Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley

Cover image for Jo Jo Makoons.

Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert (9780063015371)

Boozhoo! Welcome to a new chapter book series featuring an Ojibwe girl. Jo Jo has two best friends. There is Mimi, her pet cat, who may need to be saved from having to get shots. Then there is Fern, her school best friend, who has been acting a lot more distant lately. Jo Jo lives on the Ojibwe reservation with her mother and grandmother. Because Mimi must get shots soon, Jo Jo tucks her into her bookbag and takes Mimi to school with her. At school, they have to do a rhyming exercise that Jo Jo doesn’t get quite right. But when she tries to hide Mimi in her shirt and Mimi escapes, Jo Jo suddenly speaks in rhymes much to her teacher’s surprise. With Fern not being overly friendly, Jo Jo realizes she needs to start making new friends besides Mimi, so Jo Jo tries following her grandmother’s advice and being friendly to everyone. But its’ not that easy!

Written with a ton of humor that will have you laughing out loud, readers will immediately love Jo Jo with her unique view of the world. She’s a girl who thinks that her gym teacher’s name is “Jim” and doesn’t realize that words spelled alike sometimes don’t rhyme at all. Meanwhile, she is a great friend, a great artist, and just has to find her own unique way through life.

Quigley’s writing is just right for a chapter book. It pairs well with the illustrations which show Jo Jo and her series of misadventures through a few days in her life. From the chaos of Mimi in class to Jo Jo’s humorous art style to her attempts to be more friendly, all are captured in the images with humor and empathy.

A look the life of a modern young Ojibwe with plenty of giggles. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Heartdrum.

We Love Fishing by Ariel Bernstein

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We Love Fishing by Ariel Bernstein, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal (9781534438644)

Bear, Porcupine, and Otter love fishing. Squirrel isn’t quite as enthusiastic as the others. Bear, Porcupine and Otter love eating fish. Squirrel thinks fish smell too fishy. Bear, Porcupine and Otter love walking through the woods on their way to catching fish. Squirrel doesn’t like the bugs, the steep terrain or the rocks. In fact, he’d much rather take a taxi. The others love the hours it takes to catch the fish while Squirrel is horribly bored. The other don’t mind the rain which makes Squirrel’s hair frizz. After a mishap with the only fish they manage to catch, the others realize they love Squirrel and his offer to buy dinner more than they like fishing.

Told in marvelously “factual” statements that the entire foursome love the same things, this picture book shows Squirrel’s opinions in a wry and funny way. Bernstein’s very simple writing is just right for sharing aloud. The change from enthusiastic fishing to frustration is one that most people on fishing trips have experience at one time or another. Happily, this group has Squirrel and his phone to save the day and fill their stomachs.

The art is simple and bold, showing clearly the emotions that each creature is feeling on their day out together. Rosenthal uses body language and facial expressions to great effect. The images use plenty of white space, inviting readers to both enjoy the outing and also to understand Squirrel’s point of view too.

For anyone who has ever gone fishing, particularly those of us who fall asleep in the boat. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson

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The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson (9781481480215)

The first in the Thirteen Witches trilogy, this fantasy novel tells the story of Rosie Oaks who survived a witch attack as a newborn baby. She was left though with a mother who cannot love her and can barely care for her at all. Rosie has always known her mother to be this way, so she doesn’t expect anything else. Rosie spends her time reading books and writing her own stories until one day she decides that she is too old for them and burns her stories. That triggers the sight, allowing her to see the ghosts that live all around her. Ebb, a ghost boy, shows her the Witch Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, a book her mother hid that contains all she knew about the thirteen witches that control the world. Rosie discovers that her mother has been cursed, her memories stolen by the Memory Thief, a witch who may be the weakest but is also unstoppable. As Rosie learns more about the witches, her mother’s curse, family secrets and friendship, she realizes that she is the one who must now hunt the witch but at what cost?

Anderson has written a unique fantasy novel where witches are profoundly powerful beings, able to steal memories, stop time, and inflict curses. The world building is skillfully crafted, offering a world parallel to our own where a ladder goes to the moon, where ghosts exist and strive to head to the Beyond, and where witch hunters have magical weapons they craft themselves. Through Rosie, readers get to experience the wonder of discovering that world as well as feel the tragedy of her mother’s curse deeply too.

