Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Oberg, illustrated by Kristin Lidstrom, translated by Eva Apelqvist (9781773061498)
Adrian doesn’t fit in at school. Bullied by some of the kids in the schoolyard, he spends his time in class hoping not to be called on. When he is, his heart pounds and his mind goes blank. He can’t answer even the easiest of questions out loud. He spends lunch alone and his recess dangling from tree branches. On his way home, he does head stands and walks on his hands. At home, his father works early and his mother works late, Then Adrian meets Heidi, a large wolfhound, who bonds with him immediately. The two of them spend all of their time together, she even goes with him to school. With Heidi at his side, Adrian doesn’t need to worry about bullies and he can focus in class and answer questions. But Heidi was someone else’s dog, and eventually Heidi found her owner again. Adrian was left alone again, missing Heidi dreadfully. Until Heidi found him again too. Adrian got to meet Heidi’s owner, and discovered a world of tightropes and performances.
This unique and fascinating book explores the life of a lonely boy who is different than the other children. He is quiet, unpopular and prone to anxiety, and yet he is also brave as he swings from tree branches and does hand stands on ledges. The text in the book is minimal with many of the pages showing only the illustrations and not having any words on them. The words often downplay the emotions that Adrian is feeling, though after he loses Heidi, his grief is palpable in both words and illustrations.
The illustrations are truly the heart of the book. They move from multi-paneled pencil drawings to full two-page paintings. The pencil drawings show Adrian’s everyday life while the large illustrations capture his emotions with a lush clarity. The small moments captured in Adrian’s day make up his life, one after another, small and yet also meaningful.
An incredibly moving graphic novel that invites readers to see beyond a person’s surface. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (9780062747808)
Jude lives in Syria with her beloved older brother and her parents. As her older brother gets involved in the political battles around them, her parents decide that it is too dangerous for Jude and her pregnant mother to stay in Syria. So Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati to live with Jude’s uncle. America is very different than Syria, much louder and faster, and filled with a language that Jude barely understands. As Jude gets acclimated to living in the United States, she steadily makes new friends along the way. Her love of movies and desire to perform lead her to audition for the school musical. But when the attacks of 9-11 occur, the country that Jude has grown comfortable in changes to be more hostile to Muslims. Jude needs to rediscover what she loves about both Syria and the United States, her two homes.
This novel is written in verse, making for a very readable work. Told in Jude’s voice, the poetry allows readers to see how she feels about leaving Syria, how lost she feels when she comes to Cincinnati, and how she starts to find her way. The importance of English Language Learner classes are emphasized, both in learning the language but also in finding a group of friends. Jude also finds friends in other ways, connecting over shared cultures and shared interests.
Jude’s voice is vital to find in a middle grade novel. My favorite chapters are where Jude gets angry and voices her pain at the injustice of being labeled in a certain way, feared because of her religion, judged because of her headscarf. Those moments are powerful and raw, ringing with truth on the page.
Beautifully written with an amazing Syrian heroine at its center, this book is a great read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis (9781547601004)
11-year-old December has moved from one foster family to another over the past several years. As she moves, she has learned not to have many possessions, enough that she can carry them in a couple of bags. One item she brings with her every move is her biography, a book that reminds her why she is special and different from those around her. With her large scar on her back, December believes that she was raised as partially a bird and will eventually have her wings and feathers and be able to take flight. But when she jumps from a tree, she is moved to another foster family. This time, she is taken in by Eleanor, a women with a large garden, bird feeders, bird baths, and who works in an animal rehabilitation center. Eleanor’s quiet and loving approach starts to work on December, much as it does on her wounded birds. As December starts to trust, her desire to be separate from humans and different from them ebbs away. But could she ever give up her desire to fly?
Stark-McGinnis has written a startling debut novel for middle graders. December’s belief that she is a bird is at first alarming as she jumps from a tree, then rather odd, but the author leads readers to deeply understand the injury and damage done to December by first her mother’s violence and then her foster parents. It is a slow and haunting journey as December begins to trust others. Tying her own personal journey to that of a wounded hawk relearning to fly, the book creates a path for December to come alive again.
The journey to trust also includes a wonderful secondary character, Cheryllynn, a transgender classmate of December’s. As both girls steadily learn to stand up to the class bullies, they also learn that doing it together is easier and has a bigger impact. The two girls accept one another exactly as they are, something one doesn’t see enough in books about young girls and their friendships.
