Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros (9780062881687)

Efren’s family works hard all day to provide for him and his younger twin siblings, Mia and Max. Efren’s mother, Ama, really holds the family together, creating delicious meals from leftovers every day. He thinks of her as “Soperwoman” because of the delicious sopes she makes. When Ama is seized by ICE and deported, it falls to Efren to watch his younger siblings, getting them ready in the morning, to bed at night, and trying to distract them from missing Ama. Efren’s father is working two jobs and not sleeping at all, just to send money to his mother in order to get her back into the U.S. As Efren’s school work and friendships start to suffer from the pressure he is under and his worry for his entire family, he looks for ways to make sure that his little brother and sister still feel loved, the way his mother would want them to.

Cisneros has created an ownvoices novel for middle graders that grapples with the state of immigration in the United States. The book is timely, speaking directly to situations that children across our country face every day if their parents are undocumented. The level of fear and dread that ICE has for these families, the danger of being deported, and the risks of returning to their families is all captured here, 

Efren is a marvelous protagonist. He is smart and has a huge heart as well as an astounding amount of patience towards his little brother and sister. Living in real poverty, his only wish is for his family to be whole, not for a phone, a bigger TV or anything but having his mother back. 

A gripping and rich look at the impact of current immigration policies on children of undocumented families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.

 

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (9781328781505)

Hanna and her father travel by wagon in 1880 to a small town in the Midwest where they plan to sell dress goods. Hanna though has another plan, one that her father doesn’t support, to design, sew and sell dresses for the women in town rather than just selling the materials. Hanna also wants to graduate from school, but that is not without a lot of controversy in the town. Hanna is half Chinese, her Chinese mother died in California, and her father is white. While her father is entirely accepted by the town, Hanna faces prejudice on a daily basis. In fact, most of the other students drop out of school when it is clear that Hanna will be allowed to attend. Meanwhile, their family shop is being built and stocked. Hanna and her teacher work on a plan to get her to graduate by the end of the year, though it seems less like a solution for Hanna and more of a way around the controversy she creates. As the opening of the shop nears, Hanna will face one of the most daunting and frightening moments of her life and must figure out how to keep it from ruining their future.

In her afterword, Park explains her connection as a child to the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her book clearly pays homage to the best of that series, set in a similar community with characters who echo some of the most iconic from the series. But Park takes the opportunity to right a lot of what is wrong with that series. She carefully includes Native Americans in the book, paying attention to all they have lost by this time in American history and to their language and way of life. This is beautifully done.

Park also creates a space for Americans of color on the prairie, showing that the settlement of America was done by more than the white people we usually see depicted. She works with the prejudice, stereotypes and aggression that people of color faced then and continue to face today. This is a book that un-erases people from history.

Marvelous, timeless and important. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh (9781250171122)

Snap knows that the witch has taken her dog, probably to use him for a ritual or eat him. So she sneaks into the witch’s house to rescue him. But Snap discovers that Jacks isn’t really a witch after all and was actually trying to save her dog after an accident. Jacks is actually pretty cool, creating skeletons of animals from road kill and selling them online. Jacks also helps Snap when she discovers finds some baby opossums. As the two rear the opossums together, Snap discovers her own love of bones and science. But Jacks still has a surprise herself, real magic, that she can help Snap learn too.

This graphic novel is such a treat of a book. It offers a heroine who is not afraid to be different from the stereotypical girl, exploring death, animals and magic. In the story, Snap gains a best friend, Lou, someone who is exploring their gender. Lou finds support with Snap and her mother, who share clothes and offer a safe space. The story also offers background on Jacks and Snap’s grandmother with a sad tale of love that had to make way, or did it?

The writing is superb, the plotting is clever and clear. The art is phenomenal with race and gender playing major roles. The characters are deep, well conceived and very diverse.

