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.
Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien (9781250165695)
Peasprout and her brother, Cricket, are sent from the country of Shin to the glorious city of Pearl to attend the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword. They are the first students from Shin to attend the school that teaches wu liu, a combinations of martial arts and figure skating. In Pearl, the floors and buildings are all built of pearl, a material that can be skated on. Peasprout has won many Shin awards for wu liu and is confident that she can become top of her class. Still, she has a lot to learn, including many of the more modern Pearl wu liu combinations. Peasprout soon gets the attention of the class bully and another girl who remains always apart and distant, even from her own twin brother. As the competition heats up, a vandal starts to attack the buildings of pearl on the campus and Peasprout as an outsider is the number one suspect!
I cannot stress enough how utterly captivating this children’s book is. It is like reading an anime in novel form or a manga in text. It has the same humor as those other art forms, combining wry laughs with epic battles and races. The pace of the book is brisk, the action scenes almost breathtakingly fast. Throughout there is a strong sense of place and one falls in love with Pearl and the Academy as much as with the characters.
And what characters they are! There is the confident Peasprout who rarely doubts that she is doing anything wrong, but when she does she grows and learns in an honest and organic way. Cricket is small and quiet but also gifted in a different way than his sister. The twin siblings offer Peasprout a chance at first love but also a great tug of rivalry and friendship. And everyone needs a good villain to round it all out.
A bright and unique novel that is pure joy to read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Henry Holt & Company.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (9781626724457)
Based on the author’s own childhood experiences, this graphic novel looks at the perils of summer camp. Vera has always wanted to go to summer camp like the other girls in her class. But she knows that her life is very different from theirs. Just look at her disaster of a sleepover birthday party and the way that her Russian family approach scared off the other girls. But then Vera finds the perfect summer camp, a Russian camp where the girls should be just like her! She drags her younger brother along too and just knows that this will be the best experience ever. But when she discovers that the girls she has to share a tent with are five years older that she is, that there is no electricity and no running water, Vera finds herself feeling just the way she always does, not fitting in and unsure she’s going to survive.
Brosgol is such a gifted book creator, moving skillfully from picture book to graphic novel. She has a wonderful twisted sense of humor in all of her work that marks it as uniquely hers. Here she beautifully creates a story that rings with truth, about not fitting in even in the place you should fit in the best, of not finding your place, and then eventually of finding it in an unlikely place but only after you accept that you are different. It’s a lovely package of a book, showing that being yourself is all you can do.
Brosgol’s art captures the humor as well. The book is done in a palette of green and black, mimicking the natural setting but also quickly moving from darkness to light. Vera herself is a great character, with her huge glasses and limitless hope that things will improve.
A wonderful middle grade graphic novel just right for summer. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty (9781524767587)
When Lucy was struck by lightning as a child, she gained the ability to do genius-level math problems. She has other impacts from the lightning strike, including some OCD that has her tapping her feet three times and sitting three times before she can settle. Lucy has been homeschooled by her grandmother since the incident but now she is twelve and her grandmother wants her to go to middle school rather than college (like Lucy would prefer.) They make a deal that Lucy has to try middle school for one year, make one friend, join one activity and read one book that is not about math. Lucy decides not to tell anyone about her math skills and lowers all of her grades to make herself seem more normal. Lucy’s new class has to do a service project and she has to work with two other people. But how can she help if all she has to offer is a love of numbers that she is trying to hide?
For being such an extraordinary girl, Lucy is someone that everyone in middle school will be able to relate to. Issues starting a new school, making new friends, and finding a way to be yourself all make this middle school novel classic. Add in the math skills, lightning strike and Lucy’s need for cleanliness and her other quirks and you have a book that is something special. Throughout McAnulty makes sure that readers deeply understand Lucy at a variety of levels. Lucy is a protagonist who discovers a lot about herself in the course the book. As Lucy grows and changes, it feels entirely organic and natural.
At its heart, this book encourages us all to be our unique and quirky selves in middle school and beyond. The writing is accessible and the novel is a joy to read. The book is written with all numbers in numerical format, a clue that Lucy sees the world a bit differently. As she counts and calculates her way through her day, Lucy shows everyone that there are ways forward where you don’t want to pretend to be normal.
A stellar read, this middle school book is a book that is hard to sum up, but one you can count on. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Random House Books for Young Readers.
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (9780399544682)
Amal loves going to school in her small Pakistani village. She plans on becoming a teacher herself one day. But after her mother gives birth to a fifth daughter, her mother slumps into postpartum depression. Amal, as the eldest daughter, has to stop attending school to take care of the household. Thanks to her younger sister, Amal manages to keep on learning. But then Amal talks back to the son of the corrupt politician and landlord who runs their village. Amal is taken from her family and forced to work in his household as a servant to work off the debt. As Amal comes to terms with this abrupt change in her life, she has to figure out how to navigate being a servant in a grand house filled with secrets. Now Amal has to discover how connections with others could be the key to unlocking her future once again.
Saeed brings the setting of a small Pakistani village to vivid life in this novel for young people. From the paths to get to her home to the crowded schoolroom to the bustling village market, all demonstrate a warmth and strong community. That is beautifully contrasted with the setting of the grand home where Amal works in indentured servitude. It is a house that is chilly with deceit and secrecy.
