Review of The Weight of Blood, by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Weight of Blood

by Tiffany D. Jackson

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2022. 406 pages.
Review written December 15, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2022 Sonderbooks Stand-out, #4 Teen Paranormal Fiction

I’m usually not a fan of horror novels, but I read this one for the Cybils, and had to admit it’s wonderfully executed.

The author warns you right from the start that there’s going to be carnage. Chapter 1 begins with an excerpt from a podcast called “Maddy Did It,” and that begins with sworn testimony from “The Springville Massacre Commission.” That testimony from a mother ends this way:

Only two kids survived Prom Night at that country club. Cole was one of them. They say when you go through something like that, your instincts kick in. So his mind must’ve told him to come on home. He walked over two miles through the mud with one shoe, covered in the blood of other children.

When I asked him what happened . . . he just kept mumbling, “Maddy did it.”

Then we go back in time to May 2014. Maddy Washington is horrified that in gym class she has to run in a sudden rainstorm that has come up, despite her checking the forecast three times, as her Papa demands. Sure enough, when her hair gets wet, her hair expands into an Afro, and the entire school learns that her mother was Black.

It’s a small southern town. They don’t think they’re racist, but they’ve always had two separate proms, one for white kids and one for Black kids. And when Maddy suddenly sprouts an Afro, kids laugh and throw pencils into her hair, marveling that she doesn’t even notice.

Maddy’s always been an outsider. She keeps to herself and doesn’t say much in class. She lives alone with her Papa who makes her pray for hours in a closet with pictures of beautiful white women on the walls that her sin will not come out. She wishes she could be like normal kids.

But when she’s humiliated in class, something strange happens. The chairs float, there’s some kind of earthquake, cellphones quit working, and all the kids get terrible headaches.

Before the cellphones quit working, someone filmed the taunting and posted it on the internet. Now everyone’s talking about the racist small town in Alabama.

Wendy is a senior who feels guilty about it all. She’s not the ringleader of the group bullying Maddy, but her best friend is, and Wendy went along with it. Wendy’s boyfriend is Kenny, the star of the football team. He’s Black, but doesn’t hang out with the other Black kids. Wendy doesn’t like how he’s sticking up for Maddy, and she doesn’t like how she comes out looking like a racist, too.

So Wendy gets the bright idea of combining the white prom and the Black prom. She wasn’t going to go anyway, but she’s organizing the whole thing. And what could be more noble than asking her boyfriend, the town all-star, to take Maddy to the prom?

Of course, we know from the podcast excerpts that open the chapters that this decision will lead to disaster. And meanwhile, Maddy is learning about the power of telekinesis. Could this power have come from her missing Mama?

This book is a hard one to put down. The author shines a light on racism that pretends it’s not racism and gets you firmly on Maddy’s side, despite knowing that something terrible is about to happen. That mild-mannered, socially backward recluse was the wrong person to bully!

A truly masterful story of a downtrodden girl coming into her power.

writeinbk.com
EpicReads.com

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Review of Those Kids from Fawn Creek, by Erin Entrada Kelly, read by Ramon de Ocampo

Those Kids from Fawn Creek

by Erin Entrada Kelly
read by Ramon de Ocampo

HarperAudio, 2022. 6 hours, 17 minutes.
Review written September 5, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

There were twelve kids in seventh grade in the small town of Fawn Creek, Louisiana. That is, there were twelve until the day that Orchid Mason showed up.

Usually the twelve seventh graders were careful to leave their faces blank and expressionless. No one wanted to be the first to admit they were excited about anything. But this — a real-life new student, a real-life new anything — was far more interesting than any science experiment. People from Somewhere Else just didn’t come to Fawn Creek. Certainly not unannounced. The next closest thing was Mr. Agosto, who was born in Venezuela and was the only non-white face in almost every room. But he had moved to Fawn Creek when he was three years old, because his dad got a job at Gimmerton, and — like Greyson, Dorothy, and virtually everyone else — he had never traveled outside of south Louisiana since then. The farthest he’d gone was Baton Rouge to go to Louisiana State, and that was just two hours away. Small towns are like magnets, Greyson’s mother once said. They pull you in and don’t let go.

