Review of Eclipse, by Andy Rash

Eclipse

by Andy Rash

Scholastic Press, 2023. 36 pages.
Review written January 30, 2024, from a library book
Starred Review

There’s still time! If you can get hold of this picture book before the April 8, 2024, total solar eclipse, do it! But be warned: Your child may want to go on a trip to see it.

If you are already planning a trip to see the total solar eclipse, or if you are lucky enough to live in the zone of totality, this book is the perfect way to introduce the ideas to your child and explain what it’s all about. Even if you’ll only see a partial eclipse, this story will help make things clear.

This picture book is a fictional story about a boy and his dad going to see the total solar eclipse of 2017, based on the author’s own trip with his son. In the book, the boy does the planning — figuring out where to go camping to see the eclipse, getting eclipse glasses, and the wonder and joy of experiencing the eclipse. It talks about the crickets chirping and the crescent-shaped shadows before and after totality. It even mentions the traffic on the way home.

There are maps on the endpapers. The one in front shows the path of totality for the 2017 eclipse, and then the back shows paths for many upcoming eclipses. But it looks like if you miss the 2024 eclipse, the next ones in the continental U.S. are in the 2040s. Still, the book talks about how they made memories with this trip, so it still works as a book about a special father-son outing.

For a child-friendly explanation of what an eclipse is all about, heavy on the experience, light on the science, this book is perfect.

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Review of The Eyes and the Impossible, by Dave Eggers

The Eyes and the Impossible

by Dave Eggers
illustrations of Johannes by Shawn Harris

Alfred A. Knopf, 2023. 256 pages.
Review written 2/4/24 from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 John Newbery Medal Winner

This book is told by a dog who lives in a park. He introduces himself:

I am a dog called Johannes and I have seen you. I have seen you in this park, my home. If you have come to this park, my vast green and windblown park by the sea, I have seen you. I have seen everyone who has been here, the walkers and runners and bikers and horse-riders and the Bison-seekers and the picnickers and the archers in their cloaks. When you have come here you have come to my home, where I am the Eyes.

Three Bison live in an enclosure in the park. They rule over the park, but can’t leave their enclosure, so they appointed Johannes to be their Eyes. He has Assistants who help, and together the Bison keep the Equilibrium.

But as the Equilibrium gets upset, the animals devise a plan to do the Impossible.

Meanwhile, Johannes is delightful company.

I have seen all of you here. The big and small and tall and odorous. The travelers and tourists and locals and roller-skating humans and those who play their brass under the mossy bridge and the jitterbug people who dance over that other bridge, and bearded humans who try to send flying discs into cages but usually fail. I see all in this park because I am the Eyes and have been entrusted with seeing and reporting all. Ask the turtles about me. Ask the squirrels. Don’t ask the ducks. The ducks know nothing.

I run like a rocket. I run like a laser. You have never seen speed like mine. When I run I pull at the earth and make it turn. Have you seen me? You have not seen me. Not possible. You are mistaken. No one has seen me running because when I run human eyes are blind to me. I run like light. Have you seen the movement of light? Have you?

But some new things come into the park that Johannes has not seen before. Mysterious rectangles with things inside that are Impossible. And new animals that eat even the prickly grass that took over the tulip field. And thus new adventures and plans begin.

I like it that the Newbery this year went to a book that is truly for children — not even a middle-grades book. Now, like most great books, everyone in a wide age range will enjoy it, including this old person, but this would make a fabulous read-aloud even for young elementary school children. In fact, I hope that winning this award will make The Eyes and the Impossible the read-aloud choice for classrooms across the country.

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Review of The Girl with the Louding Voice, by Abi Daré

The Girl with the Louding Voice

by Abi Daré
read by Adjoa Andoh

Penguin Audio, 2020. 12 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written January 10, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Oh my goodness, this book was a treat to listen to. In this case, I highly recommend reading the book with the audiobook version, because the story is told by Adunni, a Nigerian girl with a thick accent and some quirky ways of using English. I think it might have been a little hard to follow in print, but Adjoa Andoh read it for me delightfully. She was easy to understand via listening, and I quickly got used to those quirks. For example, a “louding” voice is a voice getting louder and more influential so that other people can hear her.

Adunni has always wanted to be a teacher. She wants to help girls and women find their voices and get a louding voice herself.

But life is not kind to Adunni. As the book opens, at fourteen years old she has had to stop going to school, because her family can’t afford it after the death of her mother. And then her father finds a way to pay the rent — by selling Adunni to be the third wife of a rich old man.

Adunni had heard her father promise her mother that Adunni could stay in school, but he’s breaking that promise. And that’s only the beginning of the troubles Adunni goes through. Something terrible happens in her new household, and she knows she will be blamed, so she has to flee her village. And that doesn’t end her troubles, either.

