Review of Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

February 18th, 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing

by Delia Owens

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018. 370 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 27, 2020, from a library book

Where the Crawdads Sing came out in 2018, when I was busy reading for the Newbery committee and didn’t have any time for adult books. But the book is still tremendously popular and always on hold, so I decided to get on the list for it and see what all the fuss was about.

I was not disappointed. This is a book with a mystery and a dramatic courtroom scene. But it is mostly a poignant story of a girl who’s been abandoned over and over again, has had to figure out life on her own, but who lives a beautiful life understanding the natural world and all its wonders.

The Prologue of the book tells us about a dead body in a swamp in 1969. Then the main body of the book opens in 1952 when Kya is six years old and her mother walks away from their shack in the marsh and never comes back. One by one, her older sisters and brothers leave as well. She gets a few years with Pa before he starts drinking again and one day never returns. So Kya has to figure out how to survive in the marsh from ten years old.

She’s a resourceful little girl. And she knows the marsh like nobody else. She knows how to hide from people like truant officers – after trying exactly one day of school in the town. She figures out how to cook and how to get food and supplies. And she knows all the creatures and birds that share her home.

Meanwhile, interwoven with scenes of Kya growing up are stories of the investigation of the dead body in the swamp. The body was a popular young man in the town, a star football player when he was in high school. He fell from an old fire tower. But there are no footprints in the mud leading up to it, not even his own. Gossip starts to mention that he once spent time with the Marsh Girl.

This is also a story of the men Kya eventually meets. One is a beautiful love story – but like so many other people in her life, he lets her down. And then there’s the story of the young man she turned to out of loneliness.

All along the way there are beautiful descriptions of life – all sorts of life – in the marsh. There’s poetry about it and we come to understand Kya’s wild heart. It’s also a wonderful story of how she builds a beautiful life. Of course, that will all be threatened if she’s convicted of murder.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Prologue, giving a small taste of the nature writing woven throughout this book:

Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace – as though not built to fly – against the roar of a thousand snow geese.

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Review of Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga

February 17th, 2020

Other Words for Home

by Jasmine Warga

Balzer + Bray, 2019. 342 pages.
Review written January 13, 2020, from a library book.
2020 John Newbery Honor

Other Words for Home is the story of Jude, who lives in a tourist town on the coast of Syria, but leaves with her mother to go to America for the sake of safety.

Jude’s father and older brother stay in Syria, and her brother is active in the resistance, so Jude worries about him especially. She doesn’t want to go and leave her friends and home behind, but her family insists that it’s for her safety.

Jude and her mother stay with her Uncle Mazin and his family. Jude’s cousin Sarah is in seventh grade, just like Jude, but at school Sarah doesn’t have anything to do with Jude. Sarah doesn’t want to look like an outsider. Jude does make friends and learn about strange American customs in her ESL class.

When Jude tries out for the school musical, everyone thinks she’s crazy. How can someone get a part who isn’t even an American?

This novel is written in verse, so it reads very quickly. There are more issues than I’ve mentioned here, but it still tends to be a sweet and simple novel about an immigrant trying to fit in. Jude especially enjoys surprising Americans, who really don’t know that much about her home.

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Review of The Orphaned Adult, by Alexander Levy

February 16th, 2020

The Orphaned Adult

Understanding and Coping with Grief and Change After the Death of Our Parents

by Alexander Levy

Perseus Books, 1999. 190 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 8, 2020, from a library book

My father died unexpectedly four months ago, from a blood clot two days after minor surgery that had gone well. Then my mother died expectedly two months ago, after more than a decade with Alzheimer’s.

There was a very foolish part of me that hadn’t thought my mother’s death would hit me as hard as it did, since it was expected. But it was all so wrapped up in the unexpected death of my father. And now I have no parents on earth at all. And yes, it’s hitting me very, very hard.

One of my sisters (I think Marcy?) recommended this book to the rest of us, I believe giving it to the shared Kindle account (which I don’t use). I found the book extremely helpful. For me, it was probably helpful to realize that yes, losing your parents shakes you up. Even if you didn’t see them very often, and even if one of their deaths was long expected.

The author acknowledges that this is something almost everyone goes through. And since everyone goes through it, somehow most people don’t realize what a big deal it is.

Now, he also talks about the difference between when your first parent dies and when your second parent dies – I think my siblings and I can expect feelings to be multiplied with our parents dying at what seems like almost the same time.

The book didn’t seem incredibly profound. But I can’t overemphasize what a big deal it was to be told that the death of both your parents is a big deal. That was so helpful to me.

The most personally helpful chapter to me (so far) was the one called “Just Exactly Who Do You Think You Are? The Impact of Parental Death on Personal Identity.” Yes, I had been questioning who I am and what I was doing on the East Coast when all my family is on the West Coast. But I hadn’t connected that with my parents deaths. Realizing it was connected helped me greatly with my grappling.

