Category: Book Reviews


hold tight dont let go

Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

Magdalie lives in Haiti with her cousin Nadine and Nadine’s mother, but Magdalie considers them to be her sister and mother.  Her aunt works for a wealthy lady, cooking and cleaning, and the three of them live in the lower rooms of the house.  When the earthquake hits Haiti in 2010, the girls survive but Nadine’s mother is killed.  The two girls have nowhere to go but they are rescued by Magdalie’s uncle and move into the refugee camp.  Soon after they move, Nadine’s father gets her a visa and she moves to Miami to live in the United States.  Nadine promises to send for Magdalie as soon as she can.  Magdalie is left all alone, unable to afford to attend school any longer and mourning the loss of her sister and mother.  Magdalie holds tightly to the hope of heading to the United States, but eventually has to admit that she is staying in Haiti and figure out how to not only survive but thrive there.

Wagner writes with a passion that shines on the page.  She shows the beauty of Haiti, creating a tapestry of food, sounds and voices that reveals what is often buried beneath the poverty.  She does not shy away from the ugliness of poverty, from the waste, the violence and the impossible choices facing a girl like Magdalie.  Sex simmers constantly around her, offers are made to young girls, and in one instance Magdalie must make the choice of whether she is willing to be taken care of in exchange for sexual favors. 

Through it all, even when she is deep in despair, Magdalie is clearly a smart girl who loves to learn and wants to be something more than where she finds herself.  Magdalie is incredibly strong too, facing on a daily basis things that American readers will never have experienced.  And that too is part of Wagner’s amazing depiction of Haiti.  She makes it clear that it is because of the society of Haiti that there is immense poverty but also that people can survive that poverty.  When Magdalie visits a rural part of the country, readers revel right alongside her in the natural beauty.  When she longs to return to the camps and the filth, readers too will begin to understand what she sees there and the potential it offers her if she can just find a way.

This is a complex book that does not try to answer society’s issues in a pat or simple way.  Rather it stands as witness to the brutality, beauty and incredible strength of Haiti and its people.  Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.

first snow

First Snow by Peter McCarty

Pedro is visiting his cousin Sancho.  While he is there, snow starts to fall, something that Pedro has never seen before.  But he knows already that he won’t like the snow since it’s so cold.  The next morning, his cousins are thrilled to head outside into the fresh snow that fell all night long.  Pedro is very doubtful, saying again how cold it is.  When the other children make snow angels, Pedro doesn’t even want to try.  Other children in the neighborhood arrive with their sleds.   One of them shows Pedro how to catch snowflakes on his tongue.  They all take their sleds to the top of the big hill.  Pedro is too cautious to go first, but soon he finds himself joining everyone else riding down the hill.  He is thrown off his sled and lands in the cold snow, but he no longer finds it too cold to have fun.

McCarty deftly shows the reluctance of a child experiencing something for the first time. He handles it with a delicacy that shows the hesitation clearly and the hanging back.  Yet Pedro still tries things as the day goes on, and the other children don’t force him to try anything he doesn’t want to.  By the end of the day, Pedro is just as merrily playing in the snow as the others.  This book shines with a gentle spirit and allows children to see themselves clearly on the page.

As always McCarty’s illustrations are a treat.  I particularly enjoy seeing characters from his other picture books in this story.  Plus you have the added bonus of little creatures in snow suits with room in the hoods for their ears! 

An ideal pick for snowy days or a way to discuss trying something new in a gentle and supportive way.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

geek girl

Geek Girl by Holly Smale

Released January 27, 2015.