There were times when the book was almost too sad, but the resilient character of Adunni kept me going, as she kept going. I think it’s fair to tell you as readers not to give up, that it does have a happy ending. (And it would just be unbearable if it didn’t. As it is: Hooray for Adunni!)

Some of the parts I love are when Adunni discovers a dictionary and starts reading the “Collins.” Also, after she finds a book of facts about Nigeria, each chapter opens with one of those facts. It’s that way that Adunni learns about human trafficking and that much of what has been done to her is against the law.

I haven’t been reading many adult books lately because I was on the Morris committee last year, and I’m not sure where I got the recommendation to read this one, but what a delight it is!

abidareauthor.com

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Review of The Next New Syrian Girl, by Ream Shukairy

The Next New Syrian Girl

by Ream Shukairy

Little, Brown and Company, 2023. 409 pages.
Review written March 27, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 More Teen Fiction

The Next New Syrian Girl beautiful interlaces the story of Khadija, a Syrian American girl about to graduate from high school, with Leene, a Syrian refugee girl the same age who has come to Detroit with her mother.

Khadija chafes under the control of her mother and finds relief at a local gym, where she learns to box, wearing her hijab. But when Khadija’s mother opens their home to Leene and her mother – and then holds Leene up as what a Syrian daughter should be like – Khadija isn’t pleased.

But as the girls get to know each other, they find each has something to learn from the other. Both girls are mourning the Syria they knew before war struck, but each had very different experiences.

I like the way Khadija wears a hijab but is not at all stereotypical. The characters read like distinctive individuals, so you feel like you’re getting to know real people when you read this book. A lot of the plot hinges on an enormous coincidence, but that coincidence means both girls are highly motivated to go to great lengths to make things right, so it did further the plot.

This debut stirred my heart and opened my eyes.

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Review of All the Fighting Parts, by Hannah V. Sawyerr

All the Fighting Parts

by Hannah V. Sawyerr

Amulet Books, 2023. 387 pages.
Review written October 2, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2024 Waler Award Honors
2023 Cybils Novels in Verse Finalist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 More Teen Fiction

[Note: This review was written after my first reading. I read it again, and saw even more on rereading. A marvelous novel and one of our Morris Finalists!]

All the Fighting Parts is a novel in verse about a teen dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault.

Amina’s mother died when she was five years old, and she’s been told that her mother was an activist and a fighter, and that Mina inherited all the fighting parts from her. Her father doesn’t really know how to relate to her, and has taken refuge in the church. When Mina’s teacher calls after she fought back in class, his suggestion is to do some volunteer work at the church as a penalty.

The book interweaves what led up to the assault with the police report about the assault and dealing with it afterward. At first, Mina pushes her friends away and won’t talk to anyone. That felt authentic and realistic. But I also like the way Mina is portrayed grappling with healing. Her boyfriend is almost too good to be true in his understanding – but as a reader, I definitely wanted that for her.

There’s another person abused by the same perpetrator, a respected member of the community, and she has a different way of dealing with it. But this is a sensitive and powerful portrayal of a teen trying to do what’s right and getting her trust betrayed. Then having to figure out it wasn’t her fault what happened.

hannahsawyerr.com
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Review of Saints of the Household, by Ari Tison

Saints of the Household

by Ari Tison

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2023. 312 pages.
Review written May 14, 2023, from my own copy, sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 Walter Dean Myers Award Young Adult Winner
2024 Pura Belpré Award Young Adult Author Winner
2024 William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 More Teen Fiction

[Note: This review was written after I read the book the first time, before I discussed it with the Morris committee and before two more readings. I was blown away by this book from the first time I read it.]

Saints of the Household opens when two brothers, Jay and Max, are going to back to school after being suspended for beating up the school soccer star. They’re both seniors in high school, eleven months apart, and have to meet with a counselor, who is also requiring them to meet with their victim for reconciliation.

Jay is trying to figure out how things went so far, but we gradually learn that they saw the soccer star being rough with his girlfriend Nicole, Jay and Max’s cousin. Jay, Max, and Nicole are the only indigenous people at their Minnesota rural high school. Jay’s worried she won’t speak to them again, but also worries that the boy isn’t treating Nicole the way she deserves to be treated. And we find out that the boys’ dad isn’t treating their mother the way she deserves to be treated, either. In fact, Jay and Max have plenty of personal experience with abuse.

The story is told in short vignettes from Jay and poetry from Max, who is an artist. Jay worries that if Max doesn’t take the reconciliation process seriously, he won’t get into art school. But he has to learn that they each have their own burdens to carry.

As the book goes on, we grow to understand how each boy is coping. The book deals with abuse, trauma, depression, and protecting others – but also art, healing, strength and survival. The beautiful writing draws you in and makes you care about these boys.

