Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘middle grade

cover image for Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As GhostsDragonbreath: No Such Thing as Ghosts by Ursula Vernon

It’s Halloween night and Danny and Wendell – and the skeptical, scientific minded Christiana Vanderpool – have just encountered something far more dangerous than any monster: Big Eddy the bully. When Big Eddy dares Danny to go inside a house that everyone says is haunted, Danny isn’t worried about being seen as a coward, but he figures the house can’t possibly be any worse than having to deal with Big Eddy, no matter how scary it looks.  But is Christiana right? Are there really no such things as ghosts? Or is there really something not quite living lurking inside?

The comfort of series is that we know what we are getting. Which can sound boring and immature, but often that depends on the reader and author.  When you are 8 and still learning to read, familiarity is actually a useful trait to find in a book.  And there’s nothing boring about knowing that what you are going to get is an excellent story.  For even five books in, Vernon’s Dragonbreath series is still brilliant and funny and clever and fresh.

There’s lots to adore about this series, as I’ve talked about before, but what struck me most while reading this installment is how well-rounded the female characters are.  Quite often books that feature boys and/or are meant “for boys” (by people who divide books up in that sort of way) have female characters that are caricatures, but not so here. Dragonbreath may focus on boy characters, but the girls and women (or, rather, female lizards and such) all have personality and opinions.  And even when their opinions are incorrect (according to the boys, or the narrative) they are never framed as unreasonable or silly or lesser.  They remind me a bit of Sayer’s books in that sense, despite the obvious other differences.

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cover image for CathedralCathedral by David Macaulay

When lightning strikes and irrevocably damages the cathedral in a medieval French town, the church and citizens embark on the century long project of building a new, modern, gothic cathedral.

David Macauley’s classic has been updated with more accurate information and new color sketches.  I have to admit that I miss the black and white illustrations, but it’s also true that that’s mostly nostalgia talking.  Macauley’s art is as detailed and absorbing as ever, and together with the story he weaves, the pages bring to life a people and time long past.

cover image for The Freedom MAzeThe Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Thirteen year old Sophie longs for an adventure like the ones she reads about in books. But instead, she’s stuck spending the summer of 1960 with her aunt and bedridden grandmother, in a smallish house at the edge of what was once a grand sugar plantation.  So she passes time reading books and exploring the bayou, waiting for fall to come.  Until the day she attempts to find her way through the once magnificent hedge maze, and finds something unexpected at the other end.

This is not a book that I can be objective about, in any way.

My maternal grandfather’s family comes from Georgia.  My mother grew up in the south – the deep south – in the 1950s and 1960s.  Until she turned 13 and her family moved to California, finally to stay.

In the Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman has written a story that doesn’t often get told. A story about family ties denied and forgotten – and others that are unbreakable even against the greatest of odds.  About what the antebellum south was really like – and about what it means to be nostalgic for a time when owning other people was legal.

I feel like she’s telling me the story of my family that no one ever admits to.

My uncles will joke about being taught about “the War of Northern Aggression.”  And my mother has rarely ever looked as sad as she did when I asked her, incredulously, if her hometown had separate water fountains when she was growing up.  But it always feels like there’s so much missing.  So much left unsaid.

My family would not find it flattering that I see us in these pages, but oh how I do.

It’s true that in making this story about Sophie, Sherman has centered Sophie’s point of view and growing awareness of her privilege over the the experiences and courage of her newly discovered family.  Which is frustrating for obvious reasons.

And yet…

And yet I know that this is a story that needs to be told as well.  My niece needs to grow up understanding what it means that her family is from the south.  It’s not enough that she maybe sort of learn it once she’s an adult.

And I don’t know how to explain it to her, in large part because I don’t really have that understanding myself.

