Review: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (9781524715700)

Lily, her mother and sister move in with her elderly Korean grandmother. In the small town, Lily soon discovers that everyone knows and loves her grandmother, who wears glamorous clothes and tries to offer advice and help to her community. Halmoni has always been special to Lily too, sharing stories of tigers, girls and stars with her and her sister. So when they are heading to Halmoni’s house and Lily sees a tiger out of the car window, she knows it’s from her grandmother’s tales and that tigers are tricksters. As Lily starts to understand that her grandmother is severely ill, she believes that she can help by working with the tiger to release the stories from her grandmother’s jars. The stories emerge and shine in the darkness, returning to the sky as stars and allowing Lily to hear some of the more difficult stories for the first time. Yet, Lily isn’t sure if the tiger is actually real and if the tiger is, can she be trusted to really help Halmoni?

Keller’s novel for middle grade readers explores the complexity of stories both in terms of folklore but also stories of previous generations in a family and the difficulties they faced in other countries and in traveling to the United States. The power of stories themselves is never in question here, shining through as each tale is shared. They connect, explain and inspire. But stories here are also hidden, carefully kept from others so that their pain need not be shared. This too speaks to their incredible power and the importance of them being told. So in the end, whether you believe in the tiger or not, you will believe in the stories themselves and their magic.

This novel is so beautifully written. Readers will experience it as a series of jars to be opened and released by them. The tales themselves are told in language and tones that really make them understood to be part of an oral tradition. The rest of the book, the story of Lily and her family, is layered and fascinating. All of the characters are complex and have multiple dimensions to their personalities. Lily is caught up in her own world of tiger traps and magical jars, but everyone else has their own perspectives on what is happening to Halmoni and their family.

A powerful book of stories, magic and tigers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Books for Young Readers.

Best Middle Grade Fiction 2019

All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker

All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker

A fresh mix of mystery, art and secrets, this book is full of vibrant colors and not just Greys.

The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy

The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy

Pancholy, an Indian-American actor, has written a compelling and heart-wrenching middle grade novel that deserves applause.

The Bridge to Home by Padma Venkatraman

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

Venkatraman has created a tale that doesn’t soften the dangers and difficulties of children living on the streets of India. At the same time though, she doesn’t allow the story to be dismal, instead she shows how the smallest things can give joy.

Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

A heart-wrenching novel of abuse, recovery and learning to fly

Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

This book is all about giving people second (and even third) chances, including yourself.

eventown by corey ann haydu

Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu

It is idyllic and eerie, a Stepford version of childhood. Horror is sidestepped neatly here, instead becoming a book about empowerment and making your own choices while asking important questions.

genesis begins again by alicia d. williams

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

In this debut novel, Williams writes with a strong voice, taking on difficult topics including verbal abuse, racism, skin tone, alcoholism and co-dependency in an unflinching way.

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Inspired by Filipino folklore, this is an amazing novel by a Newbery-award winning author.

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

A brilliant debut that is rich, layered and shows that connection to nature can allow one to weather new storms.

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

This one deserves a medal. Period. It’s one of those books that reads so easily, since it’s written with such skill.

The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu

The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu

A grand adventure of a book full of magic and girl power.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Beautifully written with an amazing Syrian heroine at its center, this book is a great read.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Another brilliant read from a gifted author, this one offers an extraordinary perspective on World War II.

pay attention, carter jones by gary d. schmidt

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt 

Schmidt takes the spirit of Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins and gives us a male version in Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick.

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo

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.

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

Kramer’s middle-grade novel is nearly impossible to summarize because it is so layered and has such depth.

Strange Birds A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Perez.jpg

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Perez

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 Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

A powerful look at divorce, grief and coming to terms with life.

