Review of The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista

by Donna Barba Higuera

Levine Querido, 2021. 320 pages.
Review written April 6, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
2022 Newbery Medal Winner

The Last Cuentista won the Newbery Medal. Everyone should read it. The writing is lyrical, lush, and gorgeous. It talks about the power of Story, greater than anything.

As the story begins, Petra and her family are getting ready to leave earth. She misses her grandmother Lita, who told her a story about Halley’s Comet as a fire snake with bad eyesight that accidentally hit its mother, earth, and destroyed it.

It feels wrong to be sneaking off Earth while so many are left behind. They don’t even inform my parents of our destination until the day before. Dad says Pleiades had been storing their ships in a massive underground facility at the old Denver airport — they weren’t supposed to leave Earth on their first official trip for another two years. The maiden test flights into nearby space a few months earlier had been successful, but because we’re now leaving so suddenly, this will be the first interstellar journey.

If a solar flare hadn’t shifted the comet off course a week earlier, we’d be watching Fire Snake harmlessly pass Earth in a few days like it had since the beginning of time.

Petra and her brother Javier are prepared to go into a stasis pod. They will sleep for three hundred and eighty years and wake up ready to go to a new planet, named Sagan, where another ship has already gone to terraform. Scientists like Petra’s parents will help set up life on the new settlement — and Petra and Javier have custom programming that will go into their brains while in stasis, so they will wake up scientific experts as well.

As they go into stasis, Petra learns that her desired elective — storytelling — was overridden by her parents. She doesn’t want to be a scientist. She wants to be a Cuentista like her grandmother.

Not everyone on the spaceship will be in stasis. The Monitors will spend their lives in space making sure that those in the pods are safe.

But something goes wrong from the very start when Petra is supposed to go to sleep. And when she wakes up, near the planet, she discovers the Collective has taken over. They expect her to answer to the name Zeta-1 and serve the Collective.

The story is compelling and beautifully written. But I had problems with it that I’ve had with other dystopian fiction. I couldn’t get around my questions of why? Why would the Collective want to ban memories of earth and ban stories? The explanation given was that earth was a place of war and they were starting over, but I didn’t buy it. I didn’t think people leaving their home planet would want to forget everything.

I also couldn’t really bring myself to believe in the magic technology that could reprogram brains — and somehow didn’t work on Petra. And Petra could make people remember despite that. So although I see the amazing craft in the book, I could never quite suspend my disbelief and really believe it would happen that way.

But it won the Newbery. So there are many people who didn’t have any problem with those things. Try it yourself! Read this beautiful story and then tell me what you think: Were you pulled into this tale of the last survivors of humankind?

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Review of The Ogress and the Orphans, by Kelly Barnhill

The Ogress and the Orphans

by Kelly Barnhill

Algonquin Young Readers, 2022. 392 pages.
Review written May 3, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is by the Newbery-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I think I actually liked The Ogress and the Orphans even better.

This is an old-fashioned fantasy tale, with just a touch of magic here and there and fantasy characters like an ogress and a dragon. We learn about the village of Stone-in-the-Glen, which used to be a lovely place. But since the library burned down, things haven’t been the same. After that the school burned down, and a sinkhole opened up at the park, and people started to keep to themselves. An ogress lives on the edge of town, an ogress who likes to make delicious treats for the townsfolk to leave on their doorsteps at night. There’s also an Orphan House in the village, where fifteen orphans live. The town used to provide money for the Orphan House, but it’s been a while since anything has come in. Another important person in the story is the mayor.

The town of Stone-in-the-Glen had a mayor, and everyone loved him very much. How could they not? He cut a fine figure and had a blinding shock of blond hair and a smile so bright they had to shade their eyes. He glittered when he spoke. He was well mannered and seemed so sensible. When people went to him with their problems, well, they came away feeling so fine that they completely forgot what had vexed them in the first place. And isn’t that, really, what a mayor is for?

The fifteen orphans are delightful characters. Their names are alphabetical, with the oldest being Anthea, then Bartleby, then Cass, so you can keep them straight. The Orphan House is run by Matron and her husband Myron, and the children all help look after one another. Some of the books from the old library got transferred to the Reading Room of the Orphan House, and some of the orphans have learned surprising things, such as how to speak Crow.

There’s a lot of setting the stage, but tension builds when the people in town decide the ogress must be at fault for a recent problem. It’s up to the orphans to save the day and set things to rights while they’re at it.

