Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (9780763690496)
Merci’s life starts to really change during sixth grade. She doesn’t fit in at her private school with the other kids, mostly because she is a scholarship student. Her brother Roli seems to be able to fit in naturally thanks to his love of science. As part of her community service for the school, Merci is a Sunshine Buddy. When she is paired with a boy to guide around school, Merci is shocked but opinionated Edna is bothered by how much time and contact Merci now has with the new cute and popular boy. Meanwhile, Merci’s grandfather is struggling. He has started to forget things, calls people by the wrong name, can’t ride a bike anymore and get angry over small things. Other times, he is just as he has always been, immensely patient and loving. Middle school is always a confusing time, but Merci has a lot more to deal with than other kids. Can she navigate family and school without losing who she is?
Medina has created an engaging middle-grade novel that grapples with several big topics. There is a theme of bullying at school, particularly because of differences in social status and culture. At the same time, readers will notice long before Merci does that she is deeply liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. There is her grandfather’s Alzheimer symptoms, something that Merci tries to figure out but is not told directly about until late in the novel. Her confusion and concerns turn to anger when she discovers that she is being treated like a child and not included in knowing about the diagnosis.
Throughout the novel, Merci is a strong character who has a lot more going for her than she realizes. Bringing people into her life and allowing her family and school life to become one is a skillful way to show that being ashamed of one’s family is actually not the solution. Merci takes the novel to figure things out, a steady and organic evolution for her character, a character that young readers will relate to easily.
A winning middle-grade novel that is part of #ownvoices, this is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.
Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (9780062652911)
Robinson tries to behave in school so that her grandfather doesn’t have to leave his work at the garage and come to the office. She worries that the principal and teachers will notice that his memory is not that good anymore, particularly in the afternoon. But when the class bully won’t leave her alone, Robinson speaks with her fists and lands in trouble. Assigned to a special group that meets in the school counselor’s room, Robbie has to figure out whether she can trust the others. To make it harder, one of them is the bully whose been tormenting her. As Robbie’s grandfather’s memory gets worse, Robbie knows that she has to keep her secrets from everyone, until that becomes impossible.
In this debut book by Stoddard, she writes with a great confidence, allowing Robbie and her unique family to reveal themselves to the reader. The writing is strong, showing complicated relationships, a loving family and a school that steps up to help children in need. Stoddard deftly shows how assignments like a family tree can be daunting to a number of children whether they are dealing with a dying parent, an impossible older sister, divorce or a lack of knowledge.
Robbie is an important protagonist. It is great to see a young female character having to deal with anger issues that she resolves at first by hitting others. The solution to her anger and fear is slow and steady, with set backs along the way, making it a very organic and honest depiction. Robbie also doesn’t look like her grandfather, since she doesn’t appear to be African American, another aspect of the book that is handled with sensitivity.
A brilliant debut novel with changing families, lots of maple syrup but one that isn’t too sweet either. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by HarperCollins.)
If My Moon Was Your Sun by Andreas Steinhofel, illustrated by Nele Palmtag (9780874860795)
This German children’s book looks at one day when Max decides to take his grandfather out of the nursing home where he lives. Max packs sensibly for his adventure, makes his way to the nursing home, and even knows the code to let them leave without setting off an alarm. Another resident from the nursing home joins them on their bus trip out to the countryside to Blossom Valley, the place where Max’s grandfather had proposed to his grandmother. The three of them spend the afternoon there in the tall grass of the meadow, dancing sometimes, laughing others and just being together. When Max’s grandfather starts to forget what is happening, Max hugs him tight and his memory comes back again. Eventually the police and caregivers and Max’s mother find them, but not until they have had a lovely day in a very special place.
Translated from the original German, this book’s writing is exceptional. I started out highlighting all of the lovely poetic moments and found myself drawn to page after page of text. Steinhofel speaks to the way that longing fills your entire body, too big for just your heart to contain it. He writes of a grandfather who hums, the noise lifting from his body. He writes of the moon, always there during the day but sometimes not able to be seen. Then he beautifully ties that image to the relationship of a grandfather with dementia and the grandson he loves.
There is nothing held back in the writing. It is completely heartfelt and emotional. Each moment they spend together is special and filled with a momentous feeling. The illustrations have a childlike quality to them at times. They burst from the page, showing the moon above, the bright sunniness of the meadow, the green of the grass and the trees. There is a leaping, dancing movement to them that is particularly suited to the subject.
A book that lingers with you, fills you up and that you want to hold onto. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Plough Publishing.
The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (9780545925815)
Released March 28, 2017.
Sumac lives in a very unusual family in a very large house called the Camelottery. Her family is large, very large, with four parents, a baby, several teenagers, even more children and lots of pets. The four parents are really two couples who are all best friends with one another. All of the children are home schooled and there is always something happening around the busy house. Then something changes, and one of Sumac’s grandfathers moves in with them. He’s not used to the wildness of children, the busyness of the large household and his struggle with dementia isn’t helping. Sumac is appointed as the one to help him better understand their family, but after he makes several comments about the color of their skins and the way they live, Sumac decides that it is up to her to find a different place for her grandfather to live where he will be happier and they will be rid of him. It’s really the perfect solution, isn’t it?
