We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062747303)
Welcome to 1986, the year of the Challenger disaster and a year when all three of the Thomas children find themselves in seventh grade together. Fitch and Bird are twins and used to be very close. Bird loves science and exploring how things are made. As the Challenger nears its launch, she finds herself spellbound by the potential it represents for women in space and for her own future. Fitch meanwhile is struggling to deal with the anger that rises inside of him constantly, filling his days playing Major Havoc in the local arcade. Cash has been held back a grade and no longer plays basketball, which he misses desperately. He finds himself wondering if he is actually good at anything at all in life. The three siblings grow up in a family that is filled with anger, regular arguments and verbal abuse. As the three grow apart, circumstances including the Challenger disaster pull them back together, just in time to allow them all to find a potential way forward.
Kelly is a Newbery Medalist and this book shows her skill and superb understanding of the minds of youth. Using the setting of the mid-1980’s, she invites readers to see that while some things are different, much of the emotions, family tensions and life was the same as today. The Challenger disaster provides the ideal unifying factor in each of the sibling’s stories which are told from their own points of view. Yet Kelly does not overplay that element, never drawing the lines starkly but allowing readers to connect elements themselves.
The three siblings are quite different from one another and yet their shared upbringing and lack of safety at home create a unified experience that they all emerge from in different ways. Bird, the smart one, who takes things apart and does well at school, wonders if she is disappearing. Fitch burns with an anger he can’t explain, lashing out at others. Cash too is frustrated but he takes it out on himself and struggles internally.
A deep and magnificent middle-grade novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.
Private Lessons by Cynthia Salaysay (9781536209600)
Claire started to play the piano when her father got sick. Now after his death, it is a connection to his memory. As Claire longs to go to a school for music, she auditions to become a student of Paul Avon, a well-known and respected piano teacher in San Francisco. Her traditional Filipino mother is uncertain, but is soon charmed by Paul and manages to cover the cost of the lessons. Claire is soon practicing constantly, trying to get Paul’s approval for her playing and reach the emotional center of each piece of music. She participates in competitions and places well, but it never seems like quite enough. As Paul’s moods get more sour, he leaves Claire to watch his house while he goes on tour. When he returns though, Claire’s fantasies about playing for him and finally gaining his approval don’t work out and things turn sexual and sour between them.
Salaysay’s book is unusual and fascinating. She captures the drive and perfectionism of being a pianist who competes. She also shows the steady grooming and isolation of a young woman who is invited to the outskirts of adulthood and abused. At the same time, Salaysay also shows that sex has meaning and is nothing to be ashamed of, unless it is abusive or rape. This delicate line is kept pure throughout the book, as Claire learns about herself and what one event can do.
Salaysay’s writing is exquisite. Readers will at first be on alert about Paul and his approach, but soon will settle in just as Claire does as her playing improves. Yet throughout there are multiple points of tension for Claire and the reader. There is Claire’s falling out with her best friend, fighting with her mother, traveling to the city, and steadily becoming someone else. Yet when she is wounded and hurt, it is those same people she left behind who are there for her and help label what happened to her.
A symphony of a book, this novel encompasses music, race, sexuality and assault. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.
Hike by Pete Oswald (9781536201574)
Waking up early, a father and child have big plans. A warm hat and coat plus a full backpack, and they are ready to start their drive. The two drive deep into the forest to a hiking trail as the sun rises in the sky. Along the way, they see deer, birds, eagles, butterflies and more. They reach a place that still has a little snow on the ground and have a snowball fight. They cross a river by walking on a fallen tree then pause to see the waterfall. After a quick snack, they climb higher, wearing climbing gear, until they reach just the right place to plant a tree. Then back down they go, the sun just beginning to color the sky as it sets. Reaching home, the two feed the cat, have some milk and cookies, and add their new picture to the family album.
In this nearly wordless book, it is entirely Oswald’s illustrations that tell the story. Shared looks between the father and child speak to their connection and the clear joy on their faces show how much they love this time in nature spent together. The grandeur of the natural setting is celebrated with panoramic views of woods and mountains, filled with wildlife. The entire book embraces the love in a family and the love for nature.
A stellar picture book. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
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.
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (9781101938096)
When Bea’s parents got divorced, they gave her a list of things that they promised would never change. Since then, that list has grown to include new things that Bea has added to it herself. A big change is that her father is getting remarried to Jesse, the guy he’s been dating for awhile. Bea loves Jesse and is ecstatic when she finds out the Jesse has a daughter just Bea’s age. Bea is convinced that they will be the best sisters ever. Meanwhile, Bea is navigating living in two houses, going to see her therapist for anxiety, and finding a theme for her dad’s wedding. It all becomes a lot to handle when Sonia, Jesse’s daughter, isn’t quite as eager as Bea to become sisters. Still, Bea knows how it feels to need to be forgiven and offered more than one chance to become part of someone’s life.
