Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey
Charlie Porter never expected to have a girlfriend who cared this much for him. Enough to bring him into her home after he had surgery on his Achilles tendon and care for him while he could not walk. But now Clara is starting to ask pointed questions about Charlie’s childhood and his family, questions that Charlie does not want to answer. Clara knows that Charlie was once billed as the world’s youngest author and sold story books about beetles. She also knows that he has nightmares every night that usually involve screaming. She doesn’t know though that Charlie’s dreams are filled with huge black beetles or that the books he sold were not really his own stories. She doesn’t know that his mother abandoned him, that his father forced him to sell books, that his brother hated him then and still does for abandoning him. She knows so little, but can Charlie open up and let her see the truth about him without her leaving him entirely?
Willey paints a tragic and painful look at a young man continuing to wrestle with the demons of his childhood. At 18-years-old, Charlie continues to dream about his past and to live as if it is his future as well. The book shows how difficult dysfunctional and neglectful childhoods can be to escape, even after one has physically left if behind. Willey manages to create a past for Charlie that does not become melodramatic. She makes it painful enough but not too dramatically so.
Charlie is a very interesting protagonist. He is not a hero, because he is too damaged to be called that. He is certainly a survivor, wrestling with things that will not let him go or let him progress. He is frightened, shy, and can’t see a future for himself. He is a tragic figure, one that readers will root for entirely, but also one that drips with anger, shame and sadness. One of the best parts of the novel is the end, which does not end neatly or give a clear path for Charlie. The ending has hope, but continues the complexity of the issues that Charlie faces. Perfectly done.
A brilliant and powerful look at neglect and abuse and the long shadow it casts over a life. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Carolrhoda Books and Netgalley.
Forget Me Not by Nancy Van Laan, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin
This look at the impact of Alzheimer’s is personal and touching. Told in the first person, the book looks at the changes of Julia’s grandmother. Her grandmother used to make favorite foods, have her house just so, and even smelled of cinnamon and lilac when they cuddled. But as time passed, her grandmother started forgetting more and more. She made mistakes and even started to forget who her family members were. A little later and Julia’s grandmother started to forget what they had done together in the past, she wasn’t allowed to drive anymore, and her cooking wasn’t the same. She got worse and worse until she had to be given special care in a home. Julia and her family have to make the best of it, and that means that Julia has to find a way to continue to connect with her grandmother even though she can’t remember her.
Van Laan uses a delicacy of language her to weave her story. Since the entire book is about loss of memory and the loss of a grandparent to Alzheimer’s, this delicacy sets a lovely tone for the book. As the changes start to happen, Van Laan describes them: “But ever so slowly, like a low tide leaving the bay, a change came along.” Filled with constant change, the book captures moments along the way, showing how Julia’s grandmother is worsening but also how they continue to keep her spirit alive and well during the changes.
Graegin’s illustrations show the changes in the grandmother but also maintain a sweetness that never leaves the story. Despite the grandmother’s decline, the light remains bright in the illustrations and the family stays close knit in a visual way.
There are many books about Alzheimer’s available now, but this one takes just the right tone and gives information that young children are looking for. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital galley from Edelweiss and Random House Children’s Books.
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Released August 26, 2014.
The exceptionally talented and incredibly popular Raina Telgemeier returns with a sequel to her beloved Smile. This is the story of Raina and her little sister, Amara. Raina was desperate to have a little sister, but Amara is not working out the way she had pictured. Now Raina is stuck on a road trip with her sister, little brother and her mother. They are all stuck in a van traveling from San Francisco to Colorado for a family reunion. The relationship between the two sisters is tense, not only because they have very different personalities but also because they are both artists. Then you add in the clear issues of Raina’s parents and you have a dynamic view of a family on the brink of big changes. It’s just up to Raina and Amara as to how their relationship with one another will change.
Telgemeier has created another breathtakingly honest graphic novel for elementary and middle grade readers. Through her illustrations and humor, she shows a family at the crux of a moment that could change things forever. The book though focuses on flashbacks showing the family and how relationships have altered. Readers may be so focused on the story of the two sisters that they too will be blindsided along with Raina about the other issues facing their family. It’s a craftily told story, one that surprises and delights.
As always, Telgemeier’s art is fantastic. She has a light touch, one that invites readers into her world and her family and where they long to linger. Her art is always approachable and understandable, more about a vehicle to tell the story than about making an artistic statement on its own. It is warm, friendly and fantastic.
Highly recommended, this book belongs in every library that works with children. A dynamite sequel that lives up to the incredible first book. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan
Josie attends both college and high school, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So she has to be able to speak fluent High School and College. There are people in her life who speak her own language, her best friend Stu, her parents, and her older sister Kate. Josie also has to learn the way to talk to Kate about her dismal new boyfriend who doesn’t seem to be going away as quickly as Josie would like. Even worse, it looks like they might be getting married, but not if Josie can stop it. As Josie starts to date, she learns that there are Boyfriend languages that she has to learn as well. But will anyone bother to learn to speak Josie? And how in the world do you stop a crazy bride-to-be from ruining your life along with her own?
