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.
Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos (9780525646570)
Nova’s big sister, Bridget, taught her all about space exploration and the planets. She is the person who has protected and defended Nova all of her life, from when they entered foster care to when people at school think that Nova is not smart. Nova finds talking difficult, so she doesn’t speak much at all, something has has gotten her labeled by their social worker as not understanding anything at all. But Nova understands a lot. In her new foster home and new school, her sister is not with her. Bridget promised that the two of them would watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger as it takes the first teacher into space. But as the countdown of days to the launch comes to a close, Bridget has not yet appeared.
In this debut novel, Panteleakos gives readers insight into the mind of a non-verbal, autistic girl who struggles to express herself to the world though she is intelligent and full of potential. The author tells the story from Nova’s point of view which creates a real bond between protagonist and reader. Readers will find themselves wanting to protect Nova as she works through testing, new friends and a new family.
The novel is full of hope, offering a new sense of safety for Nova and potentially ways to communicate that she has never been taught before. The connection between the two sisters is also beautifully shown. The final scenes contain a revelation about what has prevented Bridget from coming to see Nova. These wrenching moments bring a new clarity to Nova’s experience in life and still result in a hope that she can move forward.
Beautifully written, this big-hearted story is a poignant tale of families and strength. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Wendy Lamb Books.
Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis (9781547601004)
11-year-old December has moved from one foster family to another over the past several years. As she moves, she has learned not to have many possessions, enough that she can carry them in a couple of bags. One item she brings with her every move is her biography, a book that reminds her why she is special and different from those around her. With her large scar on her back, December believes that she was raised as partially a bird and will eventually have her wings and feathers and be able to take flight. But when she jumps from a tree, she is moved to another foster family. This time, she is taken in by Eleanor, a women with a large garden, bird feeders, bird baths, and who works in an animal rehabilitation center. Eleanor’s quiet and loving approach starts to work on December, much as it does on her wounded birds. As December starts to trust, her desire to be separate from humans and different from them ebbs away. But could she ever give up her desire to fly?
Stark-McGinnis has written a startling debut novel for middle graders. December’s belief that she is a bird is at first alarming as she jumps from a tree, then rather odd, but the author leads readers to deeply understand the injury and damage done to December by first her mother’s violence and then her foster parents. It is a slow and haunting journey as December begins to trust others. Tying her own personal journey to that of a wounded hawk relearning to fly, the book creates a path for December to come alive again.
The journey to trust also includes a wonderful secondary character, Cheryllynn, a transgender classmate of December’s. As both girls steadily learn to stand up to the class bullies, they also learn that doing it together is easier and has a bigger impact. The two girls accept one another exactly as they are, something one doesn’t see enough in books about young girls and their friendships.
A heart-wrenching novel of abuse, recovery and learning to fly. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon (9781524715953)
After brothers Caleb and Bobby Gene get into trouble for trading their baby sister for a bag of fireworks, they are sentenced to a summer of labor alongside the boy who traded with them. Caleb is determined not to be an ordinary person in life, something his father seems obsessed with him staying at all times, even calling him extra-ordinary! So when Styx Malone enters their lives and offers them a way to trade the ill-gotten fireworks for something even better, the two brothers eagerly join him. But Styx is not telling them the whole truth about his life or even about the trades they are making. As the boys are pulled farther into Styx’s world, Caleb worries that it will all fall apart and that he will be left being just ordinary again.
Magoon has created a story that reads smooth and sweet, a tale filled with adventures and riotous action. At the same time though, she has also created a book that asks deeper questions about family, the foster care system, children in need, and what makes a good friend. Readers may not trust Styx as quickly as Caleb does, so the book also has a compelling narrative voice that is naive and untrustworthy. Even as Caleb, in particular, is drawn firmly into Styx’s plans, readers will be questioning what they are doing. It’s a great book to show young readers an unreliable narrator who is also charming.
The book has complex characters who all rise beyond being stereotypical. Even the adults in the book show glimpses of other sides that create a sense of deep reality on the page. Styx himself is an amazing character. He is clearly doing things on the edge of the law, hustling for deals and acting far tougher than he actually is. The moments where Styx shows his softer side are particularly compelling, like the hotdog cookout and seeing him interact with a father figure. Beautifully nuanced, these moments take this book from a madcap summer to a book that speaks deeply about being a child.