This British import is hilarious, geeky and great fun.  Harriet Manners knows that she is not a popular person.  She shares too many factoids about things, she doesn’t care about fashion to the point that she took wood shop to avoid going to a fashion event, and she even has a list of the people who hate her.  So when Nat, her best friend, demands that she come along to the fashion event, Harriet knows that she has to.  Nat has dreamed her entire life of being a model, something that Harriet doesn’t even start to understand.  She’d much rather be a paleontologist and spend her time watching nature documentaries.  But everything goes wrong and it is Harriet who is discovered at the fashion show, and now Harriet starts a series of lies and cover ups to keep both her best friend and her step mother from knowing anything about her being discovered.  Modeling is hard when you’ve never walked in heels before, when you don’t know the rules and when you are sitting next to the most gorgeous boy you have ever seen.

Smale has managed to give us a perfect mashup of geek and Next Top Model in this novel.  Harriet is an unforgettable heroine, someone who is awkward in the extreme, entirely herself, and uncertain about who she wants to be.  She is bullied by a classmate even as she is being discovered as a model.  Even as she wants modeling to transform her into someone else, Harriet manages to be a voice for teens who are different, fascinated by facts, think in charts and graphs, and who are different from the rest.

Smale is also deeply funny.  Harriet has wonderful asides that reference geeky movies and books.  Her father and step mother have the most marvelous arguments, ones that read like a real argument when things stop making sense and have plenty of zinging comments.  Best of all, the arguments don’t end their relationship but somehow form a basis for it.  The writing throughout is clever and witty, making it a book that is impossible to put down.

The first book in a trilogy, this book came out in the UK in 2013 and was nominated and won several awards.  It certainly lives up to the hype with its wit, strong heroine and inherent joy.  Appropriate for ages 13-15.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Harper Teen and Edelweiss.

audacity

Audacity by Melanie Crowder

Told in masterful verse, this is the story of real-life heroine Clara Lemlich who led the largest strike by women in the history of the United States.  Born in Russia, Clara was forbidden any education because her devout Jewish father did not approve.  When her family emigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, Clara was required to go to work to support her family while her father and brothers dedicated their lives to prayer.  Clara got work in the garment industry, discovering horrific working conditions and refusing to just accept them.  Clara worked to get women workers taken seriously by the male-driven unions and for their plight to be incorporated into union strikes and negotiations.  Along the way, she also used the public library and free classes to teach herself English.  Anyone wondering if one person can truly make a difference in a larger world has only to read this book to be inspired to action.

Crowder’s poetry here is completely amazing.  From one page to the next, she captures the incredible spirit of this young woman and her desire to educate herself.  When she finds something to fight for, she is unstoppable, fearless and unbeatable.  Crowder also ties Clara to nature, even in among the tenement buildings of New York City.  She is a small hawk, a flower in the concrete, she herself is the force of nature in the city.

Just the descriptions of the horrific beatings that Clara withstood on the streets and the picket lines would make most people quit.  But Crowder makes sure to depict Clara as a person first and a hero second.  It makes what she did so much more amazing but also encourages everyone to realize that they too have this within them if they are willing to take on the fight.  This woman was a heroine in such a profound way, unsupported by her family and willing to use all of her free time to make a difference, she is exactly what the modern world needs to have us make change now.

Strong, beautiful and wonderfully defiant, this book is an incredible testament to the power of one woman to change the world.  Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Philomel.

my three best friends and me Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Zulay is in first grade along with her three best friends.  She starts the day by linking arms with them and singing in the hallways and then waiting in line to hug their teacher hello.  When she finds her desk, she feels with her legs to make sure she is sitting right and then readers see her cane, which she pushes to the back of her desk.  It is at this point that it becomes clear that Zulay is blind.  She still studies what everyone else does, but she also has extra classes to learn to use her cane.  When Field Day is announced, Zulay surprises everyone by declaring that she wants to run in a race.  Will Zulay be able to make her dream come true?

Best introduces Zulay as a person first and then reveals her disability.  It offers readers a chance to meet Zulay as a first grade girl and see how she is just like her friends first and then realize that she is still just like the others in her class but with the added component of blindness in her life.  Best also incorporates all of the details that children will want to know.  How does Zulay find her desk?  How does she do class work?  What is her red and white cane for?  The result is a very friendly book that celebrates diversity in a number of ways.

