Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

Review of Sugar in Milk, by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

Sugar in Milk

by Thrity Umrigar
illustrated by Khoa Le

RP Kids, Philadelphia, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written January 9, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 Capitol Choices selection, age 7-10.

This gorgeously illustrated and lyrical picture book contains a story-within-a-story.

It begins with a spread of a girl alone in a snowy city, pulling a suitcase behind her.

When I first came to this country,
I felt so alone.

Although the girl knows her aunt and uncle are happy to have her and try to be welcoming, she misses her parents and her family and even her cats, Kulfi and Baklava.

Then her Auntie tells her a story, and that part is set off with decorated borders that get gradually more elaborate. The story tells of a group people long ago who had to leave their home and travel to a distant land.

But the local king did not want to let them in.
“Our land is too crowded,” he grumbled,
“with no room for others.
Besides, these visitors look foreign
and speak a strange and different language
I do not understand.”

But when the travelers don’t understand him (because they speak a strange and different language), he shows them they have no room, by filling a royal cup with milk, all the way to the brim.

But a wise man among the travelers took out a spoon and mixed sugar into the milk. And I won’t spoil the lovely way the lesson is presented, but it’s done lyrically, fittingly accompanying the beautiful pictures.

And the girl’s Auntie doesn’t have to tell her the moral of the story, but it changes everything for her.

I began to smile at the people we passed,
and they returned my smile.
Everybody I said hello to said hello back to me.
Even the dogs seemed friendlier
and wagged their tails faster.

I love the way this book tells a simple story that’s so rich with application – but leaves the application to the children who hear the story. It’s a good story for someone who’s lonely as well as for someone who’s not but who needs to have compassion on those who are.

And the artistry of this book is lovely for the eyes and fingers both. And for the ears, it’s written in the musical language of legends.

Umrigar.com
runningpress.com/rpkids

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Solving for M, by Jennifer Swender

Sunday, February 28th, 2021

Solving for M

by Jennifer Swender
illustrations by Jennifer Naalchigar

Crown Books for Young Readers, 2019. 243 pages.
Review written January 27, 2021, from a library book
2020 Mathical Book Prize Award Winner, Ages 8-10

This book begins with Mika starting middle school in 5th grade and wondering why her math teacher insists on them keeping a math journal. She doesn’t think of herself as a numbers person, but as an art person. Still, her art teacher tells them “Drawing isn’t in the 5th grade curriculum” and instead they make collages from found objects. She does more drawing in math class than in art class.

And the book takes us through Mika’s year with the unconventional math teacher, new friends, and pages from Mika’s math journal, which mostly give a nice visual explanation of math concepts. Mika’s mother, unfortunately, has a medical incident and may have cancer, and then that cancer may have spread, so when Mika thinks about probability, that’s what’s on her mind.

I’m not sure I would have liked having to do a math journal instead of just solving problems when I was in 5th grade. But this makes a nice book for kids who don’t, actually, think of themselves as numbers people. It shows how much math is part of life. And Mika’s story is a good one, trying to cope with her mother’s diagnosis and make new friends with her former best friend assigned to a different pod.

There is, alas, one error in the portrayed journal pages! The book is so good except for that!

When the class is talking about subsets, Mika draws pictures of various sets and subsets. These are shown on pages 135 and 136. In the first one, she’s got a picture of her Mom in a Melanoma Support Group. Set A = Mom, old guy 1, old guy 2, old guy 3, old guy 4. Then she’s got new brackets around the picture of her mother and says Set B = Mom.

But alas! In the subset notation, it says that A is a subset of B, instead of what it should be, the other way around! This has strong potential to confuse lots of kids. It’s the *only* math mistake in the book, and not a major plot point, and I really really really hope they will fix it in subsequent printings. Once that mistake is put right, it’s a wonderful book that kids will enjoy and that might open their minds about math!