A top read of the year, expect to find incredible depth in this novel about friendship and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Wendy Lamb Books.
Blood Family by Anne Fine (9781481477734, Amazon)
At age seven, Edward was saved from his abusive stepfather, Harris, when a neighbor saw him peeking out of their apartment through a boarded-up window. He had been shut in with his mother for three years, unable to leave. The only glimpse of the real world that he had was through a series of videotapes that the previous resident had left behind. Thanks to those videos, he was able to learn about the world and mentally escape the horror of his life. After he is rescued, Edward struggles to adapt to real life. He is smart and fascinated by everything, but his peers realize how different he is. When Edward becomes a teenager, he is suddenly confronted by the idea that Harris might be his real father after all. Is there a monster waiting inside him to break free?
Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, this novel is heartrendingly realistic. The book is told in many voices. They include Edward himself and also the adults around him from the social worker who first rescues him from the apartment to the couple who foster him to the family that adopts him and his adopted sister. This is necessary as Edward begins to spiral out of control, so that readers can still view him clearly and better understand the hidden impacts and scars that his tortured upbringing have left on him.
Edward is a strong and interesting protagonist who is vastly human and easy to relate to. Fine uses the videos of a Mr. Rogers like figure to explain how Edward’s mind survived intact. As Edward seems completely fine much of the time, it is his fall into darkness that makes the book believable and allows readers to more fully understand the deep despair that has been lapping at him all along. Fine’s writing allows us hope for Edward’s future, then takes that away, only to restore it once again, showing that all of us have the potential to lose ourselves and find ourselves over and over again.
A powerful read that will be popular with those teens who like A Child Called It. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
A List of Cages by Robin Roe (9781484763803)
Julian just wants to get through high school without attracting anyone’s attention. He has a secret spot to hide during lunch where he feels safe, something he never feels anywhere else even at home. Julian’s parents died when he was a child and now he lives with his last remaining relative, an uncle by marriage. Adam is a popular kid in high school, bouncing with energy from his ADHD and full of smiles to brighten everyone’s day. When Adam is sent to find a freshman who is missing his sessions with the school counselor, he is surprised to discover it is Julian, who had once been his foster brother. But as the two get closer, it is clear that something awful is happening to Julian, something that may be too big for them to handle.
This teen novel is about grief, loss and pain. It’s about possibilities lost, other lives dashed. It’s gut-wrenching and powerful and devastating. And yet, it is also brimming with hope, with a gritty potential for change that just won’t stop, with the power of friendship and the deep abiding love of brotherhood. It’s complicated and not easy in any way. It’s wonderful.
The writing by Roe makes everything powerful and dense with meaning. Here is how she has Adam describe Julian on Page 170 of the book:
I used to think struggle was what aged you, but if that were the case, Julian should’ve been a hundred years old. Now I wonder if the opposite is true. Maybe instead of accelerating your age, pain won’t let you grow.
The characters here are brilliantly juxtaposed. She does not turn to the trope of the well-off teen being a bully or a jerk. Instead, Adam is a bright spot for everyone until he faces something he can’t deal with. It’s such a mix of tragedy, hope and fear. One that Roe has written with depth and care.
A stunning debut novel that is deeply moving and wondrously hopeful. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor (InfoSoup)
Perry has lived in the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility for all eleven years of his life. His mother is incarcerated there and the warden has made it possible for them to be together. He sleeps in his own small room and makes the morning announcements out to the cell blocks. There are many people at the facility that he adores and who love his too, making up his family. He goes to school in the community nearby but obviously can’t invite his friends over to his house. As his mother’s parole date nears, a local DA discovers that Perry is living in the prison and has him removed. Perry is moved to live with the DA and his step daughter, who happens to be Perry’s best friend. There is also some question about whether Perry living at the prison will stop his mother’s parole. As the parole date is moved back, Perry works on a class project about how he came to live in the county and that means telling the stories of his prison family, particularly his mother’s.
