The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Set in Toronto in the sixties, this book is about two lonely girls living in homes that attach to one another. Polly has a huge family with foster siblings too. She feels ignored by all of them, though she can’t get away from her twin brothers and their noise. That’s how she finds her way into the attic as a safe place away from the bustle of her family. Polly has always wanted to meet a ghost, which is why she thinks that Rose is a ghost the first time she hears her singing in her neighboring attic. But Rose turns out to be a real girl, who just happens to look very ghostlike too. Rose has always been able to see ghosts, and she hates it since they never leave her alone. Rose spends a lot of her days alone, no one at school talks to her, her parents are very busy business people, and the housekeeper ignores her. So the two girls quickly form a close friendship, made even closer by the frightening ghost that looks just like Rose and who threatens Polly’s life. Can the two girls figure out who this ghost is and what she wants?
I seem to be on a roll with Canadian children’s book authors lately, and this is another wonderful Canadian read. Cotter creates a mystery inside a ghost story that twists and turns delightfully along the way. Readers will think they have it all figured out and then the story will change. Yet somehow Cotter makes it all work and in the end the entire novel makes great sense, enough that readers will want to start again to see the clues they may have missed.
The writing here is exceptional. Cotter writes with a confident voice, one that allows each of these girls to be entire unique. The two of them are quite different from one another, each clearly resulting from their very divergent upbringings. The friendship also reads as real with small arguments happening regularly and the two girls having to repair these small issues. Through the entire book there is a wonderful ghostly presence, a feeling of being in a real place but one unseen by others. It’s a place that is a delight to visit.
Perfect for reading under the covers with a flashlight, this strong ghost story is both entertaining and riveting. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Outside In by Sarah Ellis
Lynn has a busy life with two best friends, choir, and a mother who keeps messing things up. Her mother can’t hold down a job and the man who has brought a lot of stability to their little family for a few years has just left because her mother cheated on him. Luckily, he is allowing them to keep living in his condo for a few months. When Lynn chokes on a butterscotch candy at the bus stop, an unknown person helps her. All Lynn knows about the person is that they were wearing a plaid skirt. Lynn sets out to find them, but it isn’t until she gives up that Blossom introduces herself. As her choir sets off to the United States for a competition, Lynn discovers that her mother hasn’t sent in the paperwork for her passport so she can’t attend. Her friends head out without her and Lynn starts to get closer to Blossom, a strange girl who talks about disguising herself as a “citizen” and lives off the grid. Soon Lynn has been drawn into the incredible alternate life of Blossom and her family. But some things they are doing may not actually be legal and in order to be part of their lives Lynn has to promise to never reveal that they exist. Lynn’s life works as long as the two worlds remain completely separate, but how long can she lie to her friends and mother?
Ellis is a Canadian author and this book is clearly set in Canada. Lynn’s own family life is portrayed realistically and with great empathy both for her and for her mother. There is no great villain here, only humans who make mistakes. The lives of the “Underlanders” are shown as a balanced mix of utopian and harsh. The moral questions about what they are doing emerge very naturally as the plot moves forward. Then at the same time, Lynn herself is struggling with the moral ambiguity of lying to her loved ones about what she is doing in order to keep the Underlanders safe. Again, there are no right answers here, it is about the puzzles of good and bad, wrong and right.
Lynn is a fairly straightforward character caught in a world where her mother is eccentric and unreliable but her friends are her rocks. Her new relationship with Blossom captures the fact that she has some of her mother in her as well, something that wants a simpler life and a more unique and meaningful one. Ellis manages to show this without ever mentioning it, allowing her readers to deeply understand Lynn beyond what Lynn does herself.
A complex and short novel for teens, this book is richly written, filled with ethical choices, and made beautiful by a glimpse into another way of life. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
Grayson lives with his aunt, uncle and cousins after his parents died when he was much younger. Middle school is hard. Grayson doesn’t have friends, eating his lunch in the library rather than the cafeteria. He rarely does anything more than go to school and return home again. After school, Grayson has time on his own before the others get home and he spends his time in front of the mirror dreaming of wearing a dress and being a princess. It’s a fantasy he quickly puts away when the others come home, returning once again to being a boy in a long t-shirt and jeans. Then one day, Grayson decides to go out for the school play. And when he auditions, he tries out for the role of Persephone. What will happen if he gets cast as the female lead and is no longer invisible?
