Review of The Phantom Twin, by Lisa Brown

The Phantom Twin

by Lisa Brown

First Second, 2020. 206 pages.
Review written August 5, 2020, from a library book

You’ve probably heard of amputees experiencing a phantom limb where their limb was removed. This graphic novel tells the story of a conjoined twin, who after separation experiences a phantom twin.

Isabel and Jane were conjoined twins and had been sold by their parents to a carnival freak show when they were small. They had three arms and legs between them, with the shared limbs mostly controlled by Jane, who also had the most forceful personality.

Jane decided to trust the promises of a doctor who said he could separate them and give them separate lives, but after the operation, Isabel is alive with only one arm and one leg, and Jane has died.

This graphic novel is about Isabel finding her place on her own. Except she’s never fully alone because her twin, now a phantom, stays with her. She tries to stay with the carnival freak show, which has its own problems. And there are many questions about who she can trust.

I will say that the author achieves a happy and satisfying ending, with a message of being yourself and finding people who care.

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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 Lintang and the Pirate Queen, by Tamara Moss

Lintang and the Pirate Queen

by Tamara Moss

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2019. 360 pages.
Review written October 15, 2019, from an advance reader copy

Lintang lives on the Twin Islands, not part of the United Republic, and she’s known as a storyteller and a troublemaker. Lintang wants nothing more than to see the world.

When the Pirate Queen comes to their island, she needs an islander on board to get past the giant mythie Nyssamdra, the island’s guardian. Lintang is thrilled when she gets chosen.

But when she discovers a stowaway, her best friend Bayani, she has to decide if she will risk the Pirate Queen’s trust and tell her about the stowaway or be loyal to her friend. To make matters worse, Bayani won’t tell her why he wants to get to the island of Zaiben so badly.

The fantasy world of this story is inhabited by “mythies,” and most chapters are preceded by an entry from The Mythie Guidebook — and then that particular mythie shows up in the chapter. It begins with a tiny pixie – known for mischief – and continues through giant and fearsome creatures such as dragons and sirens.

The existence of sirens is the reason that most ships are crewed by women – who aren’t affected by the call of the siren. I do love that this book included a transgender man – who was in fact affected by the siren, though some thought he wouldn’t be.

It turns out that Bayani knows a secret about mythies that changes everyone’s perspective on them and can shake up the world. But will anyone believe him?

This is a fun fantasy adventure story about an impulsive girl seeing the world, learning to think before she acts, and loyally helping her friends.

I do have a few little issues about the way the fantasy world works, but I doubt that those issues will bother most readers.

Not everything is neatly wrapped up in this book, so I suspect and hope there will be more to come.

tamaramoss.com.au
hmhbooks.com

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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.

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Review of In the Red, by Christopher Swiedler

In the Red

by Christopher Swiedler

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2020. 277 pages.
Review written October 22, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

In the Red takes place on a Mars colony with a kid who grew up there. His parents took him out on the surface many times – but when he was ten and tried to pass his Basic Certification, he had a panic attack and failed. Ever since then, he can’t even get to the airlock.

Now Michael is twelve, and determined to prove himself. He’s sure his parents are disgusted by his “condition” and way too protective, so he schedules a test without telling them. When he gets put with the Advanced Test, he impressively calculates directions in his head without using the nav computer, but still has a panic attack when he’s almost gotten back to the dome. Will he never succeed?

Soon after, at night, his best friend Lilith shows him a secret way to get out of the dome. They steal a slightly damaged rover and go on a joyride. When everything is going well, Michael rashly decides to pay his father a visit, six hours away at the magnetic field station at the polar ice cap.

It would have worked, if the station didn’t suffer a major disaster that took down the magnetic field. Now all the humans on Mars need to take cover before the sun comes up with its deadly radiation and no protection from the magnetic field. Trouble is, where will Michael and Lilith find protection out on the surface?

That’s just the beginning of their troubles. Communication is also down, and no one knows they’re out on the surface. In the tradition of a good thriller, solving one problem is only a temporary respite before the next life-threatening situation comes up. The author has them working with reasonably imagined future technology that does have major constraints as they try to survive on a planet that could easily kill them.

This book reminded me of The Martian, but for kids. The dangerous situations and solutions all sounded plausible as well as terrifying. Michael’s practical genius with math had a counterweight in the devastating panic attacks that always put him at further risk.

A science fiction story that feels like it could be telling the future. Kid vs. Nature in a setting that is more hostile than anything on earth.

christopherswiedler.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo

The Beatryce Prophecy

by Kate DiCamillo
illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Candlewick Press, 2021. 247 pages.
Review written November 2, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

This is probably my favorite book written by Kate DiCamillo, who has won the Newbery Medal twice. It’s a fantasy tale, with illustrations by two-time Caldecott Medal winner Sophie Blackall, which elevate it another level.

As usual with Kate DiCamillo books, we’ve got a set of quirky characters. The first one we meet is the goat Answelica, and this is how we meet her:

Answelica was a goat with teeth that were the mirror of her soul – large, sharp, and uncompromising.

Answelica terrorizes the monks of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing, sending them flying through the air with her very hard head and then biting them with her terrible teeth.

One of those monks, Brother Edik, once wrote a prophecy about a girl who would unseat a king. When Brother Edik finds a girl curled up next to Answelica, holding the goat’s ear, he doesn’t realize this is the prophesied child, but unfortunately we learn the king’s men know this and are looking for her.

Beatryce doesn’t remember anything at first except her name. However, it’s clear that, shockingly, this girl can read and write, which is against the law in the kingdom.