Connor writes a piercingly honest book about the power of family and love, and the way that families don’t need to be nuclear to be functional and loving. Taking the unique perspective of a boy who grows up inside a facility, Connor demonstrates what a good prison looks like, how it can be a community and a home and how it can heal and allow for people to forgive themselves. The perspective of Perry’s mother is also shared in some chapters, giving the loving mother a voice as she tries to protect Perry from her own truth.
I must complain a bit about the title, which I continue to find confusing even after finishing the book. Add to that the cover which I also don’t relate closely to the book. It’s too bad, given the high quality of the writing and the story and I do hope that the paperback version does a better job of selling the real story inside.
A superb read that looks at prisons, families and the power of community. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Katherine Tegen Books.
Elliot by Julie Pearson, illustrated by Manon Gauthier (InfoSoup)
Elliot was a little boy whose parents loved him very much. But there was a problem, when Elliot cried his parents did not understand why and when he yelled they did not know what to do. So one day a social worked named Thomas came and Elliot was taken to a new family with a new mother and father. It was different there and Elliot’s new family understood when he was hungry, when he was upset and when he needed attention. Elliot still got to see his parents sometimes too and they had a lot of fun together. His parents did try to care for him once again, but they still did not understand what he needed so he got moved to another family who could respond to his needs. Finally, Elliot came to a family where they wanted him to stay forever. They understood his needs even more deeply than any other family had and said things like “I love you forever, forever.”
This book is so very important. It is a book about the foster care system and one that is so intensely honest that it can be hard to read at times. Pearson manages to not make Elliot’s parents bad at all, keeping their neglect of Elliot vague enough to fit the experiences of many children. That also keeps the book appropriate for the youngest listeners. At the same time, Pearson shows the way children are moved from home to home, the way that they can go back to their parents, and the ability to finally find a permanent home where they are loved and cared for. The moment where parents finally use the word “love” with Elliot is so powerful because readers until that moment will not have realized that he had not been told it before. It’s a moment of realization that stings the heart.
Gauthier’s illustrations are done in cut paper collage. The colors are muted and quiet, creams and tans with lines on them. The background colors change slightly with the various families that Elliot lives with, but they are always muted. I appreciated this subtlety in the colors that supports the quiet and undramatic feel of the entire book.
Honest and vital, this picture book fills a huge gap in children’s books with its depiction of the foster system for small children. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Pajama Press and Myrick Marketing & Media.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Willow Chance didn’t fit in well at her elementary school, so she is attending a middle school across town which none of her previous classmates will be attending. But Willow is just not made to fit in with others. She does fine with her adoptive parents who are accepting of her obsession with gardening and medical conditions as long as she doesn’t tell them everything since that would make them worry. And one of the things she doesn’t tell them is that the middle school thinks that she cheated on a major standardized test because she got a perfect score. So she is sent to counseling though Dell, the school counselor has no idea what to do to help her. Two siblings who also go to see Dell have their own ideas though and that is how Willow comes to be out driving with Dell and the others when she finds out that her parents have been killed in a car accident. Now Willow has lost her parents, her home, her garden and her will to explore. This is a story that is about community, building your family one person at a time, and the wonder of what having people in your life that care can do. It is the story of the amazing Willow Chase.
Sloan’s writing verges on verse at times with its short lines, lined up neatly and speaking profoundly and honestly. It is writing that examines and explores but also moves the story forward at speed. It is imminently readable with plenty of white space and few if any dense paragraphs of text. Rather it has a wonderful lightness about it, even when describing tragedy. And this book is filled with loss and grief that is handled with a gentle depth. Yet it is also a book filled with joy and overcoming odds and inspiration.
Sloan creates not just one incredible character in this novel but an entire group of them. At first the book seems disjointed with the various perspectives shown, since we get to see things not only from Willow’s point of view, from the other teens, but also from the adults as well. But those disparate parts come together in a way that a book from just Willow’s point of view never could have. They add an understanding of Willow’s appeal to others that would not have been possible without it.
This is a tragic story with an indomitable heroine that will leave you smiling through the tears. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.