Review of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

March 21st, 2020

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

First Second, 2019. 300 pages.
Review written February 11, 2020, from a library book
2020 Michael L. Printz Honor

This graphic novel won a Printz Honor, which doesn’t happen often for graphic novels, so I had to take a look. Unlike the Newbery, the Printz considers the art as well as the text, and a quick glance through the pages already told me this graphic novel is creative and innovative, using panel layouts and angles of view in interesting ways.

The story is about Freddy, writing to an online advice columnist after Laura Dean has broken up with her for the third time. The third time is extra bad when she finds Laura Dean making out with someone else at a Valentine’s Day party. But before long Laura Dean is back, and Freddy takes her back.

Meanwhile, things are going on in the lives of her other friends, but Freddy keeps thinking about Laura Dean.

This book is a quick read, but there are a lot of insights to be gained from watching other people mess up – and realize they’re messing up.

I like the point the advice columnist makes that breaking up and being in love have a lot in common, so questions about breaking up are also questions about the nature of the love between you.

And I like this line from her advice: “It’s true that giving can be a part of love. But, contrary to popular belief, love should never take from you, Freddy.”

Thinking about these questions in someone else’s love story can certainly help you think about them in your own.

hirosemary.com
firstsecondbooks.com

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Review of Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

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 This Promise of Change, by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

March 19th, 2020

This Promise of Change

One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality

by Jo Ann Allen Boyce
and Debbie Levy

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019. 310 pages.
Review written January 20, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor

Jo Ann Allen was one of the “Clinton 12” – black children who went to the white high school in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1956 when the Supreme Court so ordered. It started out calmly enough, but things got worse and worse.

The main story is told in Jo Ann’s voice, in verse. Many are free verse, but many are also in rhyme, using poetic forms. There’s an immediacy about the poems, and we get the story of how it felt to be Jo Ann in the middle of such big events. I wouldn’t have necessarily liked an author making this up, but I like that Jo Ann herself was an author of this book, so we can trust that she got the feelings right.

Between the poems are headlines from all over the country talking about the events that Jo Ann was part of. There are photos at the back of Jo Ann and her classmates.

Because this book is in verse, it’s all the more readable, and helps the reader understand how it felt to be there.

I think my favorite poem in the book is this one toward the end:

A REAL VICTORY
(THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6)

The day before yesterday,
the same day
we went down the Hill with Reverend Turner
and all that happened
happened,
there was also an election.
Not an election for president
(that was in November; Ike won again)
but for local officials
like the mayor and the city aldermen.

The results are in and

I don’t know if people voted
after hearing what happened at school.
I don’t know if people felt
things have gone too far.

I don’t know if A led to B but –
every single
white supremacist
segregationist
candidate
lost.

Before all this,
before all that happened
happened,
I thought there was nothing I could do
about segregation.
I’m just a girl, I thought,
one girl who tries
to look at the good side of things,
because there’s nothing I can do
about the bad.
I’m still that good-side-looking girl,
but now when I see the bad, I’ll think –
I’ll know
there’s something I can do about it.

debbielevybooks.com
Bloomsbury.com

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

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 The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

March 17th, 2020

The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2019. 419 pages.
Review written February 26, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2019 Booker Prize Winner

The Testaments is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’ve actually never read. (Though I remember it was a Book of the Month Club selection long ago when I was a member. At the time, I didn’t like books where religious people were the villains.) I have watched the TV series, though, on library DVDs. Normally, I wouldn’t let that substitute for reading a book, but while the series was riveting, it’s an extremely unpleasant story, and I didn’t actually want to absorb myself in it again. I did have enough information to completely understand what was going on in this sequel. This book will be more enjoyable if you’ve read the original book or watched the series, though.

This book is told from three perspectives, all three writing about what happened in the past (which is why it’s called The Testaments). One perspective is that of Aunt Lydia, an important person in the administration of Gilead, in charge of women’s matters. Along the way, we learn about Aunt Lydia’s background and how she came to power.

