The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller (9781524715663)
With Mr. Neely as her very enthusiastic science teacher, Natalie can’t get out of asking a scientific question and exploring it using the scientific method. But Natalie would much rather get answers about her family, about why her mother won’t leave her bedroom anymore and how her father can stop being in therapist mode all the time. So when Mr. Neely encourages Natalie to compete in an egg drop competition, she knows that if they can win, things will change. Natalie’s best friend Twig is on their team, offering creative solutions for the egg drop and they also become friends with the new kid, Dari. As the three become closer, Natalie continues to try to figure out how to help her mother, putting together a plan for the prize money that they hope to win that will inspire her mother and get her back to normal. But life doesn’t always go to plan and neither do science experiments as Natalie soon discovers.
Keller writes with a lovely mix of humor and science throughout this novel. She looks directly at the subject of a parent’s chronic depression and shows the impact of that on a child and a family. Natalie steadily learns to find her voice in the novel and express her own pain about the situation. Science is used throughout the novel as a bridge between people, a way forward and a solution to problems.
Natalie as a character is beautifully conflicted. While she yearns to have her mother back she is also very angry about the situation, something that she has trouble expressing. Even with the friends she has, she worries about Dari joining her and Twig at various times particularly as Twig and Dari seem to have a special connection with one another. None of this is overly dramatized, but feels natural and emerges as convincing times of emotional stress.
Smartly written and filled with glowing characters living complicated lives, this middle grade novel unbreakable. Appropriate for ages 9-13.
(Reviewed from copy provided by Random House Children’s Books.)
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062662804)
Released March 6, 2018.
Xiomara feels completely unheard and smothered by her mother’s high expectations, particularly those around church and confirmation. She knows how to use her fists to settle arguments, often coming to the defense of her twin brother. She ignores the lewd glances of the men around her who react to her curves far too often. Xiomara’s mother refuses to allow her to date, so when she catches her daughter kissing someone, there are real consequences. Still, Xiomara continues to find her voice. She asks questions at confirmation and eventually joins the school’s poetry club. Xiomara’s passion for words, slam poetry and speaking out won’t stay hidden from her mother for much longer.
Written by a famed slam poet, this book is ferociously written, taking life and putting it on the page with an honesty that almost hurts. The entire verse novel is beautifully written and each poem is a study in how to capture a moment in time with clarity. There are some poems that shine, the anger burning so brightly that they can’t be ignored. They beg to be read aloud into a microphone.
Xiomara’s character is complex and amazing. She is a girl just finding her voice, emerging from the huge shadow her mother has cast and finding her own way forward. She is a mix of sensuality, verse and anger that is completely intoxicating.
One of the best verse novels I have ever read, this one deserves a standing ovation. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and HarperTeen.
Bamboo for Me, Bamboo for You by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Purificacion Hernandez (9781481450638)
Amanda and Miranda are pandas who live with their parent in a zoo. They love to eat bamboo for all of their meals, frowning at the meat that the lions eat. The two siblings frolic around in the bamboo, playing peek-a-boo, taking tumbles, and fighting with one another sometimes. When the fight becomes more serious, the two little pandas stop playing together until they realize they are much more unhappy apart than they ever are together. Besides, there’s more bamboo to eat together too! This book is filled with merry rhymes and a galloping rhythm that preschoolers will adore. They will also recognize the complicated relationships of siblings who fight and make up, share and then squabble some more. The illustrations are large and bright, making this a good choice for sharing with a group of little ones. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Review copy provided by Aladdin.)
The Littlest Viking by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Isabel Roxas (9780399554292)
Sven was the littlest Viking and also the loudest. He could pillage food from anyone and had the fiercest bite too. But one thing could distract Sven: stories! Eventually he learned to tell great stories too and all of the Vikings loved to stop and listen to them. Then one day, everyone was distracted by something. It was a new little Viking, a warrior princess who was very loud and very sad. No one could get her to stop crying, but Sven had an idea! This picture book is full of humor and parallels modern parenting with the equivalent in Vikings like taking a crying baby on a great ship ride to calm down, rather than in a car. The illustrations are equally funny with very grumpy tiny children insisting on their own way and finding storytelling just the ticket out of the grumps. It is also appreciated that Sven enjoys his new role as big brother too. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Alfred A. Knopf.)
Snow Sisters by Kerri Kokias, illustrated by Teagan White (9781101938843)
Two sisters enjoy a snowy day in very different ways in this picture book. One sister is always on the left page and the other on the right. The red-headed sister immediately heads outside into the snow to play while the brown-haired sister stays inside with her books, blankets and cocoa. They both stay busy throughout the day, one outside throwing snowballs and building forts, the other baking in the kitchen. Then the sister who has been playing outside gets chilled while the one indoors has noticed the animals outside her window. The two switch places and do similar things but each in their own way. Written with very simple wording, it is the twist in the middle of the book that makes it work so well. The repetition of each sister doing the “same” things is cleverly drawn in the illustrations that show how each still does it quite differently than their sibling did. The illustrations are bright, their world inviting and the entire book feels like a cup of cocoa on a snowy day. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Alfred A. Knopf.)
