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.
Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen
Gabriel is a 12-year-old who loves riddles, he collects them and loves puzzling over them, just like his father did. But his father has disappeared, leaving Gabriel behind in the care of his loving aunt. Outside the house, Gabriel is unaware of the raven’s nest and the little raven growing up in it. Paladin is a special raven though, one that is destined to have a magical bond with Gabriel, but only if he can survive the attacks upon him. Owls hunt ravens for food, but worse are the valravens, creatures who serve Corax, a half-man, half-raven. As Gabriel learns more about his father and his family’s special relationship with ravens, he is drawn into a quest that will lead him and his friends into the underground world of Aviopolis to confront Corax and save his father.
Inventive and unique, this middle-grade fantasy novel is something special. Gabriel is an interesting protagonist, cautious with the friends he makes and living in a world where magic is suddenly part of his life. He adapts quickly but believably to what is happening and responds with bravery but also curiosity. He and his friends have a variety of skills, and they all nicely come into play during their adventures. There are other characters who may be friends or not, they are written with a wonderful ambiguity that is allowed to be unresolved for a long time, adding richness to the tale.
Hagen has added a lot of depth to her novel with his creation of a raven society where they test one another to see if they are valravens with riddles. Valravens don’t care for humor, so they are easily identified opposed to the merry ravens. Much to my delight, it is revealed later in the book that owls love puns. So the book is filled with wordplay, a grand element of the plot.
A vibrant mix of riddles, adventure and animal tale, this book is definitely one worth discovering. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.
Nest by Esther Ehrlich
11-year-old Chirp has grown up in the 1970s exploring the coasts and woods of Cape Cod and particularly watching the birds and learning all she can about them. Her home life has been stable and warm, but now things are shifting. Her dancer mother is no longer able to dance because of the pain in her leg. She’s also having balance problems. The family tries to continue as normal but when her mother is diagnosed with MS, it throws her mother’s mental state into chaos. Unable to deal with the diagnosis, her mother falls into a deep depression. Through it all, Chirp is slowly making friends with the boy who lives in her neighborhood, someone she had always feared in the past. As their friendship grows, her family falls further and further into distress while Chirp fights to keep her own personal equilibrium. Unable to cope any longer, Chirp and her new friend form a desperate plan.
Ehrlich captures a family both on the brink of crisis and then moving fully into complete dysfunction. Through it all, the characters react as humans rather than stereotypes. Readers will be caught up in the turbulence of these lives, the hope as things seem to improve, and the devastation as they continue to fail. Ehrlich guides the story with a steady hand, allowing the characters to come to life on the page and react as honestly as they can. She also makes sure that this is shown through Chirp’s point of view, something that both protects young readers but also allows the sudden changes to be even more powerful.
Chirp and her humor and unique point of view keep this book from sliding too far into tragedy. She is inventive, creative and has her own passions for birds and nature that crop up throughout the book. Joey, her new friend, has a complicated family life and also a spirit all his own. He is a male character we rarely see in books, a boy who turns away from becoming a bully to become a friend, all on his own without adult intervention. Her family is complexly drawn too, from the older sister who wants to escape to a different family to her father who is desperate to keep his family together and continues to be loving in the most difficult of times.
Written with a strong new voice, this debut novel is filled with rich characters who come together just to survive. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.