Review: The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee (9781452149868)

Released August 28, 2018

After their parents made an Agreement with Death, the Vickery twins had to live with it. It meant that Felix had to serve Death alongside his father, witnessing healing and dying every day. Felix was not allowed to go to school and could not ever see his mother. His father could not see his brother Lee or his mother ever again. Lee in turn lived with his mother on the other side of the house serving Memory. He took bottled memories, labeled them and placed them on shelves. Both brothers had errands in Poplar Wood, Lee to dispense of the memories and Felix to gather herbs. Their life was terrible but steady until Gretchen entered it, determined to figure out how Essie was killed. From a family of Summoners, Gretchen is second born and unable to conduct the Rites. Still, she insists on untangling what is happening in their small town as Death, Memory and Passion let their rivalry get out of hand.

Just writing that summary demonstrates how unique this book is, yet it also plays with existing myths about shades and summoning. The book makes Death, Memory and Passion into figures that are non-human but still have human desires like revenge and dominance. The book is constructed so that the reader learns more about this fictional world alongside the characters. Each brother knows separate elements and Gretchen brings her own understanding of the other part of the relationships with Shades to the book. The organic way that it plays out via the story itself makes it immensely satisfying.

The characters are definitely worth noting as well. Gretchen is the most compelling character. She is wonderfully curious, prickly and determined. There is no way to tell her no that she will accept and her tenacity drives the story forward. The two brothers are unique from one another as well, one who goes to public school and the other who doesn’t. Their lives are as different as can be, each raised by not only one parent but also influenced deeply by the Shade too. These factors play out in their personalities in a way that is subtle but also clear.

A great fantasy Gothic novel with a mystery at its heart. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.

 

Review: Illegal by Eoin Colfer

Illegal by Eoin Colfer

Illegal by Eoin Colfer (9781492662143)

An honest and profound look at the refugee crisis through the eyes of one young boy, this graphic novel is heartbreaking. Ebo has been left alone by his older brother who is following his older sister to Europe. But Ebo refuses to be left behind, managing to get a ride on a bus to a nearby city. There he must find his brother, something he manages to do only by luck. Together, they work hard labor to get enough money to cross the Sahara Desert to Tripoli. The journey is hazardous and many people die. But the most dangerous part of it lies ahead as they board a small boat to cross the sea to Europe, placing their dreams in the hands of men who lie and cheat for profit.

Colfer works with the same team that created the Artemis Fowl graphic novel series, but this time on a much more harrowing story of humanity and resilience. Colfer does not shy away from depicting the hazards and risks of the journey, including deaths along the way. There is an unrelenting pressure throughout the novel to move forward, make enough money to leave, and then do it all again at the next point. It is daunting, frightening and shows the spirit of the people who are willing to risk their lives for freedom.

This graphic novel puts a face on the refugee crisis. Ebo is a young boy with a singing voice that can soothe babies and make money. His face is that of an angel as well, his eyes shining bright with hope and at times dimmed with illness or grief. Throughout the story, characters come and go as they enter Ebo’s journey along with him. Readers will hope for Ebo to survive but can only watch helplessly.

Smartly written, deftly drawn and plotted to perfection, this graphic novel is a powerhouse. Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Sourcebooks.

Review: All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson (9780374304850)

Bina’s summer has just started, but it’s already going wrong. Her best friend, Austin, is heading to a month-long soccer camp. He’s also acting strangely and has decided that they are too old for some of their regular summer activities. Once he’s left for camp, Bina finds herself watching too much TV and just hanging out alone. Then she bumps into Austin’s older sister who turns out to be into music just like Bina is. The two of them start hanging out but when Austin returns things stay just as strange. Bina has to navigate her way through new friendships and old ones as she also grapples with her love of music and what that means for her friendships too.

Larson is the author of several graphic novels for children and teens. Here she tackles middle-school summers with a focus on music and individuality. Bina’s summer will feel familiar to readers, a stretch of time that is meant to be the best but ends up being time that needs filling with more than binge-watching TV. The incorporation of a friendship between a boy and a girl that does not involve romance or attraction is great to see. Readers will fret that Austin’s strange attitude means he “likes” Bita, but the truth makes sense and fits the story well.