McCahan has written a smart female protagonist who is not afraid of being seen as intelligent and often shows off her knowledge in very humorous ways. It’s great to have a super-smart girl in a book who relishes her own brains and also manages to have close friends. Just as lovely is a book with a teen protagonist who enjoys her parents and gets along with her siblings too, most of the time. Josie is entirely herself with her own sense of identity that often does not match the ones that people want to inflict upon her. And that is celebrated in this wonderfully clever read.
McCahan has a knack for comedic timing and witty comments. She doesn’t take it too far or make Josie too very clever. Instead the humor reads naturally and seems like the sort of things that a smart teen would say. The use of foreign languages to look at how people communicate in different ways is a very clever take on it. As Josie stumbles through relationships on different levels, she is acutely aware of when things go awry but also just as confused about how to fix them.
This is an outstanding novel with an unusual protagonist that will have you laughing along with Josie as she navigates the many languages of her world. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrations by Christian Robinson
Gaston lives with his mother and his three siblings, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La. They are all poodles, but Gaston is something else. He worked hard to be the best poodle puppy he could be, not slobbering, barking correctly and walking gracefully. When the poodle family went to the park, they met a bulldog family there that had its own unusual family member who looked like a poodle. There had clearly been a mix up! So Gaston switches places with Antoinette. Now the families look just the way they should, but neither Antoinette or Gaston seem to feel right in their “correct” families. What is a dog to do?
Right from the first pages, readers will know that there is something unusual about Gaston and how he fits into his family. It all becomes clear once the other dog family appears in the story and readers may think that fixing the mix up is the resolution of the story. Happily, it isn’t and the book becomes more about where you feel you fit in rather than where the world might place you. Gaston is a great mix of energetic bulldog puppy and also a prim poodle attitude. Antoinette is the reverse, a delicate poodle who plays like a bulldog.
Robinson’s illustrations are done in acrylic paint that gives texture to the images. The bold illustrations have bursts of color throughout and are done in a large format that will work well when shared with a group. All of the dogs have charm, though readers will immediate fall for the bright spunk of Gaston in particular.
A book about adoption and families that doesn’t hit too hard with the message of inclusiveness and diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
The four Fletcher boys could not be more different from one another. There is the serious ten-year-old Eli who is starting a private school separate from his brothers for the first time and who just may have made a horrible decision changing schools. There is Sam, aged twelve, who loves sports and is popular at school but who will find himself stretching into new interests this year. There is Jax, also aged ten, who has a huge homework assignment that will have him talking to their new grumpy neighbor for help but only after he calms down from a number of things. Finally, there is Frog who is just starting kindergarten along with his imaginary friend and who may have a new imaginary friend named Ladybug. It all adds up to a wonderful read with lots of humor and one amazing family.
Filled with laughter, an angry neighbor, elaborate Halloween parties, soccer, hockey and plenty of pets, this book is sure to please middle grade readers. Add in the diverse backgrounds of the four boys in the family and their two dads and you have a book that celebrates diversity without taking itself too seriously. It’s the ideal mix of completely readable book with its diversity simply part of the story not the main point.
All of the boys as well as the two fathers are unique individuals with their own personal responses to crises and situations. Each chapter begins with a note from one character to another, usually funny and always showing their personality. Perhaps the best part of the book is that this family dynamic is clearly one of love but also filled with normal chaos and the daily strain of work, school, neighbors and friends. It reads like a modern classic.
I hope we get to read more of their misadventures in future books, because this is one family that I want to see much more of! Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
Emily’s Blue Period by Cathleen Daly, illustrated by Lisa Brown
An intriguing mix of subjects, this picture book combines art with divorce and it works gorgeously. Emily really likes the work of Picasso and the way that he put body parts in odd places in his cubist work. It reflects the way that Emily feels about her own family life, with her father now living in a different home than the rest of them. Emily tries to help her father pick out furniture for his new home, but it’s not easy and her little brother quickly becomes problematic at the store and has to be carried out. Even art becomes less fun for Emily. She feels blue a lot of the time and not like using any other colors. Then her art teacher shows her about collage, and Emily finds a way to express her feelings through her art and depict her family in their own unique style.
Told in short chapters, this picture book is just right for elementary students. The unique combination of subjects works particularly well, each supporting the other and allowing them to be explored in more depth. Daly manages to use art to show the emotions of children experiencing a divorce and the divorce to show the importance of art in expressing yourself when you can’t find the words.
Brown’s art is light-handed and friendly. She captures Picasso’s art with that same light touch and creates Emily’s blue time with plenty of blue but no darkness. The result is a book that is filled with light, despite it’s more somber subjects. It keeps the book from being too serious and allows the emotions to surface nicely.
