Free Lunch by Rex Ogle (9781324003601)
Rex is starting sixth grade hungry and with a black eye. At school, he has an English teacher who dislikes him on sight. He isn’t in any classes with his best friends either, since he is in high level ones that they make fun of. He also is on free lunch, which he has to announce to a school worker every day. His home life though is even worse. Living with almost no furniture, no bed, and with a mother who is verbally and physically abusive, Rex struggles to find any moments of safety. His mother’s boyfriend beats her up regularly, something that Rex feels responsible for as well as helpless to stop. Still, this book does have hope that things can improve and change, but there is no magic bullet out of poverty and abuse.
Ogle writes of his own childhood in this very personal book. He doesn’t shrink away from any of the tough subjects, showing the layers of anger and abuse that a family can have, the variety of triggers and the inability to make it stop. He writes of a grandmother who served as a place of hope and refuge, but also was a person who angered his mother. Ogle tells of hunger in a way that only someone who has experienced it can speak of it, hunger for food but also hunger for love and understanding in his family.
There is a rawness to Ogle’s writing, an honesty that shines on the page. His weaving in of hope makes reading this book possible, not leaving the reader to languish in the haunting and horrible world he writes of. That hope is vital for the character of Rex too, it keeps him making new friends, finding a way forward, and being willing to change himself to make his family better.
Profoundly honest and full of heart, this book is one that all teachers and librarians need to read to understand the children they serve. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Norton Young Readers.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (9780525647072)
Jam lives in Lucille, a place cleansed of monsters by the angels who still live among them. There are no monsters in Lucille any more. But just as Jam is learning about the original angels, who looked more like monsters than humans, she accidentally releases a creature from her mother’s painting. The creature is Pet, who has crossed dimensions to hunt a monster. Pet reveals that the monster is living in Jam’s best friend, Redemption’s house. Now Jam must figure out how to enlist Redemption’s help without accusing his family of doing something terrible and harboring a monster. Or perhaps Pet is the real monster as he hunts without remorse? Jam must learn the truth and then get others to believe her.
Wow. What a book! The voice here is what hits you first, unique and strong, it speaks in a Nigerian-laced rhythm that creates its own magic immediately. Add in the power of Jam herself, a black, trans girl who often chooses not to speak aloud but with sign language. Then you have the amazement of Pet, the nightmare creature who hunts for monsters but also explains the importance of not hiding from the truth. Surround it all with families who love and care and are wonderfully different from one another.
Emezi leads readers through this wonder of a book, filled with LGBTQIA+ moments that are so normal they become something very special. They insist that you understand what is meant by a monster and by an angel, that one can be disguised as another, that monsters are normal people, but must not be tolerated. It’s a book about abuse, about standing up, about angels and demons, and about humans.
An incredible middle-grade fantasy full of power, monsters and beauty. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Make Me a World.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier (9780545852517)
This is the third book in Telgemeier’s autobiographical series that started with Smile and Sisters. Raina has an upset stomach one night and throws up, but her mother has the same problem, so it’s most likely a stomach bug. But with Raina, the stomach ache doesn’t go away. She is a quiet, self-conscious and shy girl dealing with the ins and outs of school and friendships. As Raina starts to grow anxious about vomiting, eating the wrong foods, and general things in life, her stomach gets worse. Once she starts seeing a therapist, she learns techniques to help her cope with her panic and help her face her fears.
It’s great to see Telgemeier return to stories of her own life. Her storytelling is strong and vivid with a story arc that reveals the impact of anxiety on a child’s life but also offers an empowering view of how to move forward and regain control. Her sense of humor is also on display here even about her own anxieties. As always, her art is approachable and inviting.
Expect even more Raina fans after this third book in the series! Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Perez (9780425290439)
The author of the award-winning The First Rule of Punk returns with another book about girls expressing themselves and making themselves heard. Four girls are all living their separate lives in a small Florida town. Lane, whose family is facing a divorce, has been sent to live with her very wealthy grandmother at her estate. Lane decides to create her own club, creating invitations that three girls discover. There is Ofelia who longs to be a journalist when she grows up and wants to enter an essay contest to win a trip to New York, but first she has to find her story. There is Aster, who lives with her grandfather and loves to cook. Cat is the third, a girl who loves birds and whose cause against a hat full of bird feathers leads all of the newly found friends to become activists.