Here’s one of Jay’s vignettes toward the end (not giving anything away), when he’s helping his grandpa get his home ready after an absence in the Minnesota winter:

First, we warm the house, and then we pull off the panels nailed to the windows that protected them in the cold. We have hammers, and we tug to undress this house.

I feel like this house.

Boxed up for a season of survival. I have survived well like this house. My muscles are as strong as ever as I tear off each panel. It’s a good strength, one I don’t need to use to hurt. A useful strength, and it has me crying. I start tearing off the wood faster and faster because I can’t help but think of each of these boards as a thick skin I had put up. I don’t even know what’s inside there.

The writing is stunningly beautiful, and I was amazed this is a debut author.

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Review of Rez Ball, by Byron Graves

Rez Ball

by Byron Graves

Heartdrum (HarperCollins), 2023. 357 pages.
Review written September 29, 2023, from my own copy, sent from the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Debut Award Winner
2024 American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner, Best Young Adult Book
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 More Teen Fiction

I read this book because it’s eligible for the 2024 William Morris Award for best young adult debut book, so I’m writing this review before I’ve discussed it with the committee in order to guarantee this is only my opinion and I’m not giving any information about what the committee thinks.

Note: This was written after my first time through the book. I read it twice in print and then listened to it as an audiobook, and my appreciation only grew.

Rez Ball is a sports novel. I don’t generally love sports novels, but this one hooked me into a couple late nights turning pages.

It’s the story of Tre Brun, a sophomore at Red Lake Indian Reservation high school, hoping to play varsity basketball. His big brother Jaxon had been the star of the team last year. But Jaxon died in a car accident, and his team just missed going on to the state championships for the first time ever.

Now the same starters are back, but is there a place for Tre? And he and everyone else know that he’s not the same ball player as his brother. Is he good enough?

I thought Tre came across as an authentic sophomore boy who’s big and tall and has fame suddenly thrust upon him. He’s awkward with girls, feels like he needs to prove himself at parties, and has a lot to live up to in the shadow of his big brother. I love the way the author winds all that into Tre with believability and likeability, and you feel his thrill when the whole rez is cheering for him, but also the weight of those expectations.

The team does come up against some ugly racism in spots, and Tre has some friendship issues to untangle. And every part of the story makes it feel all the more true.

This is a sports novel that made me want to give the protagonist a great big hug. It was a lovely combination of showing his insecurities along with the pride and thrill of playing ball with excellence. A sports novel to love – even if you don’t particularly like sports novels.

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Review of 102 Days of Lying About Lauren, by Maura Jortner

102 Days of Lying About Lauren

by Maura Jortner

Holiday House, 2023. 215 pages.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 More Children’s Fiction

102 Days of Lying About Lauren is a debut novel that I read as part of my reading for the 2024 William C. Morris Award for best Young Adult Debut book. Now, although this book is technically eligible, the main character is twelve years old, so it wouldn’t really have the wide appeal to teens that the Morris Award looks for. (Wide appeal to middle school students? Absolutely!) Normally, when I figured this out about a book, I stopped right there. But in the case of this book, it only took a few pages to completely hook me, and I indulged myself and finished the whole book. Such a delight!

Before the story even begins we see two lists from a girl who calls herself Mouse. The two lists are “Rules to Live By” and “Lies Told.” The first rule is “Don’t tell anyone where you live.” The last lie is “I told Cat that Lauren Suszek was dead. She isn’t. Lauren Suszek is me.”

When we start the story, we learn that Lauren is living in an attic of the Haunted House attraction at an amusement park in Florida. She looks old for her age, so during the day, she pretends to be sixteen years old and an employee of the amusement park. She had stolen a uniform shirt and found a broom and dust pan, and she’s got a routine. She’s been living at the park for 102 days.

This might seem like an unlikely premise, but I love the way this author gradually reveals to us what happened to Mouse and how she cleverly figured out how to cope. She even made a friend with another worker and found a way to get food.

But all her efforts and planning begin to get stymied on the 102nd day, when first her friend Tanner talks about saying good-by, then someone named Cat calls Mouse “Lauren,” and then a hurricane is coming and they all need to seek shelter, but Tanner goes the wrong way.

Okay, the summary isn’t as good as the book itself. I was completely charmed by Mouse, with all her Rules for staying safe and her cleverness in staying hidden. Not to give anything away, but I loved the way the ending hinted at the long road of healing and that Lauren would be able to travel it.

I did learn from this book the sad fact that amusement parks are a place where sometimes kids get abandoned. Here’s how Mouse puts it when she sees a distraught kid in the park on the start of that fateful day:

“Mommy!” It was a little boy dressed in a fancy shirt that looked so neat Mama would have called it pressed. In other words, he looked like someone had taken care to make sure he appeared presentable today. Not a good sign. There was only one reason to make sure your kid looked that good when heading off to America’s most famous amusement park: you were going to leave him there. Parents ditched their kids here sometimes. Maybe because they wanted to get in one last hurrah before it all fell apart. Or maybe because parents needed the last memory of their kid to be a good one. Who knows? But it happened. Kids were left behind, and this kid, he looked the part. Dressed nicely, eyes wild – searching, scanning – scared out of his mind.

