Category: Middle School

Review: A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova

A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova

A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova (InfoSoup)

Dasha is twelve when her mother leaves Moscow to go to school in America. Dasha is left in the care of her grandparents. It is the early 1990s and things are changing in Russia. Dasha though is more interested in her first crush on a boy, her friendships, and her trip to Germany for Christmas. She misses her mother terribly and has to figure out how to have a life without her there. Dasha’s life reaches a crisis when she fails an important test because she is having problems with the boy she likes and her friends. When spring comes, Dasha’s life changes again with her mother returning and deciding to take Dasha back to America with her.

This autobiographical graphic novel is something unique and very special. Tolstikova tells a story that is both universal and also very personal. She speaks of liking boys, struggling with friends who are changing, lives changing due to parents leaving, and the strength of family. She also tells her specific story of living with her grandparents, growing up in Moscow, and the self-imposed pressure of getting into a better school.

The graphic novel is illustrated with outstanding and quirky illustrations that are effortlessly modern. Done in primarily black and white line, subtle colors are also on the pages to lift it from any dreariness. Pages are dynamically different from one to the next both in size of the illustrations to using only words in large fonts when someone is yelling.

Beautiful and haunting, this graphic novel captures a time in the author’s life that is fleeting and special. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown (InfoSoup)

This powerful graphic novel tells the story of Hurricane Katrina from the very beginning as the hurricane forms and grows in power to the slow recovery of New Orleans in the aftermath. As the winds and rains of the storm breach the levees around the city, readers will see the devastation that occurs as 80% of the city floods. The book tells the true story, one where everyday people are heroes, where supplies and help are not sent in a timely way, where presidents make appearances but don’t remedy the problems, and where people looking for help just find more death and despair. It is also the story of selfless people who come in and make a real difference, of rescues and saved lives. It is in short, a true story that unflinchingly tells the story of a storm and a city.

With an enormous list of references and sources at the back of the book, this graphic novel is based entirely on facts and first-person accounts. Brown tells the tale without any need to make it more dramatic, just offering facts about what happened and what went wrong to make it even worse. Brown’s account though is also filled with humanity, offering glimpses of the horrors that people survived, of the losses as they mounted, and of a world turned upside down for people trying to escape the city.

Brown’s art in this graphic novel is done mostly in browns and greens. There are striking pages that stop a reader for awhile, such as the art on pages 30 and 31 which has dead bodies floating past in purple water, even as survivors are being hauled up to a roof. Brown conveys the heat and the desperation of survivors, the desolation of the flooded city, and then the slow rebuilding process.

A riveting and powerful look at one of the worst disasters in American history, this graphic novel is a way to talk with children about Hurricane Katrina. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (InfoSoup)

Suzy knows that things happen for a reason. She loves nature and all of the facts about it and the way that science makes sense. But when her best friend drowns, Suzy just can’t make sense of it. They had fought before Franny left on vacation and now there is no way for Suzy to fix that. Suzy retreats into silence, refusing to speak to her parents or to anyone at school. As Suzy searches for a reason, she discovers that Franny might have been stung by a jellyfish. It is up to Suzy to prove that that is what happened and to let everyone see that there was a cause for Franny’s death. Filled with natural wonder and tangible grief, this book is an elegant and powerful look at how one child copes with loss.

Benjamin writes about nature with such awe, sharing facts about animals as if they were precious jewels. The facts about jellyfish alone are profound and concerning, allowing readers to understand Suzy’s fascination with them. Yet though these facts are in the book, it is Suzy’s inability to cope with reality that shines. Her unwillingness to accept that death can be an accident without any reason at all will speak to all readers.

Suzy is a great character. Filled with a powerful and all-encompassing grief, she becomes silent and yet somehow does not withdraw from life. Instead her silence allows her time to be more creative, more thoughtful about the loss she has experienced even while she is in denial about what has happened. Benjamin also beautifully tackles the grieving process, mingling it with the difficulties of middle school. Filled with flashbacks about the changing friendship of Franny and Suzy, this book addresses the way that even best friends grow apart.

Beautiful and luminous, this book is a powerful look at grief, loss and the way that we process our lives. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

When Joseph joins Jack’s family as a foster child, Jack’s life definitely changes. Joseph is 14 and Jack is 12, both of them end up not going on the school bus the first day that Joseph goes to school, since the bus driver made a comment about Joseph before he even got aboard. So the two boys walk together to school, two miles in the winter weather. As they journey together, they get to know one another better. The dairy farm that Jack’s family owns is also another place where Jack can learn about Joseph. Joseph is immediately accepted by the cows, a good sign in Jack’s opinion. Joseph is desperate to find the daughter he has never met. But it is not simple to do that, even though his life is changing for the better.

Schmidt writes a spare and fierce novel here, one where the biting wind of the winter is tempered only by the warmth of a caring foster family and the love of a dairy cow. The sharpness of the cold is also cleansing, clearing the way for Joseph to tell the truth to Jack and his family. The relationships here are built in a natural and understandable way. It all feels real especially as the story veers into tragedy.