But I can give her this book.

cover imafe for Ellington Was Not A StreetEllington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

it hasn’t always been this way
ellington was not a street

Once upon a time, the greats of the Harlam Renaissance were more than just a memory.  They talked and laughed and sang and played and discussed the issues and events of the day.  Presented from the point of view of a young girl whose house was a gathering place for these great men, Ellington Was Not a Street shows readers how solid and real and human these legends were.  Told in poetry and pictures, Nelson’s rich and detailed illustrations are a perfect compliment to Shange’s elegant language.

The short biographies at the end was a wonderful addition, but the book did leave me wondering where all the women were.

cover image for Thunder RoseThunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen, illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Rose was born on an auspicious night, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning. Her parents knew as early as that first night that Rose was something special, full of power and talents beyond that of ordinary children.  As she grew, so too did the tales about the amazing things Rose could do.  But when drought threatens her family’s cattle, and the survival of her frontier town, can Rose fight weather itself to bring rain and thunder back to her home?

Told in the tall tale tradition, Thunder Rose is an engaging and delightful story of a confident young heroine.  The rhythm and imagery of Nolen’s words evokes the folklore that inspired her book, and Nelson’s illustrations are as wonderful as ever, with action and expression on each page.

cover image for Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Rolihlahla became Nelson when he began school and his teacher refused to call him by his Xhosa name.  Although life was not fair or easy for blacks in South Africa, Nelson Mandela worked hard and eventually became a lawyer.  As the South African government enacted more and more discriminatory and unfair policies, Nelson used his talents and education to defend his people.  Despite the danger of speaking out against apartheid, Mandela became a leader, organizing rallies in support of the rights of blacks and enduring years in jail in his fight for a better South Africa.

Kadir Nelson’s illustrations never fail disappoint, but this is a particularly gorgeous book.  His style is the perfect compliment to the history being told, presenting moments of quiet reflection or vibrant energy as needed.

cover image for We Are The ShipWe Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

The rule that barred blacks from joining the National and American leagues was never posted on a sign or written into law, but that didn’t make it any less real.  So greats like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played instead for the Homestead Grays and other teams in the Negro League.  Adored by fans and treated like stars when they would tour in Latin America, the players in the Negro League still had to often take care to leave town before sundown when they were on tour in the US.

Full of stunning paintings and amazing stories, Kadir Nelson’s award winning book shares a part of history that is often overlooked.  While Nelson’s artwork is always the star of his books, the research and skill that went into the text is noteworthy as well.  Told in vernacular and from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who was alive to see the Negro Leagues in action, We Are the Ship‘s memorable voice appropriately centers the black experience rather than assuming a white audience.  The dynamic artwork captures a variety of experiences and moments, and suitably brings to mind both Norman Rockwell paintings and sports photography.

cover image for Coretta ScottCoretta Scott by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

When Coretta Scott was a young girl, she would walk five miles in the early morning dew just to attend school, while the white children rode the bus to theirs.  When she grew to be an adult she fought for equality, tirelessly and despite personal tragedy.

Shange’s poetry is once again elegant and evocative, while the repetition in Nelson’s always remarkable paintings this time also echo the rhythm of the text.  A part of me wanted more particulars in the poem about her work after her marriage, but the  short biography at the end of the book helped with that.

cover image for The Fly on the WallFly on the Wall by E. Lockhart

Gretchen Yee knows that the way to fit in at her alternative arts focused high school is to stand out, but she can’t quite manage to stop getting noticed for the wrong things.  In fact, her problems just keep piling up: Boys baffle her.  All of them, really – but especially Titus.  Her drawing teacher is less than appreciative of the comic book style art she favors.  Then there’s the news that her parents are getting a divorce, and her dad is moving out.

In a moment of frustration, Gretchen wishes that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys locker room, to see what they are like when they aren’t around girls. Maybe then she could at least figure boys out.  Then she gets her wish. Literally.

I can’t overemphasis how weird this book is.  Because yes, it’s a remake of metamorphosis, set in an alternative high school in New York City.  It’s also fun and quite brilliant, tackles bullying, friendship, and of course dealing with crushes, lust, and hormones.