Orchid says she was born in New York City and moved to Fawn Creek from Paris. She wears a flower in her hair. Nobody knows what to make of her.

Then the two kids with the lowest social standing, Greyson and Dorothy, invite Orchid to eat with them. Orchid suggests the wildly innovative idea of taking their lunches outside. She tells the other kids stories of her travels and about her boyfriend, Victor, and her adventures with him in Paris.

But at least one kid isn’t happy about Orchid’s inclusion in their class. Janie used to be the most important seventh-grader in Fawn Creek, since her father ran the plant. And Janie’s best friend Renni isn’t happy, even though she moved from Fawn Creek to the much larger Grand Saintlodge. She’s used to knowing everything about everyone and deciding who’s important and who’s not. When Janie tells Renni that the boy she broke up with is going to ask the new girl to the dance, Renni is not happy.

But Orchid’s the most interesting person Greyson and Dorothy have ever known. They’ve known everyone in their class forever, and they have no surprises. But Orchid looks at things differently and helps them see things differently.

But it’s not good to make an enemy of Renni.

When this book started with a story of how mean Greyson’s older brother had been, pinching him and calling him a girl for not wanting to go duck hunting, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Erin Entrada Kelly is skilled at showing just how cruel families can be to one another. But in this book, although there were some painful episodes, I like the way things worked out and were resolved.

Both I and those kids from Fawn Creek are better off from having known Orchid Mason, a girl who is both imaginative and kind.

erinentradakelly.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Like, by Annie Barrows and Leo Espinosa

Like

written by Annie Barrows
illustrated by Leo Espinosa

Chronicle Books, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written November 10, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book delighted me so much, I immediately found someone in the office to show it to. (This isn’t as easy as when I worked in a branch with other youth services staff, but it can still be done.) The book is bright and colorful, surprising and funny, and it has a great message.

Here’s how the book begins:

Hello.

You are you, and I am I. We are people.
Also known as humans. This makes us
different from most of the things on Earth.

For instance, tin cans.

We are not at all like tin cans.
We are not shaped like tin cans.
We cannot hold tomato sauce like tin cans.

If you open up our lids, nothing good happens.

We are not at all like tin cans.

The kid-narrator goes on to compare us with a swimming pool. We are a little more like a swimming pool, since we have water and chemicals and dirt inside us. But there are some big differences.

The book goes on to compare the reader with a mushroom, an excavator, and a hyena.

There are a lot of ways we are like hyenas, and those are listed in fun ways. But I like the page that talks about how we are different from hyenas:

They don’t know when their birthday is,
and if you invited a hyena over to your house next Thursday, it wouldn’t come.
Hyenas don’t make plans.

Which is fine, because if a hyena did come to your house, it might try to eat your baby brother.

So we are like hyenas in some ways,
but if you were a hyena,
you wouldn’t be like you are now.
And I would run away if I saw you.

But the rest of the book talks about how much humans are alike. We’re not exactly alike, but we’re much more alike than other things on earth.

Even if I eat raspberry Jell-O with bananas in it,
and you would never ever eat that in a million years,
I am more like you than a mushroom.

Even if you speak a language I don’t speak
you are more like me than a hyena.

And the book winds up by pointing out lots of people of different ages and shapes and looks and points out that we are all very much alike.

I am more like you than I am like most of the things on Earth.

I’m glad.

I’d rather be like you than like a mushroom.

An utterly wonderful book.

anniebarrows.com
chroniclekids.com

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Review of We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire

by Joy McCullough
with illuminations by Maia Kobabe

Dutton Books, 2021. 383 pages.
Review written June 8, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

As the book opens, Em Morales learns the verdict against the college student who raped her sister after a frat party – guilty on all counts. But then comes the sentencing, and he’s sentenced to only time served.

Em feels terrible, because she urged her sister not to accept a plea deal and to go through the agony of the trial. She’s been trying to speak up for victims of sexual violence, and now it seems that she’s done more harm than good. The summer before her Senior year is starting, and she even decides to give up on journalism, which has been her life.