After parents die, for the first time in our lives – and for the rest of our lives – we no longer feel we are someone’s child because we no longer have living parents. Changing this one fact precipitates a change in identity that is disorienting and confusing. Many of us become a little lost, temporarily. How, after all, is one to navigate when the directional beacon goes out, regardless of whether we had been moving toward it or away from it? Who am I now that I am nobody’s child?

I’ve had a feeling of being less safe since my dad died. The author captures a little of that:

In adulthood, parents are like the rearview mirror of a car, making it safe to operate, as we head into the unknown, by providing a glimpse of where and who we have been so we can better understand where and who we are becoming.

When parents die, the experience is not as much like no longer finding a mirror in its accustomed location as it is like looking into the mirror and seeing nothing. How is one to navigate with the unknown ahead and nothing behind?

This book has a lot of anecdotes, exploring the different aspects of people’s experiences after their parents die. The author is a psychologist, so he does use examples from his practice as well as his own experience. Each chapter begins with a poem from different authors about the death of parents.

The introductory chapter points out that parents are the constant in our lives since birth. It should not surprise us when their absence affects us deeply. But it does.

It is a cultural fiction that parental death is an incidental experience of adult life. If one of the purposes of culture is to provide us with a map – navigational assistance as we move into each stage of life – then this particular bit of misinformation beguiles us. Imagine a map that failed to correctly show a huge turn in the road, beyond which lay a dramatically different terrain in which many road signs change meaning. Perhaps this cultural falsehood supports and promotes certain social and material values, but it does not serve us well since it so poorly equips us for the actual experience when it occurs.

The maps of antiquity were drawn with borders of dragons and serpents to differentiate the known terrain, with its explored forests and rivers, from the vast and yet unexplored territories beyond, filled with the fearsome dangers that always seem to lurk in the unknown. Our culture does not supply a map with a border of dragons to warn us that things will be different beyond a certain point. As a result, each of us is caught by surprise when we move beyond the limit of our parents’ lives.

The stories that fill this book do show us there’s not one particular way everyone is going to feel. But they do help you realize that being an orphan – even when you’re a fully grown adult – is something big to deal with.

I do recommend this book to any adult who’s lost both their parents. I found it helpful, truthful, and comforting.

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Review of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart

February 15th, 2020

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

by Dan Gemeinhart

Henry Holt and Company, 2019. 344 pages.
Review written January 22, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
Honor Selection of the City of Fairfax Regional Library 2020 Newbery Book Club
2019 Cybils Award Winner Middle Grade Fiction

I wish I’d read this book months ago when my coworker first told me how much she loved it! Instead, I read it in January 2020 because it was selected by my library’s Newbery Book Club members as one of their contenders – and I’m now a fan myself.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is about a twelve-year-old girl, Coyote Sunrise, and her father, Rodeo, who live in an old converted school bus traveling around the country. The story opens as Coyote adopts a cat, whom she names Ivan after her favorite book, The One and Only Ivan. (It’s always fun when a Newbery winner references another Newbery winner! I would be happy if this were such a case.)

Coyote has to manage Rodeo – she knows he won’t approve of her getting a pet. So she sneaks Ivan onto the bus, and then convinces Rodeo about a trial period of 500 miles. Sure enough, Ivan wins Rodeo over before the time is up.

But other things are trickier. Coyote has a weekly talk with her grandmother, and soon after adopting Ivan, she learns that a park in the town where she used to live is going to be demolished and replaced with housing. But five years ago, Coyote and her mother and two sisters buried a time capsule in that park and promised to return in ten years and dig it up. But a few days after they did that, Coyote’s mother and sisters were killed in a car crash. That was when Rodeo took Coyote on the school bus road trip, saying that it was too painful to look back.

So Coyote is determined to get to that park in one week. Trouble is, they are currently on the other side of the country. If she tells Rodeo, he’ll refuse – so she has to figure out another way to get him going that direction.

And so the journey begins. Along the way, they take on passengers, and those passengers get on board with Coyote’s quest. But the obstacles she faces get bigger and bigger. Coyote’s actions get more and more outrageous, but the reader still isn’t sure she’ll be able to pull this off.

This is a book with heart. The characters are wonderful, each one well-drawn and contributing to the story. The tension builds as Coyote’s deadline gets more and more impossible to meet and at the same time obstacles mount.

The back story is horribly tragic – Coyote’s mother and sisters dying – and yet this is a book full of humor and sheer joy. It walks the balance of dealing with a serious subject in a meaningful way without ending up with an unbearably sad book.

