Review of Amil and the After, by Veera Hiranandani

Amil and the After

by Veera Hiranandani

Kokila, 2024. 261 pages.
Review written June 20, 2024, from an advance reader copy sent to me by the publisher
Starred Review

I loved this book. Now, this is no surprise – this book features the same family as in The Night Diary, one of the books the 2019 Newbery Committee I was on chose as an Honor book. I think I read that book at least three times and loved it. I was happy to spend time with Nisha and Amil again, in a happier part of their story.

And that’s what the book is about – how do you get back to a normal life after great upheaval and trauma? In The Night Diary, Nisha and Amil’s Hindu family (even though their dead mother was Muslim) have to flee Pakistan after Partition – when the country was created overnight. Their journey was dangerous and harrowing, and they saw some awful things.

Now the family is settled in Bombay in 1948. Papa is working in a hospital there, and Nisha and Amil are going to school. But it’s hard to make friends. And it’s hard for Amil to concentrate on schoolwork. He’d rather be drawing.

It’s also hard for him to forget all the things he’s seen. And he knows he’s lucky – but what about the boys like him who are unlucky? Is there anything he can do to help?

Amil’s torn between heavy thoughts like that – and just wanting to daydream about getting a bicycle. But there’s still unrest in India, and will they even be able to stay in Bombay?

This book’s told from Amil’s perspective, and I loved spending time with him again and watching him learn to be happy again. (And you can read it if you haven’t read the first book – but that will give you more context.)

veerahiranandani.com
Penguin.com/kids

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Review of Willodeen, by Katherine Applegate

Willodeen

by Katherine Applegate
illustrations by Charles Santoso

Feiwel and Friends, 2021. 263 pages.
Review written January 7, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This is a sweet and poignant fantasy for younger readers with a strong theme about how life is interconnected. In less skilled hands, it would be a Message Book. As it is, this lovely story has a strong theme.

Willodeen lives in a village in a world with creatures unlike those in our world. She’s narrating the story, and tells us this:

I suppose I always loved strange beasts. Even as a wee child, I was drawn to them.

The scarier, the smellier, the uglier, the better.

Of course, I was kindly disposed toward all of earth’s creatures. Birds and bats, toads and cats, slimy and scaly, noble and humble.

But I especially loved the unlovable ones. The ones folks called pests. Vermin. Monsters, even.

My favorites were called screechers. They screamed at night like demented roosters, for no reason anyone could ever make out.

They were grumpy as tired toddlers. They were sloppy as hungry hogs.

And – I guess there’s no nice way to put it – they stank to high heaven.

Willodeen’s family was killed in the Great September Fire, and now she lives with two ladies who are healers. She doesn’t like large groups of people and feels like she never got the lesson on what to say when. But she watches the creatures who live around her village.

The other folks of the village love the hummingbears – adorable little bear-like creatures with silvery wings that make bubble nests in the blue willows by the river. They have a grand Faire every year when the hummingbears nest. Willodeen has her own hummingbear who was injured in the fire and can no longer fly long distances.

But recently, there are fewer creatures in the forest. The Council put a bounty on screechers because of their terrible smell. Willodeen is horrified when the last one she has seen in months gets shot by a bounty hunter.

Then a boy who crafts little model creatures makes her a little screecher on her birthday. And that day, Willodeen discovers a baby screecher. Can they keep it hidden from the hunters?

Then when hummingbears are missing from the town – but nest in the trees where their screecher feeds at the roots – Willodeen wonders if there is a connection.

Willodeen is a wonderful lovable character who pulls you into this story. You’ll find yourself loving the stinky screechers, too.

This is a gentle story with a strong punch.

katherineapplegate.com
mackids.com

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Review of Root Magic, by Eden Royce, read by Imani Parks

Root Magic

by Eden Royce
read by Imani Parks

HarperAudio, 2021. 10 hours on 8 compact discs.
Review written February 18, 2022, from a library audiobook.
2022 Walter Award Honor Book

Root Magic is set on a South Carolina island in 1963 among people with Gullah Geechee heritage. Jez is facing big changes after the death of her Gran. She’s been moved ahead a year in school, so for the first time, she won’t be in a class with her twin brother, Jay. But after school, their uncle, Doc, has decided they’re finally old enough to begin learning Root Magic.