A heart-wrenching novel of abuse, recovery and learning to fly. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
Focused by Alyson Gerber (9781338185973)
Clea loves to play chess; it’s her favorite thing to do. She likes it a lot better than her classes at school where she struggles to pay attention and follow directions. She’s also having a lot of emotional outbursts now that she’s in middle school. Clea knows that it’s because she’s just stupid and that she doesn’t try hard enough. She thinks that no one around her wants to tell her the truth. Then Clea gets tested for ADHD, and she discovers the reason for her issues at school. Still, it isn’t as simple as just taking medication and having a written schedule. In fact, before she realizes it, Clea has managed to drive her best friend away with her behavior. Clea must start figuring out how to manage her ADHD, her personal life and keep her schoolwork in hand, all while trying to be chosen for chess tournaments on the weekends.
Gerber has once again created a female protagonist who struggles with something beyond their control. I deeply appreciated Gerber’s focus on Clea finding a voice to ask for what she needed and her ability to fall down and get back up again. The book also shows ADHD not as something to blame but as a true issue that a person must manage and deal with on a daily basis. Gerber writes with a sensitivity about ADHD that comes from experiencing the issues herself.
As with her first book, readers will discover a lot to relate to with Clea. Simply understanding invisible disabilities more clearly is helpful for all readers. Those who face similar challenges will find a main character worth cheering for on these pages. Clea works incredibly hard even when she fails, thinks of others often, is a great sister and friend, and still can’t fix this issue on her own. It’s a testament to the power of getting help on a variety of levels.
A personal look at ADHD, this novel is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (9781681197432)
Cat and Chicken live in San Francisco with their mother who works several jobs, but one is to be a children’s book author with books that feature Cat and Chicken as a caterpillar and chicken. When they head across the country for a summer job, their plans suddenly fall through. Now Cat and Chicken must stay with grandparents they have never met before while their mother works in Atlanta. Their grandparents live on Gingerbread Island, a place their mother hasn’t returned to since before Cat was born. Lily, their grandmother, is warm and maternal, quickly adapting to Chicken’s special needs. Macon, their grandfather, is more distant and gruff, working in his workshop and going on long walks alone. As Cat and Chicken get to know them, they find a wonderful pair of grandparents who love them immensely, so Cat tries to figure out how to bring her family back together again. She hopes that entering a fishing contest, a sport her mother used to love, with give them an opportunity to bond. But things don’t quite work out as planned, just like in her mother’s books.
McDunn has written the ideal summer read. It has a lightness to it that is pure summer sunshine, one that invites reading with sand between your toes or a flashlight in a tent. At the same time, the characters and story wrestle with larger issues of what family means, how a family can form a rift, and how the pressure of having a little brother who is neurodiverse can be challenging for an older sibling. I deeply appreciated Chicken as a character. He is not labeled in any way in the story but shown as having specific challenges that make looking after him different from other children.
Cat herself is a very strong young woman who holds her family together. Her grandmother recognizes that and helps Cat understand better what she is doing. As her grandparents step in to allow Cat to have a summer as a child, she fights them, trying to retain her role as Chicken’s caretaker. That process of letting go is beautifully shown, given time and patience. Throughout the book, nothing is simple, not even Cat’s enemy on the island, whose own story provides reasons for his actions.
Richly drawn and yet still summer light, this novel is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd (9780525428459)
Lyndie is definitely not a good Southern girl, much to her grandmother’s despair. She tends to find trouble easily and not make friends quickly. When her father loses his job, they move in with his parents. Lady, Lyndie’s grandmother, has specific ideas of how Lyndie should act and even creates a strict schedule for her that gives her no free time. But somehow on Lyndie’s first day of school, she finds an injured fawn on the way to school and ends up not making it to school that day. Lyndie’s best friend is a do-gooder whose family takes in a boy from a local juvenile detention facility. As Lyndie gets to know him, they become friends and share secrets with one another. When Lyndie chooses to put family before friends, she could lose everyone.
The voice in this novel is unique and confident. Set in 1985, the characters are grappling with the impact of the Vietnam War on the men in their community. The book looks at the results of the war and how one suicide can ripple through several families. Shepherd does not make this simple or easy, she allows it to stand in all of its complexity and gives us a young history buff to explore it with.
Shepherd creates an entire world in her writing, one that invites readers in to deeply feel for and cheer for Lyndie even as she makes plenty of mistakes and missteps. Lyndie is a champion though, and readers will completely understand her motivations as she chooses one direction or another. Happily, Lyndie is her own person, filling her days with the history of the region, exploring news on microfilm, and finding ways to live in a new home with rigid expectations.
An exceptional debut novel that invites readers to care just as deeply as Lyndie does. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Kathy Dawson Books.
Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange (9781338353853)
Released April 30, 2019.