The art is friendly and approachable. Done in a limited orange and black palette, it speaks of summer heat and sun. Bita herself is lanky and tall, her angles oozing with middle-school gawkiness in an appealing way. Her parents are just involved enough but also absent in a way that shows trust too.

A graphic novel perfect for summer reading.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Review: Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin (9780062665867)

Della knows what it looks like when her mother gets worse, like when she had to be hospitalized four years ago and Della didn’t see her for months. So when she finds her mother digging every seed out of a watermelon to keep Della and her baby sister safe, Della knows that it’s up to her to help. She tries getting some healing honey from the magical Bee Lady, but the Bee Lady tells her that the fix may be more about Della than her mother’s brain. So Della decides to become the model daughter to give her mother’s brain a rest. That’s hard on their working produce farm where a drought is damaging the crops. Soon Della is struggling with the oppressive heat of the summer, trying to keep her baby sister under control, harvesting produce, manning the farm stall, and helping her mother too. When it all becomes too much, Della decides she has to leave to help her mother, which puts her on the path to realizing that she has to accept her mother and empathize before she can help at all.

This is Baldwin’s debut novel and it’s a great summer read. She has created quite a pressure cooker of a summer for Della where everything seems to be in crisis or falling apart and everything is entirely out of Della’s control. The high heat adds steam, the troublesome but lovable little sister adds humor but problems, and the drought adds financial pressures for the whole family to muddle through. Della throughout is clearly a child who takes responsibility for things, worries a lot and is trying to learn. She is entirely human, making mistakes along the way.

The focus of the book is on Della’s mother and her struggles with schizophrenia. Her refusal to take her medication any longer precipitates her more symptoms worsening. As her father tries to convince her mother to make different choices, Della gets angry with her father for his unwillingness to force her mother to do something. Her father demonstrates exactly what Della needs to learn, empathy and compassion for her mother and allowing her the space to make her own decisions about her life. This perspective is often lost in novels for young people about mental illness and it’s a pleasure to see it so clearly shown here.

A great book about mental health in families, this is a great pick for summer reading. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

(Reviewed from copy provided by HarperCollins.)

Review: The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie (9781534414464)

When Gwyn and her family move in with her Nana in rural Iowa, it’s a big change from living in New York City. It’s all to help her mother, Vienna, develop new memories. Vienna remembers nothing since she was thirteen, including Gwyn and her little sister Bitty. Gwyn and Bitty quickly befriend two boys from the neighborhood, Micah and Jimmy. They live with Micah’s mother, Gaysie Cutter, a woman who tries to bury Gwyn alive the first time they meet. So when a man goes missing, Gwyn knows that Gaysie had to have something to do with it. Now she just has to prove it and not damage her friendship with Jimmy and Micah along the way. But there are many secrets in their small town, ones that threaten to topple Gwyn’s theory of Gaysie’s guilt.

This is Makechnie’s first novel, and it is very impressive. Gwyn is a stellar character, who doesn’t shy away from being entirely herself and different from everyone else. She is a girl who will learn how to lift fingerprints, share her theories directly with the police, stand up to a group of bullies, and dare to speak up around Gaysie Cutter. All of the characters are well drawn and interesting, including Gwyn’s mother who is struggling with the limits of her memory, her father who could be a suspect too, and the two boys who are as different as possible but also brothers through and through.

This story has many layers, making it a very rich read for middle graders. One piece that really works well is the layering of the previous generation growing up in the same small Iowa town. As Gwyn learns of the connection between her mother, father and Gaysie during their childhood, she also finds out about a terrible accident that changed them all forever. That element is then echoed through to the present day with the new generation of children getting into trouble themselves.

A great read, a grand mystery, and a strong protagonist. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.)

