Review of The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao

by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Scholastic Press, 2022. 259 pages.
Review written from my own copy, signed by the author at ALA Annual Conference
Starred Review

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao is the first book I ordered in my new position as Youth Materials Selector for my library system, after I saw the author at ALA Annual Conference, and she told me the book had been selected for the Washington Post Kid’s Summer Book Club. Of course we needed copies for all the branches! (Alas! We had a big backlog in our Processing department, and the book was not on the shelves for readers when it was featured in the book club. I tried!)

This book is about racism and prejudice in a rural Virginia town, but it’s much more nuanced than that description suggests.

I love the main character, Evan Pao. (Though we do get chapters from the perspectives of several other kids.) Evan is a “sensitive” boy — in fact, he’s got a condition where he feels sick when someone lies to him. So he’s a good lie detector for his family. But he doesn’t understand how he never knew that his dad was going to leave their family.

As the book begins, Evan, his mother, and his sister are moving from a prosperous life in California to a run-down rental house in small-town Virginia, to be near his Uncle Joe. Evan hopes maybe in the new place he can get a dog, but he’s not optimistic.

But Evan isn’t prepared for how important the Civil War is in his new town. (I grew up in California and also moved to Virginia. I, too, thought this was strange, though it’s not nearly so extreme in northern Virginia.) He now attends Battlefield Elementary, where his class is making preparations for the annual Battlefield Day, where class member dress up as roles their ancestors may have played in the Civil War. Evan’s afraid there’s no place for him, and one kid in particular makes it clear he’s pretty sure Chinese Americans don’t belong.

But then Evan learns that Chinese Americans did have parts in the Civil War, and Evan begins to claim his place. There’s pushback, though, and it all adds up to a story that challenges everyone’s assumptions, including the reader’s.

In Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s hands, we’ve got a fantastic school story for middle grade readers that shows that history is for everyone, and you can’t make assumptions about what anyone is capable of. A great read.

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Review of Swim Team, by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team

by Johnnie Christmas

Harper Alley, 2022. 248 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Middle school experiences are the perfect content for graphic novels. They make for quick reads, and the pictures fully bring you into the volatile emotions of that time in a person’s life. Swim Team is already popular, and it’s going to join other classics of middle school graphic novels.

As the graphic novel opens, Bree is moving with her father from Brooklyn to Florida, ready to start middle school. She does make a friend pretty quickly in her apartment complex, but instead of Math club, the only elective still available is Swimming 101. She doesn’t want to admit she doesn’t know how to swim, and she misses some classes at first.

But then she gets help from Ms. Etta, a lady who lives above her in the apartment and turns out to be a champion swimmer herself. When Bree expresses the belief that Black people don’t swim, Ms. Etta explains that this false rumor has everything to do with the racism that kept Black people from swimming in pools white people used.

And it turns out that Bree is pretty fast in the pool, once she learns to swim. One thing leads to another, and she ends up on the swim team. And they have quite a rivalry with the private school in town. It all builds to the relay race, which depends on working together.

This is a middle school story without a lot of angst, but with plenty of fun.

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Review of Windswept, by Margi Preus

Windswept

by Margi Preus

Amulet Books (Abrams), 2022. 288 pages.
Review written September 30, 2022, from an advance reader copy I got at ALA Annual Conference
Starred Review

Windswept is a new fairy tale, crafted full of references to the old Norwegian fairy tales, and some influences from the Brothers Grimm. Since I read lots of fairy tales as a child, I appreciated the way this one wove in themes that show up again and again.

And since they’re Norwegian fairy tales, there have to be trolls! Expect some danger from trolls, and you will not be disappointed.

This fairy tale is set in a future earth without technology, with people living in villages, governed by the Powers That Be. There are lots of artifacts around from the Other Times — especially plastic, which is cluttered all over the place. But the Powers That Be have declared the only books Youngers should read are field guides and factual things like that.

But above all, Youngers must be kept indoors. We’re told the tale from the perspective of Tag, whose real name is Hyacinth, but who was always a tagalong to her three older sisters. But one fateful day almost seven years before her adventure begins, their guard fell asleep and Tag’s sisters went Outside. Tag was slow getting her shoes on, and didn’t quite make it over the threshold, so she saw with her own eyes the snow squall that suddenly descended and the wind that swept her sisters away.

In the seven years since, her father spent all his money looking for them, and died of a broken heart. Instead of keeping a guard, her mother keeps Tag indoors, with all the windows and doors boarded up. There’s one little knothole through which she can see a piece of the Outside.

But one day another eye appears on the other side of the knothole, and then an invitation pops through.

And when Tag finds a way to accept the invitation, encouraged along by something with a bit of magic, she finds four other Youngers and a little dog who are also defying the Powers That Be. They decide together to do something. And together, they set out on a quest to rescue their siblings, who were all windswept like Tag’s sisters.

Their quest is full of fairy tale logic and a little chaotic, but involves finding what they need to help along the way, with old crones to advise them. Not to mention trolls! And of course the ever-present danger from the wind. And they’d better watch out for small curses.