Oh how I adored this novel. The creation of a household where the parents won the lottery and no longer have to work but just care for their ever-growing household and volunteer for causes they believe in is lovely. Make it a family with parents who are gay and lesbian and the book becomes something very special. Add in the character of Brian who at age five is just starting to voice his preferred gender. Then mix in even more diversity with adopted children and biological ones all loving and living together.
Donoghue doesn’t just get the mix of characters right, she then gives them all voices that are so honest and true that they live on the page. The fast-paced conversations of the large family around the dinner table are immensely joyful even as they are sometimes strained. The patter of the conversations all have a natural rhythm and flow, something that is very difficult to get this right. And my goodness, it is exactly right.
A grand new LGBT-friendly book that families will love sharing together no matter how many mothers, fathers or children they have. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.
What a Beautiful Morning by Arthur A. Levine, illustrated by Katie Kath (InfoSoup)
When Noah visits his grandparents, Noah and his grandfather start the day with a song. They head outside with the dog even if its raining, singing all the way. At breakfast they made plans for the day. But lately, Grandpa has been forgetting to ask about making plans. Then one day when Noah woke him from a nap, Grandpa didn’t know who he was. His Grandma explained that sometimes Grandpa got confused and that it was better to focus on what he still had rather than what he lost. So Noah set out to do the things alone that he had done with his grandfather, until he discovered that Grandpa still responded to music and songs. It was a way to start once more having special mornings together.
This book is so beautifully done. It is about the very special relationship that children have with their grandparents, the delight of staying with them, and how each morning can be special just because someone cares for you and spends time with you. It is also about the power of music to connect people and experiences as well as its special quality with those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Throughout, the character of Grandma is there, at first secondary to the strong relationship between grandfather and grandson and then stepping up to fill some of the gaps left behind. She is warm and loving and very special.
Kath’s illustrations are bright colored and friendly. When Grandpa is confused or feeling separate, she uses a visual device to indicate the change by having his face lose color. If he is particularly confused, the colorlessness spreads on the page, taking up his entire body. In this way, children will see visually the change coming over Grandpa and understand that it is deeply affecting him and his personality.
It is rare that I tear up when reading a picture book, but this book is particularly moving. Have tissues ready. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager (InfoSoup)
Carol is missing out on what all of her friends are doing this summer, because she has to head out with her family to the New Mexico desert and move her grandfather off of his farm and into a home for people with dementia. Carol has never really met her Grandpa Serge and tries to avoid him at first because he is so prickly and all he will talk about is a wild story about bees returning to the desert. As the summer goes ever so slowly by, Carol connects with Serge and discovers his ability to weave a great story. It’s a story that is about her grandparents, about a magical tree that granted everlasting life and about bees too. Carol begins to understand her grandfather’s connection to the dried out land and the small home just as the summer ends and they are forced to leave it behind but the story has not reached its end yet.
This magical realism book is enticingly radiant. It shimmers with desert heat, itches with dust and dirt, aches with the loss of loved ones, and dances with the voice of a great storyteller. The writing is lush and lovely with distinct tone differences between Grandpa Serge’s stories and the prose of the novel. Even that prose though is written with such poetry:
I want to tell her how Serge’s eyes glow, how they are cat’s eyes, wide as a newborn’s, ringed like an ancient tree trunk.
A large theme of the novel is connection to one’s heritage and roots. In this book about a magical tree, those roots have many meanings. Carol is urged to connect more with her Hispanic heritage and also to the land itself. She does over the course of the novel in a believable and organic way that really works well. This book is about those slow changes, about becoming yourself and honoring who you are and where you come from.
Beautiful and haunting, this novel deserves a wide audience and plenty of buzz. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.
Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
Lucy and her family have moved often, following her father’s love of new places to photograph. So when they move to New Hampshire and a house on a lake, the moving process is nothing new. On her first day at the lake, Lucy meets Nate, a boy who summers on the lake with his family and grandmother. Nate invites her along to help document the loons that live on the lake and soon Lucy is out on the lake every day. Lucy longs to be a great photographer like her father, who has left for the entire summer on a photography shoot. So she decides to enter a photo contest for youth, the only problem is that her father is the judge. As Lucy sets out to prove her own skill at taking photos, she finds herself on a different parallel journey, one that will reveal new friends, expose difficult truths, and one that is far more important than winning any contest.
Lord has written another exceptional book for middle graders. Lord excels at creating seemingly simple books that open with a premise and then blossom into something far more complex by the end. Here she explores several themes that center on families. There is the deteriorating grandmother who is aware of what is happening but unable to stop it. There is Lucy’s own family that is fractured at times but remains strong. There is a search for approval that Lucy undergoes as well as her own harsh criticism of her work. Through it all, honesty is overarching, an unflinching sense of reality and truth that makes it impossible to look away.
Beautifully written, the entire book is memorable. Lucy is a great character, a strong heroine who has self-confidence issues but is also talented, friendly and warm. She is a rare young character who moves often with her family and yet the book is not about her scars from that transient life. Rather it is about so many other things that that is just a small factor in a rich tapestry of her world.
Brilliant, soaring and honest, this book is another great read from one of the best. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Scholastic.