Archive for the ‘Children’s Fiction Review’ Category

Review of Clues to the Universe, by Christina Li

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Clues to the Universe

by Christina Li

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 292 pages.
Review written April 28, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Set in the 1980s, after they watched the space shuttle launch together, Ro and her dad were going to build a rocket of their own. But then her dad died in a car accident, but she’s determined to launch a rocket anyway. But she also has to start at a new school, because she knows the private school she used to attend is an expense they can no longer afford.

Meanwhile, Benji, whose father walked out on their family years ago, is missing his own best friend, who moved away in the summer. Benji gets assigned to be Ro’s science partner, and they need to do a science fair project together. He has to do well in Science, or his mother will make him drop Art in favor of Study Hall.

But because of a folder mix-up, Ro learns that Benji is a fan of the comic Spacebound, and Benji wants to find his dad, who is the author of Spacebound. They make a pact. Benji will help Ro build and launch her rocket for the science fair, and Ro will help Benji find his father.

What follows is a book about life and family and friends and failure and fathers. It’s a heart-warming story, with some surprises along the way. This book has the usual challenges of middle school with a little extra heart.

christinaliwrites.com
harpercollinschildrens.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 Starfish, by Lisa Fipps

Sunday, May 16th, 2021

Starfish

by Lisa Fipps

Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House), 2021. 244 pages.
Review written May 15, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Starfish is a novel in verse about a middle school girl named Ellie who’s fat.

She’s mercilessly bullied – by people at school, but more heartbreakingly, by her own mother and brother. Her mother first put her on a diet when she was four years old, and people at school have called her a whale or “Splash” ever since her fifth birthday party when she did a grand cannonball in the pool.

Now Ellie only swims by herself or with her best friend Viv. Except just before school starts, Viv moves to a different part of the country. But a new girl, Catalina, has moved in next door, and even though she’s thin, she knows how to be a friend.

But Catalina’s going to a different school from Ellie, so Ellie still has to face the same bullies on her own. They duck when she goes by in the hall as if there’s no room for her to pass, and do things much worse when no teacher is looking. At home, Ellie’s Mom even goes through her trash to make sure she’s not eating snacks. She won’t buy Ellie new clothes for school, because she wants Ellie to be motivated to lose weight. Mom even arranges an appointment with a doctor who wants her to consider surgery.

And Ellie hates it that she is a source of conflict between her parents. Dad has promised her that he will never allow surgery, so Mom made that appointment behind his back. When both parents arrange for Ellie to see a therapist, she feels betrayed.

But the therapist turns out to help Ellie think of ways to cope, to be able to speak up for herself, take up space, and stop hiding her feelings.

At home, in the pool, still early in the book, I like the place where Ellie decides to be a starfish:

As I float,
I spread out my arms
and my legs.
I’m a starfish,
taking up all the room I want.

This is a beautiful book. Ellie deals with some horrific bullying, and it’s not handled in simplistic ways, but she does get better at handling it. And she does learn to stop apologizing for taking up space, that she is beautiful and loved as she is.

Sadly, the Author’s Note at the back begins like this:

Starfish is a work of fiction, and a lot of people will read this and think, “It’s definitely fiction because people would never say or do such cruel things.” But a variation of every single mean thing people said or did to Ellie happened to me when I was a child. Fat Girl Rules exist.

I hope that this lovely book will help kids see the value in every person – whether they personally are fat or thin.

penguin.com/kids

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

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 Three Keys, by Kelly Yang, read by Sunny Lu

Wednesday, May 5th, 2021

Three Keys

by Kelly Yang
read by Sunny Lu

Scholastic Audiobooks, 2020. 6 hours, 11 minutes, on 5 discs.
Review written April 6, 2021, from a library audiobook
Starred review

Three Keys is a sequel to the wonderful Front Desk, continuing the story of Mia Tang, who immigrated with her parents to California in the 1990s and ended up becoming owners of the motel they were managing.

In this segment of the story, now although they don’t have a harsh owner to work for, they still need to manage the motel in ways that will make a profit. The investors give them a hard time if profits are down. Mia learns that her parents have dreams of their own, since her mother was an engineer and her father a medical researcher in China. But now they’re busy cleaning rooms.