A marvelous and magical graphic novel that includes LGBT, race and gender elements. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani

Astronauts Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks (9781626728776)

The team who brought us the Primates graphic novel continue their focus on women in science. This time they tell the story of Mary Cleave and how women were finally able to enter NASA has astronauts. It is the story of hard work and dedication, of insistence on being heard and knowing when to push. It is a story of proving the worth of women, undergoing a battery of tests and still being told no. The tale is a compelling one, a story of politics and science, of women’s right to be seen as valid scientists, engineers and pilots.

There are so many heroines on these pages! Women who changed the course of NASA along the way. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is also shown as the space race intensified between the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout, Cleave narrates the history for the reader, as she floats in space herself, testimony to the progress that would eventually be made. Just as with any fight for equal rights, this one took a lot of time and a lot of women to enact. It is a story worth exploring.

The graphic novel format works particularly well with this subject as the story plays out almost as a documentary across the pages. Wicks makes each woman recognizable on the page as an individual, eventual side-by-side illustrated version and actual photograph show how deeply she connected the images to the actual women.

A stellar look at gender in space and science that is inspiring. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte (9781338255812)

A deaf author writes the story of a deaf protagonist living on Martha’s Vineyard in the 19th century in a community with many deaf residents where the majority of people use sign language when they speak. Mary has never known any other place than her beloved village on Martha’s Vineyard where her deafness is not seen as a disability. Her great-grandfather came from England and settled on the island over a hundred years ago. So when a scientist intent on figuring out the cause of the deafness of the island community enters their world, he is first welcomed. Mary and her best friend decide to follow him around, since Mary has noticed him saying derogatory things about the deaf. When Mary gets too close, the scientist reveals his frightening plan of taking a “live specimen” from the island. Mary is taken to Boston, where she discovers the harshness of being a prisoner and being unable to communicate with anyone about her plight. Mary’s fight to survive and be understood speaks to what we see as disabilities even in our modern world.

This ownvoices novel is a rich glimpse into the world of the deaf community and its long history in the United States. Based on the history of Martha’s Vineyard, the author’s note mentions how she recreated the sign language used on the island which is no longer in use. Her care with acknowledging the land issues between the white settlers and the native tribes of the island is evident on the page. She offers detailed accounts of the community itself, giving a deep understanding to the reader of the warmth, love and acceptance of the community. That is then shown in stark contrast with the reactions of the rest of the world. 

The writing is frank and clear. The author speaks about how she comes at English from a different angle, both as a deaf person and being bilingual. She also shares in sign language conversations some direct translations that allow hearing readers to better understand how conversations flow in that language. The characters are all seen through Mary’s eyes, including her parents. Mary shines at the center of the novel, her experiences and perceptions make up the story, which at times is incredibly difficult to read as Mary is abused and veers towards despair of ever seeing her family again. 

This historical novel is both important and impressive. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet, illustrated by Claire Fauvel (9780062915603)

This graphic novel from France is a reworking of a novel based on the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II as a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation. Rachel lives at a children’s home in Sevres, France in 1942. Her parents are still in Paris. The children’s home allows its students the freedom to study what they are interested in. Rachel loves photography and developing and printing her own images. She begins to document her experiences of the war. Soon as the danger gets closer, Rachel changes her name to Catherine and gets a new identity. She moves from place to place, leaving friends behind, finding new ways of life with each new place she lands. She works on a farm, helps the Resistance, and along the way finds time to take pictures and find places to develop her film. She even manages to fall in love with a boy who loves photography the way she does. Still, she must leave him behind as well, as she continues to try to find a safe place in a world hunting her down. 

Based on her mother’s story, this graphic novel is a dazzling mix of danger and hope. Billet does not minimize the constant danger the Jewish children found themselves in, hiding in cellars and gaining new identities, missing their families horribly. This book is not an adventure across France, but a fearful dash from one safe place to the next, each move causing more loss and anguish. Billet uses hope and the joy of photography to show that life continued despite the war, but always impacted by it. 

The art is marvelous and the story works really nicely as a graphic novel which keeps the pace fast. All of the danger and the moves from place to place spiral past the reader, as new people step forward to offer Catherine a safe place to live for even a brief period of time. The journey and the devastation are one and the same, even when walking through beautiful French landscapes, there is a sense of loss and dread.

