Archive for the ‘Children’s Fiction Review’ Category

Review of Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, by Sheila O’Connor

Friday, April 3rd, 2020

Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth

by Sheila O’Connor

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018. 356 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 24, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Historical Children’s Fiction

Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth is a story told through letters. The setting is 1968 in a small town named Lake Liberty. Reenie Kelly is staying at her grandmother’s house with her big brothers Billy and Dare. She has just gotten a paper route and she’s determined to show that an eleven-year-old girl can do just as good a job as any boy. She wasn’t able to meet Mr. Marsworth, since he didn’t come to the door, but she puts a friendly note in his milk box.

Mr. Marsworth answers with a friendly note in the milk box back to her. He doesn’t want to meet her, but says, “Any child of Betsy Kelly’s will be a perfect papergirl, I’m sure.” He sends a P.S. with his sympathy about her mother’s recent death from cancer.

I know it’s been some time since your mother passed away, but she was among the best this world has known. Such a strong young heart. How terrible that she left this earth too soon.

So begins a wonderful correspondence. Reenie is nothing if not loquacious, and she doesn’t have friends yet in Lake Liberty, so she pours out her thoughts to Mr. Marsworth.

She does already have another pen pal – a soldier named Skip fighting in Vietnam. But she doesn’t like to send him any bad news. And some bad news like trouble with bullies does start to come up.

But Reenie’s biggest worry is that her oldest brother Billy has turned 18 and that he’ll get drafted. She is trying to save money on her paper route so that he can afford to go to the University of Missouri. If he doesn’t go to college, surely he’ll get drafted. She doesn’t realize that their family is bankrupt because of paying for her mother’s cancer treatments.

Mr. Marsworth agrees with her that she should try to keep Billy from being drafted. It turns out that he was a conscientious objector during World War I and spent time in prison. The town still dislikes him for that. Reenie gets Billy to go to Minneapolis to talk to the folks at the Draft Information Office about how to become a conscientious objector. But when Billy writes a letter to the Tribune, the whole town turns against them and their troubles with bullies get much worse.

So that’s the basic outline of how things begin. But leaves out the charm, the life and spunk of Reenie’s letters, and the gentle wisdom coming from Mr. Marsworth. You fall in love with both of them. I was moved to tears before the book ended, and in a good way.

sheilaoconnor.com
penguin.com/middle-grade

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Review of Knights vs. Dinosaurs, by Matt Phelan

Saturday, March 28th, 2020

Knights vs. Dinosaurs

by Matt Phelan

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2018. 150 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 27, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Children’s Fiction – Fantasy

This one is silly fun with speculation: What would happen if knights had to fight dinosaurs?

Erec is a knight in King Arthur’s court, and he’s been bragging. The truth is, he’s never seen even one dragon. But all the knights start bragging when they get together, and he got carried away and claimed he’d defeated 40 dragons.

That gave Merlin an idea. He suggested that Erec go defeat a “Terrible Lizard” in a cave the next morning – Merlin would give him a map.

It’s probably just as well that some other knights didn’t want Erec to get all the glory. Because it turned out that Merlin put a time-traveling spell on the cave – and sent them all back to the time of the dinosaurs.

(Okay, the truth is that not all the dinosaurs that appear in this book lived at the same time. But that’s admitted at the back of the book and kind of beside the point. We’ve got knights fighting dinosaurs and living to tell the tale.)

There’s a nice twist that it turns out the strongest knight of them all is female. It’s a lot of good-hearted fun, including battles with dinosaurs.

This is an early chapter book and includes plenty of Matt Phelan’s illustrations. Some of the battles are told with panels, in fact.

Knights fighting dinosaurs and realizing they’re going to have to work together. What could be more fun?

mattphelan.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of My Father’s Words, by Patricia MacLachlan

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

My Father’s Words

by Patricia MacLachlan

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2018. 135 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 29, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Contemporary Children’s Fiction

My Father’s Words is a stunningly beautiful book.

It’s a beginning chapter book about the death of a father. But it’s beautiful.

Fiona and Finn’s father Declan was a psychologist, gentle and wise. The book begins with him making omelets for his kids, and on page 7 he’s killed in a car accident.

The book is about dealing with his death.

Their mother and their friends gather round. Even one of their father’s patients helps Fiona. But the biggest help, especially for Finn, is when they go to an animal shelter and spend time with the rescue dogs.

Their father’s will said not to have a funeral, but to have a party.