Polonsky has created a critical book for middle-graders about the experience of being transgender in middle school. She hits just the right tone of lightness and seriousness, allowing the story of Grayson to unfold naturally and beautifully on the page. The reader learns along with Grayson what he is really feeling inside, how he wishes to express it, and also how incredibly brave he is. He’s an incredible character, one that is relatable and inspiring.
Polonsky also does not duck away from negative reactions to Grayson. In Grayson’s aunt, readers will see an adult who is struggling to understand someone who is transgender. She seeks to protect Grayson from bullies by hiding what he truly is and goes after the teacher who is helping Grayson express who he is on the inside. There are also bullies at Grayson’s school who play a part in his isolation. Yet there are also heroes among the students as well as Grayson’s uncle who is supportive. It’s a strong mix of reactions, showing that while there is hate there is also love and support.
An important book for middle-grade children about being transgender and being true to yourself. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis
The first book in a new series, this novel invites readers along on a journey into a series of worlds that are tied together by the Pirate Stream, a river of pure magic. Fin is an orphan with a strange power where no one remembers him after a few minutes, not even the people at the orphanage who cared for him as a child. He uses that skill to be a master thief, but then he receives a letter with instructions that take him on a quest to find his mother. Marrill is living in Arizona, a perfectly dull life, when a ship suddenly appears next to her in the desert. Climbing aboard, she suddenly finds herself on an adventure in the Pirate Stream with a wizard, the ship’s captain, and the crew of rats. She has to find the parts of the Map in order to make her way home, exactly what Fin also needs to find his mother. This adventure takes readers to unknown worlds filled with sinister magic, great friendships, and plenty of action.
Ryan and Davis have crafted a wild fantasy novel that is constantly surprising. Thanks to the strange waters of the Pirate Stream, the travels on board the ship bring readers and the characters to lands that are unique and fascinating. There is an island of trees that speak and think where rumors and whispers rule. There is a frozen land with a leaning tower filled with treasure. There is a bird made from part of the Map that can lead them to the other pieces. There are mad wizards who create sorrow wherever they go and are determined to destroy themselves and all of the worlds.
While the adventure is a large part of the book, at its heart is the friendship of Marrill and Fin. Both of them are lonely children before they meet one another, Marrill because she has traveled a lot with her parents and never settled in one place and Fin because everyone forgets him. Marrill though does not forget Fin, because she cares so deeply. Their friendship offers both of them riches beyond treasure and delight beyond the adventure.
This strong middle grade fantasy novel will have readers looking forward to the next book and returning to the dangers and wonders of the Pirate Stream. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
This companion novel to Elijah of Buxton continues the story of the town of Buxton and the people who live there. This book, which takes place forty years after the first book, is the story of two boys, Benji and Red. Benji, who lives in Buxton, dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter. He has two pesky younger siblings who also happen to be gifted builders with wood. That doesn’t mean though that Benji doesn’t try to put them in their place when they need it. Benji also has a way with the forest, spending hours walking the trails and exploring. He is one of the first to see the Madman of Piney Woods. Red is a scientist. He’s been raised by his father and maternal grandmother, who hates anyone who isn’t Irish like she is. She is strict with Red, smacking him regularly with her cane hard enough to raise a lump. When the two boys meet, they immediately become friends even though their backgrounds are so different. But can their friendship withstand the brimming hatred of some people in their communities?
I loved Elijah of Buxton so much and I started this book rather gingerly, hoping that it would be just as special as the original. Happily, it certainly is. It has a wonderful feeling to it, a rich storytelling that hearkens back to Mark Twain and other classic boyhood friendship books. Curtis makes sure that we know how different these two boys are: one with a large family, the other small, different races, different points of view. Yet it feels so right when the two boys are immediate friends, readers will have known all along that they suit one another.