Root Magic has been passed down in their family, and Gran was powerful enough to leave Jez a doll with some amazing powers. Doc tells them that Root work is mainly about protection — but their family needs protection. Their Daddy has been missing for years, there are haints in the marsh, girls at school are mean, and a white police officer is known for harassing root workers.

This book had some big surprises as Jez begins to learn to use her power. She shows compassion and plants seeds that will help her in time of need.

I have to say that I wasn’t crazy about the way the narrator read this book, and I think I might have enjoyed it more in print. But I’m glad I kept listening. I grew up hearing stories about “witch doctors” in Africa, and this presentation of root work as family heritage done with love and compassion shook up some of those ideas. Though many of the things that happened were firmly in the realm of fantasy, I appreciated the honor the book gave to family, friendship, and tradition. And I enjoyed the surprising twists and turns in the plot.

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Review of Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero, by Saadia Faruqi

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

by Saadia Faruqi

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 362 pages.
Review written December 17, 2021, from a library book

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero tells about a Muslim boy who lives in the small town of Frey, Texas. He’s lived there all his life. Now he’s starting middle school, and on the first day gets hateful notes left in his locker, apparently targeting him because he’s Muslim.

His family and his Muslim neighbors are building a mosque in town, working together on weekends. But a new group has moved into town calling themselves the Patriot Sons, and they bring a legal challenge to the construction.

Meanwhile, Yusuf and his friend Danial are excited to be in middle school and old enough to compete in the annual Texas Robotics Competition. The catch is that they need enough people interested in robotics in order to be able to compete.

And all of this is happening in the Fall of 2021 – the twentieth anniversary of when the Twin Towers fell. The town of Frey is planning a big commemoration. Meanwhile, Yusuf’s uncle gives him the diary he wrote when he was in middle school and the towers fell. His uncle’s best friend stopped speaking to him, and back then there was also anti-Muslim hate to contend with.

I love that this book exists, and I hope it will get many kids thinking about the perspective of American kids who are also Muslim. Yusuf is a character you can’t help but root for, trying to do what’s right, but unfairly getting picked on.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the author set it so specifically in 2021 – and assumed the pandemic would be over. I wish! (Though maybe in small-town Texas, they would still do a parade on September 11th?) The book was a little slow-moving and a little on the long side, and the plot seemed a little bit contrived — but it was all with a good heart, and I was definitely rooting for Yusuf before it was over. I do hope a lot of kids will find this book.

saadiafaruqi.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Kaleidoscope, by Brian Selznick

Kaleidoscope

by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2021. 192 pages.
Review written January 13, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This is something new for Brian Selznick, but like the rest it contains his detailed and beautiful artwork done in pencil. This is a series of very short stories, and each one has a picture at the front. But before that picture, we see the picture viewed through a kaleidoscope.

And the stories themselves are kaleidoscopic. They all involve the first-person narrator and his friend, a boy named James. But they couldn’t all happen in the same universe. There are many fantasy elements in the stories with trips to the moon and magic apples and meaningful dreams and giants and dragons. I think of them as stories of the same people happening in parallel magical universes.

At the back, he tells that he was working on a book on and off for five years:

… but when I finally was ready to think about the story again, I found myself ripping apart everything I’d already written. It was like the narrative was shattering along with everything else, and out of the shards a new book began to take shape. As I worked, certain themes and images kept reappearing: gardens and butterflies, apples, angels, fires, trees, friendship, islands, keys, shipwrecks, grief, and love. That’s why I decided to call this new version of the book Kaleidoscope, because each of these elements, like bits of colored glass, turn and transform and rearrange themselves into something new. And like looking into a kaleidoscope, the view is always changing and only you can see it.

This book is very reminiscent of works by Chris Van Allsburg and Shaun Tan with a lot of surreal elements and haunting pictures.

