In 1990s Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, girls were being kidnapped from the streets, so Anamaria’s parents were very careful about where she was in the city and what she was doing. She spends most of her time studying and trying to get top rank in her class at a private middle school, since she plans to be a doctor. Then one day, a limping woman who claims to be Anamaria from the future arrives to change the past. She is by turns frightening, cheesy and just plain strange. The woman also says that she is a poet, not a doctor, something that Anamaria can’t even comprehend. She also insists that Anamaria needs help and needs to change the way she is living and get help.
The wild title and cover lead readers to an exploration of depression and overwork in young people in schools. Written in verse, the book also shows the power of being willing to take a chance and find a way to express yourself in poetry and words. Varela chillingly captures the smallness of Varela’s world, a toxic trudge of schoolwork and messed up friendships and working for her parents. Even as everyone works to protect her from the dangers of the streets, they are unaware that the real danger may be invisible and inside Anamaria herself.
The writing here is marvelous. Varela shows how halting first attempts at poetry grow into true self expression and a way to release internal pressures. Anamaria shows herself to be deep and thoughtful, far more interesting than the girl striving to beat everyone at school. The author uses clever poetic formats to transform larger poems into something altogether different and drawings combined with words to create apologies and new connections.
A deep delve into depression and the power of poetry. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Cinco Puntos Press.
The author of The Story That Cannot Be Told returns with her second book for middle-grade readers. Essie is scared of a lot of things, so many things that she keeps a list of the things that scare her like cats, electric lights, closets, darkness, and doors. Her mother has remarried after the death of Essie’s father and the two move from where they live in poverty in the Bronx to North Brother Island where Essie’s new stepfather runs a hospital for those with incurable contagious diseases. Of course, Essie is also terrified of disease, and is particularly worried when she learns that Typhoid Mary is a resident of the island. Once on the island, Essie starts to see a girl her age and have nightmares about the red door that leads to the attic, which is just like the one that she has seen in her dreams for years. Essie must follow the clues to see if her new stepfather is conducting horrible experiments on his patients and who the girl is, a process that will force Essie to face all of her fears.
This historical novel for middle-grade readers is a fascinating look at contagious diseases in the past. It is given particular weight given the Covid pandemic, adding to the tension and fears of the book. The setting of North Brother Island plays a large part in the story, giving it a gothic loneliness, foreboding mists, and a marvelous creepiness both due to its landscape and to its purpose as a quarantine hospital.
Essie is a character who changes and grows as the book progresses. At first entirely paralyzed by irrational fears, she slowly reveals the grief and reasons behind her frights. Her willingness to face a ghost along the way, plays against her fearfulness and shows exactly who she is without her shame and grief clouding her world. It’s a complex rendering of a character that is immensely satisfying as she untangles the mystery she finds herself in.
A creepy and ghost-filled read that also offers historical context of our current pandemic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Yevgeny only seems to disappoint his parents who are rather desperate for him to find a natural gift that will let him escape Soviet Russia. They already know he’s not much of an athlete, unlike his older brother who is going to be a famous ice skater. When his mother takes him to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance, Yevgeny tries to become a ballet dancer, practicing the movements in their tiny shared apartment. But what he truly loves to do is draw. Since he sleeps under the huge table, he steals his father’s pencil and draws on the bottom of the table where no one can see. Could those small doodles be the talent that his family has been waiting for? And what about the KGB agent who lives down the hall? And what happened to the grandfather whose pictures have been removed from the family album and no one speaks about? There are so many questions to be answered, but Yevgeny must be willing to start insisting on answers.
In this hilarious and touching book for middle grade readers, Yelchin shares a memoir of his own childhood in Russia during the Cold War. Yevgeny is a wonderful naïve protagonist, who doesn’t understand the immense political and social pressures hovering over his family and the entire Russian people. His misunderstandings of this and his growing desire for answers add tension to the story as readers will understand far more than he does.
As Yevgeny covers the bottom of the table with drawings, readers are shown Yelchin’s illustrations of his family and others in his life. They are humorous and filled with a wry charm that shows Yevgeny’s point of view.
Filled with an honesty about life in Cold War Russia, family expectations, and one gifted child. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Joy has had to move with her family from their beloved house into an apartment, since her father lost his job. Other things have changed too, like sharing a room with her little sister and being able to hear her parents argue clearly through the thin walls. Joy also had to give up her piano lessons, since they can’t afford them any more. So her plans to be a composer for movies have been put on hold. She also has to start a new school, but luckily she meets a very friendly new neighbor who goes to her school too. Nora also shares the secret Hideout that all of the kids in the building use to escape their small apartments. It’s top secret and no adults even know the room exists. Joy and Nora also start their own dog walking business for residents of the apartment. But when disaster strikes, Joy may lose it all: the business, the hide out and all of her friends.
The author of From the Desk of Zoe Washington returns with her second book. This novel explores socioeconomic layers from the point of view of a girl caught in the midst of difficult life changes that she has no control over. Written with a deep empathy for young people and the difficulties they face, the book also mixes in humor and a strong sense of larger community that keeps it from being overly dark. The book offers a couple of moments of mystery, where Joy must figure out what happened to one of the dogs and another where she has been exchanging messages with someone who may be in trouble.
Throughout it is clear that even though some things may be outside of Joy’s control, she has agency to make some changes and choices. Joy is a great character, one who could have become sullen and shut down in the face of the situation, but instead makes new friends and finds a way forward. She is a character full of caring for others, always helping out her sister, trying to fix friendships, and in the end solving the mysteries and finding a solution for a hideout that works for the adults too.
Friendship, families and finding your way are central in this middle grade novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.