I think part of the reason I loved this book is that when I was a kid, I had a fantasy about stopping time and then enjoying all the rides at Disneyland. (Never mind how I would have gotten the rides to work.) But mostly it was that Mouse is a sweet and delightful person who went through something no kid should ever have to go through and then figured out an amazingly effective way to deal with it. The whole thing was maybe not completely realistic, but I needed the happy ending so much, I didn’t mind a bit, and enjoyed every minute of this book. I hope we’ll see much more from this author!

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Review of An Echo in the City, by K. X. Song

An Echo in the City

by K. X. Song
read by Christina Ho and Ewan Chung

Hachette Audio, 2023. 9 hours, 13 minutes.
Review written September 13, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

An Echo in the City surprised me with how powerful it was. We begin in Hong Kong in 2019 with Phoenix, a junior in high school, whose mother is pressuring her to study to retake the SAT so she can get into Yale and leave Hong Kong. Phoenix lived in North Carolina when she was little, but her wealthy family took her back to Hong Kong for the opportunities. With her parents’ recent divorce, she feels like they hardly notice her except to complain about her grades.

But then she starts talking with her goof-off older brother’s new girlfriend Suki, who is involved in the student protest movement. The government had introduced a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China, and they feel this would allow anyone to be arrested who did anything China didn’t like – such as protest. Suki’s uncle has run a bookstore for years that sells books banned in China, and he is now on the blacklist.

As Phoenix gets more and more involved in the movement, she meets Kai, a handsome seventeen-year-old who has recently moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai after his mother’s death. What Phoenix doesn’t know is that Kai’s father is a police officer, and Kai has enrolled in the police academy to please him. So Phoenix doesn’t realize that Kai is on the opposite side of what turns out to be more and more like a war.

I appreciated the conflict in this book – it didn’t feel contrived. Each teen has a back story such that their reactions make sense. Their romance is lovely – while you know that there’s going to be conflicting emotions, and are just waiting for Kai to get found out.

I also had known nothing about the student protests in Hong Kong, and hearing about them from both the perspective of a student and the perspective of police was eye-opening.

Both characters grow in this book, with both of them realizing that they need to think about how they want their own lives to go and not just what their parents want for them. A story of star-crossed lovers that also teaches you about recent history.

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Review of The Labors of Hercules Beal, by Gary D. Schmidt, read by Fred Berman

The Labors of Hercules Beal

by Gary D. Schmidt
read by Fred Berman

Clarion Books, 2023. 8 hours, 17 minutes.
Review written December 13, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I already knew I love Gary Schmidt’s writing. Even knowing that, this one blew me away, touching me to the point of tears in several spots.

This story is told in the voice of a 12-year-old boy. He’s the smallest kid in his class, but insists he’s begun with the “Beal growth spurt.” His name is Hercules Beal. And yes, he’s heard all the jokes about a small kid being named Hercules. He lives in Truro, Maine, which he is convinced is the most beautiful place in the world.

Herc’s parents died in a car accident earlier this year, and his big brother Achilles has come back from his adventuring to care for Herc — and run the Beal Brothers Nursery, which has been in their family since Herc’s great-grandfather and his brother started it. But the school bus route has changed, and they’re not on it, and Achilles isn’t interested in driving Herc to Truro Middle School every day. So Herc will now be walking 22 minutes each day to attend Truro Academy for the Environmental Sciences.

His new home room teacher is a retired marine who insists on being addressed as Lieutenant-Colonel Hupfer. In studying Greek mythology, he has individualized project assignments for the class that are going to take the whole year, with regular progress reports. Herc’s project is to study the Labors of Hercules, figure out how they apply to his life — and find a way to perform them himself.

So this book is about Hercules Beal performing the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Like Lieutenant-Colonel Hupfer says, when you really look for parallels, you’ll find them. It starts out simple — instead of catching the Nemean Lion, Herc clears an abandoned house of feral cats. Many of the feats feel truly Herculean — and Herc learns along the way that he can ask for help.

My only complaint about the book is that the assignment was too big and the labors fit too well — how could the teacher ever have predicted that some of these labors would come to him? And a lot of them seemed like way too big a thing to put on a 12-year-old kid. Though Herc did learn that he was not alone — and some of the touching things about the book were his reflections on what he learned from each labor.

This book is deeply sad, because of Herc’s missing parents. But it’s also funny, quirky, inspiring, and beautiful. Gary Schmidt is great at writing characters who are so distinctive and unique, you don’t doubt for a second they’re fully alive. This book is one to treasure up in your heart.

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