When I finished this book, I had a big smile on my face. My only complaint was that it took a very long time to actually finish it. It seems long for a simple story suitable for young readers.

However, I think this book would be truly perfect for a read-aloud. It would be wonderful for classroom after-lunch reading sessions or nightly bedtime stories. And it would work for a wide range of ages. In that case, the length would be a feature — all the more reading sessions! The chapters are short, so you could decide how many to cover each night with lots of flexibility. The voice of the narrator is a storyteller’s voice, and I find myself wishing I had a child to read it to myself.

kellybarnhill.com
AlgonquinYoungReaders.com

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Review of Jo Jo Makoons, The Used-To-Be Best Friend, by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert

Jo Jo Makoons

The Used-To-Be Best Friend

by Dawn Quigley
illustrated by Tara Audibert

Heartdrum (HarperCollins), 2021. 72 pages.
Review written March 12, 2022, from a library book
2022 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Book

This book begins a series about Jo Jo Makoons, who is an outgoing first grade girl who lives on an Ojibwe Native American reservation. Like so many wonderful beginning chapter books, it deals with things that will appeal to other first graders, including school issues and friends. Do Jo Jo’s friends still want to be friends?

There are eight chapters and plenty of illustrations. Jo Jo teaches the reader some Native American words, and I like the way she is delighted with her family, her friends, and her community.

There’s some kid-level humor when she sneaks her cat Mimi in her backpack and Mimi hides in a model tipi. And of course a school story is going to have some friend drama — it all comes out happy in the end.

Here’s a fun scene that shows Jo Jo’s way of thinking:

I like to do math thinking about my Ojibwe community. Like last week Teacher asked us to think about a math problem: Five people want to eat a bunch of four bananas. Each person can have only one. How many people don’t get a banana?

I answered, “Everyone gets some bananas.”

Teacher shook his head no. He said that one person would not get any bananas.

“But we all share what we have,” I said. “That’s what Native people do.”

Teacher didn’t say anything after that. See? I’m good at math.

This is a fun new series for kids ready for chapter books, and I love that Jo Jo’s pride in her people and her home comes through. There’s a blurb at the back for the organization We Need Diverse Books, which has a goal “to create a world where every child can see themselves in the pages of a book.”

dawnquigley.com
moxyfox.ca
cynthialeitichsmith.com
diversebooks.org

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Review of Otto: A Palindrama, Jon Agee

Otto

A Palindrama

by Jon Agee

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2021. 144 pages.
Review written April 23, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is just so silly. But it’s irresistible if you like palindromes at all. I was sitting and chuckling over it in my office, and had to bring it out and share, which got my coworkers laughing, too.

This is a kid’s full-length graphic novel — in which the only printed text that appears are entirely palindromes. The result is very silly — but it all actually makes sense!

Here are some of the 200 palindromes that appear:

Was it a rat I saw?

No, Son.

Nate Bittnagel, elegant Tibetan.

[In a museum] Gustav Klimt milk vats? Ug!

[On a tombstone] Evil, atonal, racy Carla. Not alive.

Eva, can I stab bats in a cave?

No, Don.

I’m Al, a slob. My symbol: Salami!

Too hot to hoot.

This all happens while Otto is looking for his dog, Pip. And of course it’s the pictures that make it all make sense. It’s all extremely silly, but a whole lot of fun.

We’ll have some more Palindrome Days in March 2023, so this may be the perfect book to pull out for a program.

JonAgee.com
penguinrandomhouse.com

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Review of The Lion of Mars, by Jennifer L. Holm

The Lion of Mars

by Jennifer L. Holm

Random House, 2021. 259 pages.
Review written January 8, 2022, from a library book

This is a book about a kid who has grown up on Mars, who needs to draw on inner resources when he’s the only one who can save the colony.

Now, that description fits a few books I’ve read recently. This one features Bell, an 11-year-old boy who can’t remember ever going beyond the American compound, which is underground on Mars in an empty lava tube. Sure, he’s ridden on rovers and been to the communication station that pokes up above ground, but this is home to him.

There was a time when the Americans cooperated and communicated with the humans from other countries living on Mars. They even built an underground network of trains together — trains that now sit idle. Earth is at war, and Bell has been told he can’t trust people from other nations.

So when all the adults in their compound get sick, the kids are going to have to break some rules.

This is a fun story, though when the real reason for the Americans cutting off from the other nations was revealed, I didn’t buy it. (Won’t say more than that, because I don’t want to give anything away.)

