A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese (9781250243010)
Sam has moved with her older sister Caitlin to stay with her Aunt Vicky, a person they had never met before. They arrive in rural Oregon to a small house with a chicken coop and a large woods nearby. Aunt Vicky welcomes them warmly along with her wife. Sam knows how to stay invisible most of the time, hiding behind her sister’s ability to speak with grown ups. When her aunt gives her a card game, Sam loves the characters on the cards and starts to see a talking fox and squirrels nearby. The fox sends her on a quest for the Golden Acorn, a prize that will allow Sam and her sister to go back home. As Sam starts the quests, she soon learns that showing the fox trust means starting a cycle of abuse once more.
Reese entwines fantasy elements into this book that shows the deep consequences of abuse on a young person. Sam is desperate to get back in touch with her mother and father, though they were abusive parents. The abuse is shown in pieces of comments that Sam remembers, and it does not play out in front of the reader. This results in a haunting echo of abuse that carries through the entire book and all of the characters.
Against that, the game is afoot with a sly fox who manipulates Sam, much as her own father did when she lived with him. The squirrels add a needed merriment to the book with their antics and also show a lot of concern and support for Sam. Yet they are clearly trapped in their own abusive situation with the fox too.
Rich and layered, this mix of fantasy and stark reality is powerful. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Henry Holt and Co.
Furious Thing by Jenny Downham (9781338540659)
Lex is angry almost all the time. Her anger burns through her for reasons she can’t explain even to herself. Her mother’s fiance, John, is convinced that there is something wrong with her and that she should be medicated. Her mother is distant but loving, unwilling to stand up to John about anything much at all. He tells Lex that bad things happen when she is around and that seems to be true. Her little sister fell out of a tree and hurt her head because she was climbing with Lex as their parents fought. At school, Lex throws a chair through a window in a rage after auditioning for a drama production. Lex knows she isn’t a monster though at times that might be just what her world needs. She only has two more years at home and even though she tries, she can’t be perfect enough to make John happy for more than a few hours. As her mother’s relationship with John hits a bad patch, Lex begins to find her voice and reach out to tell others what is really happening.
On the shortlist for the Costa Book Award for youth, this novel captures the horrors of living in a controlling relationship filled with verbal and emotional abuse. The novel allows the abuse to be revealed gradually, so that readers begin by wondering about Lex and her mental health for different reasons than the true causes of the problem. It is this slow unveiling that really makes the abuse all the more disturbing and allows readers to see how it hides in plain sight. The effect is entirely riveting. It’s a book you can’t look away from.
Lex is a tremendous accomplishment as a heroine. She is abused but not cowed, wild with rage but also full of love. She is unwilling to be told who she is or should be, yet also pushes back on things that would help her like having friends and doing better in school. Her relationship with her stepbrother is a vital component to the book, a glimpse of a young abusive male. Readers will be stunned to watch as Lex realizes the abuse she too is caught up in and will relish her strength in walking away.
A stunning novel about being righteously raging as a young woman in our society. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Chirp by Kate Messner (9781547602810)
Mia is moving to Vermont where her grandmother has a cricket farm. Her arm is still recovering from being broken after a fall from a balance beam, but her mother insists that she go to summer camps. Mia chooses to attend a maker camp and also a warrior camp that will have her climbing rock walls and swinging from rings. As Mia makes new friends and finds new fans for her grandmother’s cricket treats, she is also helping by making a business plan for her grandmother’s farm. There are strange things happening at the farm though as disaster after disaster befalls the delicate crickets. Her grandmother insists that she is being sabotaged, but could her grandmother actually be losing her memory? Mia and her friends tackle the mystery, build up the business, and learn to speak out along the way too.
Messner writes a middle grade novel that neatly embeds sexual harassment and abuse information into the story. In fact, that is at the heart of Mia’s injury and also at the heart of many women and girls that are in the book too. This book is deeply about survival as a girl, a woman and as a cricket. It’s about finding your voice, using your power and finding ways to get justice. It is also about the incredible bravery it takes to be a survivor, whether you have spoken out yet or not.
Messner has written a compelling mystery to solve alongside the social justice. There are great suspects, more than one potential reason for the problems, and finally a dramatic resolution as well. Add in a science competition and you have one amazing Vermont summer filled with the crunch of crickets.
A great look at friendship, speaking out and taking back power. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes (9781629798813)
Grimes writes a searing verse memoir of her years growing up with a mother suffering from alcoholism and schizophrenia. Removed from her mother at a young age and separated from her older sister, Grimes found a loving foster family where she discovered the power of writing her feelings and experiences out on paper. She visited her mother occasionally during that time and they were eventually reunited when her mother got sober and remarried. But it wasn’t that simple or easy. Grimes was trapped in a home filled with a cycle of addiction, mental illness and sexual abuse from her stepfather. Told with a strong sense of hope and resilience, this book is a brave look back into a traumatic childhood.
Grimes has created a book that carries readers back into her previous experiences, showing how she survived, how writing helped, and how she found hope and strength in people other than her mother. Grimes has recreated some of her childhood and teen journals which were destroyed. In these small glimpses told in the voice of her youth she shows her confusion and strength vividly.
Throughout the book, Grimes mentions that she doesn’t have clear memories of much of her youth due to the trauma that was inflicted upon her. Her willingness to explore such painful subjects even though her memories are incomplete or entirely gone is a concrete example of her resilient spirit and hope.
A powerful and poetic look at trauma and the building of a new life. Appropriate for ages 16-adult.
Reviewed from ARC provided by WordSong.