The party for my father was somehow both joyful and sad, with laughter and tears all mixed up. Finn and I were confused at that. My grandparents were ill and far away and couldn’t come. My mother spoke to them every day on the phone. But cousins and aunts and uncles came. And friends.

The book is full of memories. Those are set apart in a different font. And from their father’s patients, we learn many wise things that their father said. And those wise things help them heal as well as show love and receive love from the rescue dogs.

It’s hard to explain how beautiful this little book is. But I was thoroughly blessed and uplifted by reading it.

It’s hard to recommend to young readers a book about a father dying. But this lovely book is about healing, and I think kids will respond to it. After all, they know more about sadness than we realize – so why not read about dealing with sadness?

Note: I ended up posting this review exactly six months after my own father died. When I read it, I had no idea it would so soon be so applicable. Yes, it’s good to read about dealing with deep sadness and appreciating those you’ve loved who are no longer here.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Prairie Lotus

by Linda Sue Park

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2020. 261 pages.
Review written March 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Prairie Lotus is a beautiful story of a half-Chinese girl, Hanna Edmunds, settling with her Papa in a town in Dakota Territory in 1880. They plan to open a dress goods shop. Hanna had learned to sew from her Mama, who died back in California, and dreams of also sewing dresses for the ladies of the town.

But Hanna encounters lots of prejudice for being a “Chinaman.” The people of the town don’t want to send their children to school with her, and even people who seem nice ask terribly ignorant questions. So besides trying to make friends in a new town, missing her Mama, and trying to make the shop a success, Hanna hopes that people will even allow her to live there.

Hanna has some encounters with some Indian women and children. She sees the settlers’ attitudes toward Indians with the perspective that these are people who look like she does, with black hair and dark eyes.

I couldn’t help but love Hanna, with her passion for making beautiful dresses, her willingness to think the best of people, and her determined spirit. Here’s a book that all children can picture themselves as being part of, experiencing a town on the frontier.

Prairie Lotus is written as both a tribute and an answer to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. The author notes in the back that she grew up loving those books.

Even at the height of my passion for those books, there were parts that I found puzzling and distressing. The character of Ma was most problematic. Her values of propriety and obedience over everything else seemed to me both misplaced and stifling.

And Ma hated Native Americans. In several episodes throughout the series, she expresses that hatred. While I could not have articulated it at the time, I harbored a deeply personal sense of dismay over Ma’s attitude. Ultimately it meant that she would never have allowed Laura to become friends with someone like me. Someone with black hair and dark eyes and tan skin. Someone who wasn’t white.

I appreciated that she did a lot of research to make sure she gets the encounters with Native Americans right.

I also chose to include a few lines of Dakota dialogue. I felt strongly about including those words in an effort to counteract previous generations of innumerable children’s books that have never depicted or even acknowledged Native languages, and the stereotypes of Hollywood that reduced Native communication to grunts and pidgin.

She concludes the Author’s Note like this:

Prairie Lotus is a story I have been writing nearly all my life. It is an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings. My wish is that this book will provide food for thought for all who read it, especially the young readers in whose hands the future lies.

She has not only succeeded in this goal, but she’s also written a main character her readers will love. They will imagine themselves back in LaForge, wanting to be Hanna’s best friend. But children won’t feel cut off from that imagination by the way they look.

lspark.com
hmhbooks.com

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Review of Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Friday, March 20th, 2020

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2018. 296 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 31, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2019 Winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Historical Children’s Fiction

My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face. So far, the only part of that we’ve achieved is the hamburger part, but I was still holding out hope. And the hamburgers here are pretty good.

Mia’s parents were well-respected in China, but in America they’re having trouble keeping jobs. So when they get a job as motel managers – which comes with a place to stay, rent-free – they are excited. But the owner of the motel promises them one rate of pay – then changes the deal after they’re signed up. He makes them pay for any repairs needed out of their own pay, so what they take home becomes less and less. Since it takes all her parents’ time to clean the rooms, Mia ends up running the front desk.

Mia learns a lot at the front desk about how America works, especially from the regulars – the people who live in the motel long-term. But she also learns from her new best friend at school – Lupe, who is also a recent immigrant to America. Unfortunately, the son of the motel owner is also in her class. And he isn’t much nicer than his father.

When friends from China come by needing a place to stay, Mia’s parents are happy to put them up in an extra room – only Mr. Yao mustn’t find out.

When Mia sees injustices around her, she learns how to help – by writing. Her mother says she’ll never catch up with the native English speakers. Her mother was an engineer, so she wants Mia to focus on math, where she can help. But Mia dreams of helping her whole family with her writing.

