A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Cover image for A Kind of Spark.

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (9780593374252)

Addie is neurodivergent just like her older sister. She has had good luck with teachers at school until she gets Ms. Murphy, who clearly doesn’t appreciate having Addie in her class. Meanwhile, Addie’s previous best friend has found someone else to be friends with, a girl that bullies Addie constantly. The new girl in class though clearly wants to be Addie’s friend and is also willing to stand up and defend her. As Addie navigates friendship and school, she learns of her village’s history of witch trials and the women who were killed. She is determined to have a memorial created for the women who were killed, many of whom were likely different from the norm, just like Addie and her sister.

Written by a neurodivergent author, this middle grade novel won the Peter Blue Book Award for Best Story of the Year. It is clear to see why. This portrayal of being autistic is filled with compassion and empathy, but also doesn’t apologize for being different instead pointing out how important different perspectives and voices are. Written in the first person from Addie’s point of view, readers get to understand how it feels to need to control autistic behaviors and the toll it takes.

Addie explains directly how it feels to be autistic, how it is to have to suppress stimulation behaviors, and what having a meltdown feels like to the person having one. This book offers everyone a way to see underneath autistic presentation to the person underneath who has so much to say and contribute. This is done simply by allowing us inside Addie to deeply understand her as a human.

A compelling look inside autism and activism. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

It Was Supposed to Be Sunny by Samantha Cotterill

It Was Supposed to Be Sunny by Samantha Cotterill (9780525553472)

Leila’s birthday was planned to be an outdoor celebration until the storm hit and it had to be moved inside. Leila doesn’t deal well with changes, but with the support of her mother and her service dog, she manages to rethink the day more than once! They will still have the Wish Jar rather than singing Happy Birthday, a sparkly craft to replace balloons, and extra icing on the cake. The unicorn races moved to an indoor course and were still lots of fun. Until…a crash happened and the cake ended up on the floor. Now the schedule is ruined and Leila takes a break with her dog. After the break, it is Leila who comes up with the solution to continue the birthday party even without cake to share.

Another in the Little Senses series, this book is particularly designed to reflect the experience of children on the autism spectrum as well as those with sensory processing issues. Cotterill’s text is simple and pace of the story is fast. This helps with understanding Leila’s reactions as she is hit multiple times with big changes to her plans. She also demonstrates how to use techniques and support to face change, to remind herself that it turned out alright in previous experiences, and to find a new and positive way forward.

The art is friendly and bright, showing characters of various races and featuring a Black child and mother at its center. Leila’s emotions can be read easily in the images, showing her excitement, worry, sadness and happiness in turns.

Another winner in a series that speaks to so many children. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Dial Books for Young Readers.

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit (9780525554189)

Vivy first learned about the knuckleball pitch from VJ Capello, a major-league pitcher. Now she can throw it consistently and has caught the eye of a local coach for a youth baseball league. Vivy desperately wants to play, but she has a mother who is worried that Vivy is the only girl on the team and that her autism may be an issue. Vivy reaches out via letters to VJ again, seeking his advice. He doesn’t answer her, but she keeps on writing until suddenly he replies! The two begin to correspond together about pitching, baseball, and Vivy’s life in general. When an accident happens on the mound, Vivy may be permanently benched, especially if her mother gets her way.

Kapit is active in the neurodiversity movement and writes from a place of experience about Vivy’s struggles with autism. This debut novel has a sense of confidence with strong writing and a great main character. The entire book is written in letters between VJ and Vivy. A particularly strong part of the book is when their relationship has become strained and then they stop communicating. It’s tense and sorrowful, and very skillfully done.

The character of Vivy is particularly strong. Her struggles with autism show how it impacts her life but doesn’t prevent her from doing things. The overprotective mother figure is also well done, not seen as an enemy but as simply a person trying to keep Vivy safe. The family dynamics, dynamics on the baseball team and Vivy’s relationship via letter with VJ are all beautifully done with lots of empathy but also expectations.

