Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly
Apple just doesn’t fit in. Her Filipino mother cooks food that no American kids eat. Plus she is so strict that Apple isn’t allowed to take any music classes at school because it might impact her other more important grades. Apple though desperately wants to learn to play the guitar. When they left the Philippines, she took just one picture and a tape of the Beatles that had belonged to her dead father. Apples does have friends, but once they discover that she is on the Dog Log, a list of the ugliest girls at school, they stop hanging around with her. Apple decides to start saving up for a guitar and as she does that she starts to make new friends, other kids that have been singled out as odd or different. But one misstep with a teacher’s wallet marks Apple as a thief and that is all it takes for her former friends to really turn against her. Apple has to figure out how being different can actually be a very good thing.
This tween novel has a strong mix of a multicultural main character combined with middle school popularity and racism. Kelly does not flinch away from the blatant racism that teenagers can engage in as well as the casual hate that they throw at each other, particularly kids who are different from them. Kelly’s writing has a friendly, straight-forward tone even as she deals with the drama of both middle school and a parent who is over protective. Using music as a language that bridges new friendships and new understandings works particularly well and serves as a backbone for the entire novel.
Apple is a character with lots going on in her life. She faces racism on a daily basis at school and in turn takes it out on her mother, turning her back on much of their Filipino culture. She is embarrassed by her mother and angry at her lack of support for Apple’s musical dreams. As Apple puts together a misguided plan to run away, readers will hope that she finds a way to live in the life that she already has, particularly because they will see how special she is long before Apple can realize it herself.
A great tween read, this book offer complexity and diversity in a story about individuality and friendship. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Greenwillow Books.
Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Mim now lives in Mississippi with her father and his new wife. Her mother has been left behind in Ohio. When Mim finds out that her mother is sick and perhaps dying, she sets off to find her. Mim steals cash from her father and stepmother and buys herself a Greyhound bus ticket to Cleveland. She heads north, determined to reconnect with her real home and her real mother, remembering the days they spent together filled with energy and love. But things happen along the way that keep on slowing Mim’s epic trip down. There is a perverted man on the bus, a kind older woman who smells of cookies and has a mysterious box, and a boy with green eyes and plenty of sarcasm. There is also a bus crash, moments of heroism, another boy who melts Mim’s heart in a different way, and the discovery of a new kind of family and a new kind of home. This bus ride turns out to be completely and wonderfully epic, but for very different reasons indeed.
Arnold dances down the dotted yellow line of humor and tragedy with grace. He melds the immensely sad and harrowing together with the hilarious and strange into a mix that is beautiful and real. He bravely mocks the sort of romance story that this could have been, allowing Mim herself to see the movie that she could have been starring in, before reality comes back and takes over again. Yet along the way, Arnold is also creating a movie and a book that are so much more romantic and beautiful than those false films of the mind.
Mim is a magnificent protagonist. Struggling with mental illness, Mim starts out obediently taking her medication but discovers along the way that her demons may not be the ones she was diagnosed with thanks to her father’s interference. Mim finds her own way to sanity in her journey, connecting with people who speak to her deeply, allowing herself to feel deeply, and rejecting ways that seem false to her. This is a teen who is strong, passionate about life, and luminous on the page. Her voice is her own, a glorious mix of sarcasm, well-read references and humor.
A road trip across the United States that is wildly funny, deeply introspective and completely extraordinary. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Viking.
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
Released March 24, 2015.
This fourth book in the fabulous Penderwicks series is sure to please longtime fans and inspire new ones. While the Penderwick family is still the center of the story, the focus this time has moved to Batty and Ben rather than the older Penderwick girls. Batty continues to play the piano, loving music passionately. She has also just discovered that she has a noteworthy singing voice thanks to a new music teacher at school. So she has to find a way to make money for singing lessons, since the family needs a new car and to put the Rosalind, Jane and Skye through college. Batty starts a neighborhood business that offers services like dusting and digging up rocks, specifically a Ben job. But the only jobs she gets offered are to dog walk, something that she really doesn’t want to do because it seems very disloyal to Hound, who died recently. Batty has big plans to unveil her singing to her family, but her planning goes seriously awry as Skye starts to push Jeffrey away from both herself and the Penderwick family.
Returning to the Penderwicks is such a treat. The new focus on the younger members of the family makes me hope that there will be more such treats to come too. Birdsall writes with a such a feel for characters. They all shine through, each unique and distinct from one another. Batty is the same person as that small child that we all fell for in the first novel and so are all of the family members. Adding a new family member in little Lydia is also a treat and she is just as special and wonderful as the others.
Birdsall’s writing pays homage to so many great writers, feeling both modern and vintage at the same time. Her writing is funny, wry and immensely comfortable. It’s a joyous mix of stories, chaos and noise. It is the pleasure of old friends and new adventures that you get to share. The springtime setting is beautifully conveyed and suits the story perfectly as Batty starts to unfold herself into something new along with the trees and flowers.
If you have read the previous books, this one is another delight. If not, what are you waiting for? Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf.
Jessica’s Box by Peter Carnavas
Released March 1, 2015
Jessica can’t sleep, it’s the day before her first day of school. The next day her parents assure her that she will make lots of friends, and Jessica had a plan to make sure that happened. In a box on her lap, she carried her teddy bear to school, but when she revealed it later in the day, kids laughed at her or just walked away. The next day, Jessica put something else in her box and headed to school. But the cupcakes in the box disappeared quickly without so much as a thank you from the kids. The third day of school, Jessica snuck her dog into class. Doris was very popular, but dogs weren’t allowed at school. By the fourth day, Jessica was dejected. She dragged her box to school empty and then put it over her head. And that’s when Jessica figured out exactly what she should have had in her box all along, something very special indeed.
