Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

Cover image.

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina (9780763690502)

This sequel to the Newbery Award winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears continues the story of Merci, her large multigenerational family, and the difficulties of being a seventh grader. This year, Merci has been assigned to manage the small school store along with Wilson, a boy who is amazing at math. As the two reinvent what their school store can be, adding movie merchandise, they end up also being drawn into selling tickets for the Heart Ball, run by Edna, who has managed to become even bossier than usual. Merci has decided not to go to the dance, but is asked to take photographs and agrees as long as she doesn’t even have to enter the gym. When an accident happens, Merci makes a bad decision and covers up the damage, setting off a series of lies that will involve school and family. With no one to talk to, since her grandfather’s dementia is worsening, Merci has to figure out who to trust to help her.

Fans returning to reconnect with Merci will once again find Medina’s rich depiction of Merci’s extended family, her grandfather’s worsening mental abilities, and the gorgeous warmth and love that keeps them all connected. Medina put Merci in quite a horrible situation in this second novel, where she feels alone and unable to be honest. Medina writes it with such empathy and skill that it is almost painful to read, though that makes the resolution all the more marvelous to experience.

As always, Medina’s writing is skillful and detailed. She truly creates a middle school experience with burgeoning romantic feelings and the changes happening between long-time best friends. Medina doesn’t let this all be negative, instead focusing on the confusion but also on the deeper understanding that can result from going through strange middle school circumstances.

Another marvelous Merci novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park

Cover image.

The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng (9781328515131)

A teacher asks her class to think about what they would save in an emergency. You’re allowed to save one thing, knowing that your family and pets are already safe. What would you save, no matter how big it is. Some of the students very quickly decide what they will save while others find the choices almost impossible. Others pick items that were made by grandparents who have passed away. Some have collections they’d want to rescue. Some are very practical, taking their glasses so that they can see or their wallet so they have money to survive. The class has conversations about what they chose and why, giving everyone lots to think about.

Told in verse, this book is written in the dialogue that happens in the classroom. Park captures this dialogue flawlessly, the voices distinct and clear both in their indecision and their decisiveness. Each person reveals a piece of themselves as they reveal why they chose a certain object. The result is a group of students who understand one another a lot better than when they began.

Park writes with such ease on the page that it is amazing to find out in her Author’s Note that she has used a sijo poetic structure throughout the book that limits the number of syllables per line. Within those parameters, she wrote dialogue that never seems limited or stilted as well as offering space for interjections and conversation.

Immensely clever and thought provoking, this book will be embraced by both teachers and students. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Cover image

Starfish by Lisa Fipps (9781984814500)

Ellie loves to swim in the pool in her backyard. It makes her feel weightless and strong. It’s kind of ironic, since a swimming pool is where she was first bullied about her weight, earning her the enduring nicknames of “Splash” and “Whale.” Her mother has made it clear that she hates how Ellie looks, constantly posting articles on the fridge in the kitchen about calories and weight loss. She portions Ellie’s food, forces her to weigh herself every day, and is the source of all of Ellie’s Fat Girl Rules that Ellie tries to live by. Ellie is about the collapse under all of the expectations in middle school, from her mother, and from the entire society about how fat people should be invisible and yet easily mocked. When Ellie starts to see a therapist with the help of her supportive father, she begins to see that she has every right to take up space in this world. She may not be able to fix everything all at once, but she can start with what she says to herself and what she allows others to say about her.

In her verse novel, Fipps achingly captures the experience of being a fat person in today’s society, and even harder, a fat middle-school girl. She writes the bullying words from classmates, showing how each one takes aim and tries to hurt. Yet Fipps also shows beyond the bullies to the pain they are hiding too. Ellie’s family is beautifully contrasted with that of her new best friend, where no one tells Ellie to stop eating or to be ashamed. Her own family experience is one of drastic differences with her mother and older brother unable to even look at Ellie while her father adores her and supports her exactly the way she is.

