Review of Too Bright to See, by Kyle Lukoff

Too Bright to See

by Kyle Lukoff

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2021. 188 pages.
Review written February 19, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 National Book Award Finalist
2021 Cybils Finalist, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
2022 Stonewall Award Winner
2022 Newbery Honor Book

Too Bright to See is a ghost story, but I don’t have a Paranormal category in my Children’s Fiction page, so I think I’ll list it under “Contemporary” rather than under “Fantasy,” because it’s a Contemporary story that also has ghosts. This is the first Stonewall Award Winner (for LGBTQ-content books) to also receive Newbery recognition, and the first transgender author to receive Newbery recognition. When I was talking about the book to coworkers I said, sadly only half-joking, to read it before it gets banned. (The question is, how current are the book banners? Do they realize new children’s books are being published all the time?)

The story is simple and heart-warming. As it begins a kid called Bug is dealing with the recent loss of their uncle. They had lived with their mother and uncle in an old haunted house in Vermont. Bug has always been able to sense ghosts in the house — cold spots and unexplained winds and the like. But the ghosts had never paid any attention to Bug — until now.

Bug becomes convinced their uncle is trying to tell them something. But how can they figure out what? In the meantime, Bug’s best and only friend Mo wants to get ready for middle school. She asks to be called Moira and buys fancier clothes and starts practicing wearing makeup and nail polish. Bug wants no part of it, but wonders if something is wrong that they feel that way.

Knowing the author is trans, I was pretty sure where this plot was going, and I wasn’t wrong. But I did think it was handled in a nice way. And those around Bug handled it well, too, in a book about middle school approaching that was refreshingly free from bullying. This is how such a thing should go — and how nice to read such a book.

But all you need to tell kids is that this book is about “a kid being haunted by the ghost of their dead uncle into figuring out something important.” That’s how the author summarizes the plot. I’m not a big ghost story fan, but this book will work for kids who like very gentle hauntings. And of course any book about middle school approaching is going to deal with friendships and family and adjustments and about figuring out who you really are in the context of all that. This book does not disappoint.

kylelukoff.com
penguin.com/kids

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Review of The Line Tender, by Kate Allen

The Line Tender

by Kate Allen

Dutton Children’s Books, 2019. 373 pages.
Review written August 28, 2019, from a library book

Fair warning: The Line Tender is very sad.

I’d heard that about it, and I thought it was because Lucy’s mother died five years before the book starts. Lucy’s mother was a biologist who loved to swim with sharks, and swimming with sharks wasn’t what killed her. Lucy’s reminded of her mother when one of their friends, a fisherman, has a great white shark swim into his net and brings it to the shore.

Lucy and her friend Fred get a good look at the shark. They’re going to put it into the Field Guide they are doing this summer for extra credit. Fred wants to be a biologist. He writes the words for the Field Guide. Lucy is an artist, she draws the pictures. She needs to get understand that shark in order to draw it well.

Lucy’s father is a diver for the police department and often works to rescue people. When a team is diving to search and rescue someone, the line tender holds the line above the surface and directs the search.

The great white shark disappears in the night, during a storm. So Fred and Lucy use her mother’s books to get more information about sharks.

All this happens, and then something terribly sad happens, too.

And it’s all handled well and written well. And the sadness is acknowledged, and people struggle with coping and healing. And there are setbacks and there is progress. It is realistic but hopeful, showing how people can continue on with resilience.

It’s all a beautiful book – and might be especially enjoyable for someone interested in marine biology and sharks – but I’m not sure if I’d ever want to recommend it to a child. I admit that I closed the book with a smile. But I would warn any reader – don’t read this book unless you’re prepared to be sad.

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Review of AfterMath, by Emily Barth Isler

AfterMath

by Emily Barth Isler

Carolrhoda Books, 2021. 266 pages.
Review written December 1, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review
2022 Mathical Book Prize Winner, Grades 6-8

I just finished an audiobook written in 2021 that was also about families torn apart after a school shooting. That one, too, had a main character whose brother had done the shooting and who was ostracized by her classmates. How much do I hate it that this topic is timely in America today? However, I love it that kids can process these timely issues in the safe space of fiction written for them.

