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.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

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These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong (9781534457690)

This whirlwind of a novel is a grand retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliette Cai is in line to inherit the Scarlet Gang, one of the two gangs who rule 1920’s Shanghai. Juliette has spent the last few years in New York City, making her both a native of Shanghai but also partly an outsider. Upon her return to Shanghai, strange things start happening. A contagion is sweeping the city, causing those who catch it to tear out their own throats. Juliette is determined to figure out what is actually happening, a desire that causes her to have to work with her former lover, Roma, who is the heir to the White Flowers, the rival gang. After being brutally dumped by him, Juliette is wary of whether Roma is telling the truth. But when his own sister succumbs to the contagion, the two begin working together in earnest, encountering murder, death, monsters and much more.

This book is full of so much depth and such brilliant world building that it is nearly impossible to believe it’s a debut novel. Gong writes with real skill here, managing the pacing of the book beautifully, slowing it at appropriate times and allowing it to dash madly at others. The result is a book that sweeps up readers, offering them a glimpse of a fictional Shanghai that dazzles. Gong also riffs on the original very cleverly, not tying herself too tightly to Shakespeare but close enough that there are glimpses of that tale throughout the book.

The two main characters are marvelously driven and willing to kill people along the way. Gong does not soften the ongoing blood feud or what it has cost both Juliette and Roma. She also makes Juliette the one more likely to resort to direct violence, which is dynamite. The puzzle at the heart of the book is complicated and strange, leading directly to the next book in the series.

A dynamite first book in a dazzling fantasy series. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Yummy

Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke

This graphic novel tells the true story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.  In 1994, Yummy, called that because of his sweet tooth, fired a gun into a crowd of rival gang members.  He ended up killing a bystander, a teen girl.  Yummy was just 11 years old when this happened.   The story is told from the point of view of Roger, another boy who knew Yummy from school and the neighborhood.  Roger tries to make sense of Yummy and how he became a gang member and killer.  This is made even more tangible to Roger because his own brother is in the same gang as Yummy.  Throughout this book, deep questions are asked and explored.

Neri’s text creates a great platform to understand the gang wars of the 1990s and the dynamic of southside Chicago.  Though the bulk of the book is from Roger’s point of view, the reader also gets to see what Yummy is going through as he hides from police and is eventually killed by his own gang.  There is a real restraint in the writing that allows the drama of the tale itself to take center stage. 

DuBurke’s illustrations done in black and white are a study in light and dark.  Faces change as the light changes on them, becoming sinister and strange.  The images are dynamic and underline the youth of Yummy and the transition from bully to killer. 

A beautifully crafted graphic novel dealing in brutal subjects, this book is an important exploration of gang warfare.  It is also an even more important look at childhood.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy received from Lee & Low Books.

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