A striking combination of art and real life, this picture book truly shows the power of art in one’s life. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Not My Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Continue the story of When I Was Eight with this second picture book by the authors. The picture book versions follow two highly acclaimed novels for elementary-aged children that tell the same story at a different level. In this book, Margaret returns home to her native family from the outsiders’ school. Her hair has been cut short, she has trouble speaking the language of her people, and her skills are more suited to school than life in the Arctic. When her mother sees her for the first time, she exclaims “Not my girl!” and rejects her daughter. Slowly, Margaret begins to rebuild her old life and relearn the ways of her family and their traditional life. But it takes time to be accepted by her mother and to find her way around her newly reunited family.
The Fenton family writes all of their books from the heart, clearly creating a case for the damage of the white people and their schools on the lives of Native people and their children. This book serves as the other side of the story from When I Was Eight, demonstrating that even when children were returned to their families it was not easy to integrate once again into that society because of the changes wrought by the schooling system.
Grimard’s illustrations show the Arctic landscape, the way Margaret doesn’t fit in with her clothing or her ways. It also shows the love of her father, his patience and understanding and the slow thaw of her mother and her anger. Grimard captures these emotions with a delicacy and understanding of all of them.
Another impressive entry into the story of Margaret and her childhood, this book should be paired with the first picture book to best understand Margaret’s story. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor
Bettina has been raised in a very strict family. She’s not allowed to do anything other than attend dance classes, which ended when her best friend moved away. Otherwise it is only school and home. So when a very sweet basketball player at school asks her out, she is forced to say no. But he doesn’t accept that and manages to charm Bettina’s family enough that she is allowed to go out with him. At first everything is wonderful and Brady is a perfect boyfriend, who takes things very slow and doesn’t pressure. But as they date more, Brady begins to change. He gets angrier as pressure goes up on the basketball court. Then Bettina meets a man who is everything that Brady isn’t. He doesn’t ask for anything from her, never gets mad, and Bettina finds herself longing to spend more time with him even though her family would never approve. Bettina knows she has to leave Brady before he hurts her more badly, but as she hesitates something happens so that the truth of the two men in her life must be revealed.
Connor captures an abusive relationship with a delicacy that allows the reader to begin to rationalize what happens to Bettina along with her. This is not straight-forward beatings, but rather teasing taken too far, anger expressed in the wrong way, and as Bettina learns to tiptoe around Brady the reader realizes that they too have been drawn into the wrong relationship alongside her. It is powerfully done. When Connor adds the character of Cowboy to the book, it is a surprising choice. His gentleness and quiet in an older man makes for a charismatic character unusual in teen novels. While he is a foil for the young and angry Brady, he is also himself a complicated and intriguing figure.
Connor seems to write only complicated characters, much to her credit. Bettina is a girl who is eager to leave the confines of her upbringing, pushing against her parents’ control. Yet even her parents are completely drawn characters, struggling to do their best for their daughter. The book plays with overprotective parents who don’t manage to protect their daughter from anything in the end. Yet their love is what lingers beyond that.
A powerful read with moments of breathlessness from surprise and shock, this book is not only about an abusive relationship but about true love and hope too. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss and Katherine Tegen Books.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
The author of A Tangle of Knots returns with a brilliant new protagonist in her new novel. Albie doesn’t get good grades, in fact he was asked to leave his private school and is going to be starting public school instead. Albie isn’t the best artist. He isn’t the best at anything at all. Except maybe at eating doughnuts for breakfast. But when he changes schools, things start to change for Albie. It could be the great new babysitter he gets, since his parents are very busy. Calista is an artist and she thinks it’s OK that Albie reads Captain Underpants books even though he’s in 5th grade and that he sometimes needs a break from school. It could be math club, that starts each day with a joke and sneaks math in when Albie isn’t paying attention. It could be a new best friend, Betsy, someone he can talk to and joke with and who doesn’t get mad when Albie gets confused. But things aren’t all great. Albie’s other best friend is appearing on a reality TV show and suddenly Albie gets popular at school, risking his friendship with Betsy. Albie has a lot to figure out before he knows exactly what he’s good at.
Graff’s writing here is stellar. She writes with an ease that makes for a breezy read, yet it deals with deep issues along the way. Thanks to her light touch, the book reads quickly, never bogging down into the issues for too long before lightening again. Still, it is the presence of those deep issues that make this such a compelling read. The fact that the book deals with so much yet never feels overwhelmed by any of them is a wonder and a feat.
Throughout the entire book the real hero is Albie. He is a character that is ordinary, every-day and yet is still a delight to read about. His perspective is down to earth, often confused, and he walks right into every social trap there is. He is a character you simply have to root for, a regular boy who is also a hero. He shows that simply making it through each day being yourself is heroic, and a win. The world is filled with Albies and this book shows why they should be celebrated. He’s a delight.
A book with at least four starred reviews, this is a standout novel this year. Get your hands on it and share it with kids. It’s a unique and surprising read, just like Albie himself. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from library copy.