Starfish by Lisa Fipps

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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.

Every Single Lie by Rachel Vincent

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Every Single Lie by Rachel Vincent (9781547605231)

Beckett is the girl that everyone looks at when she walks through the halls. She’s the girl with the addict of a father, who supposedly found him after he killed himself. There is some truth to the rumors, but Beckett also knows there are a lot of truths being hidden from her. After coming to school late, Beckett hides in the girls’ locker room that is undergoing remodeling until her class starts. That’s when she notices the trail of blood leading from the showers to a gym bag, a bag that holds a dead newborn baby. Soon rumors are swirling about Beckett again, this time insisting that she is the baby’s mother. While Beckett knows the truth about herself, she begins to think that those around her may be more involved than they might admit. With her mother the lead police investigator on the case, Beckett finds herself under lots of scrutiny, needing to prove the baby is not hers, but also realizing that due to other evidence that it must be someone close to her.

Vincent has created a riveting book that show the power of rumors in a small town, escalated and empowered by social media. Beckett stands no chance at staunching the wild rumors, with people in town even willing to say the most vile things directly to her face. She becomes more and more isolated, even as her own investigation into the baby’s death becomes more intense. The writing of this novel is particularly skilled, the tension so tight at times that it almost hurts. The final reveal of the truth is satisfying, since all the pieces click in place nicely.

At times, Beckett seems to be the lone truth teller in her family and in the entire town, standing against the rumors that almost drown her. She is profoundly strong, someone not only unwilling to bow before the social pressure but also someone who must know the truth, no matter how shattering it might be. Her relationships with her family members and her boyfriend are well drawn and show the impact of the loss of a father only a few months earlier.

Gripping and tense, this rumor-filled novel calls for us all to do better by one another. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

Cover for Darius the Great Deserves Better

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram (9780593108239)

This second book about Darius takes place after he returns home from his family’s visit to Iran. A lot has changed since he made his first real friend in Iran, someone he still talks with often and considers his best friend. Now Darius is on the school soccer team and has a boyfriend. He works at a tea store that his boyfriend’s father owns, immersing himself in something he loves. But his family is struggling with money and with his father taking more jobs where he has to travel, his grandmothers move in to help. Darius can’t help but notice how different his grandmothers are than his mother’s family in Iran. He works to connect with them, but doesn’t make much headway. His relationship may not be as great as he though either, since Landon wants to move a lot faster than Darius is ready for. Plus a boy on his soccer team is becoming a closer friend, though he did used to bully Darius. Nothing is simple or easy in this second book, as Darius continues to learn about himself.

Returning to the world of Darius was amazing. Khorram’s writing is marvelous, exuding a natural warmth in his storytelling. His empathy for Darius is clear, as Darius struggles with what he is ready for, what family means to him, and who he wants to have in his life. Even his relationship with tea becomes problematic, as he may lose something he loves because he fears failure so much. And beware how much you will want to try some of the teas mentioned here, because Darius is passionate about them!

Darius is hero material. Thoughtful and sometimes depressed, he is complex and marvelous. From his best friend in Iran to his boyfriend to his new friendships on the soccer team, Darius is brave and manages to continue coming out through this new novel. He faces fear in ways that preserve what he loves, sets real boundaries to keep true to himself, and manages to be hilariously funny too.

Another great Darius book. Can there please be a third? Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Flamer by Mike Curato

Cover image for Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato (9781250756145)

Aiden Navarro is fourteen and attending summer camp with his Boy Scout troop. He is leaving his Catholic Middle School and has decided to go to public high school, though he’s starting to dread what that means in terms of the bullying escalating even farther. After all, he doesn’t know how to dress himself since he’s been wearing a uniform to school for years. He also worries about how his sister is coping with his often abusive father now that Aiden is gone to camp. To make it all more complicated, Aiden is also gay and closeted. When he finds himself becoming attracted to one of his friends, Aiden has to decide whether to let him know or not. When things don’t go well, Aiden reaches a dark place that has him questioning how to go on.

Curato has created a graphic novel that really speaks to self discovery and learning how to survive. The setting of the summer camp really creates an atmosphere of freedom mixed with closely living with other boys his age. This can be a mix of exhilarating but also being unable to escape from bullying that targets Aiden’s sexuality. I applaud Curato for incorporating exactly the sorts of dirty jokes that boys in a group make together, all of them teasing about sexuality in a way that is damaging and hurtful.

The art in the book is done in black and white until the flames enter the pages. Those flames can be from bullying, from shame, from attraction, from rage. They all color Aiden’s life and therefore the pages. It’s highly effective, particularly as Aiden makes a decision about suicide.

A compelling look at a gay teen learning about himself and finding his core of fire. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from library copy.

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.

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian

Planet Omar Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik (9780593109212)

Omar and his family have moved, which means that Omar has to start at a new school. He lives with his mother, father, older sister and younger brother. One of their new neighbors doesn’t seem happy to have Muslim neighbors, glaring at them through her fence and not being friendly when approached. Omar is also facing a bully at school. Daniel has even told him that because Omar is a Muslim he could be kicked out of the country! Luckily, Omar also has a new best friend and a family who can support him as he learns the ins and outs of being Muslim in America.