Stead’s writing is deft and clever. She writes with so much empathy for children and a deep understanding for the puzzling situations they face in their lives. Stead creates incredible moments in the novel that offer wonder and refrain through the book like a catchy bar of music. I must mention that it is great to see the marriage of a gay couple handled with such joy, such acceptance while also addressing the bigotry society still has.
Bea a great character, complicated and yet easily understandable. She is enthusiastic but also at times quiet, defying labels as we get to know her better. That alone is a remarkable achievement as an author, just allowing this girl to be herself on the page. The secondary characters are all robustly depicted with no one become stereotypical and everyone showing heart.
Two things that will not change about this book. One, it’s wonderful. Two, it is full of love. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Wendy Lamb Books.
Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson (9781547600564)
Even though her father got a new job, Ryan and her family have had to move into a smaller and older house because money is still a problem. Ryan though is able to see the positive in most things, though maybe not her brother some days. She loves to cook, coming up with unique combinations to make good food even better. One thing she struggles with is public speaking, like on Easter where no matter how much she practices her part, she can’t manage to say it into the microphone in front of the congregation. Maybe this is the year? So when Ryan’s class is working on a talent show, Ryan has to figure out how to turn her passions into performance. She is also navigating changing friendships and mean girls who seem intent on pushing her to the side. Ryan may not want the spotlight, but she does bring sunshine wherever she goes.
Watson, winner of a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Award, has created a book for young readers that offers a modern look at being an African-American girl in Portland. The city is tied into the story very successfully, drawing people to beloved places to taste and explore along with Ryan. While the title is full of optimism, the book looks at important issues for elementary-aged children such as race, acceptance, self-esteem, and friendships.
Ryan isn’t a Pollyanna character, rather she is a girl who has resilience and optimism. She is distinctly her own person and Black girls will see themselves as she navigates the many changes in her life. She is smart, creative and positive.
A rival to Ramona, get this one in the hands of young readers. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
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.
Big Papa and the Time Machine by Daniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (9780062463319)
When a child doesn’t want to go to school because he’s scared and nervous, he talks with his grandfather. His grandfather understands exactly how his grandchild is feeling and takes him on a ride in his car which is also a time machine. It takes them both to see when he left his mother back in 1952 and had to be brave himself. They stop in 1955 to see him working up high on buildings, needing to get beyond being so scared. In 1957, Big Papa had to get over his fears to ask a lovely girl to dance, a girl who would eventually marry him. They then head to 1986 when the child was left with Big Papa. He wasn’t sure if he could take care of a baby all on his own. All about bravery in spite of being scared and nervous, this book shows that it is those moments that define a life.
Bernstrom takes readers on a real ride through history through the eyes of this African-American family. Generations appear and their clear love for one another is evident. Even with a baby being left behind for a grandparent to raise is shown as a chance to save a life and find a new way forward. Children in smaller non-nuclear families will recognize the connection between a sole adult and their child in these pages. It’s particularly lovely to see an African-American man in this role.
Evans makes the pages shine with light as he uses bright yellows and mystical swirls and stars to show the passing of time. Every page is saturated in color, glowing with the connection of the two characters. The child is never declared to be a specific gender in either the text or illustrations, making the book all the more inclusive.
A bright and vibrant look at why to be brave. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry (9781616208967)
San Antonio is not a comfortable place for the Torres sisters. Their mother died giving birth to Rosa, the youngest sister, and their father never recovered from her death, drowning his feelings in drink. When the oldest sister, Ana falls from her window and dies, it takes a great toll on the entire family. A year later, the cracks are beginning to become even larger. Their father is rarely home and when he is he is verbally abusive, demanding, and drunk. Jessica, who got Ana’s bedroom and clothes, mourns her sister by dating the same boy she did. The relationship is violent and controlling, but Jessica can’t seem to move on. Iridian has stopped going to school, reads the same book over and over again, and writes her own stories. She finds herself caught indoors, unwilling to leave their horrible house. Rosa seeks the hyena that is loose in their neighborhood, wondering what special gift she might have and searching for it outside and in religion. The girls all want to escape, and it may just take Ana returning as a ghost to get them free.
Mabry’s novel is exceptional. Her writing is achingly beautiful, telling a story of profound grief and pain. Yet throughout, each of the sisters has bursts of hope, their own unique way forward potentially, if they could just take it. It’s tantalizing writing that creates its own unique emotional tug and writing that offers gem-like moments of clarity before succumbing under the weight of grief once more. The flashes of anger are like lightning on the page, bursts where one thinks things are about to change.
The sisters are all wonderfully crafted and unique from one another. The interplay of their relationships feels like sisterhood, lifting one another up unexpectedly, injuring each other inadvertently and fighting like hell to save the others.
A great teen novel about sisterhood, grief and ghosts. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Algonquin.