Meanwhile, the author takes on social issues again, setting the story in 1994, when Governor Pete Wilson was running for reelection and pushing the passage of Prop 187, which would crack down on undocumented immigrants and not allow their children to go to school or for them to receive any services.

I no longer lived in California in 1994, but my family did, so I had a sinking knowledge as I read the book of who would win the election. The book showed some of the hate crimes and strong anti-immigrant sentiment that came out at that time. Meanwhile, Mia’s best friend Lupe’s parents are undocumented, and her father gets arrested with looming deportation. But Mia is determined to fight it.

Even knowing what would happen with the proposition, this book still managed to be hopeful and show a human face to immigration and make you care about these kids, trying to spread concern for others. They encounter obstacles, but make a difference with many of those obstacles.

Oh, in the author’s note at the back, the author does connect the dots between Pete Wilson’s campaign in 1994 and Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, and how both stirred up hatred and fear against immigrants. She mentions that Prop 187 was struck down by the courts, but her characters would have been worse off in 2020 than they were in the book world in 1994. She does point out this is a timely topic.

Mia’s a character you can’t help but love. I hope there will be more books about her and her struggle to make the world a better place, even if it’s in small ways.

frontdeskthebook.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 Efrén Divided, by Ernesto Cisneros, read by Anthony Rey Perez

Friday, April 30th, 2021

Efrén Divided

by Ernesto Cisneros
read by Anthony Rey Perez

Harper Audio, 2020. 4 hours, 33 minutes.
Review written March 30, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
2021 Pura Belpré Author Winner
2020 Capitol Choices Selection

Efrén Divided is the story of a kid born in America whose parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. He’s in middle school, and has normal middle school concerns, such as his best friend deciding to run for A.S.B. President in order to attract girls. His family lives in a small studio apartment – his parents and his younger siblings, who are twins in Kindergarten – and they aren’t wealthy but have lots of love and an Amá who takes good care of them.

Then Efrén’s Amá applies for a better job – and gets picked up in a raid and deported to Mexico. Efrén’s troubles begin. His Apá takes overtime hours to try to raise the money for Amá to hire a coyote and get home. But even getting the money to her is fraught with difficulty.

And meanwhile, Efrén needs to care for the twins and keep things going at home, never mind getting his homework done and supporting his friend David running for President. Efrén can’t even bring himself to tell David about Amá’s deportation, he’s so torn up inside.

When it comes time to get money to Amá to get home, Efrén is the one who needs to go into Tijuana to take it to her, since Apá is undocumented.

This book is gripping and powerful and makes the reader burn with the injustice of it all.

I wasn’t completely on board with how luck was handled, especially the good luck. Efrén has a lucky encounter in Tijuana, which completely saves the day, and he and Apá have other luck, too – which Amá does not have. That’s probably a lot of the point of the book – even that Efrén is lucky to have been born in the United States – but it put me off a tiny bit. I very much wanted Amá to have better luck, for sure – which is definitely a big part of the point of the book, to get the reader where we don’t think it’s right what happens to her.

So it’s a hard read, but a good one. It will get readers wanting to see things changed.

ernestocisneros.com
harpercollinschildrens.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 Amber and Clay, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

Amber & Clay

by Laura Amy Schlitz
with illustrations by Julia Iredale

Candlewick Press, 2021. 532 pages.
Review written April 17, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

How to explain a Laura Amy Schlitz book? Except to say it isn’t like anything else you’ve read.

Amber and Clay is “the tale of a girl as precious as amber, the tale of a boy as common as clay.” That’s what the god Hermes tells us right at the front of the book. He also tells us that though the boy was a slave boy, the girl started out life lucky. That is, she was lucky, “except for one thing: she died young.”

I let that comment pass, thinking it would happen tragically soon after the book ends, but, reader, that’s not what happens. It’s also not a love story between the two, so her death doesn’t feel as tragic as it might have in that case. The link between the two of them is that the mother of the boy, Rhaskos, is the slave woman who was sold to tend the girl, Melisto.

This is a tale of ancient Greece. Throughout the book eighteen “Exhibits” are shown – archaeological findings from ancient Greece. It’s not clear, but these are probably invented findings, based on actual findings, with the texts changed for our characters. (They could be actual findings, but in that case, I don’t think the illustrator would get credit.) They give the impression that our story actually happened.