Amal is a great heroine, dedicated to reading and learning as much as she can. She is also inventive and formulates solutions to the problems she encounters. At the same time, she also needs to learn to trust others, even those who may have betrayed her before.
A very readable book that invites readers into rural Pakistan and the dangers of corruption and debt. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.
The Stone Girl’s Story by Sarah Beth Durst (9781328729453)
Mayka is a stone girl, created by Father, a stone mason who lived alone with his stone creations on a mountain. Father died years ago and now some of Mayka’s friends, whose markings are wearing off with age, are in danger of becoming statues instead of living stone. So Mayka decides to see if she can find a stone mason to recarve her friends, though that will mean heading away from the her quiet home in the mountains into the valley below. Mayka is accompanied on her quest by two stone birds who can fly and talk. Their journey leads them to the large city of Skye, where there is a stone mason’s quarter. Mayka finds someone willing to help them, but along the way discovers that there is a threat to all stone creatures brewing. Mayka has to create her own story as she seeks to find a solution that will save not only her friends but everyone made of stone.
Durst has created a compelling stand-alone fantasy book for middle graders. The world building is warm and lovely, unrolling like a carpet before the reader. She incorporates a sense of history into her world, allowing Mayka to discover things about Father that she had never known. The book revolves around reading and stories, with markings carved into the stone creatures that set their roles in the world. Markings that can be read by a clever storyteller to be even more evocative and reworked by a stone mason to say something else entirely and create a new life for that creature.
Mayka is a strong heroine, as one might expect from a girl made of stone. She is far more capable and clever than she realizes, though others around her know that about her and trust her completely. She not only identifies problems but figures out solutions to them quickly, moving her story forward at a brisk pace. My only quibble with the book is the cover. The scene it shows happens very late in the book and not in the way it is shown. A pet peeve of mine and certainly not a reason to miss this book!
A great fantasy for children, this one is warm and delightful. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by the author.
Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake (9780316515467)
Ivy’s family is displaced from their home when it is destroyed by a tornado. Ivy manages to save her pillow and her book of drawings, which have pictures of girls holding hands and looking into one another’s eyes. But at the emergency shelter at the school, she loses her drawings. Her family moves into a room at a Bed and Breakfast, but there are six of them in that single room and there seems to be no room for Ivy with her busy older sister and infant twin brothers. Then at school, someone starts to return her drawings to her one-by-one in her locker. Could it be June, the girl that Ivy has a crush on? Or maybe her best friend’s boyfriend who has talked to Ivy about her art? The drawings come with notes encouraging Ivy to talk to someone about her feelings, but will Ivy have the courage to do that?
Blake has created a middle-grade book that is warm and beautifully supportive. She shows being gay as just a piece of who Ivy is and twists her feelings about her sexuality up with how she fits in her family in general and the struggles of middle school friendships. Using Ivy’s art as a platform for her self expression works very well, and her artistic vision is presented as the way she sees the world as a whole.
Ivy’s complicated relationship with her family is presented with honesty, showing a family struggling to handle the loss of their home, young babies, busy lives and still manage to care for everyone. Ivy is shown as a creative and thoughtful character who struggles with telling people the truth, not just about her sexuality but also about her feelings in general.
A strong middle-grade novel about sexuality, families and friendship. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (9780553535327)
Ami has grown up on Culion, an island in the Philippines filled with people who have leprosy, like Ami’s mother. Ami loves her home, the others who live there with her, the kind nun who helps everyone out. But then things change and new government rules are implemented. Ami and her mother must be tested to see if Ami is also “Touched” with the infection. When Ami is declared to be free of leprosy, she is taken with the other children to a neighboring island and placed in an orphanage. Watched over by a cruel man who is terrified of disease and by extension hates the children from Culion, Ami slowly makes new friends, longing for news from home. After finding a letter withheld from her, Ami makes a desperate journey to see her mother once more.
Using butterflies as a beautiful metaphor throughout the book, one of strength and fragility, Hargrave has crafted a book that looks past the surface level of leprosy and deeply at the people who suffer from the infection and those who love them. Throughout the book, butterflies emerge from cocoons, appear suddenly and inspire those who see them, die at the hands of a collector, and eventually form a way of life. There is a resilience throughout this novel, a tale of overcoming not leprosy but expectations and limitations of all sorts.
The setting of Culion and the Philippines is brought lushly to life on the pages. From journeys through the jungle with its fruits, fish and streams to the coral reefs that tear at boats to the colony itself, each place is drawn with care. The setting is evoked through sounds, scents and sight.
A complex book that takes a deep look at grief, loss, courage and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Alfred A. Knopf.)
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu (9781626728691)
As young girls and teens, our society surrounds us with the history of men. This incredible graphic novel tears away at that myth, revealing the amazing women of history and today. Each woman is shown from their childhood and upbringing and then as the grand woman that they became and the impact their life had on the world around them. In this graphic novel, there are women of many races and cultures. There are trans women and queer women, women that you know already and others that are a thrill to discover. This book is a wonder.
Bagieu is a well-known French comic writer who started a project online that then turned into this compilation. The book is a delight to read, each chapter focused on one woman and told briefly and yet in a way that honors them and makes readers want to learn even more about them. There are world leaders here, actresses, artists of a variety of types, scientists, journalists and many many more. The art is fresh and just as feisty as the women the book explores.
A book for every public and high school library, this one is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-18. (Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.)