Review of The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, read by Carey Mulligan

The Midnight Library

by Matt Haig
read by Carey Mulligan

Penguin Audio, 2020. 8 hours, 50 minutes.
Review written May 17, 2022, from a library eaudiobook

This audiobook was a lot of fun and kept me entertained and absorbed to the end — which is saying something because I’m not in the target audience. I don’t believe in parallel universes.

The characters in this book say that it’s science, but I’m sorry, just because a physicist came up with a theory to explain some equations, that doesn’t mean it’s science. This isn’t a theory you can verify, after all. To me, the theory that a new universe is created every time you make a decision, besides seeming wildly unlikely, takes away a lot of human agency. What does it matter what choice you make if in another universe you made a different one?

In fiction, it also takes away from the story — why should I care about this particular character if another character just like them is doing something different in another universe? Why should I care about this particular set of choices? But if your choices do make a difference — you’ve got a story.

The way parallel universes come up in The Midnight Library is that Nora Seed has some sad things happen and decides to end her life. After she attempts to do so, she finds herself in the Midnight Library. It’s a library with infinite shelves where the time is always midnight. She sees her old school librarian there, who tells Nora this is her chance to undo her regrets. Each book in the Midnight Library represents another life that Nora could have lived. Choosing a book and reading it takes Nora into another life in an alternate universe where she made a different decision somewhere along the way. If she finds a life that she likes, she can stay.

So, in this context, the alternate universes do provide a fascinating way to explore Nora’s regrets. She quickly sees that if she had done what other people wanted her to — things didn’t always turn out so wonderful. So can she find the life she actually wants?

It does work as an interesting frame, but I still have trouble with the logistics. Nora dropped into lives without the memories of the alternate-Nora from that life. A lot of good it would do to be a polar researcher if you know absolutely nothing about the topic, after all. And I kept wondering, Where did the alternate Nora go? And wouldn’t it be a shame to have fallen in love and gotten married and had a child if you couldn’t remember doing any of those things? So it didn’t seem like a fair trial of the alternate lives. And without having actually made the choices that got her there, they talked about Nora’s “root life” — as if that Nora is the real person and her alternate selves are disposable.

But if you think of this book as a version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a vivid look at what would have happened if things had been different — and don’t get too bogged down in the details (as I tend to do), it is always fun to speculate how things might have turned out if you had made different choices.

This book also helped me realize that I’ve outgrown my regrets. There was a time when I wondered how life would have turned out if, for example, I hadn’t dropped out of a PhD program in mathematics. But after my divorce, that all seems like water under the bridge. My divorce was something that got me wondering if I could have done something differently to prevent it (even though it was my ex-husband’s idea). But now, twelve years after the divorce was final, my career as a librarian is blossoming — and if I hadn’t gotten divorced, I would have been content to continue to work part-time. But because I got my library degree and became a librarian, I got to serve on the Newbery committee, and just this week, I got word that I landed my dream job as Youth Materials Selector for my whole public library system. Life is good! So who needs regrets?

Still, this book, and this interesting story of Nora and many different things she might have done, is what got me thinking about how nice it is to live without regrets. So if you can keep yourself from thinking too much about the mechanics, I do recommend this book.

matthaig.com

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Review of Jo Jo Makoons, The Used-To-Be Best Friend, by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert

Jo Jo Makoons

The Used-To-Be Best Friend

by Dawn Quigley
illustrated by Tara Audibert

Heartdrum (HarperCollins), 2021. 72 pages.
Review written March 12, 2022, from a library book
2022 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Book

This book begins a series about Jo Jo Makoons, who is an outgoing first grade girl who lives on an Ojibwe Native American reservation. Like so many wonderful beginning chapter books, it deals with things that will appeal to other first graders, including school issues and friends. Do Jo Jo’s friends still want to be friends?

There are eight chapters and plenty of illustrations. Jo Jo teaches the reader some Native American words, and I like the way she is delighted with her family, her friends, and her community.

There’s some kid-level humor when she sneaks her cat Mimi in her backpack and Mimi hides in a model tipi. And of course a school story is going to have some friend drama — it all comes out happy in the end.

Here’s a fun scene that shows Jo Jo’s way of thinking:

I like to do math thinking about my Ojibwe community. Like last week Teacher asked us to think about a math problem: Five people want to eat a bunch of four bananas. Each person can have only one. How many people don’t get a banana?

I answered, “Everyone gets some bananas.”

Teacher shook his head no. He said that one person would not get any bananas.

“But we all share what we have,” I said. “That’s what Native people do.”