Don’t be daunted by the size of the book, because much of it is done in verse, so it reads more quickly than you’d think. The author’s note at the back reveals that she used poetic forms from the poetry of Greece. Gods and goddesses provide some perspective, and we hear about the two children, Rhaskos and Melisto. Their stories start out separate, but begin to come together after Melisto’s death.

My favorite thing about the book was Rhaskos’ friendship with Sokrates. (Which I learned is pronounced So-KRA-teez.) In their conversations, Sokrates asks questions, and we learn much about his philosophy. It also takes us through the trial and death of Sokrates. We end up with a children’s book that helps you understand Sokrates’ philosophy and makes you sad about his death – which is really quite a notable feat.

The story itself captured my mind more than it did my heart. The details about ancient Greece were so fascinating! I didn’t find the characters terribly likable at first, but they grew on me. By the end, I at least hoped for a happy ending for those who were still alive!

And the craft and research that went into creating this book were amazing. I tell people that I can’t possibly predict what any Newbery committee will select – but I have a good idea what makes a contender. I believe this book will be scrutinized by the committee as an amazing accomplishment. And if there are still kids out there obsessed with Greek mythology, this book pulls the reader fully into the daily life of ancient Greece.

Let me conclude with a section from Sokrates’ trial:

So now perhaps someone will say, Aren’t you ashamed, Sokrates, to have devoted your life to asking questions that may get you killed? And here’s my answer: When someone takes a stand, he has to hold his ground and face the danger. When I fought in the battles of Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delion, I held my ground and obeyed my commanders. And when the god tells me to live a life in pursuit of wisdom, questioning myself and others, I cannot desert my post.

candlewick.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 Too Small Tola, by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

Too Small Tola

by Atinuke
illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

Candlewick Press, 2021. First published in the United Kingdom, 2020. 89 pages.
Review written April 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Too Small Tola is a short chapter book about a small girl named Tola, who lives with her older brother and sister and their Grandmommy in an apartment in Lagos, Nigeria. This is a brilliant chapter book, with a girl not wanting to be thought of as small navigating a very interesting setting.

I like the way this book, as good beginning chapter books do, is full of everyday concerns of a child the same age as a beginning reader. But the everyday concerns of a child in Lagos, Nigeria, are super interesting for an American child.

There are three stories in the book, with plenty of illustrations along the way. Here’s how Tola is introduced at the start:

Tola lives in a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria. She lives with her sister Moji, who is very clever; her brother, Dapo, who is very fast; and Grandmmommy, who is very-very bossy.

Tola is the youngest in her family. And the smallest. And everybody calls her Too Small Tola, which makes her feel too-too small.

In the first story, Tola goes shopping with Grandmommy. What makes it extra interesting is that she carries what they buy in a big basket on her head. But they end up with heavy loads for both of them and need lots of rest along the way – rest that comes with treats.

In the second story, “Small but Mighty,” their apartment doesn’t have water, so they must go fill their big jerry cans with water from the pump outside the apartments. But there’s a line, and Tola doesn’t want to be late to school, but she has to stop and help Mrs. Shaky-Shaky. That story has a wonderful reversal after a bully is mean to Tola, but Mrs. Shaky-Shaky thwarts the bully.

The third story has Tola helping their injured neighbor, a fine tailor, get measurements all over the city so he can make fine clothes for Easter and Eid. Tola is as good at taking measurements as the tailor himself, and the story tells about her brother taking her on his bike to different parts of Lagos, meeting many different people.

It’s all about a relatable kid in a wonderfully interesting setting. Tola is indeed small, but mighty!

atinuke-author.weebly.com
candlewick.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 Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, by Meg Medina

Wednesday, April 14th, 2021

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance

by Meg Medina

Candlewick Press, 2021. 372 pages.
Review written April 13, 2021, from an advance reader copy sent by the publisher
Starred Review

Merci Suárez is back! Now she’s thirteen years old and in seventh grade, having navigated everything life threw at her in sixth grade in Merci Suárez Changes Gears. I was super excited when I heard about it, because I was on the committee that chose the first Merci book to win the 2019 Newbery Medal!