Beatryce gets sent away from the monastery, along with the goat, and gathers two more interesting and quirky characters along the way.

And in the adventure that follows, we find out if she will, in fact, unseat the king.

It’s all woven together in a lovely tale that’s all about love and stories.

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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!

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Review of Pony, by R. J. Palacio, read by Ian M. Hawkins

Pony

by R. J. Palacio
read by Ian M. Hawkins

Listening Library, 2021. 7 hours.
Review written November 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Wow. If you read the author’s book Wonder, you won’t be surprised that she can tell a good story, but this one is completely different from that one – but completely captivating.

We’ve got a 12-year-old narrator named Silas who lives alone with his Pa outside a small town in 1860 in the west. His Pa is a bootmaker who has figured out how to print daguerreotypes on paper. One night, some rough men come to their house and take his Pa away with them, saying they want him to help them out with a job. They bring a pony for Silas, but Pa refuses to go with them if they take Silas. He tells Silas to stay in the house and not let anyone in.

When the pony comes back a couple days later, Silas takes it as a sign that he should go find Pa. Sometime in there we discover that Silas has the ability to see ghosts. And he’s got a ghost companion, a sixteen-year-old boy he calls Mittenwool. Mittenwool tries to convince him to stay home like Pa told him, but Silas is determined to help Pa.

Fortunately, they come across a federal marshal named Enoch Farmer who is on the track of a gang of counterfeiters. They establish that the men he’s after are the ones who took Pa. The marshal helps Silas navigate the wilderness, have food to eat, and follow the track of the counterfeiters. The marshal doesn’t know how much Mittenwool helps them stay on track. But when they’ve found the counterfeiters’ lair, an accident means Silas is going to need to get help on his own.

This story had me not wanting to stop for anything. The part after the dramatic confrontation is a little long, but kids do like loose ends being tied up, so I can’t really fault the author for that. And I was happy to know how things turned out for Silas.

This is a wonderful yarn with danger and adventure and a kid you can’t help but love, a kid who’s got the smartest and best Pa in the world. And the help of a remarkable pony.

listeninglibrary.com

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Review of Long Road to the Circus, by Betsy Bird, illustrations by David Small

Long Road to the Circus

by Betsy Bird
illustrations by David Small

Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 246 pages.
Review written November 27, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

What a delightful book! Set in 1920 in Burr Oak, Michigan, twelve-year-old Suzy of the legendary grip wants to find a way to escape the family farm and Burr Oak, where generations of her family always seem to come back.

When Suzy decides to follow no-good lazy Uncle Fred before dawn to find out what he’s up to, she’s surprised to discover he’s wrangling ostriches for a retired circus performer. They want to tire out the ostrich so it can be harnessed up to a surrey together with a horse for the town parade.

Then Suzy gets the bright idea that if she rides the ostrich instead of Uncle Fred, her boring summer will get a whole lot more interesting – and she can learn a skill that might get her out of town. Not every kid can ride an ostrich!

But it takes some negotiating and some clever planning to keep her parents allowing her to miss the morning chores. If they find out what she’s up to, she might even have to enlist the aid of her annoying older brother.

Here are some words from Suzy as she’s planning to follow Uncle Fred in the morning:

It takes true skill to delay doing your chores. And my impatient brother Bill simply had no idea how to do it right. He usually tried to skip out after breakfast to run and play with the baby lambs or the goats or whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be doing. But if Bill had taken pointers from Uncle Fred, like I did, he would have realized that the first rule of chore skipping is to skip breakfast too. ‘Cause once they’ve seen your face and weighed you down with food, you’re less fleet of foot. They’ll catch you before you can take two steps outdoors.

The second rule is to offer complete and utter bafflement when confronted. When Bill got collared in an attempted escape, he always just lied outright. I’d shake my head in wonder as he constructed some fabulous falsehood to cover up his crime, making it far worse for himself the further in he went. Uncle Fred took a much smarter tack. Whenever he’d return from wherever it was he’d been and my daddy started asking where he’d gone, Uncle Fred would have this look of complete bafflement on his face. Like he’d never even grown up on a farm or known how it worked. He’d offer some bland apologies to Daddy for inconveniencing him, then join everyone for lunch. Usually after that he’d go to work with the rest of the crew, working longer than the rest of them to make up his lost time, but next morning it would start all over again. He’d be gone before breakfast, Daddy swearing under his breath, the rest of us pretending not to notice, most of all Uncle Fred’s wife and baby.

Suzy’s irrepressible spirit and determination come through on every page, and it doesn’t take us long to be sure she’ll figure out how to ride an ostrich and also how to use that to ride away from Burr Oak some day.

David Small’s illustration style is perfect for gangly ostriches and add wonderfully to the spirit of the book. The page where Suzy first tries to ride an ostrich is especially delightful.

The back story of this book – appropriately told at the back – is also rather wonderful. Betsy Bird had a family story about her grandmother’s no-good uncle who skipped out on farm chores in Burr Oak, Michigan to visit a retired circus performer and learn tricks to teach the farm horses. That circus performer, Madame Marantette – who shows up in this book – really did set a world record by driving a surrey pulled by an ostrich and a horse together.

But the really crazy part of the back story is that illustrator David Small currently lives in the very same house where Madame Marantette lived and kept her horses and ostriches. When Betsy told him about her project, he thought it wasn’t so much a picture book as a novel, and we are all in his debt.

This book reads as a wonderful yarn about a girl looking to do outrageous things to make a name for herself. The fact that there’s a kernel of truth at its core makes it all the more fun.

Fuse Eight blog
davidsmallbooks.com

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