Ellie is a great character, full doubts about herself and in need of real help to negotiate her family and society. Her internalization of all of the negative messages is deftly shown by the author and then transformed into a platform for advocacy and self respect. The entire book is full of truth about how fat people are treated and then an honest look at moving beyond that into fighting back.

A middle-grade novel that shows how self worth is created despite what others may think. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

18 Great New Books for Children Coming in April

Here are some of the top new books for children coming out in April. There is a delightful mix of returning characters. well-known authors and new voices. No fooling!

Aven Green Sleuthing Machine by Dusti Bowling

Billy Miller Makes a Wish by Kevin Henkes

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

Girl Warriors: How 25 Young Activists Are Saving the Earth by Rachel Sarah

It Doesn’t Take a Genius by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Leonard, My Life as a Cat by Carlie Sorosiak

Listening to the Stars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovers Pulsars by Jodie Parachini, illustrated by Alexandra Badiu

Merci Suarez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

Middletown by Sarah Moon

A Peacemaker for Warring Nations: The Founding of the Iroquois League by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden

River Magic by Ellen Booraem

Sugar and Spite by Gail D. Villanueva

The Story of Bodri by Hedi Fried, illustrated by Stina Wirsen

Thornwood by Leah Cypress

Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff

War and Millie McGonigle by Karen Cushman

The Way of the Hive by Jay Hosler

Ways to Grow Love by Renee Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata

The Accidental Apprentice by Amanda Foody

Cover image.

The Accidental Apprentice by Amanda Foody (9781534477568)

Barclay has only ever wanted to be an apprentice to the town’s mushroom farmer. He’s worked hard and followed all of the rules after his parents’ death when a Beast attacked their small town. The town has lots of rules, some small and some large. One of the biggest is not to wander into the Woods that surrounds it. Barclay wouldn’t dream of breaking the rules, until one day he finds himself a bit farther into the Woods than he meant to be. It’s when he’s there that he bonds accidentally with a Beast and becomes what his entire town fears: a Lore Keeper. Barclay tries to hide it at first, but is soon run out of town by an angry mob. With the help of another Lore Keeper, he reaches the closest town of Lore Keepers where all he hopes to do is have his bond with the Beast removed. But that isn’t as simple as he hoped and soon he is drawn into a competition to get an apprenticeship with the hopes that the masters can save him and allow him to return to a simple life of mushroom gathering.

Foody’s writing is immediately engaging. She has created a fantasy world that is a delightful mix of everyday elements, a dangerous competition and amazing magic and Beasts. Readers get to learn about Lore Masters alongside Barclay even though he does his best not to be impressed or too interested in their ways. The world in particularly well built with elements that all work to form a fascinating and unique whole. The beast-bonding element is interesting and has collectible and connection elements similar to Pokemon but much more physical and with shared abilities that the person receives too.

Barclay is one of those protagonists who has a completely different take on what he is experiencing than the reader will. Even as the reader is delighting in the elements of the Lore Keeper society, Barclay is often whining or looking for a way out. Viola is a great foil for Barclay, someone who was raised as a Lore Keeper and yet has found herself asking questions about their world too. She and the other characters bring diversity to the story, so I often found myself longing for this to be her story instead.

The first in a series, this book is a wild fantasy romp. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Simon & Schuster.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd

Cover image.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter (9781338568912)

Maggie discovers that she has severe allergies that make her sneeze and also break out in hives when she interacts with any animals with fur or feathers. But Maggie is determined to find a pet that will work for her. She starts with a list of potential pets. The fish died too quickly, the lizard loved her brothers more, hedgehogs are illegal, and some animals just aren’t interesting. Meanwhile at home, they are expecting a new baby in a few months and Maggie often feels like the odd one out since her younger brothers are twins and always doing things together but without her. Then a new girl moves into the neighborhood. Maggie and Claire become close friends, until Claire gets a puppy of her own, the ultimate betrayal. Perhaps there’s a different solution, and all it will take is one mouse to test out!