Review: From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (9780062875853)

This debut middle-grade novel is a stellar look at family, taking risks and doing what you know is right despite opposition from those you love. Returning from her twelfth birthday party at a bakery, Zoe discovers a letter from her father, a man she’s never met. Zoe knows that her father went to prison for murder, but that’s about it. Zoe is sure that her mother won’t let her write back to her father, but Zoe decides to do it behind her back and soon the two are corresponding. When Zoe’s grandmother discovers that the two of them are in touch, she doesn’t object and helps Zoe continue, also letting her speak to Marcus on the phone at her house. Marcus claims that he is innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of and at first Zoe isn’t sure whether to believe him or not, then her grandmother agrees that she has always thought he was innocent. Now Zoe decides that she can find the alibi witness Marcus’ lawyer was unable to locate for his trial. It’s just going to take even more lying to her family.

Marks writing is delectable. She moves seamlessly between writing about Zoe’s interest in baking and her time spent in a professional bakery helping out and then the mystery and drama of Marcus’ crime and his potential innocence. Her depiction of Zoe is deftly done, creating a truly multidimensional character who is juggling her own dreams, problems with her closest friend, and now communicating with her birth father. All of these elements could have been jarring but come together as a perfectly baked treat.

Race is definitely a powerful element in this middle-grade novel where Zoe’s exploration of men falsely convicted of crimes speaks about how many are African-American men. Zoe’s own family is multi-racial, and she is aware of the negative attention that brings even in their large community of Boston. 

A novel that’s not afraid to ask deep questions and seek answers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Best Graphic Novels 2019

Bloom by Kevin Panetta

Bloom by Kevin Panetta, illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

The baking scenes as they two work together are the epitome of romantic scenes, showing their connection to one another long before it fully emerges in the story.

Cicada by Shaun Tan

Cicada by Shaun Tan

An incredible book for teens, this one is sad, surprising and uplifting.

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

A diverse and funny look at families, race and America.

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

A stellar graphic novel for teens that is filled with LGBTQ pride.

Laura Dean Keep Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki

Laura Dean Keep Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell 

This graphic novel beautifully captures a captivating but toxic romantic and sexual relationship.

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

A fantasy romance graphic novel worth falling for.

New Kid by Jerry Craft

New Kid by Jerry Craft

This is one of the best books for middle school age that deals with microaggressions, bias, privilege, and racism. Given that it is a graphic novel too, that makes it all the more appealing as a source for discussion.

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel for youth is a delightful mix of diversity and magic. While comparisons can be made with other teen witches, this book stands entirely on its own.

Operatic by Kyo Maclear

Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler

A middle grade graphic novel that focuses on the power of music and opera? Yes please!

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

These two very talented teen book creators have designed an amazing graphic novel together.

Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

The pairing of an imaginative world with roots in real history makes for an incredible read.

Stargazing by Jen Wang

Stargazing by Jen Wang

Award-winning graphic novelist Wang invites readers into a personal story about growing up Chinese-American.

This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

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.

Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Oberg

Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Oberg, illustrated by Kristin Lidstrom, translated by Eva Apelqvist 

An incredibly moving graphic novel that invites readers to see beyond a person’s surface.

Review: Cub by Cynthia Copeland 

Cub by Cynthia Copeland

Cub by Cynthia Copeland (9781616208486)

This graphic novel looks at life in middle school during the 1970’s, a time filled with bullies, bell bottoms, and possibilities. Cindy is in seventh grade and dealing with being one of the prey in a school with plenty of predators, particularly mean girls. Cindy plays dead and doesn’t react to the comments of people like Evie Exley, so they leave her alone. Cindy loves reading and creating art, so when her favorite English teacher suggests that she become a writer, Cindy jumps at the chance. Soon she is working as a cub reporter for the local paper, accompanying a real reporter to meetings and events around the community. She starts taking photographs and learns to edit her writing to be appropriate for a newspaper. She also finds her voice and a group of friends who are just as unique as she is.