A master children’s book author takes readers on a journey to medieval times in her new middle-grade novel. Answelica, the goat, has long terrorized the monastery, butting everyone she can and biting them too. So when Brother Edik finds a young girl asleep and feverish next to Answelica, he is alarmed for her safety. As the girl cared for and recovers, the danger mounts. Beatryce doesn’t have any memory of her previous life, but it is clear that she is being sought by the king’s guards for some reason. The monastery sends her away, leaving Brother Edik to return to his solitary work illuminating manuscripts. Beatryce must face the unknown as she journeys disguised as a small monk, her head full of stories. Soon she has others who follow her, including Answelica the evil goat, a boy who longs to be able to read, and a man who had once been king. Perhaps Beatryce is as dangerous as the current king fears after all.
Two-time Newbery Medalist DiCamillo once again provides a unique and compelling book for young readers. Here readers are taken on a medieval journey that doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the time, the bloodthirsty nature of kings, and the way that the lower classes are kept subservient. DiCamillo gives space for her characters, young and old, to make critical decisions and move the story forward. Full of humor to offset the darkness, terrible swords that return old memories, and one ornery goat, this novel is amazing for what it packs into its small number of pages.
The illustrations by Blackall are pay homage to illuminated manuscripts of the time period. With several large format illustrations, Blackall captures the seminal moments of the story. Readers will also appreciate the small illustrations that adorn the pages.
A must-read novel from a master storyteller that can be shared aloud or read curled up with your favorite goat. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Iris loves to pick up the treasures she discovers near the river and under rocks. Usually it’s bent forks and spoons, but Iris sees them as special. After all, there’s not much to do in their tiny town of Bugden and nothing special ever happens there. Then one day, the river dries up, exposing new treasures for Iris and her friend Sam to discover. The two follow the dry river bed and make the discovery of a lifetime. There is an entire town that is usually underwater! Sam is reluctant to explore the forgotten city, but Iris refuses to leave. When Sam get lost on his way back, he is saved by an old man who has ties to the forgotten town. Meanwhile, Iris is making discoveries and meeting an unusual girl who lives in the normally underwater city.
In this graphic novel, Pamment shows the amazing way that hidden cities can be discovered. He shares at the end of the book facts about real underwater towns. In his novel, he shares his excitement and wonder at these lost towns through Iris, a girl who is brave and resourceful, determined to see all of the treasures before her. Sam, on the other hand, is content in their small town, eager to see the new statue in the town square unveiled, and also a true friend to Iris, who often pushes him away. Their friendship is complex and marvelous to see in a graphic novel format.
The art in this graphic novel is full of wonder and connection. When Iris finds a strange object, it is echoed later in the town she discovers. The town is falling apart from being underwater. This is captured in small and big details in the illustrations, that show the beauty of the elements of the town and all that was lost when water covered it over.
Based in real drowned towns, this graphic novel is a treasure worth seeking. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Two people meet and miss one another again and again in these short chapters that move through time. The stories are interconnected and yet also separate images and spaces. They are bound together by the characters themselves and also the themes that cross from one to another. There are butterflies, gardens, and gates among many other images that carry across the entire book. The characters must face their fears, reach across darkness, and grapple with grief and loss. Each chapter is a gem of a story, a short story that threads through to the others in ways that astonish, creating a true kaleidoscope of fractures and wholeness.
Few books are this impossible to summarize. Selznick, who already has written remarkable works, writes a complex book for young readers that is one where themes and metaphors are waiting to be explored. The relationship between the two characters is fascinating, one who is named James and the other who is the narrator, seeking and finding, losing and searching. The emotions in each of the stories change and wrap around one another, creating a pattern of grief, sorrow, love and joy.
It wouldn’t be a book by Selznick without his illustrations. Here he takes an illustration and turns it first into a kaleidoscope image, only revealing the actual image after the page turn. The skill here, done in charcoal gray and white, is dazzling. The images are filled with light, form and are recognizable in the kaleidoscope image. I found myself lingering between the two, flipping back and forth before reading each chapter.
Complex, fractured, and resoundingly gorgeous. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Bad Sister by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrated by Rory Lucey (9781250219060)
Released September 14, 2021.
This graphic novel memoir explores what happens when you are an older sister with far too many creative ideas. Charise and Daniel love spending time together, even though Daniel often gets hurt. Charise has a lot of powers, like the power of the trick where Daniel ended up eating cat food. She used the power of games to get her way a lot, though Daniel could also use them to bother her. There is also the power of lying, when Charise let Daniel take the blame, at least at first. When Daniel ends up breaking his tooth though, Charise decides she has to do better as a big sister. Luckily, she has a younger brother willing to forgive her and let her try to be a good sister. Though that may be more complicated than she realizes.
It is so refreshing to see a complex and layered depiction of being siblings. Here, there is clearly a lot of love between the two siblings. That foundation is what lets them take a lot of risky behaviors together, making their bond even tighter with the secrets they keep from their parents. When Daniel ends up getting bashed, banged, thrown and more, the two continue to spend time together, showing how much they actually enjoy one another. Through her memoir, Charise shows that change is possible, even if it still means that Daniel might still get hurt. It’s her intentions and responses that mature along the way.
Lucey’s illustrations are perfect. They unflinchingly show the build up towards near disasters and true disasters that we will all recognize from our own childhoods whether egged on by a big sister or not. The illustrations also show the huge grins as the siblings plot together about what to attempt next and the changing dynamic between them as Charise learns to be less of a bad sister.
Full of laughter, gasps and accidents, this is a great graphic novel memoir. Appropriate for ages 9-12.