In AfterMath, twelve-year-old Lucy has just moved to a new town, not far from the one she left, but with a whole new school. Her parents couldn’t bring themselves to stay in the home where her little brother Theo died at five years old from a heart defect.

Her parents choose to move from Maryland to a town in Virginia where there was a school shooting three years ago. A house is for sale at an inexpensive price (one of the kids who died lived in that house), and they think Lucy will be comforted to be around other grieving people – or something?

Everything at her new school is shaped by the shooting. People introduce themselves by telling Lucy where they were during the shooting. And they aren’t very welcoming. There’s only one table in the lunchroom with empty seats, and later people tell Lucy that she shouldn’t sit with Avery. It turns out that Avery’s half-brother was the one who did the shooting.

But Lucy finds a friend in Avery. And an environment where she’s not the freak because her brother died. People don’t even know about Theo.

Lucy’s favorite class has long been Math, finding that to be something that has certainty in an uncertain world. So she loves it when someone starts sending her math jokes such as:

What kind of angle should you never argue with?
A 90-degree angle. They’re ALWAYS right.

And when her math teacher tells her about an after-school class in mime, she somewhat reluctantly signs up. It turns out that learning to express yourself without words also helps you express yourself with words.

I thought this book approached a tough subject with nice balance. Because Lucy’s an outsider, she can see things about the shooting survivors that an insider might not see. But because she’s grieving herself, she has a more vulnerable outlook. I like the way her parents are portrayed – clueless and making many mistakes in some areas, but loving and genuinely trying to do what’s best for Lucy.

Lucy, her friends, and her parents all show character growth in this book.

The one downside is I’m not sure who I’d give this beautiful book to. Except that impulse comes from thinking kids aren’t already thinking about school shootings. Here’s me fervently hoping someday this will be a historical curiosity.

P.S. I’m posting this on February 10, 2022, and now I can freely say how happy I was to help choose this book as our 2022 Mathical Book Prize Winner for grades 6-8! The math aspect is a fundamental part of the book, and readers can see math actually helping with healing and coping.

emilybarthisler.com
lernerbooks.com

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Review of Playing the Cards You’re Dealt, by Varian Johnson

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

by Varian Johnson

Scholastic Press, 2021. 309 pages.
Review written December 29, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt is about ten-year-old Ant, who plans to compete in the big Spades tournament this year with his friend Jamal. He wants to redeem himself from last year’s disaster, and maybe impress his father as much as his older brother Aaron did when he won the tournament.

But there are complications. First, Ant and Jamal get beaten at Spades by a new girl who knows how to stack the deck. Then something’s going on at home. Should Ant keep his dad’s secrets? And when he needs a new partner, does Ant dare ask that cute girl?

This is all woven into a story about competition and friends and family and above all — dealing with trouble when those are in the cards you’re dealt.

Here’s a bit from the beginning:

When Ant was younger, he’d liked his nickname. After all, ants were kinda cool as far as insects went. Super strong for their size. Only now that everyone at school — even the girls — had shot up past him in height, it didn’t feel so good anymore. And no one, including his brother, seemed to want him to forget that.

This story has plenty of humor with the realistic conflict, and a kid you’re going to root for.

varianjohnson.com
scholastic.com

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Review of Skywatcher, by Jamie Hogan

Skywatcher

by Jamie Hogan

Tilbury House, 2021. 36 pages.
Review written January 14, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a simple picture book about a kid who loves a comic book series about a space traveler named Skywatcher — but he’s never seen the stars, because he lives in a city with lights that are too bright. So he and his mother go camping in a dark place. He sees constellations he’s read about, and after the moon sets, he sees the Milky Way.

The story is simple, but the artwork makes this book extra special. The yellow lights of the city and the stars shine by contrast with the purple night.