Meg Medina is a master of her craft. Like the first book, it’s not a flashy story, but good solid writing about a seventh-grade girl from a Cuban American family negotiating a school where most of the other kids are from richer families than hers, negotiating changes in her family, and figuring out this thing about how everyone around her seems suddenly interested in romance. By the time you’re through the book, you realize Merci’s been dealing with a whole host of issues with grace and nuance. You’ll rejoice with her.

She’s up against her nemesis again, Edna Santos, but I like the way Edna isn’t portrayed either as a simple bully or as someone who suddenly reforms and is shown to have a heart of gold. She’s real – with some annoying traits that last, but Merci also discovers some good things about her.

But there’s a boy who comes into Merci’s life at the beginning of the book, and her feelings about him are confusing. Here’s how the book begins:

It was Miss McDaniels’s idea for me and Wilson Bellevue to work together in the Ram Depot, a job that nobody wants. For the record, I applied for an anchor spot on the morning announcements with my best friend Lena. But wouldn’t you know it? Darius Ulmer’s parents decided it was time he addressed his “shyness issues,” so he got the job instead.

I like the way Wilson, too, is presented as a real person. While the reader is pretty sure he’s going to be important in Merci’s thinking, we aren’t told simply that he’s good-looking, and Merci doesn’t lose her ability to speak when he looks at her. Here’s how he’s described on the next page:

I only knew him from PE and earth science, the quiet kid with freckles across his nose and reddish hair he wears natural. I had noticed his walk, too. He swings one hip forward so his right leg can clear the ground. He says it doesn’t hurt or anything. He was born that way, he told us last year during one of those annoying icebreaker activities we’re all subjected to on the first day of school. Anyway, we hadn’t really talked much this year. The only other intel I had was that his family is Cajun and Creole from Louisiana. He told us that when he brought gumbo to the One World food festival when we were in the sixth grade, and it was pretty good, if you didn’t mind breaking into a full-body sweat from the spices.

Merci and Wilson work well together in the student store, getting good ideas to make it start being profitable for a change.

I thought the not dancing would be all about the Heart Ball, pictured on the cover, which is organized by Edna, and where Merci agrees to be the official photographer at the photo booth to get out of dancing. But that’s halfway through the book. As things go on, her Tía decides to open a dance studio, and she needs all the family to help make it a success. Can even Merci learn to dance?

It was a treat to spend time with Merci again. Like the first, this is a solid school story – with lots of creativity and personality and nothing stereotypical. I can’t help loving Merci, who’s never going to fit into anyone else’s mold.

candlewick.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 Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Wednesday, April 7th, 2021

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy

by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 256 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 11, 2019, from a library book

This graphic novel is a modern retelling of the children’s classic Little Women, and it’s wonderfully done. It takes only the first book of the two parts of the original book – up to the point where the girls make some life-changing choices. Let’s just say that the modern versions of the girls choose differently, and I like the update.

This time the March family is a blended family. Meg’s father married Jo’s mother and then they had Beth and Amy together. Instead of the Civil War, their father is off fighting in the Middle East. And the book opens with the girls facing that they won’t be able to expect presents for Christmas and they want to give their mother a surprise. Instead of going out to help the poor, they go work at a soup kitchen on Christmas and a kindly rich neighbor across the street invites them over for Christmas dinner, where they meet Laurie, his grandson who has just moved in.

I’ve read the original novel Little Women many, many times since I was in about sixth grade. I loved the way the scenes in this graphic novel parallel the scenes in the original book.

Jo still loves to read and wants to be an author. Beth loves music – but it’s a guitar that she gains from their neighbor rather than a piano. Amy still loves art – she wants to draw comics. Meg still wants to marry a rich man – but that’s one of the choices that end up getting changed. We do get to enjoy familiar-but-new scenes of Meg feeling out of place at a party with girls who have much more money than their family does.

I don’t want to give away the changes at the end. If they write a second book, matching the second half of Little Women, it won’t be able to parallel the scenes as closely. But I do appreciate the changes for these modern times.

Like the original, this is a story of four sisters navigating life, each dealing with their own burdens, but ultimately facing it together.