Middle school can be painful but this graphic novel is a breath of fresh air. While it does address the larger issues of middle school bullying, it is truly about simply being yourself in the midst of it all and finding other kids who are doing the same thing. There is a touch of romance here, but only a touch that is just right for the seventh grade setting. The focus on self-esteem and following your dreams is a call for all young girls to find their own paths and then work hard to reach their goals. Cindy is an example of someone who makes mistakes, learns from them, improves and reaches goals that she may not have realized she even had in the beginning. 

The art in this graphic novel is immensely approachable, embracing the seventies setting with fashion, hair styles, and the cars being driven. The time period is a large part of the story as Watergate is breaking just as Cindy starts being a cub reporter. Journalism is an inspiring profession both in the seventies and today, something that is worth commenting on in today’s world.

A graphic novel with a strong female protagonist who follows her own dreams. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Algonquin Young Readers.

Best Nonfiction 2019

Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico 

Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic HIstory of Women’s Fight for Their Rights by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico

A stellar graphic piece of nonfiction.

Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson

Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson

Brave, fierce and incandescent.

The End of Something Wonderful by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

The End of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, illustrated by George Ermos

Funny and frank, this funeral guide is just what we all need.

Free Lunch by Rex Ogle

Free Lunch by Rex Ogle

Profoundly honest and full of heart, this book is one that all teachers and librarians need to read to understand the children they serve.

Hummingbird by Nicola Davies

Hummingbird by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jane Ray

A beautiful nonfiction picture book about an amazing tiny bird.

The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett

The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby

His writing is a study in how to have a strong voice in a children’s book, a narrative point of view, and yet also avoid being didactic at all, insisting that young readers think for themselves.

It Feels Good to Be Yourself A Book about Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn

It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book about Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn, illustrated by Noah Grigni

With a diverse cast of children, this picture book deftly explains gender identity.

Moth An Evolution Story by Isabel Thomas

Moth: An Evolution Story by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Daniel Egneus

Beautifully written and illustrated, this is a very special nonfiction picture book.

Muslim Girls Rise by Saira Mir

Muslim Girls Rise by Saira Mir, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

A must-purchase for all public libraries.

Nine Months Before a Baby Is Born by Miranda Paul

Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin

A great book for children who are expecting a new baby in their family, this book is a lovely mix of science and love.

Not My Idea A Book about Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham

Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham

The book has just enough history to clarify that this is a long-standing problem and is systemic. Yet it is not willing to rest there, calling for action, clarity around the subject and a responsibility to step up.

Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

Grimes writes a searing verse memoir of her years growing up with a mother suffering from alcoholism and schizophrenia.

A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein

A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Superb both in writing and illustration, this is one for every library.

planting stories the life of librarian and storyteller pura belpre by anika aldamuy denise

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar

The deep impact and life of librarian Pura Belpre is shown in this picture book biography.

The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock

The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola   

A look at an outsider artist who created a world all his own.

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Brilliant, courageous and heart breaking, this book is one that belongs in every library.

This Place 150 Years Retold

This Place: 150 Years Retold 

One of the top graphic novels of the year, this may be Canadian focused, but it speaks to everyone in all nations.

this promise of change by jo ann allen boyce and debbie levy

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

Beautifully written, this heartbreaking and dramatic story of courage in the face of hatred belongs in every library.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Two amazing book creators come together in this nonfiction picture book celebrating the resilience, talents and perseverance of African-Americans throughout history.

Review: Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch (9781492683742)

Set in a modern world where smartphones have been replaced by companion robots shaped like a variety of animals, this middle-grade novel is a dynamic mix of STEM, science fiction and robot battles. Lacey spends most of her time in her basement cave where she works on baku, the smart pets that accompany everyone around. Lacey longs to get into Profectus, the school that feeds people directly into Moncha, the company behind the bakus. She knows her grades are high enough and her test scores are strong, but she gets a rejection letter. It may be because of her mysterious father who left both their family and Moncha when Lacey was five. Then Lacey discovers a ruined baku in a ravine after saving her friend’s new baku from a fall. She works for months to restore the entire machine and when the cat baku finally comes online, Lacey receives an email that she has actually been accepted to Profectus. Jinx, the cat baku, and Lacey make their way into the elite school, but all is not what it seems both at Moncha and with Jinx. 