Of course, one of the best things about Norwegian fairy tales is you often have a little girl doing the impossible and overcoming against all odds. This tale falls nicely into that category.

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Review of Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas

Juana & Lucas

Big Problemas

by Juana Medina

Candlewick Press, 2019. 90 pages.
Review written July 12, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a sweet beginning chapter book about a girl and her dog. They live in Bogotá, Colombia. We learn about Juana’s school and family – and her best friend, her dog, Lucas. Lately, Juana has been staying with many extended family members, because her mother has been spending a lot of time with a man named Luis.

Sure enough, Mami and Luis are getting married. Which means they’re going to be moving, and there’s going to be a wedding.

There are bright, colorful pictures on each page of this book. Juana is bubbly and full of information about her life, as well as being honest about her worries about the new situation. She peppers her narration with Spanish, which is all easy to figure out from context.

Everything works out well, and new readers will finish this book feeling like they’ve got a new friend.

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Review of Little Monarchs, by Jonathan Case

Little Monarchs

by Jonathan Case

Margaret Ferguson Books (Holiday House), 2022. 256 pages.
Review written September 12, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This post-apocalyptic graphic novel features a 10-year-old protagonist, Elvie. With the help of her caretaker, Flora, she’s learned how to safely scavenge and survive on things left since mammals were wiped out on earth fifty years before.

It wasn’t war that wiped out humans. It was sun sickness, caused by a change in the radiation coming from the sun. The only people who survived were deep underground. Survivors, Deepers, lived in underground communities. Until Flora discovered that scales from Monarch butterflies could be used to make medicine that protects people from sun sickness. The problem is that it takes lots of butterflies to make enough medicine for a few people, and it expires after six weeks.

Eight years before, when Elvie was a baby, her parents traveled to Mexico, where they could find more monarchs and get more medicine and work on a vaccine. They left Elvie in Flora’s care. But they didn’t come back and sent a message by carrier pigeon that though they had made it, the trip was too difficult without a vaccine.

Not long after they received the message, marauders attacked their site and took it over. Since then, Flora and Elvie have been on their own, with Flora always trying to develop a vaccine, so humans would be able to live on the surface again.

All this background is communicated fairly quickly. Flora and Elvie have some adventures while simply foraging for supplies, and then an earthquake hits. After the earthquake, they find a toddler near the ruins of an underground station. They have no choice but to take care of him. But will his adults follow? And can they be trusted?

This graphic novel had me on the edge of my seat. I loved Elvie — so resourceful, feisty, and kind-hearted.

You might think the story of humanity wiped out by sun sickness would be dark and dismal, but since Elvie and Flora have the medicine, the pictures are bright and colorful. I learned a lot about Monarchs along the way. (Which goes well with a board game I bought recently called “Mariposas” that’s about Monarch migration.)

Bottom line, this is a really good story — great art, great characters, gripping plot.

jonathancase.net
HolidayHouse.com

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Review of The Last Mapmaker, by Christina Soontornvat

The Last Mapmaker

by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press, 2022. 355 pages.
Review written July 24, 2022, from my own copy, picked up at ALA Annual conference and signed by the author.
Starred Review

This book is wonderful! It took me on a voyage to enchanted lands, complete with danger, friendship, treachery, and self-examination.

The book begins with twelve-year-old Sai, who has been pretending to be from a good family lineage so she can serve her Assistant year with the old master mapmaker. She doesn’t know how she’ll hide it when she turns thirteen and should receive her lineal — a chain of gold links with one link for every generation of distinguished ancestors.

But then the Queen announces a contest, now that the island is at peace, to map the distant regions of the globe. Sai’s master is going, and he needs her to use her steady hands to get his observations on paper.

But after the voyage departs, Sai learns that they are looking for the Sunderlands — a vast southern continent thought to be mythical. But Sai also learns that there are consequences to “discovery,” that it often doesn’t work out well for those who are “discovered.” Yet if they succeed in mapping the Sunderlands, she can stop hiding her heritage.

Meanwhile, Sai helps a stowaway and makes friends on the voyage — but needs to figure out who she can trust. Storms at sea and mythical creatures add to the adventure. Yes, there are some coincidences in the plot, but they were easy to forgive because I was enjoying the story so much.

A magical tale of discovery, both of the world and in Sai herself.

Here’s a taste of Christina Soontornvat’s beautiful prose:

Paiyoon was the last mapmaker of his kind still working in An Lung. He used old-fashioned mapmaking techniques, drawing coastlines as intricate as a lace collar. This meant that he worked slowly, but in the end, each map was exquisite enough to hang in a museum.

Some people in An Lung said, That man would draw the pebbles on the beach if he had a pen fine enough. Others said, The spirits must have blessed him with the gift of far sight. And still others said (in frightened whispers), Stay away from that old Paiyoon. Everyone knows he sold his soul to a demon in exchange for his mapmaking talent. I liked that one best.

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Review of Merci Suárez Plays It Cool, by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Plays It Cool

by Meg Medina

Candlewick Press, September 2022. 346 pages.
Review written July 23, 2022, from an Advance Reader Copy I got at ALA Annual Conference, signed to me by the author.
Starred Review

This is the third book about Merci Suárez, in a trilogy that began with the book my committee chose to win the 2019 Newbery Medal, so it has a special place in my heart. But even though it didn’t seem possible, Merci grows on me even more with each volume.