The Best Tailor in Pinbaue by Eymard Toledo (9781609808044)
Edinho’s uncle is the best tailor in the small town of Pinbaue in Brazil. He used to make bright-colored and beautiful clothes and costumes for the villagers, but now he just makes uniforms for the factory where almost everyone in town works. Edinho’s father doesn’t work for the factory either, he still keeps fishing though the pollution from the factory has impacted the quality and quantity of the fish. Then the factory decides to import their uniforms and suddenly Uncle Flores doesn’t have any work to do. When Edinho discovers bright fabric in storage, he has an idea that just might help the entire village. The text of this picture book is sprinkled with Portuguese words. The writing is clear and very readable, offering a fictional village that speaks to the plight of real small villages across Brazil and other countries.The illustrations are fascinating collages worth poring over. Fine details, textured papers and lots of patterns create a rich world. A compelling look at the impact of large factories on villages and how children can make a difference. Appropriate for ages 5-8. (Reviewed from library copy.)
Grandma’s Purse by Vanessa Brantley- Newton (9781524714314)
An African-American little girl’s grandma Mimi is coming to visit and she lets the little girl look at what she carries in her purse! There is a mirror for putting on lipstick, perfume, earrings, hairpins, candy, and much more. Larger things include her phone, a scarf, glasses, and a coin purse filled with coins and memories. The two of them talk about each thing and then the little girl gets to try some of it out, including the lipstick, hairpins, scarf and glasses. Then they look at pictures from the grandmother’s purse that show Grandma Mimi as a little girl. There is one last thing way at the bottom of the purse, and it’s just for Mimi’s granddaughter this time! Told with an eye to explaining what the grandmother is carrying and why, this exploration of a purse is pure joy. The connection between the girl and grandmother is tangible on the page and celebrated in each illustration. I particularly love the messy lipstick on the little girl and her joy at each discovery. A winning look at a special relationship. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy received from Alfred A. Knopf.)
Grandma’s Tiny House: A Counting Story by JaNay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Priscilla Burris
Grandma is getting ready for a party. With two turkeys already baked, the neighbors start to show up. Three of them bring four dishes to pass. Five family members come with six dozen biscuits and jam. The counting continues through the story with lemonade, cheesecakes, sweet-potato pies, and honeydew melons being brought by more and more people. When the party starts, the house is too full for people to move. One little granddaughter has the solution and the party moves outside to the big backyard. While this is clearly a counting book, the story of a warm and large family is really at its heart. The illustrations by Burris are welcoming and warm. Readers will want their own outside party filled with great food, friends and family. Expect lots of watering mouths as you share this book. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)
The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis (9780062659002)
Evan Panos has been dealing with physical and emotional abuse from his mother since he was five years old. Now at almost 18, he is simply trying not to let his different worlds collide. At summer Bible Camp, he has his first kiss with a boy, who then comes to his small town to visit, something that makes Evan very nervous in case his mother discovers the kiss. Then there is his long time best friend, Henry who has suddenly become very hot over the summer. Evan pours his emotions into his art and his notebooks where he meticulously documents his mother’s abuse, his father’s inability to step in, and his own isolation and fear. As his mother becomes even more suffocating and cruel, Evan has to find a way forward that will allow him to survive and maybe even fall in love.
Surmelis grew up in a very similar strict Greek family as a gay boy who was shunned for being who he was from a very young age. The writing here is strong and powerful, particularly during the scenes of abuse, the way that time slows down and then rushes forward again, the terrifying switches from kindness to cruelty and violence, the warning signs far in advance that still don’t allow the abuse to be avoided. It is chilling, violent and gut wrenching.
The character of Evan is multidimensional and complex. The extensive secrets he is hiding and the horrible abuse could have defined him as a character, but instead they serve to show even more clearly his intelligence, artistic nature and ability to forgive. Even as his mother is hurling insults at him, readers will know who he really is and will never question him the way that he questions himself. He is a vital character, one who survives and moves forward despite being trapped for so long.
An important look at the abuse suffered by gay teens at the hands of their families, this teen novel is riveting. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.
Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed (9781616958473)
Maya is a young documentary-film maker who longs to go to NYU for college, but her traditional Indian parents want her to go to college much closer to home, even better if she can live at home while she attends school. As a senior in high school, Maya spends her time making short documentary films and hanging out with her best friend, Violet. She has a crush on a boy at school, Phil, someone whom her parents would never approve of. When she meets a very appropriate boy though, the spark just isn’t there. Meanwhile, something awful is about to happen and when it does, Maya finds her family and herself a target of hate crimes and Islamophobia. Maya will have to find a way to make her plans for her future come true at the same time she stands up to others who would silence her.
This teen novel is wonderfully readable. It invites readers into Maya’s world, demonstrating the way that she sees her experiences through the lens of films. Readers will also learn about Indian culture, but the focus is on Maya as an individual. She struggles with parental expectations and the hate crimes of modern America. Though at times it has the feel of a Bollywood romance, there is no softening of the hate that is aimed at Maya and her family, much to the author’s credit.