Mia’s only ten, but she’s feisty and she’s friendly, and when she sees a problem, she doesn’t rest until she’s done something about it. Reading about Mia and her family was a delight.

kellyyang.com
arthuralevinebooks.com
scholastic.com

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Review of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M. T. Anderson, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M. T. Anderson
illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Candlewick Press, 2018. 530 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 14, 2018, from an advance reader copy
2019 National Book Award Finalist
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Children’s Fiction – Fantasy

Wow. This book is amazing!

It’s a story about a clash of cultures – elfin and goblin cultures, specifically.

Historian Brangwain Spurge has been sent to the land of the goblins – flying through the air in a barrel – to present to them an ancient artifact found that they believe was made by goblin ancestors.

Werfel the Archivist, goblin historian at the Court of the Mighty Ghohg, has been eagerly preparing for weeks to host the elfin scholar. He worries – are elves allergic to chocolate? Will the hospitality chocolates placed on his pillow be appropriate?

It was Werfel’s job to host the elfin emissary in the city, to take the scholar in as a guest in his own home. It was a huge responsibility. Elves were used to a certain luxury. Goose-down mattresses and stained glass windows. My poor guest will be joggled to bits after slamming into the ground like that, Werfel fretted.

And, goblins had a strong code of hospitality. Once a goblin invited someone across the threshold into their home, it was their duty to serve and protect their guest, no matter what. Hospitality was holy.

Werfel sat up. He had to get to work plumping pillows and stocking the fruit bowl. It was no use trying to sleep, anyway. He was too excited.

Unfortunately, it becomes all too clear that Werfel’s efforts aren’t being appreciated as intended. In fact, periodically we see a series of images. These are what Brangwain Spurge has been magically transporting back to those who sent him. His view doesn’t quite match Werfel’s eager ministrations.

And some things go sadly wrong. Spurge learns of the goblin habit of insulting their close friends and misunderstands when insults are actually intended as a mortal combat challenge. Werfel knows he will have to protect his guest with his life – but that devotion is completely unappreciated.

As one misadventure leads to another, the two come to understand one another better. I love the way the images change as Spurge’s perspective on the goblins changes. But can they survive their new level of understanding?

This book is a lovely look at cross-cultural misunderstanding – but in the goblin-elfin setting no human reading it will be offended. And the story (and the goblin and elfin cultures described) is a whole lot of fun, too.

M. T. Anderson writes clever books, and this one is no exception. It’s told with humor and compassion. I like it that the goblin host ends up being noble and self-sacrificing and kind, whereas the elves who sent Spurge on his mission are not folks you’d want to live among.

candlewick.com

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Review of Nowhere Boy, by Katherine Marsh

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Nowhere Boy

by Katherine Marsh

Roaring Brook Press, 2018. 362 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 18, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Contemporary Children’s Fiction

Wow. This timely book shines a light on acting with compassion and asks when is it right to break rules for the sake of those in need.

The book opens in 2015 with Ahmed a refugee from Syria on an overcrowded dinghy in the Aegean Sea. His father is the only member of his family left alive, and when the boat is in danger of sinking, his father is the first one to jump into the water to pull the boat and keep it moving. This works for a long time until the wind picks up and the rope breaks and his father is lost.

The next chapter shows us Max Howard, whose family has moved to Brussels, Belgium, for his father to work at NATO Headquarters. Max has just learned that his parents are sending him to the local Belgian school to repeat sixth grade and focus on learning French. He is not happy about this decision, made without consulting him. His older sister is going to an American high school, but Max has to go to the school right around the corner.

The new school doesn’t go well. He doesn’t understand a lot of things, including writing with a fountain pen and spelling tests in French.

But the two stories collide after Ahmed, who has come to a refugee encampment in the middle of Brussels, tries to get a ride with a smuggler to Calais, but ends up needing to jump out of the van – without his phone or any money. He ends up hiding in the wine cellar in the back of the basement in Max’s family’s home. One thing leads to another… and he stays.

When Max eventually finds Ahmed, again one thing leads to another, and they develop a scheme to enroll Ahmed at the same school Max attends. I like the way that helping Ahmed means Max has to deal with the bully who’s been bothering him.

I love the way Max was inspired by Albert Jonnart, the man his street was named after – who lived there during World War II and ended up dying because he hid a Jewish boy. But the boy got away, fleeing across the rooftops. Now Max is hiding just one person himself.