Curtis explores deep themes in this novel, offering relief in the form of the exploits of the two boys as they figure out ways to mess with their siblings and escape domineering grandmothers. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny. Other scenes though are gut-wrenching and powerful. They explore themes like the damage done to the psyche during wars, racism, ambition, responsibility and family ties. It is a testament to the writing of Curtis that both the humor and the drama come together into an exquisite mix of laughter and tears.
A great novel worthy of following the award-winning original, this book will be met with cheers by teachers and young readers alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson
When Phoebe skipped a rock (four times!) across a pond, she accidentally hit a unicorn in the nose, distracting the unicorn from gazing at her amazing reflection. The unicorn was bound to offer Phoebe a wish and though Phoebe tried to wish for more wishes and things like that, she wasn’t allowed to. So Phoebe wished that the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, be her best friend. The two become inseparable, much to Heavenly Nostrils’ dismay at first. Soon they truly became the best of friends, dealing with bullies in unexpected ways, having slumber parties, and playing games together.
This friendship between a girl and a unicorn is filled with great humor, including lots of biting sarcasm which helps offset the cuteness factor. It is not the traditional unicorn and girl relationship either, both of them have unique personalities and sometimes they just don’t get along. It’s those moments of reality that keeps the relationship honest and makes this a graphic novel to celebrate.
Simpson’s illustrations have strong ties to Calvin & Hobbes. Readers will immediately find themselves right at home in the world she creates, one where unicorns are real but sheltered by a Shield of Boringness that keeps others from realizing how special the unicorn is. These plot devices are brilliant and funny.
I brought this book home and my 17 year old immediately rejoiced since she reads the comic online. So you will have fans in your library for this book already. Get it on the shelves for kids and into the hands of adults who will also enjoy it immensely. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe
Marah lives in a world where the magicians are in power. She helps out in the market at the book stall and has managed to teach herself many languages in the process. There she witnesses the brutality of the magicians and knows to fear them. But it is also where she meets a little girl who doesn’t mind that Marah is a poor Sparker. Soon Marah is visiting their home, which is much more opulent than her own. She meets the girl’s brother and discovers that he shares her love of languages. When a plague hits their city and people whom both of them love are threatened, the key to figuring out the cure is in a forbidden language. Marah has to find the courage to trust those she fears as well as her own intelligence in order to save the world she loves and those she holds most dear.
Glewwe herself has a background in linguistics, which means that when she writes about languages it all makes sense and really clicks. The world she has created is complex with almost a caste system of rank within it. Tied directly to magical ability, the differences are also racial, so the entire story ties closely to our own world’s struggles with racism and bigotry in a variety of forms. Glewwe has created a story where the children are truly those who save the world. They cross the barriers of their society and proceed to have the knowledge themselves to create the solution, but only because they worked together.
The world building here is exceptional. The society is unique but also frighteningly familiar at the same time. The central theme of exclusion and privilege and abuse of power makes for a taut novel that will keep readers going. The mystery of the plague carries the story forward, so that readers will be compelled to read to the end to figure out the extent of the deception and greed.
A very strong middle grade fantasy that grapples with some of the most difficult of societal issues, this book is a magical and danger-filled read. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Having loved Rundell’s Rooftoppers, I looked forward to reading this book. I wasn’t expecting such a different read from her first novel. Will has grown up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe. She plays with the boys on the farm, spending her days on horseback, hanging out with her best friend, and exploring the land. Her days are pure bliss, filled with golden sunshine, fresh air, and freedom. But that is not to last. When her father dies and their farm is sold, Will is reluctantly sent to England to boarding school by her grandfather in a plot devised by her new grandmother. But Will does not fit in with the girls in the school who torment Will because she is different, refuses to comb her hair, and can’t do the schoolwork. There is only one choice for Will and that is to run away and try to survive on her own in the wilds of London.
This book moved me over and over again. First the beauty and the freedom of Will’s life in Zimbabwe is so beautiful and written with a tension. It’s almost as if it is a bubble that must inevitably break, and it does. The father’s death scene is one of the most poignant deaths I have experienced in books for children. Will’s emotions are so strong on the page, that you literally ache for her and for the further changes to come that readers will see much earlier than Will does. Going from such beauty to such loss is wrenching and masterful.