And yes, I think you should read all three books in order, growing with Merci from sixth grade to eighth grade. She’s growing in her perspectives, but she still has issues with friends and family to face.

Now starting eighth grade, she’s got an in with one of the cool girls because of being on the soccer team together. And her schedule has more classes with her than with her older friends. But can she navigate that without hurt feelings? And how does she feel about it?

Then at home, her Lolo’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse, which is hard on everyone. And the twins are as incorrigible as ever.

None of this sounds funny and interesting and engaging when I give it in summary, but it’s all of that. It’s a solid book about an eighth grade girl growing up and navigating relationships with family and friends, and all packed with humor and heart. If you’ve read the others, you’ll be eager to spend more time with Merci. If you haven’t, good news: You can read the entire trilogy without waiting to find out what happens next!

megmedina.com
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Review of Anya and the Dragon, by Sofiya Pasternack

Anya and the Dragon

by Sofiya Pasternack

Versify (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2019. 394 pages.
Review written May 19, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sidney Taylor Book Award Honor, Middle Grade

Anya and her family live in a village in Russia during the time of the tsars. Their family is Jewish, and they’re trying to blend in. But Anya’s papa has been sent to fight in the wars, and the magistrate says that doesn’t give them relief from taxes because they’re Jews, so they’re likely to lose their house.

Meanwhile, magic has been forbidden by the tsar, but everyone in the village quietly uses magic anyway – except for Anya, who hopes she will discover that she has magic at the time of her bat mizvah.

When the tsar’s fool and his family come to their village, the youngest son, Ivan, makes friends with Anya. His father tells Anya that they have come to capture the local dragon and take it to the tsar. He will pay Anya to help them find it, which could solve all their problems.

Is there a dragon in their village? And if Anya hands him over, would she be responsible for his death? Meanwhile, a foreigner has come to the village who is also looking for the dragon. And he’s strong and magical and determined not to let anyone stand in his way.

Based on the title, readers won’t be surprised when Anya does meet a dragon. But there are many surprises about what the dragon is like.

I like the way this book takes a simple fantasy tale about a magical creature and weaves in thoughts about right and wrong and doing good as Anya is getting ready for her bat mizvah.

I also like Anya’s courage, persistence and cleverness as she faces many dangerous mythical creatures as well as a supernaturally strong man who wants to kill her. This story has adventure and danger as well as humorous, kind, and loving characters.

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Review of Birdie and Me, by J. M. M. Nuanez

Birdie and Me

by J. M. M. Nuanez

Kathy Dawson Books (Penguin Random House), 2020. 252 pages.
Review written May 13, 2020, from a library book.

As Birdie and Me opens, a girl named Jack and her little brother Birdie have to move from Uncle Carl’s apartment to their Uncle Patrick’s home. It’s been decided that Uncle Carl isn’t responsible enough to take care of them, since he’d been letting them miss too many days of school. But Uncle Patrick’s older and doesn’t make them feel welcome. All Jack and Birdie really want to do is go back to Portland, Oregon, where they lived with their Mama.

But Mama died ten months ago, and they didn’t get to stay there in Portland with their elderly neighbor for long. To make matters worse, Birdie’s new teacher tells Uncle Patrick that Birdie is disruptive wearing skirts and sparkly purple clothes to school.

This book is about Jack figuring out how to cope with all this. She makes some plans, which don’t often go as she likes, but she makes some new connections as well.

This was a sad book to me – I don’t like that they lost their Mama. But given that context, I appreciated these characters and their realistic ways of coping. Nobody really got things right on their first try – but that was realistic, and we saw people learning and giving each other grace.

I did enjoy gender-nonconforming Birdie. When he is forced to go shopping for more conforming boys’ clothes, he decides he’s shopping for someone named Norman, who is his exact size. It’s not a perfect solution, but it does get them through the episode. Some of the ways people treated him were painful to see (and made me mad his Mama was gone), but may some kids learn empathy by seeing the situation through the eyes of his sister.

jmmnuanez.com
penguin.com/middle-grade

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Review of The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle

The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle

by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale

illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Candlewick Press, 2019. 90 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 9, 2019, from a library book

I love the Princess in Black! These are simple chapter books with lots of pictures. They include fun stories about princesses who disguise themselves as heroes who fight monsters – and one goat boy who disguises himself as the Goat Avenger. They are rewarding for beginning readers and a whole lot of fun.

In this latest installment, the foe is a horrible stinky smell. How do you fight a smell?

As the Princess in Black and the Goat Avenger manage to blow the stink away, it goes into other kingdoms, so other heroes come and investigate. But that’s a good thing. When they discover that the source of all the trouble is a super-stinky monster, the stink is so bad, it takes all the heroes working together to clean up the stink.

I like the way Shannon Hale and Dean Hale use some of the same elements in each book – but add something new every time. In this book, the battle is about bathtime. And I love that all the heroes get to take part.

This book encourages the reader to think what kind of hero they can be.

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