The book is based on the author’s own experience living in Brussels on the same street as Max. The setting portrays the fear and mistrust of Muslim refugees and the terror attacks that happened in Paris and Brussels at that time. In that context, it’s all the harder to protect Ahmed, but Max and his new friends from school learn to see him as the kind person he is.

I love the message of this book and the gripping story. As unlikely as it sounds on the surface, the author made me believe this could have actually happened. I’m sure that the many details from her own and her children’s time in Brussels help give it the ring of truth. The fact that I have lived in Europe myself made it all sound very familiar. I also enjoy the way the book challenges your thinking and makes you ask what you would be willing to do in order to show kindness, even to just one person.

katherinemarsh.com
mackids.com

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Review of Stargazing, by Jen Wang

Sunday, March 8th, 2020

Stargazing

by Jen Wang
color by Lark Pien

First Second, 2019. 218 pages.
Review written January 11, 2020, from a library book
2020 Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature Winner

Stargazing is a graphic novel about middle school friendship. As the book opens, we see Christine in her Chinese American family, performing in a concert, taking part in a big church activity. Her parents are told about a mother-and-daughter family that needs some financial help, and Christine’s parents decide to clean out her grandfather’s apartment behind their house and let this needy family live there.

The daughter of the family is Christine’s age. She’s also Chinese American, but very different from Christine. Her name is Moon, and she’s Buddhist, and doesn’t seem to follow as many rules as Christine does. Moon likes to make art and says she gets visions of celestial beings, that she doesn’t really belong on earth.

Christine and Moon become friends, but as Moon becomes more popular than Christine, some jealous feelings start creeping in.

This is a story of friendship and being yourself, as well as looking at what can happen when you let down your friend. And it’s all in a bright and colorful graphic novel format. The drawings of the kids dancing to K-Pop are especially fun.

jenwang.net
Firstsecondbooks.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Other Half of Happy, by Rebecca Balcárcel

Friday, March 6th, 2020

The Other Half of Happy

by Rebecca Balcárcel

Chronicle Books, 2019. 317 pages.
Review written January 9, 2020, from a library book
2020 Pura Belpré Author Honor

Quijana has a Guatemalan father and an American mother. Her parents never taught her Spanish because they said English was more important. But now Quijana is starting seventh grade and going to a new school without her sixth grade best friends. People think because of her name that she should speak Spanish. Then her Guatemalan cousins move to town, and Quijana feels even less like she belongs.

Meanwhile, her little brother isn’t talking like other kids his age, and her American grandmother is sick. Her father has started wanting her to embrace her Guatemalan heritage, but she feels like he’s taking over. And now the family is planning to take a trip to Guatemala, so Quijana will have to face two weeks where she doesn’t understand what anyone’s saying.

Meanwhile, at school Quijana does make some new friends, and she hopes one of those friends will end up being something special. Her friends might even help her figure out a way to escape the family trip to Guatemala.

The author navigates all these different issues, carrying us with Quijana as she figures out who she is and where she belongs and how she can make music that is all her own.

I especially like the list of Quijana’s grandmother’s sayings at the back of the book. Quijana has some good people in her life to help her get through the many confusing aspects of seventh grade.

chroniclekids.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Genesis Begins Again, by Alicia D. Williams

Saturday, February 29th, 2020

Genesis Begins Again

by Alicia D. Williams

A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book (Atheneum), 2019. 364 pages.
2020 Newbery Honor
2020 John Steptoe New Talent Author Award
2020 William C. Morris Award Finalist
Review written February 1, 2020, from a library book

This book begins as thirteen-year-old Genesis Anderson walks home with the popular girls – to see all her family’s possessions on the front lawn. They’ve been evicted from their apartment again.

But after dealing with that, her father takes them to a fancy new home in the suburbs. Genesis starts at a new school, and she wants things to go well there. She starts singing in the choir and even thinks about auditioning for the talent show. And has she finally made some real friends?

But her father isn’t exactly being honest about things. Her mother’s thinking about leaving, and Genesis isn’t ready to leave again. Time with Grandma confirms that everyone’s disappointed that Genesis ended up with dark skin like her father and not light skin like her mother. Genesis is willing to do anything to make her skin lighter. Then she’ll be beautiful and maybe her father can love her.

I’m going to be watching this author, because even in this debut novel she pulls us into Genesis’ world and all the different pressures surrounding her. It doesn’t all wrap up in a tidy bow, but Genesis is starting to learn to love herself, and the book ends with the reader reasonably hopeful that Genesis is going to deal with whatever the future holds.

simonandschuster.com/kids

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