Rundell grew up in Zimbabwe and London, so Will’s time in England is equally well drawn. From the bullying students to the kind teacher to the people she meets on the street, Will encounters all sorts of people. As her situation grows more dire and one thinks she can’t go on, Will draws from the years of golden sun and freedom and continues on. Through it all, that golden light continues to shine, hope glows even in the darkest of times.
Will is a strong, wild heroine, a girl that you want to ride bareback with across Africa and one that all readers will fall madly head over heels for. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow, illustrated by Jen Wang
After a woman gamer comes to present information on gaming and computer science to her class, Anda starts to play Coarsegold. She starts to spend most of her time away from school playing the online multiplayer game. Online she meets another player who encourages her to start killing gold farmers for real life money. So Anda refocuses her battles online specifically on gold farmers, killing them even though they don’t fight back. But something feels wrong about what she is doing and then Anda gets to know one of the gold farmers who has started to learn English. He is a poor Chinese kid who is just trying to survive and loves playing Coarsegold even though he does it for hours as a gold farmer. Anda soon finds herself questioning the morals of killing gold farmers and what is wrong and right in real life and in the game world.
As a gamer girl myself, I applaud Doctorow for choosing to have a female lead in his book about online gaming. It adds another dimension to a book that wrestles with tough questions about gaming and gold farming. Gold farmers are people, usually from poorer countries, who are paid to play the online game, gather materials, and then sell them for real money, something that is against the rules of the games. So the book gets to the heart of people from wealthy countries using those from poorer countries, it looks at working conditions in gold farming companies, and questions the real ethics of the situation, beyond the superficial ones.
Wang’s illustrations are dynamite. She shows Anda as a girl who is built like a real person. She is rounded, comfortable in her clothes, and wonderfully not on a diet! Wang creates an online character for Anda who is powerful but not busty and half naked. It’s a great choice artistically.
Gaming books that actually get the game worlds right are few and far between. Gamers of any MMO will recognize the economy, the style and the play here while non-gamers will find themselves understanding gaming and game economies too. Appropriate for ages 12-16.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
Rose loves homonyms. She spends her days looking for new ones to add to her list, and then once she gets home adding them or rewriting the entire list if she runs out of space. Her dog Rain has a name that has two homonyms: reign and rein, which is why she picked it. Her father also gave her Rain on a rainy night. He found Rain wandering around after he left the bar one night. Rain is one of the best things in Rose’s life, since her father spends most evenings drinking at the bar and Rose spends them alone. Luckily, she also has her uncle in her life. He takes her to school, helps her find new homonyms, and protects her when necessary from her father when he loses patience with Rose. Then a fierce storm hits their town and Rose’s father lets Rain out into the storm and she disappears. Rose’s father refuses to explain why he let Rain out in a storm and also refuses to help Rose find her dog. It is up to Rose to find Rain so she devises her own plan and calls on her uncle for help. But when she finds Rain, she also discovers that Rain has other owners and Rose has to make a heartbreaking choice about right and wrong and love.
Martin captures a truly dysfunctional family on the page here. Rose’s father is brutal, cruel and a constant threat in her life. At the same time, the book glimmers with hope all of the time. Rose herself is not one to dwell on the shortcomings of her life, preferring to immerse herself in her words, her dog and her time with her uncle. Martin manages to balance both the forces of love and fear in this book, providing hope for children living with parents like this but also not offering a saccharine take on what is happening.
Rose is an amazing character. She talks about having Asperger’s syndrome and OCD. She is the only child in her class with a full-time aide and it is clear from her behaviors in class that she needs help. Yet again Martin balances this. She shows how Rose attempts to reach out to her classmates and then how Rain helps make that possible and how Rose manages to use her own disability as a bridge to help others cope in times of loss. It’s a beautiful and important piece of the story.
A dark book in many ways, this book shines with strong writing, a heroic young female protagonist and always hope. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.