Teacher didn’t say anything after that. See? I’m good at math.

This is a fun new series for kids ready for chapter books, and I love that Jo Jo’s pride in her people and her home comes through. There’s a blurb at the back for the organization We Need Diverse Books, which has a goal “to create a world where every child can see themselves in the pages of a book.”

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Review of Ain’t Burned All the Bright, by Jason Reynolds, artwork by Jason Griffin

Ain’t Burned All the Bright

by Jason Reynolds
artwork by Jason Griffin
read by Jason Reynolds and a full cast

Atheneum, 2022. 384 pages.
Audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022. 30 minutes.
Review written April 12, 2022, from a library book and eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Ain’t Burned All the Bright is an illustrated poem about a kid and his family at home during the pandemic. That doesn’t sound very exciting — but the poet is Jason Reynolds. And his long-time friend Jason Griffin did 384 pages of art to go with it.

I put a hold on the audiobook before I realized it was an illustrated poem and not a novel. And decided that both listening to the audiobook and looking at the artwork was the perfect way to experience this book.

The audiobook performs the text twice — first with Jason Reynolds reading it, then with a full cast. And then there’s a discussion between the creators at the end (which is also printed in the book). The whole thing only takes 30 minutes, so this is a quick read, but has lovely play with images and language.

Jason Reynolds said this book began thinking about oxygen masks. The way he plays with that image is surprising and lovely.

We’ve got a kid wondering why his mother doesn’t change the channel, a brother playing video games, a sister talking on her phone, and a father ill in his bedroom. And the kid has thoughts about it all.

I’m not even sure how to describe this book. But it’s Jason Reynolds’ poetry along with striking images, and I would really like to talk with a kid who reads this book to find out all the things they notice that I miss. It feels like there’s more than meets the eye here. But I do know I like it.

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Review of Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? by Leslie Connor

Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?

by Leslie Connor

Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 322 pages.
Review written April 19, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Leslie Connor is the author of The Truth According to Mason Buttle, a book that completely stole my heart from the year I was on the Newbery Committee. It did win the Schneider Family Award for portrayal of a disability, and Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? may well do the same.

Frenchie is an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t speak. But his best friend, Aurora, knows how to watch him and find out what he’s thinking and feeling. Frenchie loves birds, the sky, and the sun. Aurora is in many ways the opposite of Frenchie, loud and talkative. But together, they have adventures. They live in the Maine woods, and enjoy seeing the wildlife and natural wonders, though Frenchie is the best at spotting birds. He’ll whistle and flap his hands when he does. Aurora likes to do things like follow the amazing piebald deer that has been lurking in the woods.

Aurora’s shaken by the news that for sixth grade, she and Frenchie will be in different classrooms. She makes some new friends in her new classroom, but Frenchie is still her best friend. And Aurora walks him to his classroom each morning.

But one morning, Aurora’s father drives them to school, and Frenchie doesn’t make it to his classroom. No one can find him in the school building anywhere. Aurora feels like she’s failed her friend.

But the entire town springs into action, and the quest to find Frenchie is on.

The story is mostly told from Aurora’s perspective, but we also get episodes from other characters who live in the town, as well as Frenchie’s perspective. When he first wanders off, following something he knows Aurora would want to see, he passes very close to other people in town, but one after another, they fail to notice him.

The characters in this book are delightful, including loud and exuberant Aurora, who’s so good at noticing what Frenchie needs, the softball coach who knows woodcraft, the couple who bakes and delivers blueberry pies, and Frenchie himself, who keeps pictures of birds in his special needlepoint purse. I also enjoyed Aurora’s toddler brother, who spotted what Frenchie was up to right from the start — if only anyone had understood him.

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Friday Night Wrestlefest, by J. F. Fox, illustrated by Micah Player

Friday Night Wrestlefest

by J. F. Fox
illustrated by Micah Player

Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written March 31, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I met the author of this book at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center, doing a writers’ retreat. I found the book on our library shelves and was completely charmed.

The picture book shows us a Friday night tradition. After a pizza dinner, there’s a blocked off “Arena” with lots of cushions and pillows and blankets. A banner declares “FRIDAY NIGHT WRESTLEFEST” with a sign saying “Main Event: Battle to the Bedtime.”

In this corner it’s — DANGEROUS DADDOO!

He’s mad. He’s bad.
He’s DAD.

Over on the kid crew we have — THE TAG TEAM TWINS. Featuring tthe nutty-by-nature PEANUT BROTHER and the wriggly-giggly JELLYFISH

*with special guest star* . . . BIG BALD BABY!