I admit, I’m surprised it won a Mathical Prize with that error in there. Though the library tends to buy early printings, so maybe it did get fixed? And it’s one tiny error and they shouldn’t hold against it the beautiful demonstration of how math is part of life and artists can help make that understandable. Also, I’m sure the committee appreciated the bigger picture that this book shows that it doesn’t take some kind of natural-born genius to enjoy and appreciate math.

jacobsandswender.com
rhcbooks.com

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Review of You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson

Sunday, February 28th, 2021

You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson
read by Alaska Jackson

Scholastic Press, 2020. 7 hours, 18 minutes.
Review written January 9, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
2020 Cybils Finalist: Young Adult Fiction
Starred Review
2021 Stonewall Honor Books

Okay, I’ll confess: My Cybils panel chose this book as a finalist in Young Adult Fiction, and I hadn’t read it yet. I knew that a lot of people liked it, but I took a gamble that other books would rise above it – and this time, I lost out. So I felt obligated to see what my group was recommending, and I wasn’t sorry.

I do have a hard time with the premise of the book: That there’s a town in Indiana where Prom is everything. There’s a six week campaign period for prom queen and king. Candidates are expected to do volunteer activities, have good grades, and appear in promotional events, with many of these weighted into who gets to be on the court. In fact, the winning prom queen and king get a $10,000 scholarship.

Really? To me, it seemed completely unbelievable and just invented as the set up for a book about an unlikely prom queen. And how trite is that?

But I reflected that I know nothing about how serious prom might be in a rural county of Indiana. In fact, I don’t know much about prom, having gone to a small Christian high school decades ago. Now they did further destroy believability by mentioning the year – No, you didn’t go to prom in 2020 – but that was a mistake a few other young adult novels made this year. Who knew when the book was being published that it couldn’t actually happen in 2020?

However, after my colleagues chose the book as our finalist, I was willing to set aside my skepticism. Before long, I found myself making excuses to listen to more of the audiobook, which was good for getting puzzles done!

The story begins as Liz Lighty learns she did not get the scholarship she’d auditioned for to go to the college her mother attended – the one she’s wanted to go to all her life, but especially ever since her mother died of sickle cell disease. Her brother and some friends decide she should run for prom queen – and the $10,000 scholarship. Liz doesn’t even want to tell her grandparents she didn’t get the scholarship, because she’s afraid they’ll sell their house to support her.

Trouble is, Liz’s friend has a way to track her school’s social media app, and Liz is currently next-to-last out of 25 candidates for prom court. On top of that, she’s got social anxiety, she’s black, and she’s queer. She’s not a “legacy” candidate with parents who were on the prom court when they were in high school.

But the story gets much more interesting in the people Liz interacts with along the way. There’s a new girl who doesn’t seem to care about other people’s expectations. She’s also beautiful. Then there’s the guy who was her best friend in middle school but rejected her on the first day of ninth grade. He’s running for prom king and Liz starts remembering what it was like having him for a friend.

This ends up being a timely novel about friendship and expectations and even romance. You get to caring about Liz and her family and root her on in her quest to make it to Pennington College by way of prom queen.

ireadya.com
scholastic.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Milo Imagines the World, by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson

Saturday, February 27th, 2021

Milo Imagines the World

by Matt de la Peña
pictures by Christian Robinson

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 40 pages.
Review written February 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Milo Imagines the World reminds me of the book by these collaborators that won the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Honor, Last Stop on Market Street, because it’s also about a boy taking public transportation.

This time it’s the subway. And the picture in the subway station puts me right there with Milo and his older sister, who is looking at her phone, as are many people in the station.

When Milo gets on the subway, we’re told:

These monthly Sunday subway rides
are never ending, and as usual, Milo is a shook-up soda.
Excitement stacked on top of worry
on top of confusion
on top of love.
To keep himself from bursting, he studies
the faces around him and makes pictures of their lives.

We see the imaginative pictures that Milo draws about the people on the subway.

When a white boy in a suit with a perfect part and bright white Nikes boards the train, Milo imagines him as a prince going to his castle.

More interesting people board the train, including a bride and a crew of breakers.