A great book that hits a home run! Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: This Beach Is Loud! by Samantha Cotterill

This Beach Is Loud! by Samantha Cotterill

This Beach Is Loud! by Samantha Cotterill (9780525553458)

A little boy is so excited to be headed to the beach with his father! He even made breakfast, packed and got dressed before his father woke up. On the way to the beach, he keeps up an excited chatter. But once they get there, the beach is crowded and loud. They set up their umbrella and towel a little apart from the crowd, but it’s still too sandy and hot. The boy wants to go home, right now! But his patient father helps him breathe and count. They set up a quiet fort and take some time. Soon everyone is ready to build sandcastles and have some ice cream together.

Cotterill looks at sensory overload in this picture book in the new Little Senses series. Children on the autism spectrum or highly sensitive children will recognize their response to new situations that are loud and crowded here. It is dealt with using sensitivity and exercises that are soothing and give back some control to the child. The tone here is reassuring that children can do it, with a little help.

The illustrations are bright and friendly. On the title page, readers will notice that the family has been planning and working up to going to the beach for awhile by using a chart. The noises of the beach are shown as overwhelming and loud, the chatter in the car forms the hills along the way, and the eventual shared noise making is smaller and more enjoyable. It’s a clever way to use words to create the environment around the characters and show the impact of noise.

A welcome subject for all libraries, this one is also a good read. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

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.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (InfoSoup)

The author of Otherbound returns with a stunning science fiction novel for teens. Denise and her mother are ready to leave their apartment, but her mother won’t move fast enough. She is trying to wait for Denise’s sister, Iris. Now they are not going to reach the shelter in time and that means that they probably won’t survive the comet hitting Earth. As they drive the empty streets to their temporary shelter, desperately late, a chance encounter leads them on another path. Instead of a temporary shelter, they are offered shelter in a generation ship that will wait out the comet hit and then leave earth. Now it is up to Denise to figure out how to fix everything, to find her sister in destroyed and flooded Amsterdam, and even more importantly get them all a spot on the generation ship before it takes off. But who is going to take Denise who is autistic and her mother who struggles with drug addiction?

Duyvis set this book in her native Amsterdam and throughout the novel, one can see her love for her nation and her city. Yes, she destroys much of it, but the spirit of the people is clear on the page as is the beauty of the city even through its destruction. The science here is done just right, with a clear connection to today’s technology but also taking it leaps ahead, allowing readers to truly believe it is 2035. This book is not afraid of asking difficult questions about disabilities and addiction and whether only the perfect deserve to survive in this situation.

The book is beautifully written, with an impressive protagonist who shows that disabilities are no reason that you can’t be a survivor and even more so, a heroine. Denise is a beautiful mixture of autistic behaviors when she is pushed but also bravery and resilience. The book is an intelligent mix of adventure and survival with a compelling question of what could make Denise worthy enough to stay. There are additional ethical questions throughout, including how far one would go to save a loved one.

A brilliant science fiction novel that offers diversity and a powerful story. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Abrams.

 

Review: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

rain reign

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rose loves homonyms.  She spends her days looking for new ones to add to her list, and then once she gets home adding them or rewriting the entire list if she runs out of space.  Her dog Rain has a name that has two homonyms: reign and rein, which is why she picked it.  Her father also gave her Rain on a rainy night.  He found Rain wandering around after he left the bar one night.  Rain is one of the best things in Rose’s life, since her father spends most evenings drinking at the bar and Rose spends them alone.  Luckily, she also has her uncle in her life.  He takes her to school, helps her find new homonyms, and protects her when necessary from her father when he loses patience with Rose.  Then a fierce storm hits their town and Rose’s father lets Rain out into the storm and she disappears.  Rose’s father refuses to explain why he let Rain out in a storm and also refuses to help Rose find her dog.  It is up to Rose to find Rain so she devises her own plan and calls on her uncle for help.  But when she finds Rain, she also discovers that Rain has other owners and Rose has to make a heartbreaking choice about right and wrong and love.

Martin captures a truly dysfunctional family on the page here.  Rose’s father is brutal, cruel and a constant threat in her life.  At the same time, the book glimmers with hope all of the time.  Rose herself is not one to dwell on the shortcomings of her life, preferring to immerse herself in her words, her dog and her time with her uncle.  Martin manages to balance both the forces of love and fear in this book, providing hope for children living with parents like this but also not offering a saccharine take on what is happening. 