And then the Wrestlefest begins! All the participants have homemade costumes and specially named moves appropriate to them. (Daddoo’s may involve tickling and kissing.) There’s a twist in the action coming from MAMA-RAMAAAAAA doing a Flying Mom Bomb. And it all wraps up with a surprise offensive from Big Bald Baby.

And then, like all the best picture books, the story ends with the kids tucked into bed. I like the way the bedtime routine gets wrestle move names, too, like Brush-n-Flush and Book-n-Tuck. The wrestlefest becomes a nestlefest.

It’s all got simple language, fun pictures, and big, dramatic action.

What especially made the book fun for me was hearing from the author that this Friday Night Wrestlefest was based on actual Friday nights in their home. Perhaps readers can start their own Friday night tradition!

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Review of Stuntboy: In the Meantime, by Jason Reynolds, drawings by Raúl the Third

Stuntboy #1

In the Meantime

by Jason Reynolds
drawings by Raúl the Third

A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), 2021. 268 pages.
Review written March 5, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Schneider Family Honor Book

Stuntboy is not quite a graphic novel, since it doesn’t use speech balloons — at least, not very many. But it does have drawings on every page and lots of variety in the way the text is presented. If a kid, like Stuntboy himself, is easily distracted, the fact that each page is different in this book should keep their interest going.

Stuntboy is Portico Reeves. He lives in a castle — well, at least in the biggest house on the block, what other people call an apartment building.

We learn early on that Portico sometimes gets the Frets.

What?
You’ve never heard of the frets?
You’re kidding, right?
The un-sit-stillables?
The worry wiggles?
The bowling ball belly bottoms?
The jumpy grumpies?
(Or the grumpy jumpies, depending on who you ask.)
The hairy scaries, or worse, the VERY hairy scaries?
No?
Maybe it’s because your mom probably calls it what Portico’s grandma calls it – “anxiety.”

Portico is a character impossible not to love. I love his bright outlook on life. He and his best friend are fans of superheroes, so they decide to be superheroes themselves. Stuntboy is a superhero who does the stunts for other heroes (like his friend Zola) so they don’t have to get hurt. Often those stunts involve bouncing off walls, and Stuntboy doesn’t mind practicing. And he’s happy to save heroes when they don’t even realize it.

But when Portico walks in on his parents having a fight and they ask him to go to Zola’s apartment “in the meantime,” he figures that’s the time in which his normally nice parents are being mean to each other. And the meantime starts happening more and more often.

And every superhero has a nemesis. Stuntboy’s is another kid in the castle, Herbert Singletary the Worst.

I’m excited this is only the beginning of this series about an extremely likable kid. This will keep young readers turning pages.

JasonWritesBooks.com
RaulTheThird.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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Review of Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows, by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson

Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows

by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson
translated by Julia Marshall

Gecko Press, 2019. First published in Sweden in 2018. 181 pages.
Review written July 4, 2019, from a library book

For a book from a series called My Happy Life, I wasn’t prepared for how many sad things happen. This is the seventh book about Dani, a Swedish girl in year two at school. I was able to enjoy it without having read the earlier books, though it did make me want to read them.

Dani is indeed a happy little girl, but many sad things have happened to her. Her mother is dead and at the start of this book, her father is sad and decides to take a trip to Rome to see his mother. Dani will stay with her grandparents, as she did after her mother died.

Dani gets a wonderful idea. She will go see Ella, her best friend in the whole world, the friend who moved away.

But Grandma can’t drive her because her bridge friends are coming over. And Grandpa can’t drive her because his car is in the shop. So they arrange for Dani to ride the train to Northbrook all by herself. Ella’s mother will meet her at the station.

But things do not go according to plan.

And I know this is a series, and I hope this situation will be made all better in the next book – but I thought book as a whole shows a lot of disappointments for a book named Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows.

However, it’s still true that I loved Dani and loved the matter-of-fact approach to her adventures, which is just perfect for a beginning chapter book. This book has twenty-five short chapters with lots of drawings to accompany the words, and it’s perfect for kids beginning to read chapter books.

I did love looking at life through the eyes of a young Swedish girl. I plan to go back and read the whole series. And I guess I have to concede that despite some disappointments, the title is true – at least for me.

geckopress.com

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Review of I Have No Secrets, by Penny Joelson

I Have No Secrets

by Penny Joelson

Sourcebooks Fire, 2019. Originally published in 2017 in Great Britain. 288 pages.
Review written December 4, 2020, from a library book

I Have No Secrets is a Rear Window type thriller for teens. The main character is Jemma, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy. She can’t speak or control her muscles, but she is fully intelligent. She has a loving long-term foster family with two other special-needs siblings. Even eye-movement technology was not able to help her communicate.