I’m not sure the book completely worked for me, but I very much suspect that’s because my logical mind likes to understand a bit better how everything fits together. And I do find many of the stories sticking in my head after I shut the book. I highly recommend giving this book a try and seeing if it works for you.

thebrianselznick.com
scholastic.com

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Review of J. D. and the Great Barber Battle, by J. Dillard, illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts

J. D. and the Great Barber Battle

by J. Dillard
illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts

Kokila (Penguin Random House), 2021. 126 pages.
Review written January 11, 2022, from a library book

Third grade is starting for J. D., and it’s time for his mom to cut the Afro he’s had all his life. She does a terrible job. He gets teased mercilessly by everyone at school. He tries using her relaxer on it, but that just makes things worse.

So J. D., who’s an excellent artist, decides to cut his own hair. He practices on his little brother first, and does a great job. Turns out, he’s a really great barber! His friends start coming to him for haircuts instead of the only barber in town, who takes a long time and doesn’t know the latest styles.

But the other barber — a father and son operation — isn’t happy with the competition from a kid. So that’s when J. D. decides to challenge him to a competition.

This is a fun story. My grown-up mind gets hung up on details like child labor laws and business regulations and if a kid would really want to spend that much time on Saturdays cutting hair. But there’s even some math involved as J. D. starts calculating his earnings and what he can buy. Of course, the best part is seeing a kid take something on and thrive.

This is the first of a new chapter book series.

penguin.com/kids

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Review of The Boy Who Grew Dragons, by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

The Boy Who Grew Dragons

by Andy Shepherd
illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Yellow Jacket (Little Bee), 2020. First published in Great Britain in 2018. 212 pages.
Review written March 21, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a gentle and amusing fantasy story that reminds me of books I loved when I was a kid. There’s no agonizing over realistic consequences, no deep dark inner turmoil – we’ve got a kid who grew a dragon in his grandpa’s garden and now is trying to hide his little fire-breathing pet from his parents and the class bully.

The note from the main character nicely gives you an idea of what you’re in for if you read it:

When people ask me what we grow in Grandad’s garden, I think they expect the answer to be cucumbers, tomatoes, or green beans. I don’t think they expect the answer to be dragons. But there it is. We grow dragons. And I can tell you this – they’re a lot more trouble than cucumbers.

Things cucumbers do not do: Poop in your dad’s oatmeal.

Singe your eyebrows.

Make a really cozy nest by shredding all your mom’s alphabetically ordered recipes.

Leave your underwear (the embarrassing ones covered in backhoes) hanging from the TV antenna.

Chase your cat.

Drop cabbages on your cat.

Try to ride your cat like a rodeo bull.

Wake you up at 4 a.m. every morning by digging razor-sharp claws into your forehead.

Set fire to your toothbrush WHILE IT’S STILL IN YOUR MOUTH.

Of course, they also don’t have scales that ripple and shimmer like sunlight on the sea. Or have glittering eyes that can see right into your heart. Or settle on your shoulder with their tail curled around, warming your neck, and their hot breath tickling your ear.

Nope, none of these are things you can expect from a cucumber. Well, not any cucumbers I’ve ever come across. Maybe a mutant radioactive space cucumber, but not your average garden variety. But dragons? Well, they’re a whole other story.

So, who wants to grow dragons? Dumb question, right? I mean seriously, who in their right mind would say no? Not me, that’s for sure. And not you by the looks of it.

But if you want to grow dragons, you need to know what you’re getting into. Sure, they’re fiery, fantastical, and dazzling, but dragons are not all fun and games. Not by a long shot. And it’s not just the fire and the flammable poop I’m talking about. Oh, no!

Which is why, my dragon-seeking desperados, I’m writing this all down, so at least you can go into it with your eyes open. Because, believe me, you’ll need them to stay wide, wide open.

This book is full of light-hearted fun. It doesn’t delve into a lot of questions about why this would happen or how the whole world wouldn’t know if it did – it simply has fun looking at one boy it happened to. Sure, there’s a classroom bully he has to deal with, and a mean neighbor next door, but Tomas is just an ordinary kid who’s delighted to now have the coolest pet in the world. Grandad is an especially lovable character who sees the best in everyone, Tomas’ parents are busy and distracted, and Tomas’ little sister Lolly is young enough that no one understands she’s talking about an actual dragon.

Tomas’ friends notice something’s up right away. Can he keep the secret from them? Does he want to? But would they believe him if he tried to tell them? The only way would be he’d have to show them….

