Roll with It by Jamie Sumner (9781534442559)
Ellie isn’t the sweet little girl everyone thinks she is simply because she’s in a wheelchair. No, she has plenty of opinions and shares them too. Where Ellie’s sweetness does come in is her baking. She plans one day to be a professional baker. When Ellie’s grandfather manages to drive his truck into the front of his local grocery store, Ellie and her mother move across the country to live with her grandparents in their trailer. Ellie has to start a new school in January, though she really doesn’t have any friends to miss. Ellie’s mother has to drive her to school and takes two other kids from the trailer park along. Steadily, Ellie begins to make her first-ever friends but when a health crisis arises it may mean leaving this town where she finally feels she belongs.
I love the immediate shattering of stereotypes in this book as Ellie has a strong voice of her own that has a little more spice than sugar in it. It’s her voice that makes the book a compelling read, whether she is writing fan letters to chefs or speaking out about her own needs. The book also does a great job of showing children who don’t use a wheelchair the many barriers that those in wheelchairs face on a daily basis. Sumner never allows those barriers to be turned into personal responsibility for Ellie, assigning them firmly to society.
Sumner’s writing is lively. While Ellie herself a particularly great protagonist, the secondary characters also shine. From Ellie’s mother to her grandparents to the children she befriends. Each one is a distinct character, and that includes her grandfather who may have dementia and still is more than his limitations as well.
Bravo! This is a great read that reaches beyond limitations to show the human heart of its characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Pick a Pumpkin by Patricia Toht , illustrated by Jarvis (9781536207644)
This follow up to Pick a Pine Tree invites readers into the autumn bounty of choosing a pumpkin and creating a jack-o-lantern. The book moves quickly through the pumpkin patch with its mix of sweet fall treats and fields of pumpkins. The family then returns home to clean their pumpkins up, find the tools they need, and get set up in the garage. Friends are invited over to carve pumpkins with them. The goopy insides are scooped, faces are chosen and candles are lit inside.
With so many rhyming picture books, Toht’s skill demonstrates what a rhyme should bring to a children’s book. It offers a great rollicking feel to the book and brings a celebratory tone to it as well. Combined with Jarvis’ deep-colored illustrations, the entire book is a pleasure and takes readers directly into the harvest spirit. Jarvis includes a racially diverse cast of characters in his images. Nicely, this book stays realistic and doesn’t introduce witches or ghosts, so it’s just right for little ones who aren’t looking for anything scary at Halloween.
A glowing picture book about pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns and family. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
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.
The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner (9781534431454)
Moth has always loved everything to do with magic and witches. So when Halloween comes, she dresses up as a witch. That does nothing but encourage some school bullies who tease her in the hall in front of the new kid in town. But something strange happens and Moth’s hands start to glow. It turns out that Moth comes from a family of witches, something her mother had never shared with her. Now it all makes sense why Moth has felt so different from everyone else and struggled to make friends. As Moth learns more about her family and the secret separate magic land her grandmother helped create and still lives in, Moth’s powers grow. She meets a talking cat, makes her first real friend, and then discovers that while witches are real so are those who hunt them!
Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel for youth is a delightful mix of diversity and magic. While comparisons can be made with other teen witches, this book stands entirely on its own. Part of that distinction comes from the unique world that the town’s witch elders created for safety. It is a world of floating islands, crystalline colors and flowing robes. It contrasts dynamically with the world of middle school. Moth is the one who brings both worlds together as her magic begins to take form.
The characters in this graphic novel really make the book special. Moth moves far beyond middle-school misfit and is a friendly, funny protagonist with a talking cat who is brave and conflicted. Her mother too is complicated in all the best ways.
A great middle-grade graphic novel that is full of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds (9781481438285)
In ten separate but linked stories, award-winning author Reynolds creates an entire neighborhood of ten blocks. The book begins, and refers throughout, with a school bus falling from the sky. There is one story per block, different kids on each block living their lives, going to school, facing various things in their futures, pasts and presents. There are best-friend boogers, petty theft for a good cause, complicated but important handshakes, stand-up comedy, body odor and body spray, and fake dogs. It’s a book about what happens after school, whether it is friendship or bullying, loneliness or comfort.
This one deserves a medal. Period. It’s one of those books that reads so easily, since it’s written with such skill. The voices of the characters are varied but all intensely realistic and vibrantly human. Reynolds plays with the reader but invites them into the joy of the joke, showing the layers of what children are and what they feel and do. He demonstrates that ten times here, always deeply exploring each character before moving on to the next and celebrating them.