McCullough has written a middle grade novel that is perfect for devouring quickly. It offers a hint of middle grade romance along with the science fiction and STEM elements. The technology on display is enthralling, making sense as to why it took society by storm. Readers will long for their own baku too. Lacey’s skill with technology and her dedication to it is shown very clearly, honoring the time it takes to both learn and accomplish this high-level work. The baku battles are written with clarity that allows readers to follow them easily and with strong pacing that keeps the action quick and exciting. 

The relationship between Jinx and Lacey is key to the book. Using a cat form as the baku who is rather aloof and does what he wants to do, rather than being perfectly biddable and helpful, makes it really function. Elements in the novel that may not make sense early on, will by the end of the first novel, though many questions are left unanswered for future books in the series. 

A great first in a new series that may make middle graders look up from their phones. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Sourcebooks.

Review: The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer (9781534430686)

Ileana was a storyteller who collected stories, but stories were dangerous in Communist Romania. When her uncle disappears and their apartment was bugged, Ileana’s father destroyed her book of stories that she had been collecting for years in order to protect them all. Then her parents decide to send Ileana off to live with her maternal grandparents whom she has never met. The rural village is very different from the city that Ileana grew up in. After a period of anger, she gradually adjusts to life in there. But there is no escape from the brutality of the Romanian government. Ileana discovers her uncle, broken and ill, hiding nearby. When he is rescued by her grandparents, Ileana is given a valuable set of papers to protect. As the government tightens its hold on the country and on Ileana’s village, she finds herself at the center of her own story where she can choose to be a heroine or not.

Kramer’s middle-grade novel is nearly impossible to summarize because it is so layered and has such depth. The book focuses on the Communist period of Romania’s recent history and yet also has a timeless feel that pulls it back into a world of folklore and tales. The focus on storytelling is beautifully shown, illuminating not only Ileana’s mother’s story but the entire village’s history. There are stories that are dangerous, ones that connect and a single one that must not be told, but serves as the heartbeat of the entire community.

This book has a lot of moments that are almost tropes, like Ileana being sent to live with her grandparents in the mountains without knowing them at all. But in the hands of Kramer, these moments become opportunities to tell a story that is unique. Readers will be surprised again and again by the directions this novel takes and the stories it tells. It’s an entirely fresh and fascinating book.

Proof that stories are powerful, both to connect and to fight back. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

 

Review: Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo

Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo

Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo (9780763694647)

This is the third novel in the Raymie Nightingale series, focused this time on Beverly Tapinski. After her dog dies and is buried under the orange trees, Beverly just leaves town. She catches a ride to Tamaray Beach, not having any plans other than getting out. There she finds herself a job bussing tables in a fish restaurant, even though she hates fish. She also finds herself a place to live with Iola, a friendly woman who lives in a trailer near the ocean. Beverly spends her days working hard enough not to think anymore. She makes a new friend at Zoom City, a boy who gives children a dime to be able to ride the mechanical horse outside the store. Beverly seems to be building a new life, but it’s still connected to the one she left behind even as she celebrates Christmas in July in August, joins a labor dispute, and finds a boy to hold hands with.

There is something very special about DiCamillo’s writing. She writes with a purity and simplicity that is immensely inviting for young readers. In doing so though, she lays the entire world open in front of the reader, filled with longing, loss and finding yourself no matter how far you may run. She also writes amazing secondary characters, who are alive on the page, filled with their own struggles and humanity too. Deftly paced, this book takes place in a very focused setting that belongs specifically to Beverly.

It’s a great feat to have a trilogy of books, each just as strong as the next and each focused on a different character almost entirely. The stories are just as compelling as the writing, skillfully telling the story of a girl’s heart on the page, and allowing readers to fall deeply into that person’s world.

A third winner in a powerful trilogy. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.