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Review of Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, by Anna Meriano

February 13th, 2020

Love Sugar Magic

A Sprinkle of Spirits

by Anna Meriano

Walden Pond Press, 2019. 309 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 11, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

This is the second book in the Love Sugar Magic series, and I liked it even better than the first one. Leo discovered in the first book that she’s from a family of brujas and their family magic is concentrated in the things they bake in their bakery. She’s been studying the principles of magic to try to keep any more disasters from happening.

But despite Leo’s efforts to do everything right, something huge happens – Her abuela comes back to life and shows up in Leo’s bedroom. And so do several other once-dead people from the whole town. What’s going on? And more important, how can Leo help these spirits in the flesh get back to the other side of the veil before it’s too late?

You’ve got to admit – that’s a big problem. I liked the way this book kept the action going and didn’t pause with too much soul-searching. We learned more about the family business, and I loved the way Leo was able to turn to her friends for help.

There was a big coincidence with Leo’s best friend Caroline, but that coincidence caused a lot of trouble. In books, coincidences that cause trouble are infinitely more palatable than coincidences that solve problems. All the characters gain some depth in this installment, and I am now more convinced that I want to keep reading the series.

Some on our Cybils panel hadn’t read the first book, but still enjoyed this one. It’s not absolutely necessary to read them in order, though you might as well.

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Review of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia

February 13th, 2020

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia

Rick Riordan Presents (Disney Hyperion), 2019. 482 pages.
Review written November 13, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Finalist Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
2020 Coretta Scott King Author Honor

Big Kudos to Rick Riordan for recruiting authors from many different ethnicities to write books similar to his own – mythology comes to life, only now the mythology featured is from a different cultural background, which the author is writing from.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky tells about an African American kid who punches an ancient bottle tree in the South and then falls into a world where the characters from the stories his Nana tells are real – and that world is in danger.

It turns out that Tristan has a gift from Anansi of storytelling, and that will be key to saving the mythical characters.

I do love that this book builds off of African American tales. The non-stop danger and adventure will appeal to Rick Riordan’s fans.

I personally wasn’t completely convinced by the world-building and was a little bewildered about how the whole life-or-death crisis got started and how it was to be resolved. I also wasn’t fully present with Tristan’s emotions – I felt like I was told about them more than shown what they would be. But a lot of kids won’t care about details like that, and I will still gladly recommend it to kids who want a rip-roaring adventure in a world where fantasy turns out to be real and kids are needed to save the day.

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Review of Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano

February 10th, 2020

Love Sugar Magic

A Dash of Trouble

by Anna Meriano

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2018. 310 pages.
Review written January 30, 2018.
2018 Cybils Finalist, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

A Dash of Trouble begins a new series about Leonora Logroños, a sixth-grader who learns that she’s from a family of brujas. The women in her family can do magic, and they can put magic into the things they bake.

But Leo only finds this out by being sneaky. She’s the youngest, and the whole family seems to be keeping secrets from her, working at their Mamá’s bakery during the big festival on the Day of the Dead. She’s tired of everyone leaving her out. She’s not a baby, after all!

And when Leo’s best friend gets her feelings hurt by a boy who lives next door, Leo thinks this is a perfect time to use magic to help the situation.

And that’s where she gets into a dash of trouble.

There were some things that annoyed me about this book – mostly, all of Leo’s sneaking. But when I think about it more, I remember how I subverted the early bedtime my mother tried to impose when I was in sixth grade. (It was No Fair in comparison with how late my two older siblings got to stay up.) So I have to give her some sympathy. Even if I was wanting to shake her at times during the story.

There’s a lot of Spanish language used in the book – the old family recipe book is written in Spanish – but Leo doesn’t speak Spanish, either, so what’s mystifying to me is also mystifying to her. So I think it enhances the book. (Readers who do understand Spanish will enjoy having that edge.)

This is a fun and light-hearted story about Leo finding out she’s got a heritage of magic – but finding out a little earlier than her family intended. The book is labelled “Book One,” so I think Leo’s going to learn more about magic.

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Review of Penny and Her Sled

February 9th, 2020

Penny and Her Sled

by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2019. 56 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 4, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 in Picture Books

Another Penny book by Kevin Henkes! Huzzah! These are all beginning chapter books with plenty of pictures and concerns that mirror those of other young mice or children.

In this one, Penny is waiting for snow because she can’t wait to use her new sled. But – Spoiler Alert! – she waits all winter and it does not come.

Now, there may not be too many parts of the country where this really happens, but I had a special connection to Penny, because the last winter I lived in the Seattle area, when I was five years old, the winter before our family moved to California – it didn’t snow at all except for briefly when I was supposed to be taking a nap but was instead looking out the window at the falling snow that was gone by the time I got to go outside.

You see how it traumatized me?