There is so much empathy and heart in this middle-grade graphic novel. It captures the essence of being a middle grader, of not quite fitting in yet and feeling emotions deeply. Friendships are difficult, full of misunderstandings and possibilities. Add into that severe allergies and a growing family, and you have a book that is full of challenges to navigate. Maggie is a strong protagonist, full of ideas and a hope that her allergies can be overcome somehow.

The art by Nutter is colorful and inviting. It depicts a busy and loving family, Maggie’s physical allergy reactions, and then her newfound connections with people who just happen to be animals she can be around.

A sunny and welcome look at allergies, friendships and family. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. by David Levithan

Cover image

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. by David Levithan (9781984848598)

When Aidan disappears one day, Lucas and his family spend all their time searching for him. The police and the entire community come out, looking for Aidan. After six days of being gone, Aidan suddenly reappears in the attic of their house. He tells an incredible story of entering a fantasy world through the cupboard in the attic. Lucas, his younger brother, desperately wants to believe him. The two spend the darkness before they fall asleep talking about where Aidan was. But their parents don’t believe him at all and the police, while not pushing for him to tell the truth, clearly see his tale as a coping mechanism. When his story is accidentally released by the police, the entire school begins mocking Aidan. Lucas sticks by his brother’s side, though underneath is still not sure what to believe.

Levithan has published books for teens primarily and this time turns his talent to a book for middle graders. It’s a book that asks a lot of questions and allows them to linger, hanging in the air without resolution for some time. It’s a book that forces readers to ask themselves what they believe in, what they would do, what choices they would make in this situation. As always, Levithan’s prose is engaging and his pacing is skillful, something that is particularly important in a book like this, not allowing it to drag but carrying the book forward.

The central question of believing his brother places Lucas in a precarious position. He finds himself knowing more than anyone else about Aidan’s claimed experience and then also in the public having to not reveal all that he knows. He is a great younger brother, standing with his older sibling despite the mockery they both face. Told from Lucas’ viewpoint, the book relies on his take on what is happening, what he himself witnesses and his love for his brother.

An enticing book of fantasy and mystery. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Alfred A. Knopf.

Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz

Cover image

Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale (9781536201222)

The Newbery-Medal winner brings us into the world of ancient Greece with her new novel. Rhaskos is a slave working in a Greek household where he spends his days picking up horse manure. He doesn’t mind the hard work, but he’d much rather be drawing the horses around him. He works in secret, steadily building his craft, inspired by a painting his master owns. Melisto is a girl hated by her mother, abused by her, but someone who has grown up used to wealth and luxury. She is precious, particularly for the connections she will make when she marries. She is selected to serve the goddess Artemis for a year, living wild and free for the first time in her life. By the time our two protagonists meet, one of them has died, though their destinies are entwined with one another.

Schlitz has created a masterpiece of a novel where she blends verse and prose, moving freely between the two. It is a complex novel with elements of Greek society explained, wars imminent and friendships being forged. Schlitz adds the voices of the god Hermes to the mix, also including the philosophical musings of Socrates who appears as himself in the novel. The book is marvelous, each of the elements working to support the whole and weaving together into a tantalizing tale that is surprising and fascinating.

Schlitz’s writing is exceptional. She explores ancient Greece along its dusty paths and roadways, showing readers how it felt to be these characters in these times. She speaks as Hermes and Socrates in voices that are unique to them and feel perfectly suited. The question of the value of a life runs throughout the book along with looking closely at suffering and pain. These deep questions and philosophies are ideally suited to the world Schlitz has created. They are enhanced by the illustrations that show various Greek artifacts and explain what they were used for.

Deep, dramatic and classical, this book is the best of historical fiction for children.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

13 Upcoming March Children’s Books

Here are 13 books for children in elementary and middle school that are being released in March. Lots of new faces and old friends. Enjoy!

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated by Michelle Mee Nutter

Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale

Amina’s Song by Hena Khan

The House That Wasn’t There by Elana K. Arnold

Infinity by Pablo Bernasconi

The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson

The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst by Jaclyn Moriarty

These Unlucky Stars by Gillian McDunn

Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

We Belong by Cookie Hiponia Everman

Your Heart, My Sky by Margarita Engle