And Jemma’s aide Sarah has a sinister boyfriend. Because Jemma can’t communicate, when no one is around, this boyfriend, Dan, tells Jemma his secret – that he’s the one who murdered a teen boy in the neighborhood recently. He enjoys telling Jemma he’d be happy to put her out of her misery, too.

Unfortunately, Jemma also knows that Sarah is cheating on Dan, having never broken up with Richard, her earlier boyfriend. When Sarah disappears after going to a concert with Richard, Jemma knows who to suspect, but she has no way of telling anyone. But then her family hears about a new technology that can use sniffing to communicate, which might be able to help Jemma. In their happiness, they mention it to Dan, who says he’s worried about Sarah’s disappearance.

Okay, the plot is a little bit predictable, but it’s carried out in a way that helps you understand Jemma’s life and relationships when she can’t communicate with anyone. The reader has to have some suspension of disbelief, since it’s told in present tense from Jemma’s perspective – even while she’s unable to communicate. But it does help you understand what that experience would be like.

This would be an interesting follow-up to Out of My Mind, which is a book about a younger girl with cerebral palsy becoming able to communicate. If nothing else, both books help the reader empathize with someone with a sharp brain being completely underestimated because of bodily limitations.

pennyjoelson.co.uk
FIREreads.com

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Review of Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi!, by Art Coulson, illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight

Look, Grandma!
Ni, Elisi!

by Art Coulson
illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight

Storytelling Math (Charlesbridge), 2021. 32 pages.
Review written December 29, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s another book from the amazingly good Storytelling Math series. All of them present math concepts in a real-life setting that will appeal to children. All of them also present cultural information, not presented as “other” or “exotic” or “different,” but from the perspective of a child within that culture, excited and proud and enjoying things their family does.

In this book, Bo is working on large colorful stone marbles for the Cherokee National Holiday coming up. The marbles are used in the game Cherokee marbles, digadayosdi, and Bo wants to sell them in his family’s booth at the festival.

Bo has a lot of marbles, and he wants to display them at the booth. But when he finds a nice tray to use to display them, Grandma tells him that the tray is too big. Their booth is small and he can display the marbles in the booth, but whatever he uses needs to fit on a small mat she shows him.

So it’s a volume problem. Bo is trying to find a container with a base as small as the mat that will still display the marbles well. And not so tall that it’s hard to reach inside.

After Bo finds the perfect container (which takes lots of tries), they show him happily displaying them in his family’s booth — and then playing Cherokee marbles together to get a break.

The book weaves in some Cherokee words, and there’s a glossary at the back along with the feature at the back of every Storytelling Math book called “Exploring the Math.” In this book, that section gives ideas of activities to help kids explore volume and area. I love the way these stories are jumping-off places for more learning.

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madelyngoodnight.com
terc.edu
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Review of Much Ado About Baseball, by Rajani LaRocca

Much Ado About Baseball

by Rajani LaRocca

Yellow Jacket (Little Bee), 2021. 312 pages.
Review written January 4, 2022, from a library book
2022 Mathical Honor Book, grades 6-8

12-year-old Trish is new in town. She’s used to being the only girl on the baseball team and the only girl and sixth grader on the Math Puzzler team – but just when her old teammates had gotten used to her, now she has to win over a new team. Her brother Sanjay has encouraged her to win them over by being good at baseball.

Ben is back on the baseball team this summer after two years off. And he’s upset when he sees Trish – the girl who beat him for the Individual Math Puzzler championship. Now she’s going to do better than him at baseball? But they both love math and baseball, so shouldn’t they be friends?

There are hints of something magical happening this summer, some amazing treats, and then two magical books of math puzzles show up at Trish’s house and at Ben’s house. Ben right away figures out it’s magic, but Trish thinks it’s probably some special formula invisible ink. But either way, there are some fun and challenging math puzzles to solve, woven into this story of baseball, rivalry, and friendship.

Perhaps if I knew the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing better, the plot wouldn’t have seemed quite as random. The magic didn’t really seem to operate with rules, but perhaps chaotic fairy magic, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t need to. Anyway, it was a fun story, and for me the math puzzles woven in made it even more fun. There’s material at the back taking some of the concepts further.

RajaniLaRocca.com
yellowjacketreads.com

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