I’m delighted to learn this is the start of a series. It’s a light-hearted and short book with lots of illustrations and plenty of magic and fun.

andyshepherdwriter.co.uk
saraogilvie.com
yellowjacketreads.com

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Review of The Legend of Auntie Po, by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po

by Shing Yin Khor

Kokila (Penguin Random House), 2021. 290 pages.
Review written November 4, 2021, from a library book
National Book Award Finalist

The Legend of Auntie Po is a graphic novel set in 1885 in a logging camp in the California mountains. Mei is thirteen, and her father is the cook for the camp. The owner of the operation treats them as friends, and Mei’s best friend is the owner’s daughter, but overall the Chinese workers aren’t treated as well as everyone else.

However, Mei makes the best pies and tells the best stories. She makes up stories about Auntie Po, a giant Chinese matriarch who looks out for her people, with the help of Pei Pei, her blue water buffalo.

But when trouble comes to the logging camp, Mei actually sees Auntie Po helping them.

The historical detail in this graphic novel makes you feel like it could have really happened. Mei’s a lovable character, and it’s lovely as her horizons open up as she and her father get through some tough things with friendship and determination.

penguin.com/kids

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Review of The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn, by Sally J. Pla, read by Gail Shalan

The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn

by Sally J. Pla
read by Gail Shalan

Quill Tree Books, 2023. 6 hours, 36 minutes.
Review written May 20, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2024 Schneider Family Book Award Winner, Middle Grades

Oh, I love this one! I’m so glad I finally got around to listening to this award winner — the Schneider Family Award is given annually to books with the best portrayal of a disability. Awards are given for three age levels, along with Honor books, and this one won the award for Middle Grades.

The featured character in this book is Maudie McGinn, a 13-year-old girl with autism. She’s supposed to spend the summer with her Dad in his cabin in northern California. But while they are out to dinner, a wildfire sweeps in, and they have to evacuate. They find a place to stay in the coastal town near San Diego where her Dad grew up, so they’re staying in a trailer in a campground on the beach.

But Maudie’s Dad has friends there, and Maudie begins to make friends there — something she didn’t do in Texas, where she lives during the school year with her mother and stepfather. Maudie has two terrible secrets, but everything with Dad and the ocean helps her relax and begin to understand her own value. Her father has many neurodivergent traits, like Maudie, and he never puts her down for them or scolds her for them. The fact that Maudie thinks this is of note makes us wonder about her life with her mother, and plenty of flashbacks round out the picture of how much better and safer she feels with her father.

But the ocean helps Maudie put all that out of her mind. She even starts learning to surf! And she decides to surprise her father by entering the beginners’ surf competition at the town’s big end-of-summer Surf Bash. Yes, I know that might sound unrealistic in a book summary, but it builds gradually, and yes, we’re with Maudie all the way. (Though as the reader, I did have reservations about her idea of surprising her Dad.)

Maudie’s neurodivergence is sensitively and beautifully portrayed from the inside. And the flashbacks about how her mother responds to her are viscerally painful. The narrator does a wonderful job with the audiobook, giving each person a voice that fits how they’re described in words.

The ending feels almost a little too tidy — but goodness, I would have been so angry if Maudie didn’t have happy times ahead to look forward to. And it wasn’t *every* single thing that worked out for them. I fell in love with this kid while I listened to her story, and I love how she learned that keeping secrets isn’t the road to happiness.

sallyjpla.com

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Review of Borders, by Thomas King and Natasha Donovan

Borders

story by Thomas King
illustrations by Natasha Donovan

Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 184 pages.
Review written October 22, 2021, from a library book

This short graphic novel is presented as a boy remembering what happened when he was twelve. He and his mother set out from their home in Canada to visit his sister in Salt Lake City, who had moved away some years before.

But when they cross the border and get to the United States entry point, the guard asks their citizenship. His mother answers, “Blackfoot.”

No matter what the guard asks and how they explain, his mother doesn’t claim any nationality except Blackfoot. Finally they’re turned back.

But when they try to get through the guard station to go back to Canada, the same thing happens.

And so they’re stuck in the small area between the borders with the food they brought with them plus what they can find at the duty-free shop.

The story is simple, but thought-provoking. It was adapted from a short story published in 1993, and I think the graphic novel format makes it even more engaging, especially for kids.

lbyr.com

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