So now she’s at loose ends for the summer, and she starts hanging out with Jess, a nonbinary teen whose parents are splitting up and who stayed in town to try to keep them together. Jess mentions a medieval woman, Marguerite de Bressieux, and Em discovers she went to war to get vengeance for her family, who were slaughtered and raped by the Count of Orange.

Em starts writing a novel in verse about Marguerite, and Jess, an artist, begins illuminating the pages.

But Em’s dealing with a lot of anger and people are still upset with her sister for speaking up. So things that happen are far more complex than simply writing a book to get out her rage.

While I was in the middle of reading this book, someone called the library and asked me to read him a specific Wikipedia article. I did so – until I listened more closely to what he was saying and realized he was masturbating while I was talking. Having that happen when I was in the middle of reading a book about characters angry about our toxic society and the power men have over women and rape culture didn’t help.

There are a couple of good men in this book, Em’s father being one of them, so they’re not trying to say that every man is a predator. But it’s a dark book, a book about fighting back against oppression – and not a tremendously hopeful one.

Something I loved that wasn’t a main point of the book was how nicely Em modeled using they/them pronouns for Jess. She referred to Jess smoothly and consistently with they/them pronouns, not making a big deal of it, and the reader picks up on it quickly. Anyone who reads this book will find it that much easier to use the correct pronouns when they have a nonbinary friend.

This is a powerful book. It got me a little discouraged – but that’s probably more a function of what happened to me while I was reading the book than of the book itself. It is about women fighting back persistently, whether they are successful or not.

PenguinTeen.com

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Review of The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao

by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Scholastic Press, 2022. 259 pages.
Review written from my own copy, signed by the author at ALA Annual Conference
Starred Review

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao is the first book I ordered in my new position as Youth Materials Selector for my library system, after I saw the author at ALA Annual Conference, and she told me the book had been selected for the Washington Post Kid’s Summer Book Club. Of course we needed copies for all the branches! (Alas! We had a big backlog in our Processing department, and the book was not on the shelves for readers when it was featured in the book club. I tried!)

This book is about racism and prejudice in a rural Virginia town, but it’s much more nuanced than that description suggests.

I love the main character, Evan Pao. (Though we do get chapters from the perspectives of several other kids.) Evan is a “sensitive” boy — in fact, he’s got a condition where he feels sick when someone lies to him. So he’s a good lie detector for his family. But he doesn’t understand how he never knew that his dad was going to leave their family.

As the book begins, Evan, his mother, and his sister are moving from a prosperous life in California to a run-down rental house in small-town Virginia, to be near his Uncle Joe. Evan hopes maybe in the new place he can get a dog, but he’s not optimistic.

But Evan isn’t prepared for how important the Civil War is in his new town. (I grew up in California and also moved to Virginia. I, too, thought this was strange, though it’s not nearly so extreme in northern Virginia.) He now attends Battlefield Elementary, where his class is making preparations for the annual Battlefield Day, where class member dress up as roles their ancestors may have played in the Civil War. Evan’s afraid there’s no place for him, and one kid in particular makes it clear he’s pretty sure Chinese Americans don’t belong.

But then Evan learns that Chinese Americans did have parts in the Civil War, and Evan begins to claim his place. There’s pushback, though, and it all adds up to a story that challenges everyone’s assumptions, including the reader’s.

In Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s hands, we’ve got a fantastic school story for middle grade readers that shows that history is for everyone, and you can’t make assumptions about what anyone is capable of. A great read.

scholastic.com

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Review of The Little House of Hope, by Terry Catasús Jennings, illustrations by Raúl Colón

The Little House of Hope

by Terry Catasús Jennings
illustrations by Raúl Colón

Neal Porter Books (Holiday House), 2022. 32 pages.
Review written September 30, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This inspiring book made me proud to be an American, as well as blown away by a family’s joyful hospitality.

The author bases the story of Esperanza, a girl from Cuba, on her own story of her family coming from Cuba in 1961. Here’s how the book begins:

It was a little house. Una casita.