Several constellations are shown on the endpapers, after the mother points out a few in the text of the book. The back matter includes background on some facts that came up, tells how YOU can be a Skywatcher, and lists Dark-sky preserves in the U. S. and Canada. Oh, and there’s a comic page as drawn by the main character with tips how the reader can defend the dark and not contribute to light pollution.

So besides a lovely story, there are some great resources here. I was charmed.

tilburyhouse.com

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Review of Pax: Journey Home, by Sara Pennypacker

Pax

Journey Home

by Sara Pennypacker
illustrated by Jon Klassen

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2021. 247 pages.
Review written October 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 Children’s Fiction

Wonderful! A sequel to the beautiful book Pax, which is about a boy and his fox, separated by the boy’s father and trying to reach each other despite perilous obstacles — and a war.

In Journey Home, the war is over, but devastation has been left behind. Among that devastation, Peter’s father was killed in the war. And for the wildlife, rivers and streams and a reservoir were polluted. The entire town where Peter had lived when his parents were alive was abandoned.

This is a sequel, and you should read Pax first. I will try not to give away what happens in the first book, but Peter and Pax are again on quests that make them encounter each other.

Pax has a family now, but humans are encroaching too near, and he wants to find them a new den. However, in his search, his most adventurous kit comes along, and they have to take a roundabout path because of more humans.

Peter has lost his family — his father died in the war, on top of the loss of his mother before the first book started. Vola sees him as family, but Peter has learned that it’s better not to love — you’ll only lose them and get hurt again. He goes off to join the Junior Water Warriors, who are spending the summer cleaning up the polluted rivers left behind by the war. Peter does not intend to come back.

But he didn’t expect to encounter Pax.

For awhile, I thought this book a little too bleak, but Sara Pennypacker pulls off a transformation in Peter’s heart with exactly the right touch — not too sentimental and not even too predictable or unbelievable. The result is a powerful and inspirational story of healing. Pax is even more firmly rooted in my heart than he was before.

If you didn’t catch Pax when the book was first published, you now have two books you really should read!

sarapennypacker.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of A New Green Day, by Antoinette Portis

A New Green Day

by Antoinette Portis

Neal Porter Books (Holiday House), 2020. 32 pages.
Review written July 6, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is a series of poetic riddles about things in nature a girl encounters as she goes through her day. They aren’t posed as riddles, but as a description, and then you turn the page to find out what is talking.

Here are a few:

“Morning lays me on your pillow,
an invitation, square and warm.
Come out and play!”

says sunlight.

“I am cool pudding
on a muggy day.
Let your toes
have a taste!”

says mud.

“I race up the hill
while lying at your feet.
Wave at me
and I’ll wave at you,”

says shadow.

The pictures that go with the riddles are quiet, joyful, and evocative, with a palette of mainly greens and browns, appropriate for a day mainly spent outdoors in the summertime.

It’s a simple book, perfect for celebrating simple pleasures in nature.

antoinetteportis.com
HolidayHouse.com

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Review of Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley

Firekeeper’s Daughter

by Angeline Boulley
read by Isabella Star LaBlanc

Macmillan Audio, 2021. 14 hours.
Review written September 21, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Firekeeper’s Daughter is an amazingly good mystery/thriller for teens by an indigenous author. From the cover image, I mistakenly expected a fantasy, but got a lovely contemporary novel focusing on Daunis Fontaine, the daughter of a Native American Firekeeper and a non-Native woman. Only her mother is still alive, but Daunis has embraced Native American spirituality and the traditions of her people.

Since I listened to the audio version, I don’t trust myself with spelling the Native American terms freely used through this book in a natural way, but the narrator helped make their use seamless. As the book begins, Daunis has graduated from high school, but has not left for college because she doesn’t want to leave her grandmother, who recently had a stroke, and who is being cared for by Daunis’s mother. Daunis is also troubled by the recent death of her uncle, a chemistry teacher, which neither she nor her mother believes was really from an overdose of meth.

