Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

Cover image for Watch Over Me

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour (9780593108970)

Mila has aged out of the foster care system and has found a job teaching at a remote farm in Northern California. The farm is owned by a couple who have taken in over 40 foster children over the years as well as offering internships, like the one Mila has gotten. Mila finds herself on a beautiful farm and warmly welcomed by the owners. She only has one pupil, 9-year-old Lee, who comes from a traumatized background just as Mila does. But no one told Mila about the ghosts on the farm, about how they would fill dance across the fields and play games together at night. As Mila gets more involved with helping on the farm, learning about the flowers and crops, and helping Lee face his trauma, she finds that her own memories are threatening to overwhelm her as her past continues to haunt her.

This new book from the Printz-award winner is another dynamite read. It’s a novel with such an unusual setting, haunting and remote. It echoes with elements of Jane Eyre and Rebecca while standing completely modern and unique. It may not be classically gothic with its warm and sunny rooms, merry meals together, and companionship, but other moments are pure gothic with the sea, the cliffs, and the ghosts. It’s a tantalizing mixture of sun and shadow.

Mila is a character to fall hard for. She is clearly traumatized by what happened to her before she entered the foster care system, setting herself apart from others even as she longs to be closer to people. She is careful, conscientious, and amazingly kind, everything that her past has her thinking she is not. She is a marvel of layers that the novel reveals with gothic precision at just the right times.

Gorgeously written and filled with icy darkness and glowing warmth, this novel is a triumph. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley

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Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley (9781536207507)

June Bug lives with her mother in the house on Trowbridge Road that everyone thinks is haunted. Her father died of AIDS, leaving June Bug with her mother who is scared of germs and obsessed with being clean. That means that she never leaves the house and food can be scarce. June Bug’s uncle brings her food once a week, limited because her mother won’t allow him to come more often, so she is often hungry as the supplies run out. Then Ziggy arrives to live with his grandmother down the road. June Bug watches them from a nearby tree, dreaming of being friends and sharing the food that his grandmother prepares for him throughout the day. Ziggy too has experienced his own troubles, immediately getting the attention of the local bullies. As June Bug and Ziggy meet and become friends, their troubles mount, but they have one another as a safe place to share and heal, because at times home is not that place at all.

Set in the mid-80’s, this novel for middle graders is written with such beauty. Pixley creates a neighborhood that is lovingly shown as a mix of safety, imaginative play and also reveals the harshness of reality too. From the foundations of a fallen house where magic blossoms to the shelter of a large tree that can be scrambled up and down, this is a neighborhood seen through the eyes of two creative children who create their own reality together to care for one another.

The two protagonists are children who have experience abuse of various kinds and find kindred spirits in one another. They have both been hungry, both been physically hurt, and both lived with emotional abuse. They are both survivors, using their imagination and the neighborhood itself as places to escape to together. The power of love soars through this book, in extended families who offer care and shelter, in neighbors who reach out and take action. It’s a book about being able to ask for help and the positive change that can come when aid arrives.

Wrenching, powerful and filled with hope, this book is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 11-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick.

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (9781984815682)

Della has always been taken care of by her older sister, Suki. The two of them stayed together after their mother went to prison and they moved in with her mother’s boyfriend. That boyfriend did something horrible to Della, so the sisters fled. Now they are in foster care together, being really taken care of for the first time in their lives. Suki has always been Della’s protector so what happens when Suki suddenly is the one who needs help and caring for? Della is willing to talk in court about what happened to her, but Suki wants to be silent. Della is good at being loud, sometimes being too loud or swearing in class. It’s time for Della to use her voice to stand up for what they both need, but also to listen to her sister in a new way too.

This book is seriously one of the best of the year. Period. Written by an author who is consistently impressive, this is a book that is stunningly good. Bradley gives a voice to those who have experienced child abuse, showing them that they are more than the abuse, more than that trauma. It is a book that doesn’t duck what happened to these sisters, but builds towards the awful truth, warning readers that it is coming and then dealing with it when it happens. It removes the stigma of the trauma in a way that is full of compassion and empathy, giving space for assault and for the recovery from it.

Bradley’s writing is exceptional. She does so much with the voice of Della, making her both a clarion call to be heard and listened to, but also giving her a realistic vocabulary of swear words and a way to deal with them in a book for children. This book is beyond impressive. It is important and vital: a book to be shared with children and adults, an example of what children’s literature can be at its highest level.

Bravo! One of the best of the year, if not one of the best of all time. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan

Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan

Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan (9781547603299)

Allison has run away from home without much of a plan. She finds herself sleeping in the garden shed behind what seems to be an abandoned house. But Marla lives there, an elderly woman with dementia. Marla thinks that Allison is her old friend Toffee. Allison manages to start living in the house with Marla. She meets a local girl who helps her get paid for doing homework for others. As the story continues, both Marla and Allison tell their complete stories, ones that they keep hidden from others. The two become closer, telling one another their dreams and secrets, until one day it all falls apart.

Crossan has created a verse novel for teens that is a vital mix of hope and found families. She grapples with difficult subjects like physical and emotional abuse and the loneliness of the elderly. The blend of darkness and hope makes for a compelling read that invites readers into Marla’s old house. The verse is a gorgeous mix of frank storytelling about abuse and wistful longing for a future that makes sense.

The friendship between Allison and Marla unfolds beautifully before the reader, starting in a place of doubt and questions and becoming a lifeline for them both. Marla is not prickly or doddering. Rather she is fully realized as a person, looking at times for a stiff drink and always willing to dance. Allison is a survivor, seeking her own way forward. Bright and strong, she figures out a path as unique as herself.

Another amazing novel from a master storyteller. Appropriate for ages 13-16,

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti (9781534426979)

Sydney is the daughter of the famous Lila Shore, an actress who did an iconic sex scene. Sydney lives most of the year in Seattle attending a private school, living in a dorm, and visiting her grandmother. But over the summer, Sydney heads to San Francisco to spend months with her mother, who never seems to actually have time to spend with Sydney. Lila lives in Jake’s house, dating him and staying for free. It’s a house near the beach with cliff views, a house that is often fogged in, a house full of secrets and violence. Jake pays a lot of attention to Sydney, as does a construction worker at a neighboring house. Sydney is creeped out by the sudden attention to what she is wearing, how she looks and innuendos about what she does. However, she doesn’t mind the attention from Nicco, a sweet boy she meets on the beach, who captures lines and moments from each day in his journal. As the summer goes on though, the tension grows towards a foreshadowed tragedy that is almost inevitable.

In this slow burn of of thriller mystery, Caletti focuses on how unwanted male attention impacts teen girls, both in the way they act but even more importantly on the way they view themselves. With an even brighter light than our general society, Caletti uses the intensity of fame to capture society’s objectification of women and finding value in the physical rather than the internal.

The book works on several levels with the thriller being steadily foreshadowed by the court documents listed at the beginning of each chapter. The mystery of what happened, the steadily build of tension, and the intensity of the revealing scene. It also works as a deep work of feminist literature, insisting that the reader notice what is going on, notice the impact that male attention has, and notice that something must be done to change this.

An intense feminist novel for teens that insists on being noticed. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Simon Pulse.

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

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.

Review: Furious Thing by Jenny Downham

Furious Thing by Jenny Downham

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.

Review: Chirp by Kate Messner

Chirp by Kate Messner

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.

Review: Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

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.