The other two perspectives are the daughters of Jude, the Handmaid who tells the story in the first book. (They don’t tell you that right away, but it’s not difficult to figure out.) One of them was smuggled out of Gilead as a baby. She only finds out about her background when the couple she thought were her parents were killed by a bomb. The other was the little girl taken from Jude when she was first captured while fleeing Gilead. She, too, must learn that those she thinks are her parents are not really her parents. In fact, when her “mother” dies and her “father” takes a new wife, the stepmother wants her out of the house, so plans to marry her off at thirteen.

I do have some arguments with the idea that Gilead would have gotten enough people behind it to pull off a new country and a new repressive government. But that’s simply the assumption here. In this book, the girls grow to be young adults, and the reader learns both what it’s like to grow up in Gilead and what happened to the characters after The Handmaid’s Tale.

Margaret Atwood’s prose is riveting. I began reading this book on a sick day. I did two things that day – slept and read. And I didn’t go to sleep for the night until I’d finished the book. Even with three perspectives, the plot doesn’t lag at any point. Highly recommended.

margaretatwood.ca
nanatalese.com

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Review of Nowhere Boy, by Katherine Marsh

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 Gittel’s Journey, by Lesléa Newman, pictures by Amy June Bates

March 9th, 2020

Gittel’s Journey

An Ellis Island Story

story by Lesléa Newman
pictures by Amy June Bates

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019. 44 pages.
Starred Review
2020 Sidney Taylor Picture Book Award Honor

Gittel’s Journey is the story of a young girl traveling by herself to America from Poland with her mother’s Sabbath candlesticks. The story is based on the true stories of the author’s grandmother and adopted aunt.

Gittel had set out with her mother, but her mother is turned away because of an eye infection. She tells Gittel to go on without her and gives her the address of her cousin. But when Gittel arrives in America after a long journey, the ink has worn off the paper because she has kept such tight hold of it.

Fortunately, Gittel finds kind helpers in America for a happy ending.

The story is simple, but catches the reader’s imagination with the idea of a young girl crossing an ocean alone. The beautiful water color illustrations and loving care taken in the book’s construction make this book a work of art with a classic feel.

amybates.com
abramsyoungreaders.com

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Review of Stargazing, by Jen Wang

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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Review of Beneath the Tamarind Tree, by Isha Sesay

March 6th, 2020

Beneath the Tamarind Tree

A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram

by Isha Sesay

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. 382 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 24, 2020, from a signed advance reader copy and a library book

CNN journalist Isha Sesay tells the story of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped from a boarding school in the night of April 14, 2014. 57 managed to escape that night. The girls were made to sleep on the ground, work for their captors, and given little to eat. They were urged to convert to Islam and then to marry their captors. The ones who refused to convert were made to work as slaves for the new wives.

I was a little ambivalent about how much Isha Sesay puts herself into the story. But it seems appropriate because part of the story is how little the Nigerian government did to recover the girls, who were from poor, rural families. There was even a strong movement asserting that it was all a hoax to make the government look bad. So the author’s work to bring international attention to the plight of the girls did help their recovery.

More than 100 of the girls have still not been recovered. But twenty-one were released on October 13, 2016, and eighty-two more in May 2017. The author worked with the released girls to find out their story, but she also gives the perspective of heartbroken parents who still have not recovered their daughters.

Even though the author is herself Muslim, the Christian faith of the schoolgirls shines through in these pages. It was their faith – especially of those who refused to convert – that helped them through the terrible times.

Boko Haram is against educating women, so it’s something of a triumph that most of the released girls are now attending university. But I do hope this book will help the world remember the plight of those who have still not been recovered.

This story is both inspiring and very sad. It’s terrible what the girls and their parents went through, and what many are still enduring. But those who came home tell an inspiring story of faith and perseverance during a frightening trial.

harpercollins.com

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Review of The Other Half of Happy, by Rebecca Balcárcel

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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