Review: Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (9780062652911)

Robinson tries to behave in school so that her grandfather doesn’t have to leave his work at the garage and come to the office. She worries that the principal and teachers will notice that his memory is not that good anymore, particularly in the afternoon. But when the class bully won’t leave her alone, Robinson speaks with her fists and lands in trouble. Assigned to a special group that meets in the school counselor’s room, Robbie has to figure out whether she can trust the others. To make it harder, one of them is the bully whose been tormenting her. As Robbie’s grandfather’s memory gets worse, Robbie knows that she has to keep her secrets from everyone, until that becomes impossible.

In this debut book by Stoddard, she writes with a great confidence, allowing Robbie and her unique family to reveal themselves to the reader. The writing is strong, showing complicated relationships, a loving family and a school that steps up to help children in need. Stoddard deftly shows how assignments like a family tree can be daunting to a number of children whether they are dealing with a dying parent, an impossible older sister, divorce or a lack of knowledge.

Robbie is an important protagonist. It is great to see a young female character having to deal with anger issues that she resolves at first by hitting others. The solution to her anger and fear is slow and steady, with set backs along the way, making it a very organic and honest depiction. Robbie also doesn’t look like her grandfather, since she doesn’t appear to be African American, another aspect of the book that is handled with sensitivity.

A brilliant debut novel with changing families, lots of maple syrup but one that isn’t too sweet either. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by HarperCollins.)

Review: A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)

Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.

Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.

This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.

A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.

Review: Jabberwalking by Juan Felipe Herrera

Jabberwalking by Juan Felipe Herrera

Jabberwalking by Juan Felipe Herrera (9781536201406)

From the first Mexican-American Poet Laureate of the United States comes this call to become a person who can write and walk at the same time. It’s a book that demands that you record your thoughts, messy and wild and raw. That you use documents to find words, that you draw ideas while on airplanes, that you walk a lot, think a lot, write a lot. That you embrace the voice that is inside you and create. Whatever that creation looks like in all of its “fuzzy, puffy, blue-cheesy, incandescent, brave Jabber!”

Looking for a straight-forward and rule based book on being a writer or creative person? This is not the book you are looking for! Instead this is a book that shows raw creativity, using inspiration from Lewis Carroll and the Jabberwocky, this is a book filled with emotion, encouragement, and acceptance about the way that our human brains work best when creating. It invites readers into a playful world where words are toys, content is loose, and ideas flow freely.

The writing here could initially be seen as too loose and raw. But as you read more and more of the book there is a gorgeous continuum of content throughout the chapters. Soon blue-cheesy starts to make sense and jabberwalking is all you want to do for awhile to see what comes out of your brain too.

Inspiring and incredibly joyous, this book about writing is entirely unexpected. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk by Kelly Yang (9781338157802)

When Mia and her family first moved to the United States from China, she expected to live in a big house with a car and have plenty of money. But her parents have struggled from the beginning to find jobs. When they become caretakers of a motel, the job gives them free rent, but requires one of them to be on duty at all times and Mia’s parents to spend all of their time doing laundry and cleaning the rooms. Mia steps up to help by manning the front desk. She gets to know the “weeklies” who are the people who stay at the motel long term. Her family quickly realizes that the man who owns the motel is dishonest but Mia has a plan to help her parents get off of the roller coaster of poverty. All she needs is to write a perfect letter in English and somehow find $300.

Based on her own childhood growing up as a family managing motels, Yang tells a vibrant story of hope in the face of crushing poverty. It is a book that shows how communities develop, how one girl can make a big difference in everyone’s life and how dreams happen, just not in the way you plan. Yang’s writing is fresh, telling the tale of Chinese immigrants looking for the American dream and not finding it easily due to prejudice. She valiantly takes on serious issues of racism and poverty in this book.

Mia is a great protagonist. She never gives up, always optimistic and looking for a new way to problem solve. Her own desire to be a writer plays out organically in the novel, showing how someone learning a new language can master it. The examples of her editing and correcting her own writing are cleverly done, showing the troubles with American expressions and verb tenses.

A great read that embraces diversity and gives voice to immigrant children. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.