Rose is an amazing character.  She talks about having Asperger’s syndrome and OCD.  She is the only child in her class with a full-time aide and it is clear from her behaviors in class that she needs help.  Yet again Martin balances this.  She shows how Rose attempts to reach out to her classmates and then how Rain helps make that possible and how Rose manages to use her own disability as a bridge to help others cope in times of loss.  It’s a beautiful and important piece of the story.

A dark book in many ways, this book shines with strong writing, a heroic young female protagonist and always hope.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.

Review: The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

real boy

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

The author of Breadcrumbs has returned with another beautiful fairy tale.  Oscar was taken in by the last known magician, Master Caleb, and in return works for him as his hand.  That means that Oscar manages the harvesting and preparation of the many herbs and plants Master Caleb uses in his magic.  Oscar is very happy with his life below the shop, accompanied only by the cats that live there too.  The only problem is Wolf, Master Caleb’s apprentice, who brutally teases Oscar any chance he gets.  But the world around Oscar is quickly changing.  The Barrow, the forest of ancient wizard wood trees that encircles the city, has also begun to be affected.  It may be that the very magic itself is changing too. 

Ursu weaves such beauty into her books.  She lingers over small things, taking the time to build a world in which her characters live.  One examples of this is her description of the Barrow early in the book:

The trees had magic in their leaves, their berries, and their bark.  Plants and shrubs and flowers grew everywhere; purplish-greenish moss crawled on the rocks; improbable mushrooms sprang from the soil in tiny little groves of their own.

The entire book is infused with a sense of rich detail and layering.  Oscar’s own small world below stairs is just as lovingly described and detailed until one longs to be the hand of a magician too and have cats for friends.

Oscar himself is an amazing character.  Because the book is told from his point of view, readers will understand him easily, but Oscar struggles with human beings, emotions and understanding what is meant.  When he is forced out from his snug workspace, the world becomes confusing.  He holds himself stiffly, hates looking people in the eye, and struggles to be social.  Clearly on the autism spectrum, Oscar has unique abilities too, allowing him to see what others do not by paying close attention. 

This amazing fantasy novel is one of the best reads for middle graders this year.  Get your hands on this one!  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Walden Pond Press.

Mockingbird

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Released April 15, 2010.

In this small novel, Erskine has combined the tragedy of a school shooting with the unique voice of Asperger’s syndrome.  Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has been killed in a school shooting along with others.  As Caitlin struggles to understand the emotions around her and the feelings she herself has, she has to do it for the first time without her brother helping her.  She tries to do it without flapping her hands, without burying herself in her father’s sweater, but she does retreat to her safe places like under the dresser in Devon’s room.  Her world is black and white, just like her award-winning drawings, color only confuses things.  But as the days go by, Caitlin begins to connect with other people in new ways and perhaps through her own literal understanding of things she just might find closure and help others find it too.

I don’t feel that I can encapsulate this book in a paragraph.  It is so much larger than I can describe, so much more profound and uplifting.  Erskine has taken two ideas that seem very divergent and created something amazing from them.  The two become more vital and important joined into a single book than they would have been separately.  Caitlin’s own grief is explored in such a literal and detached way that it becomes even more painful to witness.  Her inability to speak her emotions hands them over to the reader to feel for her.  We all become a part of her syndrome and feel it to our bones.

Through the lens of Caitlin readers also get to witness the grief of others.  Get to wince when Caitlin puts something too bluntly.  Cry when she is unable to understand.  Rejoice when connection is made, no matter how small.  Through Caitlin we get to see difference as a sliding scale that we too fit on somewhere.

This is a book about one family, one tragedy, one girl, but it reaches far beyond that.  It is a book about surviving, about scrambling for connections, about living life in color.  It is about fear, about being alone, and about reaching out despite how very hard it is.

I think we are going to hear a lot about this book with its large scope of ideas offered in a small package through the eyes of a brilliant girl.  I hope we do hear a lot about it.  It should be read in classrooms, discussed and embraced. 

Beautifully written, this book has the power to unite.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from Advanced Reader Copy provided by Philomel.