When Milo and his sister get off the train, we see them going through a metal detector and visiting their mom, who’s wearing an orange jumpsuit, in a room with guards and other families spending time together. To Milo’s surprise, the boy in the suit is there, too. That makes Milo rethink some of his imaginings.

But the book ends with Milo showing his mom a picture of their family at home, together, eating ice cream on their front steps.

This book works on many levels. It’s about a subway ride, imagination, having things in common with others, seeing beyond stereotypes, and having an incarcerated parent. But I’m going to approach it as a great story. And that’s how it’s going to be able to reach kids who will benefit from all those other levels.

mattdelapena.com
theartoffun.com
penguin.com/kids

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Review of Black Brother, Black Brother, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Thursday, February 25th, 2021

Black Brother, Black Brother

by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 239 pages.
Review written January 19, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Donte and Trey are brothers in a biracial family. Trey has white skin and looks like their dad. Donte has black skin and looks like their lawyer mom. They both attend a Middlefield Prep, with Trey a couple years ahead of Donte, who’s in middle school. Trey is far more popular than Donte.

As the book opens, Donte is sitting in the principal’s office, waiting to be punished for something he didn’t actually do. When they won’t even listen to his side and he gets angry, the police are called and Donte is arrested and taken from the school in handcuffs.

Donte’s mother is a lawyer. She’s going to go farther with his case. But Donte is especially angry at Alan, the kid who threw the pencil, a kid who’s blatantly racist. That kid is also the star of the fencing team.

Then Donte learns that a black Olympic fencer lives nearby and works at a Boys and Girls Club in Boston. Donte decides to learn to fence, in hopes of beating Alan at his own game.

The book is good at explaining the art of fencing to the reader – the mind game aspects as well as the physical aspects. We’re rooting for Donte as he learns to look beyond personal vengeance and think about how to work for justice.

It’s not a long story, but it grips the reader, and points out some contemporary issues. In a note at the back, the author mentions some awful stories of black children being arrested at school for minor offenses. I hope the book itself will help open eyes and open hearts.

lbyr.com

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Review of Everything Sad Is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Everything Sad Is Untrue

(a true story)

by Daniel Nayeri

Levine Querido (Chronicle Books), 2020. 356 pages.
Review written February 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 Michael L. Printz Award Winner

I felt like I scored when this won the Printz Award. A friend had recently recommended it highly, so I had it checked out already, and didn’t have to wait to get it on hold. Even with that strong recommendation and winning the top award for Young Adult books, I was not disappointed when I read this book, and I agree with the acclaim.

The subtitle says this is a true story, but it’s presented as fiction. We learn at the back that the author told the story of his life as a refugee from his own perspective when he was twelve. Since he wasn’t able to verify facts, he went with his memories and changed some details – and called it fiction.

The style makes this book memorable and delightful. He writes it, telling the reader the story, as his younger self told stories to his class when he was twelve. To give you the idea, I’ll show you the beginning:

All Persians are liars and lying is a sin.

That’s what the kids in Mrs. Miller’s class think, but I’m the only Persian they’ve ever met, so I don’t know where they got that idea.

My mom says it’s true, but only because everyone has sinned and needs God to save them. My dad says it isn’t. Persians aren’t liars. They’re poets, which is worse.

Poets don’t even know when they’re lying. They’re just trying to remember their dreams. They’re trying to remember six thousand years of history and all the versions of all the stories ever told.

In one version, maybe I’m not the refugee kid in the back of Mrs. Miller’s class. I’m a prince in disguise.

If you catch me, I will say what they say in the 1,001 Nights. “Let me go, and I will tell you a tale passing strange.”

That’s how they all begin.

With a promise. If you listen, I’ll tell you a story. We can know and be known to each other, and then we’re not enemies anymore.

I’m not making this up. This is a rule that even genies follow.

In the 1,001 Nights, Scheherazade – the rememberer of all the world’s dreams – told stories every night to the king, so he would spare her life.

But in here, it’s just me, counting my own memories.