Anderson populates her book with characters who are fascinating and worthy of their own novels. There is Ebb, the ghost boy who has his pet ghost spider and who befriends Rosie when she needs it most. There is Germ, Rosie’s only friend, who loves Rosie and can see ghosts suddenly just like Rosie can. There is the Murderer, an angry ghost with his own tragic story who Rosie discovers holds the secret to her own survival as an infant. The Memory Thief herself is a fascinating mix of tragedy, danger and horror.

A great start to a new fantasy trilogy, this book mixes ghosts, magic and witches into something spectacularly new. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

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Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina (9780763690502)

This sequel to the Newbery Award winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears continues the story of Merci, her large multigenerational family, and the difficulties of being a seventh grader. This year, Merci has been assigned to manage the small school store along with Wilson, a boy who is amazing at math. As the two reinvent what their school store can be, adding movie merchandise, they end up also being drawn into selling tickets for the Heart Ball, run by Edna, who has managed to become even bossier than usual. Merci has decided not to go to the dance, but is asked to take photographs and agrees as long as she doesn’t even have to enter the gym. When an accident happens, Merci makes a bad decision and covers up the damage, setting off a series of lies that will involve school and family. With no one to talk to, since her grandfather’s dementia is worsening, Merci has to figure out who to trust to help her.

Fans returning to reconnect with Merci will once again find Medina’s rich depiction of Merci’s extended family, her grandfather’s worsening mental abilities, and the gorgeous warmth and love that keeps them all connected. Medina put Merci in quite a horrible situation in this second novel, where she feels alone and unable to be honest. Medina writes it with such empathy and skill that it is almost painful to read, though that makes the resolution all the more marvelous to experience.

As always, Medina’s writing is skillful and detailed. She truly creates a middle school experience with burgeoning romantic feelings and the changes happening between long-time best friends. Medina doesn’t let this all be negative, instead focusing on the confusion but also on the deeper understanding that can result from going through strange middle school circumstances.

Another marvelous Merci novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd

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Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter (9781338568912)

Maggie discovers that she has severe allergies that make her sneeze and also break out in hives when she interacts with any animals with fur or feathers. But Maggie is determined to find a pet that will work for her. She starts with a list of potential pets. The fish died too quickly, the lizard loved her brothers more, hedgehogs are illegal, and some animals just aren’t interesting. Meanwhile at home, they are expecting a new baby in a few months and Maggie often feels like the odd one out since her younger brothers are twins and always doing things together but without her. Then a new girl moves into the neighborhood. Maggie and Claire become close friends, until Claire gets a puppy of her own, the ultimate betrayal. Perhaps there’s a different solution, and all it will take is one mouse to test out!

There is so much empathy and heart in this middle-grade graphic novel. It captures the essence of being a middle grader, of not quite fitting in yet and feeling emotions deeply. Friendships are difficult, full of misunderstandings and possibilities. Add into that severe allergies and a growing family, and you have a book that is full of challenges to navigate. Maggie is a strong protagonist, full of ideas and a hope that her allergies can be overcome somehow.

The art by Nutter is colorful and inviting. It depicts a busy and loving family, Maggie’s physical allergy reactions, and then her newfound connections with people who just happen to be animals she can be around.

A sunny and welcome look at allergies, friendships and family. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf (9780593302279)

Aniyah and her brother are new in the foster-care system. At ten-years-old, Aniyah grew up in a family where they worked hard to placate her father’s temper and eventually hid from him with her mother and little brother. Now her mother is gone, but Aniyah knows she isn’t gone forever. When Aniyah hears that a new star has been found in the sky, she knows that it is her mother transformed. But the international contest to name the star will get it wrong! Aniyah, her brother and two of the other foster kids in the house set out on a wild Halloween-night journey to London and the Royal Observatory to make sure that the star is named after Aniyah’s mother after all.

This is the second book by the author of the award-winning The Boy at the Back of the Class. It is a story of familial abuse and terror, but told through the eyes of a ten-year-old whose mother tried to shelter her from what was actually happening. Aniyah has stories built around all of the noises she heard, from “moving furniture” to “playing hide and seek.” It makes the truth of the matter all the more haunting for readers who will understand what happened to Aniyah’s mother long before the character does.

It creates a deep tenderness between the reader and the main protagonist. Aniyah and her little brother are voices of pure innocence in the book, accompanied by other children who have been warned not to reveal the truth to her. Their lengthy experience in foster care contrasts profoundly with Aniyah’s demonstrating to the reader how special their foster mother is and how traumatic many of the children’s lives are.