Perez’s writing is just as marvelous as in her first book. There is a freshness about it, one that allows readers to quickly enter the world that Perez has created for them. The lightness of the writing belies the depths of the subjects. Perez explores privilege in this book with its cast of girls from different races and backgrounds. She does so explicitly, having the characters speak to one another about it in a natural but also vital way.
The theme of becoming an activist and taking real action to find justice is also beautifully shown in the story. From a grandfather who explains his own activism throughout his life to a woman who serves as a worthy villain in the tale, the actions the girls take are thoughtfully presented and full of good trouble.
Another winner of a read from a great author. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Kokila.
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis (9781536204988)
Based loosely on the story of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary, this graphic novel is remarkable. Margaret has been on the island since she was a baby, cared for by the nuns that live there, not knowing who her parents are. The island has only a few residents, including goats and chickens. The nuns help those whose ships sink or crash making their way around the island, and they take in political prisoners as well. In fact, when Margaret is old enough to be curious, she discovers that the nuns are all political prisoners on the island who became nuns after being sent there. Things change when William arrives, the first person Margaret has ever known who is about her own age. But their friendship is short lived and he is taken back to Albion. The next person to arrive is Eleanor, the deposed Queen of Albion, sent to the island by her sister who is now queen. Margaret struggles to connect with the aloof Eleanor, even after her own origins are revealed as being entwined with Eleanor’s. As Margaret learns more about politics and royalty, she is caught up in a web of power that she has to find her way through or lose everything she holds dear.
This is not a slim graphic novel, but more of a tome. Meconis tells a sturdy tale, a graphic novel that reads fully as a novel with well-developed characters whose motivations are cleverly concealed but are always understandable when all is revealed. Margaret has a bucolic upbringing on the island, filled with the care of the nuns, their strict rules, and helping with the animals. As she learns the truth, the book changes around the reader, the beauty of the island becoming more like the prison it is.
The pairing of an imaginative world with roots in real history makes for an incredible read. Those who know the English history will love the parallels between the stories, glimpsing that history often enough to keep it well-rooted. Margaret is a great lens to view the history through, providing context to the world around her as she learns things alongside the reader.
A stellar graphic novel for middle grades. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington (9780374308049)
Keda sometimes feels like an outsider in her own family. She is adopted and the only member of her family who is African American. Moving to a new city across the country and to a new school, Keda has to leave behind her best friend who completely understands her. Keda’s parents are both classical musicians, though her mother hasn’t been even practicing her violin lately. She tends to have spells where she can’t get out of bed mixed with other times filled with lots of energy and projects. Keda feels a lot of pressure to take care of her mother, often not sharing the microaggressions she suffers at school or the racist names that others are calling her. When Keda’s mother finds out about the name calling, she pulls Keda and her older sister out of school entirely to be homeschooled. But her mother doesn’t consistently teach them, placing Keda into a girl scout troop for the summer where more racial incidents happen. As her mother’s condition worsens, Keda finds herself often alone with her mother at home trying to figure out how to help and not make things worse.
Lockington vividly tells the story of a tween who struggles to make her personal needs known to a family who doesn’t experience the world in the same way due primarily to race. The book is told from Keda’s perspective which gives it a strong voice and makes the aggression she receives feel very personal to the reader. Just telling the story of an adoptive child who is pre-teen, African-American, and in a loving but struggling home is important. The subjects of microaggressions and racism are told in a straight-forward and unflinching way that will allow readers of all races to understand the impact and pain they cause.
Keda’s character is resilient and smart. She is often struggling with huge issues from racism to mental illness. Yet she doesn’t ever give up. She stands up to bullies and racists, tries to protect her fragile mother from knowing about the hardships happening to her, and then works to care for her mother and protect her father. She is immensely alone in the book and yet always looking for a way forward.