So I have nothing but sympathy for poor Penny, waiting and waiting for snow!

[Alas! I’m posting this with winter winding down — and this year in the DC area, very little snow has fallen. Would be a great choice here this year.]

Penny finds things to do with her sled while she’s waiting.

And eventually, Mama suggests Penny might wait for snowdrops instead of waiting for snow.

“What if the snowdrops are like the snow?” said Penny. “What if the snowdrops do not come up this year?”

“They will,” said Mama.

“That is what you said about the snow,” said Penny.

Mama was quiet for a moment.

“I remember a few years when it did not snow,” Mama said. “But I do not remember a year without snowdrops.”

I do love how Penny responds when the snowdrops finally do come up. She makes sure that her sled is involved.

This is great for beginning readers. There are five chapters and pictures on every page. And it talks about a universal concern – waiting.

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Review of The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

February 8th, 2020

The Lost Girl

by Anne Ursu

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2019. 356 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 22, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Children’s Fiction

The Lost Girl is about identical twins, Lark and Iris, and the story is told from Iris’s perspective. She’s always taken care of her sister, and they can tap messages to each other in a secret code. But now as they’re starting fifth grade, their parents are letting them be assigned to different classes.

The girls are identical but not the same.

Lark always knew when their parents had been arguing. Lark could tell you what the consequences for stealing were in different fairy tales, and that the best bad guys had interesting backstories. Lark always knew which books she wanted to check out from the library next.

No, they were not the same. But Iris always knew when Lark was feeling too anxious to speak in class, and Lark always knew when Iris’s anger was getting the better of her. Iris always knew when Lark was too busy daydreaming to pay attention, and Lark always knew when Iris was too reliant on finding order when things were in chaos. Iris talked for Lark. Lark talked down Iris.

This is the way it was.

No, they were not the same. But yes, they were twin sisters, and for Iris and Lark that meant something, something far deeper than what lay at the surface. They each knew the monsters that haunted the shadowy parts of the other’s mind, and they knew how to fight those monsters.

The school year does not get off to a good start with the girls having to be in different classes. Lark gets laughed at, and she’s in the class with the bully. Iris doesn’t even know who she is without Lark to defend. After school, Lark goes to art class, and Iris gets tricked into going to an all-girl group at the library called Camp Awesome.

After Camp Awesome is done, Lark is supposed to bike home, but sometimes she talks to the strange man at the new antiques store with an unusual sign in front. He puts simple science experiments out on the shop counter, and he says that they are magic. He’s looking for someone named Alice. He lets Iris look at books in his shop, and she finds one with Alice’s writing in it, saying things like “Magic has a cost.”

As the book goes on, Iris feels like she’s losing herself. Who is she without Lark? She starts keeping secrets from Lark. She doesn’t mean to. But maybe Lark is better off without her. What is going on?

This is a story of a sign and a store. Of a key. Of crows and shiny things. Of magic. Of bad decisions made from good intentions. Of bad guys with bad intentions. Of collective nouns, fairy tales, and backstories.

But most of all this is a story of the two sisters, and what they did when the monsters really came.

This is a story about the power of having a flock.

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Review of Can You Hear the Trees Talking? by Peter Wohlleben

February 7th, 2020

Can You Hear the Trees Talking?

Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest

by Peter Wohlleben

Greystone Kids, 2019. Originally published in German in 2017. 80 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 31, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-outs: #4 in Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

This book says it’s a Young Readers’ Edition of the New York Times Bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees — a book I had checked out for a very long time intending to read, but never did. The Young Readers’ Edition with great big photographs and bite-sized facts in large print on each page – that was irresistible. I couldn’t help but read it! I opened it up to leaf through it, intending to only look at the pictures, and some fact would capture my attention.

Within the seven chapters, which all have a large and beautiful photograph on an introductory page, each spread has a page heading that’s a question. We begin with basics like “How Do Trees Breathe?” “How Do Trees Drink?” and “Why Don’t Trees Fall Over?” and progress to questions such as “Can Forests Make It Rain?” “What Are Trees Afraid Of?” “How Do Trees Know When It’s Spring?” “Do Trees Sleep at Night?” and “Why Do Trees Shed Their Leaves in Fall?”

While I was reading this book, I found myself sharing random facts with my coworkers. Did you know that trees sleep at night – and that when lights are on all night, nearby trees don’t live as long? Did you know that young trees don’t need to drop their leaves because their trunks are so flexible, they can spring back if snow weighs them down? Did you know that trees can communicate with one another through fungi in the soil? They can warn neighbors about insect attacks (so they produce chemicals to repel them) and they can even give sugar to a neighbor who needs it.

It’s all super fascinating and so attractively presented! Maybe I’ll finally read the adult version – but I wish it had the glorious full-color photos of this book!

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