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.
All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker (9780451479532)
This superb middle-grade novel introduces readers to a young artist who finds herself at the center of a mystery. Ollie’s parents are both artists. Her father and his partner Apollo restore art work and her mother creates sculptures. But then one night, her father leaves for France with his new French girlfriend and her mother won’t get out of bed. Ollie fends for herself, eating apples and peanuts, meeting Apollo for meals out, and protecting the secret of her mother’s depression. She spends time with her two best friends, Richard and Alex, throughout their Soho neighborhood. Ollie discovers that there is more to her father’s disappearance than she thought and is determined to find out what is truly going on.
Filled with compelling characters and a mystery worth sleuthing, this novel is a delight of a read. Tucker uses the setting of New York City as a vivid backdrop to the tale. Soho itself serves as almost another character in the book with its lofts for artists, empty buildings, and occasional illegal poster hanging. When Ollie and Alex head to an island getaway, that setting too is beautifully depicted as a foil to the city and is equally celebrated too. Her writing is deft and nicely keeps the pace brisk and the questions about Ollie’s parents fresh.
All of the young characters in the book are fully realized and each have a distinct personality that makes sense and carries through the title. Apollo, a giant of a man who serves as a rock for Ollie in this tumultuous time, is also a well depicted character. Ollie’s mother is an important character whose depression keeps the reader from knowing her better. The subject of parental mental illness is handled with frankness and the book concludes with a sense of hope.
A fresh mix of mystery, art and secrets, this book is full of vibrant colors and not just Greys. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking.
Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos (9780525646570)
Nova’s big sister, Bridget, taught her all about space exploration and the planets. She is the person who has protected and defended Nova all of her life, from when they entered foster care to when people at school think that Nova is not smart. Nova finds talking difficult, so she doesn’t speak much at all, something has has gotten her labeled by their social worker as not understanding anything at all. But Nova understands a lot. In her new foster home and new school, her sister is not with her. Bridget promised that the two of them would watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger as it takes the first teacher into space. But as the countdown of days to the launch comes to a close, Bridget has not yet appeared.
In this debut novel, Panteleakos gives readers insight into the mind of a non-verbal, autistic girl who struggles to express herself to the world though she is intelligent and full of potential. The author tells the story from Nova’s point of view which creates a real bond between protagonist and reader. Readers will find themselves wanting to protect Nova as she works through testing, new friends and a new family.
The novel is full of hope, offering a new sense of safety for Nova and potentially ways to communicate that she has never been taught before. The connection between the two sisters is also beautifully shown. The final scenes contain a revelation about what has prevented Bridget from coming to see Nova. These wrenching moments bring a new clarity to Nova’s experience in life and still result in a hope that she can move forward.
Beautifully written, this big-hearted story is a poignant tale of families and strength. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Wendy Lamb Books.
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.