Brantley-Newton’s illustrations add to that friendly feel.  They feature children of many different races together in school.  She clearly shows the emotions of her characters too from worry to pride to joy.  The illustrations are bright and cheery.

This is a book about diversity and meeting challenges head on.  It’s a great addition to public libraries of all sizes.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

x

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

This is the story of Malcolm X’s boyhood and teen years.  Malcolm Little grew up during the Depression, surviving on dandelion greens soup after his father is murdered.  When his mother gains the attention of social services, Malcolm is moved out of the family home and away from his days of stealing melons from patches and apples from stands to fill his belly.  When Malcolm gets a chance to leave his foster home and head to live with his half-sister in Boston, he jumps at the chance.  Boston and its neighborhoods are a buzz with activity and nightlife and Malcolm immediately joins the fray, turning his back firmly on the way he was raised.  Malcolm continues to explore the dangerous side of society by dealing reefer, drinking, and dating a white woman.  He moves to Harlem where the jazz is even more incredible and where he really gets into serious trouble.  This novel follows Malcolm from his childhood until he is imprisoned for theft at age 20 and eventually converts to Islam.

Shabazz is one of the daughters of Malcolm X and according to the Authors Note at the end of the book the story while fiction is firmly based in real life people and events.  The writing prowess of Magoon is also here in full force, directing a story that is a headlong dash into sex, drugs and jazz into something that speaks volumes about the intelligence and emotions of the young man at its center.  The result is a book that shines light on difficult years of Malcolm X’s life where he lost himself and then the tremendous results of having returned and found himself again. 

There is such emotion here on the page.  Malcolm’s heart shows in each interaction he has, each moment of losing himself that he manages to find.  It is a road map of hope for those who are lost to these moments in their lives that you can return and be better than ever.  It also shows the humanity behind the historical figure, the real boy behind the legend.

Powerful, gritty and honest, this novel expands what young readers know about Malcolm X and offers hope for those in their own crisis.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Candlewick Press and Netgalley.

winnie

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss

When Harry Colebourn saw a bear cub at the train station, he immediately asked about her.  Since she was for sale, he bought her for $20 and took her aboard the train with him, naming her Winnipeg.  He was on his way to military training in Quebec and there the two of them bonded even further.  Winnie helped Harry in his veterinarian duties, caring for the military horses and searching the pockets of his uniform for treats.  Harry fed her condensed milk and she slept on the floor under his cot.  When news came that they would be leaving for England, Harry took her along.  But when they were going to head to battle in France, Harry knew he had to do something else with Winnie since she could be hurt in warfare.  So Winnie was placed in the London Zoo where she quickly made friends with the other bears.  It was there that she met one special little boy named Christopher Robin and his father, A. A. Milne.

Walker writes a warm story here.  Though they are surrounded by preparations for World War I, the book focuses on the relationship between Harry and Winnie.  Happily, Walker also shares information on how Winnie was cared for, showing the freedom that she had and the loving care she was given by Harry and the rest of the soldiers.  Just as fascinating is her time at the zoo where she was so gentle that children were allowed to ride on her back.  This was one special bear indeed.

The book’s endpages are filled with photographs of the real Harry and Winnie.  Voss’ illustrations are realistic and detailed, staying true to the photographs that readers see first.  The result is a lovely continuum from the real to the story of what happened, with no jarring differences.

A delightful and cheery story of a bear who is found by one man and then adored by many.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Co.

all the bright places

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Finch and Violet go to the same high school but don’t move in the same social circles.  So when they both find themselves at the top of the school’s bell tower one day, it’s a chance for that to change.  Finch is a boy who flirts constantly with death, thinking about different ways to kill himself and researching suicide statistics.  He’s known as “Theodore Freak” by his classmates and has a couple of close friends but that’s it.  Violet moves among the popular kids at school, but lost her older sister in a car accident the year before, something she’s having problems coping with.  The two of them start working on a school project together since Finch tricks Violet into agreeing.  For the project, they travel the state of Indiana finding unique places to visit and leaving small things behind.  As they travel, the two become closer and more honest with one another about what they are going through.  Violet begins to come out of her grief and live more, but something different is happening to Finch.