Free Lunch by Rex Ogle (9781324003601)
Rex is starting sixth grade hungry and with a black eye. At school, he has an English teacher who dislikes him on sight. He isn’t in any classes with his best friends either, since he is in high level ones that they make fun of. He also is on free lunch, which he has to announce to a school worker every day. His home life though is even worse. Living with almost no furniture, no bed, and with a mother who is verbally and physically abusive, Rex struggles to find any moments of safety. His mother’s boyfriend beats her up regularly, something that Rex feels responsible for as well as helpless to stop. Still, this book does have hope that things can improve and change, but there is no magic bullet out of poverty and abuse.
Ogle writes of his own childhood in this very personal book. He doesn’t shrink away from any of the tough subjects, showing the layers of anger and abuse that a family can have, the variety of triggers and the inability to make it stop. He writes of a grandmother who served as a place of hope and refuge, but also was a person who angered his mother. Ogle tells of hunger in a way that only someone who has experienced it can speak of it, hunger for food but also hunger for love and understanding in his family.
There is a rawness to Ogle’s writing, an honesty that shines on the page. His weaving in of hope makes reading this book possible, not leaving the reader to languish in the haunting and horrible world he writes of. That hope is vital for the character of Rex too, it keeps him making new friends, finding a way forward, and being willing to change himself to make his family better.
Profoundly honest and full of heart, this book is one that all teachers and librarians need to read to understand the children they serve. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Norton Young Readers.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (9780525647072)
Jam lives in Lucille, a place cleansed of monsters by the angels who still live among them. There are no monsters in Lucille any more. But just as Jam is learning about the original angels, who looked more like monsters than humans, she accidentally releases a creature from her mother’s painting. The creature is Pet, who has crossed dimensions to hunt a monster. Pet reveals that the monster is living in Jam’s best friend, Redemption’s house. Now Jam must figure out how to enlist Redemption’s help without accusing his family of doing something terrible and harboring a monster. Or perhaps Pet is the real monster as he hunts without remorse? Jam must learn the truth and then get others to believe her.
Wow. What a book! The voice here is what hits you first, unique and strong, it speaks in a Nigerian-laced rhythm that creates its own magic immediately. Add in the power of Jam herself, a black, trans girl who often chooses not to speak aloud but with sign language. Then you have the amazement of Pet, the nightmare creature who hunts for monsters but also explains the importance of not hiding from the truth. Surround it all with families who love and care and are wonderfully different from one another.
Emezi leads readers through this wonder of a book, filled with LGBTQIA+ moments that are so normal they become something very special. They insist that you understand what is meant by a monster and by an angel, that one can be disguised as another, that monsters are normal people, but must not be tolerated. It’s a book about abuse, about standing up, about angels and demons, and about humans.
An incredible middle-grade fantasy full of power, monsters and beauty. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Make Me a World.
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.
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson (9780698195264)
On the 20th anniversary year of her ground-breaking teen novel Speak, Anderson has written a searing book of poetry that chronicles her own journey to having a voice and speaking out. Thanks to the subject matter of Speak, Anderson is trusted by many of the teens she speaks before to hear their own stories of abuse and rape. Surely over the decades, something has changed. Has it? In this nonfiction work of verse, Anderson opens up about her own childhood and parents, her own experience with sexual assault and rape, the sexual harassment of college campuses from students and professors alike, and so much more. Her book is a call to action, to rage alongside her, and to not be silent.
Anderson’s poetry slams into you like a freight train. She does have some poems that are subtle and more introspective, but the ones that rush and insist are the best here. Her anger fuels this entire book, her call to be better, to raise sons who do right, to speak and shout and yell. She is so honest on these pages, allowing the teens and others who have spoken to her to have space in the book too. In a book that could have felt like too much pain, it is instead action oriented and forceful.
Anderson’s verse is incredibly skilled. She tells poignant stories, both her own and other people’s. She shares insights, yells at those she evaded once, demands changes and shows how very vital one angry voice can be for change. This is a book that every woman should read, teens and adults. It’s one to return to for fuel to fight on when you are spent.
Brilliant, courageous and heart breaking, this book is one that belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 14-adult.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Penguin Young Readers.
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams (9781481465809)
Genesis keeps a list of things that she hates about herself. Some of it is the color of her skin and the way that others tease her about how dark she is, unlike her light-skinned mother with good hair. Some of it is about the way that their family keeps getting kicked out of the houses they live in because they don’t pay the rent. Some of it is the way her father speaks about her when he is drunk. Some of it is based on her grandmother’s hurtful comments about Genesis. So after being kicked out of yet another house, Genesis’ family moves to a more affluent neighborhood outside of Detroit. Genesis discovers that she likes her new school and even finds herself making real friends for the first time. The house is the nicest they have ever lived in too. But other things aren’t any better. Her father keeps on drinking. Genesis is still as dark-skinned as ever, but she has plans to try to lighten her skin, thinking that will make her entire life better. As Genesis discovers her own talents, she must learn that learning to accept herself is a large piece of moving forward in life.
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. Williams reveals the deep pain and lasting scars that cruel words and verbal abuse can have on a young person, particularly when it is about a physical characteristic that is beyond their control. With Genesis’ parents caught in a marriage filled with anger and substance abuse, Williams offers other adult figures and also young peers who model a way forward for Genesis.
Genesis’ growth is organic and well paced. She learns things steadily but has set backs that end up with her damaging herself. She is a complicated character who looks at life through a specific lens due to her upbringing. She is constantly judging others before they can judge her, placing distance where there could be connections, and making poor decisions when offered compliments. Still, she is a good friend, someone willing to look beyond the surface and see what others can’t. But only when she allows herself to do that. Her complexity is what makes this book really shine.
Strong and vibrant, this book takes on the subject of skin tone in the African-American community as well as other heavy topics. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Atheneum.