When Esperanza and Manolo and Mami and Papi
came to the United States from Cuba,
they looked and looked
for a place where they could live
that didn’t cost too much money.

And then they found it.

It was small.
It smelled like old, wet socks.
It had rickety, tattered furniture
from a church basement.

But even though they were far from home,
the family was together.
They were safe.
They were happy in la casita.

As the story goes on, we see each parent working two jobs and the children making their own breakfasts, helping with chores, and helping fix up la casita. They all work hard and begin learning English. They eat food in la casita that reminds them of Cuba.

The pictures are happy and hopeful. Since Esperanza’s name in English is “Hope,” she makes a collage with her name in both languages, and “Hope” represents what they’ve found in their new home.

And they spread that hope to others! Mami’s sister Conchita joins them, with her baby. She takes care of other people’s children during the day in la casita, and Esperanza gets to tend the baby.

Then they make room in the garage for a family who’ve made a tough trip from Mexico while they’re getting settled.

Even though there wasn’t much room,
everyone was happy in la casita.

As the book continues, we see the family happily sharing their space. Papi gets a job as an accountant, like he had back in Cuba, and Mami teaches high school Spanish. More people come through on their way to getting homes of their own.

The pictures in this book make it especially wonderful — on many spreads we see large, happy groups of people, enjoying one another.

And for everyone who comes through la casita and then goes on to their own place, Esperanza sends them on their way with a collage, which we see in the illustrations. The collage features “Esperanza” and “Hope,” and “Hope” is done in the colors of the American flag.

It wasn’t until my second time through the book that I noticed the Author’s Note at the front, which is more for the adult reader than for kids:

This book was written in anger, but with pride. Anger at a realtor who told me he never rented to Hispanics because they lived four families to a house and always destroyed the properties where they lived. In 1961, when my family first came from Cuba to the United States, we lived in una casita. Three families lived there, twelve of us during the week and fourteen on weekends when my uncle’s two sons came to stay with him. We came to the United States to regain our freedom, and in the case of my father, to avoid being jailed again. We landed with $50 for our family of four. In time we all became gainfully employed, each family finding a home of its own. And we all became citizens. From anger, I hope this book brings healing. It is dedicated with unwavering gratitude to the country that took us in, and to all immigrants who come to the United States in search of hope.

The lovely thing is that the picture book part of this book completely communicates that gratitude and hope. I didn’t know any anger was involved until I read the note — and what an effective answer this book is to that anger! She shows a family helping others out with love and joy, and no deprivation whatsoever, but only that overwhelming gratitude and hope.

HolidayHouse.com

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Review of Swim Team, by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team

by Johnnie Christmas

Harper Alley, 2022. 248 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Middle school experiences are the perfect content for graphic novels. They make for quick reads, and the pictures fully bring you into the volatile emotions of that time in a person’s life. Swim Team is already popular, and it’s going to join other classics of middle school graphic novels.

As the graphic novel opens, Bree is moving with her father from Brooklyn to Florida, ready to start middle school. She does make a friend pretty quickly in her apartment complex, but instead of Math club, the only elective still available is Swimming 101. She doesn’t want to admit she doesn’t know how to swim, and she misses some classes at first.

But then she gets help from Ms. Etta, a lady who lives above her in the apartment and turns out to be a champion swimmer herself. When Bree expresses the belief that Black people don’t swim, Ms. Etta explains that this false rumor has everything to do with the racism that kept Black people from swimming in pools white people used.

And it turns out that Bree is pretty fast in the pool, once she learns to swim. One thing leads to another, and she ends up on the swim team. And they have quite a rivalry with the private school in town. It all builds to the relay race, which depends on working together.

This is a middle school story without a lot of angst, but with plenty of fun.

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Review of Charlie & Mouse Are Magic, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes

Charlie & Mouse Are Magic

by Laurel Snyder
illustrated by Emily Hughes

Chronicle Books, 2022. 38 pages.
Review written September 30, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I love the Charlie & Mouse series! These books are easy readers with four short chapters, lots of white space on the page, and pictures on every page — pictures that include lots of expressions and lots of joy. The books are about two young brothers, Charlie and Mouse, and the things they get up to together.

