluring and I found the book to read quickly, despite it's somewhat long length. Although romantic in nature, the plot remains "PG", making this choice appropriate for younger teens. Cendrillon has a dilemma deciding whether to follow her heart or go for security and readers will hold their breath waiting for her decision. Everything is satisfactory wrapped up by books end-with no sequels to wade through. This is the stuff of perfect beach reads for teens who need a bit of an innocent escape.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Omar Rising

Omar Rising
Aisha Saeed
Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2022
212 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Omar becomes the hero of his small village when he receives a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school: Ghalib Academy. He is very poor with limited opportunities, so this education could change the course of his small family. Omar is particularly excited about the activities and sports offered by the school and looks forward to making new friends. A surprise awaits Omar and the other scholarship students: They have to do chores to earn their keep at the school, an A+ average is required to stay, and they are not allowed to participate in any of the offered activities their first year. It is impossible! Omar is already behind, having an inferior early elementary education, and even studying day and night he cannot manage the unrealistic grade requirement. To make matters worse, the stern headmaster is his English teacher and seems out to get him. Do Omar and his friends have any course to beat the system and stay in the school? Does anyone else seem to care about this injustice? Omar learns to find his confidence and his voice and to fight for himself in this contemporary novel set in Pakistan.

A companion to Saeed's award winning Amal Unbound, the author turns her attention to Amal's friend, young Omar. Omar is smart, determined, and a hard worker. He must find his way through the discrimination facing the lower classes in order to get the education most of his classmates take for granted. Though it is set in Pakistan, many American students of different races and socio-economic backgrounds may relate to the struggles and prejudices he experiences. Omar is a likable character and readers will applaud his struggles and victories. American students may come to appreciate the free education that we tend to take for granted, though there are still more opportunities in better funded districts and private schools. A great choice for schools and book discussion, the plot is fairly linear and straight forward with topics to discuss. The chapters are short and the book reads quickly, making it a good choice for reluctant readers. Students will see a culture beyond their own, all while connecting to some of the conflicts Omar faces.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

They Both Die at the End

They Both Die at the End
Adam Silvera
Quill Tree/HarperCollins, 2017
384 pages
Grades 9-Up
Science Fiction

Alternating points of view tell the story of two teenage boys, Mateo and Rufus, who bond during their last day on this planet in the New York City of the near-future. They both get a call from Deathcast, a company whose job it is to inform folks that they will die that day, a little after midnight. Mateo's sole parent is in a coma in the hospital and he is afraid to leave his apartment. He reaches out on an app called "Last Friend" to possibly find someone to connect with. Meanwhile, when Rufus gets the Deathcast call he is beating up the boyfriend of his ex. Running from the cops, Rufus is separated from his friends and turns to Last Friend to avoid being alone on his final day. The boys meet and then spend the day wandering around New York, doing the things that they feel they need to take care of, saying goodbye to important places, and having fresh experiences. Throughout the long and life-changing day they make a true connection and develop feelings for each other. Have they both finally found love now that they are expected to die? Can they beat the system?

This is a book that I thought I read, but somehow missed. It came back on my radar while hearing about the upcoming prequel (The First to Die at the End) due out for release this October. It is having a day at my library right now, whether from excitement over the new title or word-of-mouth from teens who enjoy sad love stories, I'm not sure. This book is what I call a "concept book". It has such a great premise that it is an easy sell. I call it "science fiction", but the closer term would be "speculative fiction" since it's a gentle scientific advance and set in our contemporary culture. This story begs to be used for book discussion and teens will wonder how they would spend their last days and if they would want to know in advance their day of demise. I love that both of the characters are Latino, are written very distinctly and that the book is set in New York City (my favorite place :) I also love that there are some bonus characters with points of view who are defined at the beginning of the chapter as to whether they will be living or dyeing that day. They present some side stories that have relevance to the overall plot. My negative is that the story tended to get a bit "talky" for my taste and I had to roll my eyes at the falling in love in less than twenty-four hours. This could be because I am not the target audience. Teens will be all-in, hang on every emotion, and find their own hearts breaking. Though the middle dragged for me, the ending was great and a huge pay-off. All in all, I enjoyed the book and can see why it is a huge hit with teens.