A marvelous balance of resilience, tenacity and war. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor (9780062796783)

Lydia was with her mother as she died and soon after is moving to rural Connecticut to live with her Aunt Brat, her wife and their elderly landlord. Lydia brings with her a box of the goddesses that she and her mother created together as they faced the good and bad in their life. She keeps them hidden from Aunt Brat and everyone at her new home, looking for a private place to hang them in honor of her mother. On the weekend after Lydia moves in, the family also adopts a big yellow dog. Lydia isn’t a dog person, having never lived with one, particularly one this large and untrained. Still, Lydia pitches in to help, something that she does a lot with a chirpy voice that doesn’t seem to belong to her. It helps her also cover up secrets like the growing hole in her wall, a tag that might help them find the yellow dog’s new owner, and even a secret of Aunt Brat’s about baby goats. 

Connor’s books are always surprising in the best way. She takes very interesting characters and throws them together here in a new family with a new dog and plenty to hide. The result is a book that untangles itself slowly, revealing new truths and interesting hiding places along the way. The setting of rural Connecticut plays a large role in the story, inviting readers to explore the hills and valleys filled with farms and fields. 

The characters, both human and dog, are exceptionally well drawn. No secondary character is left without a deeper story, and this is done without crowding the main story out. Still, it is Lydia’s story and she is far more than a tragic orphan who has lost her mother. Instead, she is resilient and hard working, willing to always pitch in to help. As she literally grapples with having a new dog in her life, she is also working on new human friends, fitting into a new family, and finding her way forward with new people to love.

Full of dogs, warmth and love, this is another great read from a talented author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

9 New Middle-Grade Books to Wake Your Brain Cells in March

Here are nine middle-grade titles releasing in March that caught my eye. They have lots of buzz with a mix of starred reviews and large print runs.

Aster and the Accidental Magic by Thom Pico, illustrated by Karensac

Bloom by Keith Oppel

Enchanter’s Child: Twilight Hauntings by Angie Sage

Mananaland by Pam Munoz Ryan

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim

Wink by Rob Harrell

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (9781338580839)

The author of The House with Chicken Legs returns with another clever novel based on Russian folklore. Yanka is a girl who hasn’t stopped growing, even though she is much taller than her Mamochka and her best friend, Sasha. She loves the stories Anatoly brings from the Snow Forest, tales of greed, transformation, magical trees, and a fiery dragon. After falling from an ice fort, Yanka is carried back home and awakens to discover that she has grown bear legs overnight. While her Mamochka wants to take her to a doctor, Yanka is certain that the answer lies in the stories she loves and the Snow Forest itself. So she sets off into the woods to find out how she fits into the tales and how they fit her. She is accompanied by Mousetrap, a house weasel, who she can now understand when he speaks. Along the way, she gathers new friends including an elk, a wolf, and even a house with chicken legs! Now she just has to find her grandmother, a Bear Tsarina, who may have the answers Yanka needs. 

This novel is so satisfying to read, rather like sipping on sbiten around the fire. The settings are beautifully captured without lingering on too much description: from the lovely village that Yanka and her adopted mother live in, to the glory of the Snow Forest. Fans of the first book will cheer when the Yaga and her house appear in the story, nicely pairing the two novels together. The lessons of working together to solve problems, accepting help when it’s offered, and depending on others in a community (or herd) are graciously offered to readers and shown effectively in the story itself.

Yanka herself is a heroine worth championing. Her struggles with fitting in at the village, even before her bear legs appeared, make sense to her, but from the beginning readers will see the truth of how she is adored and appreciated in her community. Numerous tales are woven throughout the book, told aloud by different characters. They become more than just tales as elements are shown to be true as Yanka’s adventures continue. She is always brave, willing to sacrifice herself, but also independent to a fault with lots to learn about friendship and community. 

Deep, fascinating and warming, this children’s novel is honey and an herbal salve for its readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.