Niven creates a movie-like novel here with scenes that comes to life complete with cinematography in your mind.  There are iconic moments throughout the book, thanks to the plot of them moving from one unique spot to another.  Moments that stand out as important and vital even as they are happening, moments that disguise but also highlight what is happening to the two main characters.  There is a moment in the middle of the book where things switch and change starts to happen for both characters, but in opposite directions.  There is a sense of loss at that moment, of being unable to save someone that echoes suicide right then and there.  It is beautifully done.

The two main characters are brilliantly written as well.  The sorrowful Violet who can’t see her way towards trying at school or connecting with others at all and who finds her light in Finch that moves her forward.  The clever and sarcastic Finch who steeps himself in dark thoughts but flares alive, sleepless and awake, desperate never to fall into the trap of sleeping for days or months again.  He is a deep character, fighting being bipolar on his own. 

Niven writes with a simple beauty that will appeal to teens, especially as they explore these complicated subjects.  Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf.

earmuffs for everyone

Earmuffs for Everyone!: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs by Meghan McCarthy

Chester Greenwood is credited with being the inventor of the earmuffs.  The story goes that he was a boy with big ears that were sensitive to cold so he had his grandmother create him a pair of earmuffs from wire and cloth.  However, the author also shows that earmuffs were actually invented before Greenwood was even born.  He did however get a patent himself at age 19 for ear-mufflers.  Chester had a great business sense too, one that he honed even as a boy.  He also invented other things besides ear-mufflers, designing new features into kettles and rakes and even creating a portable house.  It was an article in Life Magazine in the 1930s that credited Greenwood with the invention and that continued into the 1970s when there was a day named after him in Maine that continues to be celebrated today.

McCarthy immediately invites readers into the earmuff mystery, showing the early patents by others and then turning to Greenwood.  Readers will see how convoluted stories can become in history, how distorted credit for inventions can be, and also how hard it can be to piece together the truth fully once again.  It is to McCarthy’s credit that her focus is on more than the inventor but also on the others in history and the patent process.  Don’t miss her notes at the end which detail even more fully her search for the truth about earmuffs.

McCarthy populates her books with friendly characters with big googly eyes.  Her paintings are fresh and colorful.  They range from double-page spreads to smaller images on the page.  All of them exude a cheery feeling and invite readers to explore.

This nonfiction picture book embraces the complexity of the past and demonstrates the search for the truth behind an everyday object.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

raindrops roll

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre

The author of Eat Like a Bear returns with another great nonfiction picture book.  In this book she offers the joy of rain and water.  Told in a poetic way, the text conveys the anticipation of rain that you can feel coming and the changes in the sky.  When the rain arrives, it makes noise, makes things wet, including animals out in the weather.  There is running water, mud, all sorts of changes take place.  When the rain stops, the raindrops remain and weigh things down, dot and cling.  They change things as they linger until the sun returns to dry them away.

Sayre’s poem dances like the rain itself, pattering along and showing the beauty of the rain.  This is a book that celebrates darkening skies and weather, showing the importance of rain, the way that insects protect themselves from it, and the dazzle that it leaves behind.  Sayre manages to convey science along the way, though the focus of the book continues to be the loveliness of this type of weather.

Her photographs are part of the dazzle of this book.  They are large, clear and brilliantly done.  She captures insects before and after the rain, drops that merge together, rain as it runs and dots.  Her photos are colorful, filled with water and gorgeous.

A perfect book to share in the spring or just before heading out with umbrellas into the garden.  This is just the sort of book we need to encourage children to get outside and play in the rain.  Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.

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