Pet lives with her family in a lighthouse on the southeast coast of England just as World War II is coming to England’s shores. The daughter of a German immigrant and a lighthouse keeper, Pet loves the wildness of the coast, the way they can see long distances from the pinnacle of the lighthouse, and the warmth of their family. But as the war progresses, things change. Mutti is taken to an internment camp for being German and in the process is accused of espionage and sending messages to the Germans. Pet knows that her kind and gentle mother hasn’t done it, and sets off to find out what actually happens. There is the strange man who lives in a shack nearby or it could even be Pet’s older sister, who is always disappearing and doesn’t seem to be actually working on her boat the way she claims. As the war gets closer, Pet must work to untangle who is an enemy in their small town and who she can trust as her family crumbles around her.
I was entranced with the writing of Strange’s first novel, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, and this one has the same strong and stirring writing laced with touches of magic and wonder. In both of her books, Strange makes young women the heroines of their own stories even as they struggle to figure out what is going on around them. The setting here is almost another character in the book, depicted with glowing terms and a love of the sea. The perspective of the lighthouse is used throughout the novel and aspects of the structure help our young heroine discover the truth, even when it is hard to hear.
Pet is a unique heroine. She is not particularly brave since she tends to freeze at signs of trouble and be unable to move even when in physical danger. That continues to be true throughout the book. Yet at the same time, Pet also shows what bravery truly is and works with desperation and determination to discover the truth.
Another brilliant read from a gifted author, this one offers an extraordinary perspective on World War II. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Mike by Andrew Norriss (9781338285369)
Floyd is a tennis star, destined to become one of the great British tennis players. At age thirteen though, something changes. He starts to see “Mike” a person whom only he can see. Mike first appears at tennis matches and gets steadily more involved, even stopping Floyd from playing physically at one point. Floyd’s parents, who are both very much supportive of his tennis, take him to a sports injury clinic where he is placed in therapy. Floyd learns that Mike is a projection of something that Floyd is repressing. To Floyd’s horror though, it seems that Mike won’t let him keep playing tennis and Floyd will need to admit his own deep desire to do something else. But what?
Norriss has created a short and focused novel that is entirely marvelous. He writes with a playful nature that allows readers to really cheer for Floyd as he navigates his own desires and figures out what will actually make him happy. Nicely, Norriss allows the entire story to be told and readers stay with Floyd and Mike for some time, experiencing all of the times that Mike appears in Floyd’s life. By the end, Mike is the hero of the story, or is it Floyd all along!
A great main character gives this teen novel real heart. Floyd is a tennis prodigy, but completely at the mercy of his destiny when we meet him. He isn’t questioning what he really wants to do, whether tennis is still fun, or why he works so very hard to be the best. The pace of his training is beautifully offset by the slow pace of Floyd’s therapy and navigating life afterwards. Still, that rich sense of humor keeps the book moving and the unique perspective of who Mike really is offers a refreshing take on life.
A fresh sports novel filled with fish, invisible friends, and frankness. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from ARC provided by David Fickling Books.
The Line Tender by Kate Allen (9780735231603)
Released April 16, 2019.
An incredible debut novel, this is the story of Lucy, a thirteen-year-old girl who lives in Rockport, Massachusetts. Her mother, a shark biologist, died when she was seven of a brain aneurysm while out in a boat studying sharks. Lucy lives with her father, a diver who puts in lots of extra hours as he works to rescue or recover people. Lucy also lives next door to her best friend, Fred. Fred is a scientist while Lucy prefers art. Together during the summer, they are working on a field guide about wildlife in Rockport. So when Sookie’s nets bring in a great white shark, Lucy and Fred immediately head to the pier to see it. Fred begins to study Lucy’s mother’s proposals to study sharks in a new way. When tragedy strikes, Lucy must figure out how to navigate a new loss even as white sharks begin to appear along the coast, seeming to be a sign to follow a specific path to learn more about her mother.
The writing here is simply incredible. Allen invites you into Lucy’s world, showing how a community came together to help raise her when her mother died. The setting in Rockport is drawn with attention and love. From the wildlife and beaches the two friends explore to the community with its open doors, lifelong connections to one another, and always room for Lucy. The sheltering nature of the community make the deep loss all the more shocking and affecting.
It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel given its attention to detail, meticulous building of a story, and the immediate trust one has in the author. Lucy is an incredible character. She has overcome one loss already, so the next one could maybe break her. Instead, she copes in inventive ways, asks for help and pulls her friends and family closer to her side. The information and connection to sharks is an effective way to allow the story to move forward even as everyone is trapped in their grief.
A brilliant debut that is rich, layered and shows that connection to nature can allow one to weather new storms. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dutton.