In this book, we start out with Mouse mixing up a magic potion while Mom is making dinner. After he finishes making the potion, he puts a drop on his nose and makes a wish. I love what happens next:

“Mouse,” said Mom.
“I would really like to finish dinner. Do you think if I gave you a cookie, you could wait in the other room?”

“Mom!” shouted Mouse. “Wow! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!”

“What?” said Mom. “What can’t you believe?”

“A cookie is EXACTLY what I was wishing for.
Isn’t that amazing? My potion works!”

“Amazing!” said Mom. “Now scram.”

And that’s only the beginning. As things continue, Charlie and Mouse go outside and try being invisible with the potion. (There is some joyful naked dancing in the rain with strategically placed plants.) And Mom apologizes for being grumpy. And all the animals share dinner with them. And at the end, Dad gets his wish.

It’s all a bunch of gentle and imaginative good fun. And will keep both beginning readers and their parents entertained.

I always love what it says in Laurel Snyder’s bio, where she mentions her two sons: “She would like to state for the record that while none of these stories are exactly true, none of them are exactly untrue either.”

chroniclekids.com

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Review of Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021. 10 hours, 3 minutes.
Review written April 30, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is the sequel to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and yes, you should read them in order. So if you haven’t read the first book, please don’t read more of this review as it may give you some spoilers.

If possible, I loved this second book even more than the first. It’s from Ari’s perspective as he navigates his senior year of high school. He’s accepted that he’s in love with Dante, and he’s figuring out what that means.

But why I loved this book so much is that Ari also learns to develop many meaningful relationships. In the first book, Dante was his first friend. But now, as well as being in love with Dante, he develops deep friendships with some fellow students, with his parents, and with some teachers. All of those relationships help him get through when hard things hit.

And it’s definitely not all sun and roses. Some major life events happen that are hard to face. Ari goes to visit his older brother, who is in prison. And Ari and Dante have been accepted into colleges far apart from one another, so they both have anxiety about what comes next.

Also, the book is set in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Both Ari and Dante are coming to terms with what it means to be a gay man in a culture that hates them.

But they encounter beautiful people in their journey, and all the difficulties they face in this book are faced with a community of supportive friends, which makes all the difference.

benjaminsaenz.com/

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Review of A Seed Grows, by Antoinette Portis

A Seed Grows

by Antoinette Portis

Neal Porter Books (Holiday House), 2022. 36 pages.
Review written August 30, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

As I write this review, I’m still deciding whether to put it on my Picture Books page or my Children’s Nonfiction page as an example of beginning nonfiction for the very very youngest listeners. I think I will put it on the Picture Books page, because this is the kind of book I’d love to use in a story time or to read to a small child on my lap, and I don’t usually look on the Nonfiction page for such books.

In fact, for years, I’ve kept my eyes open for picture books with very few words on a page to use for Toddler story times and their shorter attention spans. Even though I’m not doing story times any more (with my new awesome job as Youth Materials Selector), I have to point out that this book would be perfect for that — and it teaches little ones about the life cycle of plants in a way they can understand, so it would also work for a STEM story time.

There are few words on a page and they’re short and sweet, and the bright, colorful illustrations use simple shapes. Here’s how the book starts out:

A seed falls

[That’s on a white background. The facing page shows one striped sunflower seed falling against a blue background.]

and settles into the soil

[Now we see the same blue background with a stripe of brown at the bottom and the seed sitting on top of that.]

and the sun shines

[Now the facing picture is a big round sun.]

and the rain comes down

[Now the picture side has raindrops filling the page.]

and the seed sprouts

I think by now you get the idea. Very simple language and simple, colorful pictures show the entire process of a sunflower growing. When it grows to its full height, the page folds upward to show how tall it gets.

After the sunflower blooms, it makes seeds which birds take to their nests. Eventually, to end the book, a seed falls. And we’re back to where we started.

Three pages at the back give more information for readers a little bit older, including a diagram of the life cycle of a sunflower plant.

This book is simple, but the bright blue and yellow colors leave me smiling.

antoinetteportis.com
HolidayHouse.com

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