The two main characters are different yet brotherhood grows between the two of them quickly. It happens in leaps and bounds as they both discover that the other will be there for him. Yet that is how brotherhood and friendship works, it is slow until it is fast. This book captures that wonderfully. Jack’s parents are also well rendered, full characters who wrestle with the problems Joseph brings to the family and yet are available and open to see him as he is.

This is a book that speaks to the tragedy of some young people’s lives, the power of love to transform, and the impossible choices that life creates. It is powerful, beautiful and wrenching. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Steve’s new baby brother isn’t healthy, so his parents keep having to meet with doctors and specialists to see if they can help. Steve struggles with worries much of the time and now it is getting worse. He worries about the baby, about his parents, about his little sister, about the odd man who drives the knife sharpening cart, and about the wasps. Steve doesn’t like wasps and when he is stung out in the yard one day, he discovers that he is allergic to them too. So Steve has to carry an Epi-pen to keep safe. As the summer continues, Steve begins to have weird dreams. It seems that the queen of the wasp nest outside under the eaves is communicating with him. And she is steadily explaining something horrible and tantalizing, promising that she can help his little brother by fixing him. But it takes Steve saying “yes” and helping them get the new baby in the house. As the pressure mounts, Steve is told by his doctor that dreams are only in his head and not reality. But what happens when your dreams actually start coming true?

Oppel has written a spectacular horror book, combining a fear of bees and wasps with the myths of changelings. The way that Oppel incorporates the science of reason and has adults dismissing Steve’s dreams and concerns makes for a horror book that uses parents and polite adult sensibility as the way the main character is isolated. This benign busyness of the parents though they care deeply will be something that most modern children will recognize. It’s far more effective than having no parents at all.

The queen wasp in the story is a brilliant villain, attractive and kind. She offers Steve attention when he is getting none, plenty of praise, and the sweetness of power in a situation where he has no control. It is an irresistible mix and a trap that Steve realizes far too late. Readers too will tell themselves that this is all in Steve’s head, just pretend, only a dream. But Oppel does not let that happen, taking it all the way through to its horrific conclusion.

Frightening, magical and impossible to stop reading, this horror novel for older elementary children is one of the best. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Simon & Schuster.

Review: The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall (InfoSoup)

Arthur can’t stand that the junk man is wearing his father’s hat, so he throws a brick at the old man and injures him. Sent to juvenile detention, Arthur has to appear in court where the junk man steps up and offers him a choice. He can either be sentenced to detention or he can do community service working with the junk man. Arthur agrees to work for the man. When he starts, all he gets is a list of items to find in the garbage. Soon Arthur is digging through the garbage himself. At first he does it with no interest at all, not fulfilling the list he has been given at all. Soon though, he is spotting treasures and keeping things like foil from his friend’s lunch. As he works on the items on the list, they grow in significance to him on a personal level and in his life. When he discovers what the man has been using the items for, Arthur is captivated and begins to work alongside him.

Pearsall has created a book that speaks to the power of one person to make a difference in someone’s life. First there is the brick being thrown, then the man saving Arthur from detention and then the story progresses and Arthur matures and he begins to save the man in return. It’s a beautiful cycle, one of caring and concern and humanity. The humility of garbage collecting is also a huge factor in the book, one that works not only to break down barriers but also to lift up the person to a different level along with the items they collect.

Pearsall also uses language impressively. She describes characters clearly and does not pontificate about the lessons to be seen in the book. Instead the story stands on its own merits and the conclusions you draw are your own. It makes it an ideal book to use with a class and will inspire discussions about right and wrong, and responsibility.

A vibrant piece of historical fiction based on a true story, this novel will be welcomed by teachers and youth alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Review: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands (InfoSoup)

Christopher was taken from the orphanage where he grew up to become an apprentice to Master Benedict, an apothecary in 17th century London. Christopher loved working in the workshop and learning about the different capabilities of the various ingredients stored there. He created medicines that helped heal various afflictions, but he also got himself into trouble too. All it took was one homemade cannon, a best friend, and a stuffed bear. But all is not entirely good in Christopher’s world. There is someone murdering apothecaries but torturing them first. Christopher soon finds himself in the middle of the worst possible danger and left with only a trail of cyphers and clues to help him figure out who to trust.

Sands manages to create a rip-roaring adventure story and yet keep it true to a historical mystery set in the 17th century. Readers are immersed in the hierarchies of the apothecary guild, the complex political world, and the desperation of being an orphan and having no place to live in London. There are unlikely heroes, crafty booksellers, kind madmen, and plenty of villains. The book catapults readers into the story, leaving them breathless with the vaudeville humor of the story, gasping as the pace gets even faster, and holding on by their fingernails as the story twists and turns.

Christopher is a great character. He is smart as can be, solving cyphers and puzzles as well as figuring his way out of impossible situations. He is also brave, enduring real danger for the sake of what he believes in and what his master taught him. Add to that a humble nature that makes him a good friend and a tendency to find trouble. Other characters are compelling too, from his best friend who has real depth to his character to the villains who have complicated reasons for what they do. It’s a book that reads as a puzzle that readers must decipher.

It’s a wild delight of a novel that will have young readers captivated thanks to its chemical mix of science and historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Aladdin Books.