Needless to say, Gretchen spying on the boys is hardly an appropriate thing to do, but she’s a fly o the wall and therefore has remarkable peripheral vision and she’s trapped in the room – not peeking through holes in the wall.  Most importantly, Lockhart handles the situation really well, both in terms of Gretchen’s decisions and how the boys are treated by the narrative.

cover image for Our Only May AmeiliaOur Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

May Amelia is the only girl in her family, and she just so happens to also be the only girl among the pioneers who have settled along the Nasel River in the new state of Washington.  Being the only girl isn’t always easy, especially when her mother keeps trying to turn her into a Proper Young Lady, and her grandmother finds fault in everything she does.  But no matter how many scrapes she gets into, she’s still the only May Ameilia they’ve got.

May Ameilia’s voice is really what makes this book work as well as it does. Her syntax, phrasing, and perspective transports readers to a different time and place.  Inspired by a journal Holm found that was kept by one of her own ancestors, the novel is told in first person and covers a year or so in May Amelia’s life.  Solid and entertaining, Our Only May Amelia isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it manages to be unique and memorable.

I also want to note that there’s not any significant discussion of the impact that pioneer settlement had on the people who were already living in the area when the settlers came, as it’s told from May Amelia’s point of view.  The narrative is respectful of the rare Native American characters in the book, but of course not everyone in the story is.  I didn’t see anything that makes the book inappropriate for youngsters (although I’m also hardly the best judge) but a follow-up discussion with readers would be appropriate if possible, especially considering how rare Native American voices are in most library collections.

cover image for Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Nothing newsworthy happens in Lily, Arkansas. Families scrape by – or don’t, and leave their loved ones to grieve.  But reporters begin to descend upon the small town when someone claims to have spotted the Lazarus Woodpecker, previously thought extinct.  For seventeen year old Cullen the return of the Lazarus Woodecker is merely a source of irritation and occasional amusement.  Until his younger brother, Gabriel, disappears and Cullen is left wondering if Gabriel will ever manage to find his way back home as well.

Like a lot of coming of age stories of this type, Where Things Come Back felt like it was trying too hard to be clever and introspective.  Also, the split in narrators was confusing (I suspect it was partly meant to be) and the missionary’s point of view felt forced rather than authentic. I know a lot of people loved it (it did win the Printz award after all) but I was more than happy to send my copy back to the library.

cover image for Nikki and DejaNikki and Deja by Karen English, illustrated by Laura Freeman

“Nikki and Deja are best friends.”  Neighbors and classmates, they spend as much time as they can together.  But when a new girl, Antonia, arrives and starts a club – one that only some people can join – Nikki and Deja’s friendship begins to look like it might not last, after all.

I feel guilty calling this merely a good chapter book, rather than using glowing superlatives to describe it.  The truth is that most chapter books are so awful that this novel is absolutely wonderful and amazingly written by comparison.  The characters have personality, with out feeling cartoonish, and their dilemmas are both realistic and age appropriate.  English does a wonderful job of including the right kind of details, ones that give the story life without being overwhelming to new readers.  The prose fails to be as memorable as the story, and I’d like better for new readers, but this is a chapter book after all – vocabulary limits make that incredibly difficult. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s solid and I highly recommend it.

I am, however, slightly disappointed in the quality of the book design. With apologies to Freeman (whose interior illustrations are perfect) the cover just doesn’t work for me and I can’t see that it would be terribly appealing to kids either.  All of which I wanted to point out not because I dislike it that much but because covers sell books.  So I see passable but not brilliant covers as another weak link in the chain when it comes to promoting “diverse” authors and books, and I wanted to note that here for future conversations.

cover image for Eleanor and ParkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Moving back home means that Eleanor gets to see her siblings, that she can be there to take care of them.  It also means watching what she does and says around her stepfather, and starting a new high school.  Park doesn’t mean to take pity on the new – and very weird – girl on the bus, the last thing he needs is to commit social suicide.  Yet he does so anyway.  But he isn’t going to talk to her.  Until he notices her glancing over at his comics as he reads them on the bus, and Park starts to make sure that she’s done with the page before he turns it.  Soon, Park is making her mixed tapes and Eleanor is thinking that maybe some people can be trusted after all.