A fine weaving of grief, innocence and trauma. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

Cover for Darius the Great Deserves Better

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram (9780593108239)

This second book about Darius takes place after he returns home from his family’s visit to Iran. A lot has changed since he made his first real friend in Iran, someone he still talks with often and considers his best friend. Now Darius is on the school soccer team and has a boyfriend. He works at a tea store that his boyfriend’s father owns, immersing himself in something he loves. But his family is struggling with money and with his father taking more jobs where he has to travel, his grandmothers move in to help. Darius can’t help but notice how different his grandmothers are than his mother’s family in Iran. He works to connect with them, but doesn’t make much headway. His relationship may not be as great as he though either, since Landon wants to move a lot faster than Darius is ready for. Plus a boy on his soccer team is becoming a closer friend, though he did used to bully Darius. Nothing is simple or easy in this second book, as Darius continues to learn about himself.

Returning to the world of Darius was amazing. Khorram’s writing is marvelous, exuding a natural warmth in his storytelling. His empathy for Darius is clear, as Darius struggles with what he is ready for, what family means to him, and who he wants to have in his life. Even his relationship with tea becomes problematic, as he may lose something he loves because he fears failure so much. And beware how much you will want to try some of the teas mentioned here, because Darius is passionate about them!

Darius is hero material. Thoughtful and sometimes depressed, he is complex and marvelous. From his best friend in Iran to his boyfriend to his new friendships on the soccer team, Darius is brave and manages to continue coming out through this new novel. He faces fear in ways that preserve what he loves, sets real boundaries to keep true to himself, and manages to be hilariously funny too.

Another great Darius book. Can there please be a third? Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter (9781250195463)

Join a band of brave heroes who adventure through dungeons and then take on more sinister threats above ground. There is Rose, the pun-flinging pink cat mage. June is the quieter dog healer who keeps the entire group alive. Goro is the big green creature who serves as the muscle. Finally, Jeremy is the frog with a sharp sword and a vendetta against The Baron. After finding a strange plant, our heroes must figure out how it is being used by The Baron to potentially take over the world. As they work through the threats and puzzles, the group steadily reveal themselves to the reader. Goro misses his boyfriend Horse Boy and Jeremy seems to be far more royal than he first appeared. Meanwhile, there is some romantic heat between Rose and June that plays out throughout the book.

Perfect for anyone who has spent time with Dungeons and Dragons or crawled through video game dungeons like World of Warcraft, this book is captivating. There is plenty of action for those who love that aspect of gaming, but really where this book shines is in the character development, just like any great D&D campaign. The inclusion of LGBT elements and full-on romance is marvelous. It’s a book sure to make everyone feel included in gaming, dungeons and even fancy dances.

The art is bright and dashing while the writing adds the joy of puns as well as moments that will have you laughing out loud. The two together make for a book that is a fast read because the action gallops along and readers will want to know what happens to these characters that they love.

Full of action, romance and humor, this is a dungeon worth crawling for. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

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Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544084773)

In the summer of 1968, Meryl Lee’s best friend died. Her parents decided to give her a fresh start at St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for girls, a boarding school in Maine. Meryl Lee doesn’t fit in with the wealthy girls around her, finding all of the rules and expectations stifling. Meanwhile, Matt Coffin is also on the Maine coast, except he is living in a decrepit shanty trying to survive. He is on the run from a criminal gang whose leader murdered his best friend. Matt works on the fishing boats, earning just enough to feed himself and heat his small shanty. After Matt is attacked and nearly killed, the headmistress of St. Elene’s takes him in. They start to form a family along with one of the fishermen who takes Matt out on the water. Meryl Lee is also finding that she can make friends in different ways, though the blank of grief is often waiting to overtake her. Soon the two will meet, discover one another and find that they are drawn together in grief and hope.

Every new book by Schmidt is a delight. This one is a heart stealer of a book where readers will adore both Meryl Lee and Matt as well as the adults who care for them both. As Meryl learns again and again, friendship starts in a variety of different ways, as long as you are open to it. Readers will leave this book more open to discovering amazing people in their lives who were there all along.

The historical setting works particularly well to keep Matt able to stay hidden as long as he does. It also plays a role in events at St. Elene’s with staff getting into trouble for publicly expressing their political beliefs and the Vietnam War taking the brother of one of the girls who works at the school. Schmidt explores grief with a deep empathy and kindness but also with a cracking sense of humor at times.

Deeply sad, often lonely but also full of hope and friendship. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.