Carnavas tells a very successful story here. I love that the main character is in a wheelchair and yet the story is not about her disability. It’s a first-day-of-school story and a making-friends story instead. Also throughout the book she is shown as entirely capable and not needing help, except for a little encouragement of different sorts from her family members that any child would want and need. The use of the box is smartly done, using it both as a metaphor and also as a way to build suspense for the reader about what is being taken to school that day.
The art is friendly and colorful, also helping build suspense with page turns that lead into the reveal of what’s in the box. Carnavas shows loneliness very nicely on the page, isolating Jessica clearly on the white background. He also shows connections in a gentle way, displaying a subtlety that is particularly nice on the page with Jessica and her father being quiet together.
A very inclusive book about school jitters and making friends, this will be a nice read aloud to share with kids about to enter school. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Kane Miller.
A Tale of Two Beasts by Fiona Roberton
Released March 1, 2015
First we hear the story from one point of view, then the other. A little girl tells of walking in the woods and seeing a little beast in the forest. He was stuck in the tree and very sad, so she rescued him and took him home with her. There she bathed him, dressed him in a hat and sweater, gave him nuts to eat and built him a house out of a cardboard box. She even walked him in a leash to give him exercise. But in the end, he escaped out of the window. Alone in her bed, she couldn’t sleep and then the beast returned to get his hat so they headed off into the woods together. But she couldn’t stop wondering about why he came back. The second half of the book is told from the little animal’s point of view and it’s a very different perspective. But in the end, the two of them found a connection despite their different ways of seeing what happened.
Roberton could have kept this book solely about perspectives and had it be full-on humor, but instead she manages to imbue the book with a real heart. The connection between the two “beasts” is slow to come, with the final moment of real understanding being so freeing for both of them as they in turn realize that the other one is not quite as bad as they had thought. Using similar language for both stories in that moment really shows their connection, particularly because otherwise their perspectives had been so very different.
Roberton uses her art to frame the story, showing the same exact story not only verbally from different perspectives but also vividly in the images as different from one another. One moment that stands out is the cardboard box home that she builds the creature, which he detests. The illustrations show her pleasure at it and then in turn his trapped feeling of being in the box with nothing to do. And don’t miss their final dash together into the woods and then their clothing hanging on tree branches side-by-side. Freedom!
Cleverly crafted and told, this picture book explores points of view and how connections are possible even with different beasts. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from online copy from Kane Miller.
Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb
The author of What Happened on Fox Street returns with a beautiful story set on a little island in a large lake. Flor loves her island home, loves being able to ride her bicycle everywhere, loves that her best friend is the only other person in her grade at school, and loves that she knows all of the people who live there year round. But things start to change that Flor has no way to control. Her best friend is sent off the island to attend a different school, leaving Flor the only person in sixth grade. Flor’s mother leaves to take care of her sick grandmother, and with her parents always fighting, maybe she won’t be back. Even her very responsible older sister is hiding something from Flor. Flor has to figure out how to live in this new island landscape where everything is changing around her. But in change there is also opportunity, perhaps a new friend (or two) and also seeing things for what they actually are.
Springstubb writes a love letter to her island setting. She imbues each bike ride of Flor’s with a beauty and a celebration of this small island and its nature. Her writing sparkles like sun on the water as she picks unique metaphors to show both her characters emotions and the setting. Here is one of my favorite examples: “Her heart’s a circus, with trapezes and tightropes and people shooting out of cannons but no nets – someone forgot the nets.” Springstubb also shows emotions rather than telling about them. Flor’s emotions come out in the way she digs her toes in sand, how she pedals her bicycle and through what she notices in the island itself.
Flor is a great young protagonist. She reads like an eleven year old, desperate to hold her family and friends together. She has a youthful and frenzied love of her island, something that readers can see may change in the future but it is her connection to this place that makes this book work so beautifully. She is fiercely protective of her siblings, throwing herself in to defend and protect them even as she proves that she has no understanding of teen love, something refreshing in a young protagonist.
Strong written, this book is beautiful, deep and rich just like its island setting. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.
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.
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.
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Barnett and Klassen are an amazing picture book duo who have created with this book an instant classic. Sam and Dave are two friends who set out to dig a hole on Monday. They decide that they won’t stop digging until they find “something spectacular.” They keep digging, deeper and deeper, missing jewels by just a few inches. They stop and have chocolate milk and animal cookies and then continue to dig. Maybe another direction will help them find treasure? But readers will see as they take the turn that they miss the biggest gem yet. The dog that is along with them though seems to realize that there are things right under the surface, but Sam and Dave don’t pay any attention to him. They dig and dig, missing everything along the way until they are right above a dog bone. The two boys take a nap and their dog continues to dig down until suddenly they are falling down from the hole into a world very like their own. Readers who are paying close attention though will realize that it is a subtly different place.
Children love to dig in the dirt and I think every child has dreamed of digging a truly great hole and finding something amazing. Barnett keeps his text very straight-forward and simple, allowing the humor to be in the near misses of the illustrations and the perceptiveness of the little dog. It is this frank delivery that makes the humor of the illustrations really work, giving them a platform to build off of. The ending is wonderfully open-ended, and some readers will miss the subtle differences and assume they are back home again. Others though will see the changes and realize that no matter what Sam and Dave have discovered their “spectacular” something.
Klassen’s illustrations are wonderful. I adore the way that he lets his characters look out from the page to the reader. He did the same thing in both of his great “Hat” picture books and there is a strong connection from the page to the people enjoying the book. His illustrations have a textured feel to them, an organic nature that reads particularly well in this dirt-filled world.
An instant classic and one that will get readers talking about the open ending. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.