I devoured this book in one night, it was that good.  Rowell has crafted a lovely story, full of stolen moments and the kinds of secrets that need to be told.  It’s refreshing to see miscommunication in a romantic relationship that actually makes sense, and to see it being worked out rather than resolved by the plot.  It should be noted that there have been complaints about Park, whose mother is from Vietnam, and how he and his family are described and portrayed.  Rowell does an excellent job handling the Eleanor’s home life, however, and how she is affected by both poverty and abuse.

cover image for We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Candence spends every summer with her family on a private island off the coast of Masachusetts. And every summer she and her cousins run wild, unhampered by schoolwork or schedules or even neighbors.  Every summer except the last one, which Cady spent in Europe with her father, hating ever minute of it, desperate for emails and texts from her cousins, which never came. When Cady arrives at the island this summer, she and her cousins pick up where they left off, as if nothing had ever happened. Only Cady knows that something did happen, something their last summer together that caused the headaches she’s had ever since.  The problem is that Cady has no idea what it was; she’s been having trouble remembering things since that night as well.

I absolutely hated reading this book.

It’s not a terrible book, but my frustrations with it only increased with each page, making it not at all enjoyable to read.  Much of the suspense rests on the reveal of the twist at the end, which I’d figured out early on.  I think the book is supposed to work even if you know truth (much like Code Name Verity actually does) – that knowing the truth changes the experience rather than detracting from it .  But for me, it didn’t succeed in doing this.  Add to that the fact that it’s a book about privilege* which makes a really big mistake in terms of privilege, and I’m afraid to admit that the warmest response I can muster to this book is “meh.”

Which makes me sad because I usually love Lockhart’s books.

cover image for The Fox InheritanceThe Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson

[The basic plot for this book is a spoiler for the entire first novel, so I’m putting it behind the cut.]

Read the rest of this entry »

cover image for Life With LilyLife With Lily by Mary Ann Kinsinger and Suzanne Woods Fisher

Five year old Lily Lapp lives with her parents and younger brother on a farm in upstate New York. She loves helping her mother with chores around the house and looks forward to starting school. But even more changes are in store for Lily than just kindergarten, and Lily has lots to learn at home as well!

Just like the third book, A Big Year for Lily (which I read first), this is a rather sweet story about a little girl from an Amish family; it offers an interesting and different perspective from more typical contemporary children’s fiction, while also clearly drawing on the tradition of stories like Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie.

The reading level and Lily’s age are more mismatched in this book than the are in the third book, but it should still work well as a read aloud or for children that don’t mind reading about kids a bit younger than them.  As with A Big Year for Lily, there are a few parts that made me go “wait, what?” and had me raising an eyebrow or two.*  The gender segregation was thankfully much less noticeable in this book however, likely owing to Lily’s age, and none of the parts that caused raised eyebrows involve being disrespectful to other people. Overall, it was pleasant and intriguing read and I’d recommend it for library collections.

* I should clarify: my eyebrows were raised not at Amish customs, but more how the authors chose to present them. For example, recently on twitter someone noted that the Amish were usually nicer to her than most white people are, and that her parents had pointed out that this was because they don’t have televisions (and therefore don’t get daily installments of racism via mainstream shows).  Kinsinger and Fisher instead frame it as because the Amish (or, at least, Lily’s family) are simply kinder than some people. Which may or may not be true, but that’s not really how racism works.  And it’s harmful to teach children that it is.  (That said, this is hardly an unusual way of talking about racism, so it’s also not a fault unique to these authors.)