And you, reader, whoever you are. You’re the king.

I’m not sucking up, by the way. The king was evil and made a bloody massacre of a thousand lives before he got to Scheherazade.

It’s a responsibility to be the king.

You’ve got my whole life in your hands.

And I’m just warning you that if I’m going to be honest, I have to begin the story with my Baba Haji, even if the blood might shock you.

But don’t worry, dear reader and Mrs. Miller.

Of all the tales of marvel that I could tell you, none surpass in wonder and coolness the one I am about to tell.

That gives you an idea of the style, which continues the entire book. In a somewhat rambling but completely charming way, Khosrou, who was renamed Daniel so Americans could pronounce it, tells the story of his Persian forebears and life in Iran, how his mother became a Christian and they had to flee, and how things are completely different now in Oklahoma.

But that summary doesn’t convey the power and poignancy of this story.

His mother is portrayed as the hero of the book – utterly unstoppable. The stories inside the book range from tragic and frightening, including their time as refugees before they got permission to come to America, to more garden-variety encounters with unkind kids in Oklahoma, to mythic tales of Daniel’s ancestors. He was a small child when he had to leave his home country and extended family behind, and he conveys that child’s perspective.

He also weaves themes through the narrative so that I want to read it again to see what I didn’t catch the first time. I think next time, I’ll listen to an audiobook, because that will suit the style perfectly.

levinequerido.com

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Review of Outside, Inside, by LeUyen Pham

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Outside, Inside

by LeUyen Pham

Roaring Brook Press, 2021. 44 pages.
Review written January 28, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

It gives me pause that the pandemic has been going on long enough for a top-quality illustrator to have a wonderful book about it published.

Here’s the text for the first several spreads:

Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed.

Everybody who was OUTSIDE . . .

. . . went INSIDE.

Everyone.
Everywhere.
All over the WORLD.

There are lovely spreads about the people inside and outside hospitals, as well as talk about the empty parks, playgrounds, and schools, and the animals that came out to play.

It talks about the many things we did inside while waiting.

It talks about WHY we did this. “But mostly because everyone knew it was the right thing to do.” According to the Author’s Note, the images on this page are of actual people who died of Covid-19, along with people who love them.

I got to hear the author speak about this book at ALA Virtual Midwinter meeting, and she couldn’t talk about the hospital pages without crying. Though the book itself comes across as full of hope. There’s a black cat on each page, leading the reader through the book – the perfect choice, because cats can go anywhere.

I love the spreads at the end that bring it home:

On the OUTSIDE,
we are all different.
[Here the image is of many homes, in architectural styles from all over the world, and children from all ethnicities looking out the windows.]

But on the INSIDE,
we are all the same.
[Now the sun is setting and the silhouetted, happy children all have red hearts radiating out from them.]

The final metaphor is that Spring will come soon. There’s a wonderful spread of people outdoors, close to each other, and featuring a child giving an older relative a huge hug.

May that day come soon indeed.

This is a lovely book about hard things that fills the reader with hope. There’s lots to talk about, but the actual text is simple enough for a very young child. The book feels universal, featuring people all over the world, and it will still make for lovely reading even when this pandemic is long past.

leuyenpham.com
mackids.com

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Review of Twins, by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright

Friday, February 19th, 2021

Twins

written by Varian Johnson
illustrated by Shannon Wright

Graphix (Scholastic), 2020. 252 pages.
Review written January 26, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Maureen and her twin Francine have reached middle school, and Maureen’s dismayed that they only have two classes together. But Francine starts going by Fran and seems to be relishing doing things apart from Maureen. She’s getting new friends in chorus and even decides to run for class president.

Maureen is nervous about doing so much on her own and finding her own way. Then in Cadets, Maureen learns she can get extra credit by running for office. Francine doesn’t even seem to care, so she impulsively decides to run for president, too. Will that finally get her twin’s attention again?