An important and very personal story of adoption, race and strength. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo (9781481446648)
Award-winning author Kadohata tells the story of a Japanese-American family forced to return to Japan after World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. After spending years in an internment camp in the United States, twelve-year-old Hanako and her family move to Japan to live with her paternal grandparents. They travel by ship first and then train until they reach the decimated city of Hiroshima, where her grandparents’ farm lies outside. All of Japan is poor and hungry, with black markets and children begging on the streets. Hanako meets her grandparents for the first time, discovering that her grandfather is very like her little brother who is five years old. Her grandmother is stooped over from the hard work in the fields. Hanako must face learning a new language, attending a new school in a different country, and trying to find a way forward for her entire family. It’s a lot of pressure, but Hanako learns steadily to adjust and change.
Kadohata’s novel for children tells the untold story of Japanese Americans forced to repatriate to their country of origin and renounce their American citizenship. It also gives an unflinching look at the aftermath of World War II in Japan, particularly with its setting near Hiroshima. That dark setting is juxtaposed against the warmth and beauty of discovering loving grandparents and building a new relationship. Yet there is a constant sense of loss in the book and a teetering feeling that things may suddenly change at any moment.
As always, Kadohata’s prose is beautiful. She vividly depicts Japanese life during the 1940’s and the unending work of being a tenant farmer. In the midst of all of the sorrow, loss and confusion, she places a loving family who are willing to sacrifice for one another and for brighter futures for the next generation. Through this family, there is intense hope broadcast on the page.
An important and vital book about the horrors of war and its aftermath on individual families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews (9781626720534)
At the Autumn Equinox Festival, the town sends paper lanterns down the river. Legend says that the lanterns will drift away and end up floating into the sky and become stars. Ben and his group of friends have a pact to follow the river and see if the legend is actually true. But as their bike ride in the darkness gets longer, the kids start to head back home one-by-one. Finally, it is just Ben and Nathaniel, a boy who has been hanging at the back because he doesn’t fit in. Little do both of them know that this is just the beginning of a huge adventure. It’s an adventure that will take them to meet a fisherman bear who is also following the glowing lanterns, to a potion maker who is having a very busy night, and into a cave that happens to be filled with starlight.
This graphic novel is amazing. It has a sense of wonder throughout from the very moment the lanterns are set afloat to the final pages of the book. One never quite knows what is going to happen next, which makes for an enticing read. The world building is well done, the different pieces of the story seeming to not fit until they click neatly into place. The characters are well developed and consistent throughout the book, their decisions making sense as the story progresses. The art is luminous and modern, inviting readers into a marvelous world.
A great graphic novel for elementary and middle grades, it is magical. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.
Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler (9781554989720)
A middle grade graphic novel that focuses on the power of music and opera? Yes please! This innovative graphic novel tells the story of Charlie, who has an assignment to find her own personal perfect song. Her music class listens to all sorts of musical genres but the one that resonates with Charlie (and no one else in her class) is the music of opera singer Maria Callas. As Charlie searches for her song, she is thinking of two classmates. There is Emile, who is quiet and intriguing. Then there is the empty desk left by Luka, who was targeted and bullied for his gender nonconformity. As Charlie finds her song, she also discovers her inner diva and the ability to empower those around her.
Maclear’s story is all about the impact that music, specifically the right music at the right time, can have on one’s life. She writes with a deep empathy for young people finding their own way through middle school, focusing on the importance of friends but also on reaching out to others and helping them too. The book is filled with emotion and connection that exemplifies youth and hope.
Eggenschwiler’s art is exceptional. He creates images that perfectly capture the emotions of have a crush on someone, or feeling certain ways in your group of friends. The illustrations move through various single-colors as their main palette from yellows to blues to reds and back. Filled with individuality and creativity, the illustrations are interesting and unique.
A great graphic novel for middle grades, this one speaks to each person being both an individual and a member of the community. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.