Daunis had been a star on the hockey team, but an injury has sidelined her, though she still supports the team with her brother the captain this year. An attractive new kid has come to town, but he turns out to have some secrets.

And before long, there are more deaths and more people using meth, and Daunis gets pulled into the investigation and mystery of who is behind the meth ring and how does that relate to her uncle’s death. It all seems tied up in the reservation and the hockey team, and Daunis has insider information on both.

This book is wonderful on many levels. Yes, it becomes suspenseful and yes, our main characters are in danger. But it also works as a richly emotional story before any suspense is present, about romance and family and belonging and caring for others and learning to trust. There are also underlying issues as to Native American people and their treatment by law enforcement, and citizenship issues on the border with Canada.

Something I loved about this book was the same thing I loved about Darcie Little Badger’s Native American fantasy, Elatsoe — Daunis is part of a community and gets help from the community. She respects and values her elders and gets important help from them, and it’s lovely how it works out.

angelineboulley.com

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Review of Every Little Kindness, by Marta Bartolj

Every Little Kindness

by Marta Bartolj

Chronicle Books, 2021. First published in Slovenia in 2018. 68 pages.
Review written October 2, 2021, from a book sent to me by the publisher
Starred Review

Here’s a lovely wordless picture book brought to us from Slovenia – and the pictures transcend culture.

As the book opens, a girl wakes up, but drooping. She puts on her red glasses and looks sadly at a pile of posters with a picture of a dog in a red collar.

She goes out to put up the posters, but on her way she sees a man playing a guitar with a cup out for donations, and she gives him her red apple.

A man carrying a red bag sees her kind act. On the next page, he does something kind for someone else. He is watched by someone else with something red, and then that person does something kind.

And so it goes. This book is full of a sequence of kind acts. People see a kindness, then do a kindness. And these are all highlighted with something red in an otherwise subdued-color scene.

The final act of kindness isn’t a surprise when someone finds the girl’s dog and gives her a call.

So we come full circle and end up with a scene including lots of happy people.

Because this is a wordless book, there are lots of things to notice, and I’m sure I didn’t catch everything. “Reading” this book with a child will give them lots to talk about. And besides that, this lovely book will leave you smiling.

chroniclekids.com

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Review of Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker

Here in the Real World

by Sara Pennypacker

Balzer + Bray, 2020. 308 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 19, 2020, from a library book

I love Sara Pennypacker’s books. Her kid characters have agency. They don’t always ask permission, but they make their own choices – some choices better than others – and live with the results.

In this book, eleven-year-old Ware is planning to spend his summer at his grandmother’s house, when she has a fall and goes to the hospital with rehab to follow. But his parents are working extra that summer, so they need Ware to be in a safe place. They sign him up for all summer at the Rec Center, despite his objections.

Ware has spent lots of time at the Rec Center. He knows the drill. And he is not happy about being there again. When the leader has them march around the Rec Center, faster and faster each time, Ware realizes he won’t be noticed if he climbs the tree overlooking the parking lot. He can watch them go around several times and join them at the end.

But instead, once up in the tree, Ware notices that the church next door to the Rec Center has been demolished. In his new rebellious state, he gets down on the church side of the fence to look more closely.

But in the lot with the demolished church, there’s a girl named Jolene. She says the wrecked parking area is now her garden. She’s planting things in cans full of dirt. Ware says the lot can be her garden if the church can be his castle.

And that’s how Ware’s summer gets off to a much more interesting start than what his parents planned for him.

But how long can Ware and Jolene stay on the lot with the ruined church, planting things and turning the ruins into a castle? What will happen when Ware’s parents find out he’s not going to the Rec Center? Surely they’ll find out? And can Ware change himself into a Normal Kid – the kind of kid his parents want?

The title comes because when Ware says something isn’t fair, Jolene accuses him of living in Magic Fairness Land. But “here in the real world,” bad things happen. Can Ware, perhaps, even in the real world, find ways to fight injustice and unfairness?

sarapennypacker.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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