Other books about living on Mars make a lot more of the fact that going outside can easily kill you and the technical details about staying alive. This one was more about a kid growing up not knowing anything different than the small compound where they eat food made from algae and are cared for by the entire compound. (The children growing up on Mars were brought there as orphaned babies, and their family is everyone together.)

This is a fun story about growing up in unusual circumstances, with a message that we all need each other.

jenniferholm.com
rhcbooks.com

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Review of Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? by Leslie Connor

Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?

by Leslie Connor

Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 322 pages.
Review written April 19, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Leslie Connor is the author of The Truth According to Mason Buttle, a book that completely stole my heart from the year I was on the Newbery Committee. It did win the Schneider Family Award for portrayal of a disability, and Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? may well do the same.

Frenchie is an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t speak. But his best friend, Aurora, knows how to watch him and find out what he’s thinking and feeling. Frenchie loves birds, the sky, and the sun. Aurora is in many ways the opposite of Frenchie, loud and talkative. But together, they have adventures. They live in the Maine woods, and enjoy seeing the wildlife and natural wonders, though Frenchie is the best at spotting birds. He’ll whistle and flap his hands when he does. Aurora likes to do things like follow the amazing piebald deer that has been lurking in the woods.

Aurora’s shaken by the news that for sixth grade, she and Frenchie will be in different classrooms. She makes some new friends in her new classroom, but Frenchie is still her best friend. And Aurora walks him to his classroom each morning.

But one morning, Aurora’s father drives them to school, and Frenchie doesn’t make it to his classroom. No one can find him in the school building anywhere. Aurora feels like she’s failed her friend.

But the entire town springs into action, and the quest to find Frenchie is on.

The story is mostly told from Aurora’s perspective, but we also get episodes from other characters who live in the town, as well as Frenchie’s perspective. When he first wanders off, following something he knows Aurora would want to see, he passes very close to other people in town, but one after another, they fail to notice him.

The characters in this book are delightful, including loud and exuberant Aurora, who’s so good at noticing what Frenchie needs, the softball coach who knows woodcraft, the couple who bakes and delivers blueberry pies, and Frenchie himself, who keeps pictures of birds in his special needlepoint purse. I also enjoyed Aurora’s toddler brother, who spotted what Frenchie was up to right from the start — if only anyone had understood him.

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Review of Stuntboy: In the Meantime, by Jason Reynolds, drawings by Raúl the Third

Stuntboy #1

In the Meantime

by Jason Reynolds
drawings by Raúl the Third

A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), 2021. 268 pages.
Review written March 5, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Schneider Family Honor Book

Stuntboy is not quite a graphic novel, since it doesn’t use speech balloons — at least, not very many. But it does have drawings on every page and lots of variety in the way the text is presented. If a kid, like Stuntboy himself, is easily distracted, the fact that each page is different in this book should keep their interest going.

Stuntboy is Portico Reeves. He lives in a castle — well, at least in the biggest house on the block, what other people call an apartment building.

We learn early on that Portico sometimes gets the Frets.

What?
You’ve never heard of the frets?
You’re kidding, right?
The un-sit-stillables?
The worry wiggles?
The bowling ball belly bottoms?
The jumpy grumpies?
(Or the grumpy jumpies, depending on who you ask.)
The hairy scaries, or worse, the VERY hairy scaries?
No?
Maybe it’s because your mom probably calls it what Portico’s grandma calls it – “anxiety.”

Portico is a character impossible not to love. I love his bright outlook on life. He and his best friend are fans of superheroes, so they decide to be superheroes themselves. Stuntboy is a superhero who does the stunts for other heroes (like his friend Zola) so they don’t have to get hurt. Often those stunts involve bouncing off walls, and Stuntboy doesn’t mind practicing. And he’s happy to save heroes when they don’t even realize it.

But when Portico walks in on his parents having a fight and they ask him to go to Zola’s apartment “in the meantime,” he figures that’s the time in which his normally nice parents are being mean to each other. And the meantime starts happening more and more often.

And every superhero has a nemesis. Stuntboy’s is another kid in the castle, Herbert Singletary the Worst.

I’m excited this is only the beginning of this series about an extremely likable kid. This will keep young readers turning pages.

JasonWritesBooks.com
RaulTheThird.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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Review of Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows, by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson

Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows

by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson
translated by Julia Marshall

Gecko Press, 2019. First published in Sweden in 2018. 181 pages.
Review written July 4, 2019, from a library book

For a book from a series called My Happy Life, I wasn’t prepared for how many sad things happen. This is the seventh book about Dani, a Swedish girl in year two at school. I was able to enjoy it without having read the earlier books, though it did make me want to read them.