LBYR.com

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Review of Just Like That, by Gary D. Schmidt

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Just Like That

by Gary D. Schmidt

Clarion Books, 2021. 387 pages.
Review written March 19, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is set in 1968, during the Vietnam War, and after the events in The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now. In this book, we’re following Meryl Lee Kowalski, and the first thing we learn is that one of the characters from the other books, one who had become very important to Meryl Lee, has died suddenly in a freak accident. Oh, and there’s even a nod to Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, including a character from the Buckminster family (though this is years later).

You do not have to have read the earlier books (although this book makes me want to go back and reread them), and my own memory was hazy, but anyone will understand the painful good memories and the Blank left when thinking of someone you love who is no longer there.

Meryl Lee’s parents decide she needs a complete change. They send her to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls in Maine. So all the rest of the cast of characters in this book are new.

And Meryl Lee is the only new girl in eighth grade at St. Elene’s. Her roommate is from such an important family that she shares her last name with her hometown. She makes it very clear how much she misses the roommate she’d been paired with for years who is now living in Budapest with her diplomat family for the year. We can tell Meryl Lee’s going to have a challenge fitting in at her new school.

Alongside Meryl Lee’s story, there’s a parallel story of Matt Coffin, a boy who’s been living by himself in a fisherman’s shack by the water. People haven’t been able to get him to stay at school.

Things might have gone on this way for a very long time, except one early spring evening, when the orange sun was low and the shadows of the pines long, Mrs. Nora MacKnockater came down the steep ridge to the shore beneath her house and settled her substantial rump on a smooth rock large enough to hold it. She watched a flat stone skip in the trough between the low waves – the tide was heading out – turned, and saw Matt Coffin brush back his hair, pull his arm to toss the next stone, see her, and stop.

“Five skips,” she said, “is a creditable throw.”

Mrs. MacKnockater builds a friendship with Matt, starting with skipping stones, then sharing food, then finally giving him a place to stay. But Mrs. MacKnockater is also the headmistress at St. Elene’s Preparatory School for Girls, so Matt and Meryl Lee’s stories are going to converge. Matt has a tragic past and always worries that it will catch up with him. He doesn’t dare put down roots, because if he does, those people will get hurt.

As in so many of his other books, Gary Schmidt pulls you into the emotions of his characters. This book portrays grief in ways that will rend your heart. But it also shows new starts and new friendships. It shows Meryl Lee making new connections with some people you thought were too odious to ever be relatable and others that are surprisingly kind and others who just make you cheer that such good people found each other.

Once again, I’ll spend the year hoping for a Newbery nod for a Gary Schmidt book. Now that I’ve been on the committee, I understand that I can’t predict at all what the committee will decide, but I am at least absolutely sure this book will get consideration. It’s a beautiful and memorable book that explores grief but leaves you with hope.

hmhbooks.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 Fly on the Wall, by Remy Lai

Saturday, March 13th, 2021

Fly on the Wall

by Remy Lai

Henry Holt and Company, 2020. 332 pages.
Review written March 6, 2021, from a library book

Henry Khoo has figured out the perfect way to prove to his family that at twelve years old, he is not a baby. He has laid a plot to spend the first day of school break, not at his former friend Pheeb’s house as his family thinks, but on an airplane flying from Australia to Singapore where his Dad lives.

I thought of course this plan would fail spectacularly. But no, this book is the story of that flight. (And the book does convince me he could have pulled it off. It turns out that twelve is the age that kids are allowed to travel unaccompanied. Tickets were on sale, and he memorized his mother’s credit card number to get the ticket.)

Henry and his big sister Jie usually spent every school break at their Dad’s house anyway. But this year, Jie is going to be looking at universities, and Jie and Mom and Popo scoffed at Henry’s idea that he should go on his own. He will show them.

This book is liberally sprinkled with cartoon drawings, because Henry likes to draw, and this book shows us what he puts in his absolutely private notebook. We learn that Henry draws an anonymous internet comic that spreads gossip about kids at school, “Fly on the Wall.” But the principal is going to “appropriately deal with” the author of “Fly on the Wall” when he finds out who it is. Can Henry keep his secret? And he’s starting to have second thoughts about some of the things Fly on the Wall posted.

And then a classmate shows up on the very same flight — a classmate who knows Henry’s secret identity. Can Henry make it into Business Class to confront him?

The epic adventure of Henry Khoo is going to have some lessons along the way.

remylai.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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.

What did you think of this book?