The stories arc together moving from humor to pain to loss to fear to freedom and everywhere in between. The characters form a community on the page, streets unfold before the reader and they get to journey them with friends they just met opening the book. The final chapters are masterful, the text moving from narrative to spoken word to rap. The rhythm of the book throughout is a dance, here it becomes a heartbeat of life.
Look for this incredible read to win some big awards this spring. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy (9780062473097)
Sweet Pea’s parents have gotten a divorce and came up with the brilliant idea of living just one house away from one another on the same street to make it easier on Sweet Pea. The houses are decorated very similarly too, particularly Sweet Pea’s room in each of them. In between the two houses is one that belongs to the town’s resident advice columnist, a woman known to be eccentric and a loner. So when she asks Sweet Pea to be responsible for picking up her mail and sending it to her, it’s a big surprise. As Sweet Pea’s own life continues to get more complicated with friend issues and her mother starting to date, she keeps one secret all her own. She has started to reply to some of the letters asking for advice herself!
This is Murphy’s first foray into middle grade writing and it’s a great way to start! In Sweet Pea, she has created a female protagonist who isn’t obsessed with boys, isn’t thinking about hair and makeup, and is much more concerned with her family, her cat and her friends. Sweet Pea is funny, intelligent and brave. She also procrastinates, takes a few too many risks, and fails sometimes at friendship. She is also not a small girl, all of which makes her a breath of fresh air in middle grade books.
As always, Murphy’s writing is light and readable even when dealing with large emotions or issues. In one of the best scenes of the book, Sweet Pea pukes at a birthday party she crashed. The scene offers humor mixed with deep empathy and then addresses the bravery it takes to return to school afterwards. This book is all about giving people second (and even third) chances, including yourself.
The author of Dumplin’ has another winner here. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean (9781536201604)
At first Davie doesn’t believe that Joe Quinn has a poltergeist in his home. After all, Joe has told lies before about his family. But when Davie and his best friend head over to Joe’s house to witness it themselves, they see bread and butter fly through the air, chips hit the wall, and dishes break. Davie himself lost a sister when she was very little, and he longs to know if ghosts are real because if so, she might still be there. But could it just be Joe playing a prank? Perhaps bringing the village priest in will help make things more clear and perhaps it will cloud things even more.
Almond and McKean have created several of the most inventive and incredible graphic novels in the last few years, including The Savage, Slog’s Dad, and Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. It is great to see another of their weird collaborations. This book is not about answering questions about whether ghosts exist. It’s about grief and loss, violence and families, and being willing to live with questions unanswered. It is a book that takes a short story by Almond and turns it into something visceral and pointed, a book for Halloween yes, but also for everyday darkness and wonder as well.
The illustrations by McKean are filled with sharp edges, fractured panes. They have characters who writhe on the page, almost beyond human and filled with amazing flaws. There are times of amazing green grass and sunshine, others of the sun breaking through blood-red clouds, others of filled with shadows of prison bars. The images are stunning in their stretched-out haunting nature.
A graphic novel that is not for everyone, but fans of dark corners will love what they find here. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
A Map into the World by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Seo Kim (9781541538368)
Released on October 1, 2019.
A Hmong girl moves into a new home in this picture book that celebrates community. The house had a swing and a garden full of melons and beans. Inside, the family hung the story cloth about how the Hmong came to America. Ruth and Bob, were two elderly neighbors who had a special bench they sat on. They waved to the girl and her family, and they were even older than the girl’s grandmother, Tais Tais. After her mother had her two little baby brothers, the little girl wanted to escape the crying sometimes, so she headed outside. In fall, the trees lost their leaves and the neighbor worked outside to rake them up. In the winter, no one sat outside anymore and no one waved. Then one day, the girl found out that Ruth had died. As spring arrived, they began work in the garden and saw Bob outside alone. That’s when the girl has an idea about how to show Bob that she cares.
There is a beautiful delicacy to this entire book from the fine-lined illustrations to the skillful balancing of seasons changing, new babies and someone passing. Yang invites readers into a Hmong family, showing elements such as story cloths and multiple generations of families living together. The friendly way of welcoming people to a neighborhood but also not intruding is shown here as well as how seasons in the Midwest connect everyone together in a shared experience of beauty and weather.
Kim’s illustrations embrace the natural world, showing the changing seasons with color and using grass and trees to depict a neighborhood and a home. When the little girl at the end of the book draws images on the sidewalk, there is a direct connection to the story cloth, showing a map of life that is universal but also specific to a Hmong tradition.
Deeply humane and community oriented. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.