Dani is indeed a happy little girl, but many sad things have happened to her. Her mother is dead and at the start of this book, her father is sad and decides to take a trip to Rome to see his mother. Dani will stay with her grandparents, as she did after her mother died.

Dani gets a wonderful idea. She will go see Ella, her best friend in the whole world, the friend who moved away.

But Grandma can’t drive her because her bridge friends are coming over. And Grandpa can’t drive her because his car is in the shop. So they arrange for Dani to ride the train to Northbrook all by herself. Ella’s mother will meet her at the station.

But things do not go according to plan.

And I know this is a series, and I hope this situation will be made all better in the next book – but I thought book as a whole shows a lot of disappointments for a book named Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows.

However, it’s still true that I loved Dani and loved the matter-of-fact approach to her adventures, which is just perfect for a beginning chapter book. This book has twenty-five short chapters with lots of drawings to accompany the words, and it’s perfect for kids beginning to read chapter books.

I did love looking at life through the eyes of a young Swedish girl. I plan to go back and read the whole series. And I guess I have to concede that despite some disappointments, the title is true – at least for me.

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Review of The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez, by Adrianna Cuevos

The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez

by Adrianna Cuevas

read by Anthony Rey Perez

Dreamscape Media, 2020. 6 hours, 5 minutes.
Review written March 17, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
2021 Pura Belpré Honor Book

The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez was fun to listen to, though I had to suspend my disbelief regarding the fantasy.

The premise is fun – Nestor Lopez can understand animals and talk to animals. How the story goes – that there happens to be an animal witch in the woods near his new home and that this powerful witch needs the help of a local bully in Brandon’s grade and that it would resort to threatening children to stop trying to thwart it – well, I almost expected the Scooby-Doo line, “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids!”

Why did I keep listening though? I kept listening because I really liked Nestor and his new friends. Even if what the animals said didn’t seem very animal-like, I still enjoyed his ability. But mostly I felt for Nestor always having to move to a new town, with his father in the army, and never staying long enough to make friends.

Now his dad’s in Afghanistan, and Nestor’s got a lot of worries about that. But this time, they decided to go back to the town where his dad grew up and stay with his abuela.

It also just so happens that this year the sixth grade trivia team has a focus on animal facts. I could accept that coincidence because it added to the fun. It was a little harder to believe the faculty sponsor of the trivia team would be personally involved with the witch. (Or that she’d have gone to a place due to have an eclipse if she was trying to stop being involved – but that’s a little close to being a spoiler.)

So even though I have a lot of quibbles with the story line – even if I accept that Nestor can talk to animals – this book was still a whole lot of fun to listen to. I also appreciated that the narrator slipped in and out of Spanish as naturally as Nestor and his family would do. And I liked a book about a kid having to deal with his dad being deployed over and over again.

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Review of Much Ado About Baseball, by Rajani LaRocca

Much Ado About Baseball

by Rajani LaRocca

Yellow Jacket (Little Bee), 2021. 312 pages.
Review written January 4, 2022, from a library book
2022 Mathical Honor Book, grades 6-8

12-year-old Trish is new in town. She’s used to being the only girl on the baseball team and the only girl and sixth grader on the Math Puzzler team – but just when her old teammates had gotten used to her, now she has to win over a new team. Her brother Sanjay has encouraged her to win them over by being good at baseball.

Ben is back on the baseball team this summer after two years off. And he’s upset when he sees Trish – the girl who beat him for the Individual Math Puzzler championship. Now she’s going to do better than him at baseball? But they both love math and baseball, so shouldn’t they be friends?

There are hints of something magical happening this summer, some amazing treats, and then two magical books of math puzzles show up at Trish’s house and at Ben’s house. Ben right away figures out it’s magic, but Trish thinks it’s probably some special formula invisible ink. But either way, there are some fun and challenging math puzzles to solve, woven into this story of baseball, rivalry, and friendship.

Perhaps if I knew the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing better, the plot wouldn’t have seemed quite as random. The magic didn’t really seem to operate with rules, but perhaps chaotic fairy magic, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t need to. Anyway, it was a fun story, and for me the math puzzles woven in made it even more fun. There’s material at the back taking some of the concepts further.

RajaniLaRocca.com
yellowjacketreads.com

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