The book reads at first as a pure romance, with a bit too much blushing and twinkling eyes. It really gains strength when the suicide bombing happens and Maya’s family is targeted due to their last name. The pace at this point turns from dreamy romance to drama and tension. The violence towards Maya and her family has repercussions deep into Maya’s future plans that force her to make a very difficult decision. While the book eventually returns to a more romantic tone, the tension never truly disappears again.
Deftly plotted and well written, this book is an important look at diversity in America. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Soho Teen.
It All Comes Down to This by Karen English (9780544839571)
In 1965 Los Angeles, Sophie has moved to a new neighborhood as one of the only African-American families. Her summer is complicated not only by the move but by her sister leaving for college in August and her parent’s marriage becoming rocky. There are also external forces, like a pack of sisters in the new neighborhood who target Sophie and won’t let her swim with them. She does have one good friend, Jennifer, who stands up for Sophie and protests the way the others treat her. But racism is everywhere as Sophie discovers when she tries out for the community play, when she tries to shop in stores, and when she takes rides in cars with her sister’s boyfriend. When the riots in Watts erupt, Sophie discovers that the life in her wealthy neighborhood is not the one that others lead in the same city.
English, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner, brilliantly explores privilege and racism in this novel where Sophie lives a mix of both. The author directly looks at the color of skin, at the privilege given to those with lighter skin. She also explore wealth and the way that African-American families living in wealthier communities still face racism, both directly and indirectly. English’s pace here is very special with its mix of languid summer days, racial tensions, lack of parental involvement and then the riots.
Sophie is a well drawn protagonist as is her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. They each have distinct viewpoints, struggle with the expectations of family and society, and find themselves asking deeper questions about life in 1965. Sophie herself is often living in a bubble, but it is also one that is pierced regularly by the way others treat her. She is cleverly crafted, constantly learning and realizing how complex the world is.
This novel looks deeply into race in our country, offering a direct link between the Watts riots on today’s Black Lives Matter movement. It is timely, important and doesn’t offer easy answers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (9780525429203)
This is a marvelous sequel to the award-winning The War That Saved My Life. Ada has just gotten her club foot surgically repaired in the beginning of this new novel. Due to their home being destroyed, Ada and her brother along with Susan, their guardian, must move into a small cottage on the land owned by Lady and Lord Thornton. As World War II continues, they face food shortages, hard work, and then are asked to house a German refugee while Susan teaches her math. Though her foot is fixed, Ada continues to wrestle with her disability and how it factored in to her mother’s abuse. Once again horses are on the scene to help with healing, both physical and mental, as unlikely friendships and bonds are formed in a small cottage.
Bradley writes books that don’t just draw you in, they captivate you. It was so wonderful to return to Ada’s story and find out what happens to beloved characters. In this sequel, more is shown of the stern Lady Thornton and Bradley demonstrates that with more knowledge comes more understanding. Ada continues to be a dynamic character, never easy with life or her own role in it. And yet as Ada is prickly and abrupt, she is also warm and inquisitive, looking for answers and asking questions.
Bradley wrestles with dark themes in both of the novels in this series. There is the physical and mental abuse that Ada suffered at the hands of her mother. There is the ongoing war that threatens everyone’s safety. There is the loss of beloved characters due to that war. Still, she also shines hope. Hope for progress forward, for learning more, for accepting differences and for building friendships. The tension between all of this is remarkably well-handled and creates a book that is riveting to read.
A sequel that is just as good as the first, get this into the hands of fans. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott (9780374305505)
Owen and his best friend Sean are looking forward to the perfect Cape Cod summer spent playing baseball, driving go-karts at Owen’s family’s business, and just messing around. But then Sean’s mother hires a babysitter for him for the summer even though he’s eleven years old, because she has a new job out of town and Sean has diabetes that she worries about. She also won’t let Sean head to the go-karts anymore. Owen tries to spend a lot of time with Sean anyway, but their summers steadily head in different directions. When Sean tells Owen that his babysitter is treating him strangely, Owen can’t tell how serious the problem is. Sean swears Owen to secrecy and seems fine a lot of the time. But other times, when Sean shares more of what is happening, Owen can’t tell if Sean is lying or not. When Owen realizes that it is all true, it may be too late to save his friend.
Abbott has created a book about the beauty of summer as a kid. That theme contrasts with the darkness of sexual abuse that is also central to the story. It’s a book about friendship and what it takes to be a best friend, break a confidence, and tell. It’s also a book about being a kid, the epic nature of summer break and growing up. Abbott beautifully contrasts Owen’s experiences with the trauma that Sean is going through.
This book simply because of its theme may be too mature for some readers. The way the abuse is dealt with offers just enough details for young readers to understand the seriousness of what is happening but not too much to overwhelm them. This is a book that demands to be discussed and will leave readers feeling shaken. There is no simple happy ending here, which speaks to the damage and complexities of sexual abuse.
Strong writing combines with a harrowing story to create a book about what it means to really be a best friend. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.