Mian’s #ownvoices novel for elementary readers is wildly funny and really approachable. Omar himself seems the world through a silly and engaging lens, where teachers may be aliens and he is a magnet for trouble. That trouble includes spitting on his little brother in bed, getting lost during a field trip, and asking Allah to bring him a Ferrari. The book has lots of illustrations, making it just right for elementary-aged readers who need some breaks in their text. They will find that the humor and format make for an engaging read.

A winner of a children’s book that is about prejudice, friendship and community. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy

The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy

The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy (9780062866417)

Rahul just wants to be the best at something, anything. But he’s skinny and the target of Brent, one of the biggest bullies at school. He’s also carrying the secret that he’s gay. Brent taunts Rahul into trying out for the football team, which ends up with Rahul not making the team and nursing a hurt ankle. Meanwhile, Brent has figured out Rahul’s secret when Rahul looks a bit too long at Justine in class. Rahul’s best friend Chelsea tries to get Rahul to understand how amazing he is, even if he’s not the best at something. As Rahul searches for his niche, he finds himself getting more anxious and his nightly rituals are less soothing. Whatever Rahul discovers about himself he also realizes that his Indian-American family and his friends will be there to cheer him on, no matter who he is.

Pancholy, an Indian-American actor, has written a compelling and heart-wrenching middle grade novel that deserves applause. He captures the angst of a kid who is different from the straight white kids in his school and who is trying desperately to fit in with them. Pancholy grapples in this book with many large themes, all of which fit with Rahul’s story. There is the bullying of LGBTQIA+ children at school. He addresses racism in casting and racism towards anyone brown-skinned or non-white. He takes these issues on directly, showing how standing up to bullies and racism is the best course of action.

Rahul is a great protagonist. He has support from an extended family as well as a best friend. It is a joy to see a middle grade book with a gay protagonist who is supported and loved by his family and friends. In fact, the book shows that sometimes it is the child who is torn up about coming out while their family and friends may have known for some time.

A great read from a multi-talented debut middle-grade author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

Review: A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele

A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele

A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele (9780062748577)

Pip is a pig who loves to make art, cook with her family and dream about what she is going to be when she grows up. But then one day, a new kid at school teases her about the lunch she brought saying that it stinks. The new pig also doesn’t like Pip’s art projects either. They even ask if her mother is her babysitter, since they aren’t the same color. Pip is furious when she goes home and she demands that they make her a normal lunch. Instead, they travel as a family into the city to explore a bit. In the city, Pip hears all sorts of different languages being spoken. The pigs are all different colors and patterns. When Pip asks for normal food, she is told that the food isn’t weird at all. Pip feels a lot better when they get home. Her parents offer a normal lunch, but Pip decides to take her same one. At school, she is teased again but this time offers tastes to everyone and they like it!

Steele explores what it means to be different in a sea of pink pigs. She also looks at what being targeted by a bully feels like when you are a small child and how it can shake your confidence in yourself and your family. Pip’s desire to be more normal is something that children will be able to relate to. The look at an urban setting as a place where people with differences are celebrated is done with a clarity that is very welcome.

Steel’s art is crisp and colorful. She has created pigs of all different stripes and patterns as well as colors. Pip is the only polka-dotted pig in her class and her mother is the only black pig in the neighborhood. The strong patterns and clear differences will help young readers understand that everyone is unique and that differences are worth celebrating.

Just right for kids who aren’t normal, this book celebrates diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca

I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca

I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca, illustrated by Gusti (9788417123598)

Ben loves to paint his nails in cheery colors. He loves looking at the bright colors on his hands. His mother shares her nail polish and so does his friend Margarita, they both have large collections of colors. One morning, as Ben headed to school with red nails, two boys started teasing him, telling him that nail polish is for girls. Ben felt very sad and a few days later, he told his parents about it. His father immediately asked for orange nail polish for his own nails. At school though, more boys started to tease him. Soon Ben was only wearing nail polish on the weekends, removing it for school. His dad though, wore bright nail polish every day, even when he picked Ben up from school. As Ben’s birthday arrives, he gets the best present ever! What could it be?

This picture book offers a very approachable way to talk about gender expectations and how even small expressions of difference are important. The parents in the book are both tremendously warm and encouraging of their son, but the book accurately shows how school can be very different for children who are not conforming to societal norms. The use of nail polish is clever, adding a colorful element to the tale as well as something that Ben’s father can embrace himself.

Gusti’s illustrations are marvelous. Filled with warmth and humor, they celebrate the bright colors of nail polish on each page. Ben’s emotions are shown through the set of his shoulders and his entire posture. When he is sad, he droops over and when he’s happy he bounces on the page.

A great book about gender nonconforming behavior in children and how a school can be a place of safety. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Nubeocho.