There are plenty of excellent graphic novels about navigating the way friendships change in middle school. This one has the additional spark of dealing with a friendship between twins. Varian Johnson is a twin himself, so even though the story isn’t autobiographical, he knows how to capture the connection between twins. This book is sure to be wildly popular, and deservedly so.

varianjohnson.com

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Review of Mañanaland, by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Saturday, February 13th, 2021

Mañanaland

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Scholastic Press, 2020. 247 pages.
Review written March 6, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#11 Children’s Fiction

This lovely book tells the story of a boy growing into the legacy of his family of helping people in need.

Here’s how the book begins:

Somewhere in the Américas, many years after once-upon-a-time and long before happily-ever-after, a boy climbed the cobbled steps of an arched bridge in the tiny village of Santa Maria, in the country of the same name.

He bounced a fútbol on each stone ledge.

In the land of a hundred bridges, this was his favorite. When he was only a baby, Papá, a master stonemason and bridge builder, had carved his name on the spandrel wall for all to see

MAXIMILIANO CÓRDOBA

Max is twelve years old and ready this year to join Santa Maria’s famous fútbol team. He also ready for more responsibility and more freedom, like going to another town for a free fútbol clinic with his friends, but his Papá is overprotective and won’t let him go. Papá is also full of secrets, and never talks about Max’s mother, who left when Max was a baby.

In this book, Max discovers many family secrets and is placed in a situation where he must rise to the occasion and follow the family tradition of helping others.

I like the little blend of fantasy in this book, with a beginning like a fairy tale. The setting is fictional, but there’s a country troubled by war and oppression over the nearby border. Max and his grandfather like to tell stories, though his Papá is more of a realist and doesn’t seem to believe in happy endings any more. But Max discovers that some of the stories are hiding important truths.

I also like the tower standing over the town, a tower like a giant queen from a chessboard. The picture on the cover added to Max’s thinking of her as a giant lady watching over the town and its people.

This book had just the right blend of mystery, danger, adventure, and hope.

scholastic.com

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

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Review of This Is My Brain In Love, by I. W. Gregorio

Wednesday, February 10th, 2021

This Is My Brain in Love

by I. W. Gregorio
read by Diane Doen and Zeno Robinson

Hachette Audio, 2020. 9 hours, 30 minutes.
Review written November 16, 2020, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2021 Schneider Family Award Winner
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#9 General Teen Fiction

This book begins at the start of summer before Jocelyn Wu’s Junior year of high school. Her father tells her that their family restaurant is failing and they will have to move back to the big city where he worked for her uncle. Jos has finally made friends in Utica, and she is not ready to uproot everything and move back. She asks her father to give her a chance. If they can establish an internet presence and advertise at events, maybe they can turn things around.

Jos doesn’t think she has the expertise to turn things around by herself, so she convinces her dad to advertise for a summer intern. When Will Dominici applies, she doesn’t expect an attractive boy her age whose mother is Nigerian and father Italian. As they work together, they are more and more attracted to one another – which doesn’t go over well with Jos’s dad.

This is a delightful teen romance. The two narrators alternating Will’s and Jocelyn’s perspectives add to the fun. Something distinctive about this book is that both teens are dealing with mental illness. Will has been seeing a therapist for anxiety disorder since he was eight years old. He notices that Jos is awfully hard on herself and starts showing warning signs of depression, though she’s resistant to that idea. But the love story ends up being a natural frame for talking about mental illness and how it’s hard – but necessary – to ask for help.

I listened to this on eaudiobook, so I couldn’t renew as easily as a physical copy. But I didn’t even resent cramming in the last three hours to get it finished before it expired. Maybe it was a little unrealistic that two teens could turn the business around, and throwing in sinister developers who wanted to replace the family restaurant felt a little less realistic, but it’s actually kind of easy to believe that teens know more about internet advertising than immigrant adults. And it all adds up to a feel-good listening experience.

The narrators were excellent, and I appreciated that the narrator for Jocelyn’s viewpoint could quote her parents and Amah speaking Mandarin without missing a beat.

This book made me want to try some Potstickers.

theNOVL.com
LBYR.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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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