The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (9780062491497)
Released January 23, 2018.
Mason is the biggest kid in his grade and it doesn’t help that he’s also the sweatiest. To make matters worse, he has dyslexia and trouble with reading and writing. His family has gone through a series of tragedies with his mother dying and then his best friend falling out of a tree house in Mason’s family orchard. Since his death, Mason has been trying to tell the police his side of the story, but he can’t write it down and the officer interrupts him and makes it all confusing. Now Mason has a new best friend, one he made when running from the neighborhood bullies who throw balls and apples at them as they get off the bus. The two create a club house for themselves in an abandoned root cellar behind Mason’s house. But trouble seems to find Mason, and soon there is a a new tragedy to overcome.
Connor writes books that soar and are completely heartfelt, this book is another of those. Connor looks at what grief does to a family, the time that it takes to recover and what happens when a series of incidents occur to the same family and they can’t return to normal. Still, there is hope in every day things. There is hope in the clean kitchen, NPR playing, banana milkshakes. There is hope in good dogs, new friends and people surprising you. Connor’s book shines with that hope, despite the clutter of their life, the dirt on the carpet, the laundry on the floor.
Mason too shines with hope and honesty. He is an unlikely hero with his size and his sweat. And yet, readers will immediately see beyond that. They will see Mason as a friend and a source of protection and care. Readers will also figure things out well before Mason does, including the fact that he is suspected of contributing to his best friend’s death.
Filled with heart and hope, this is a wonderful read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Harper Collins.
The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange (9781338157475)
This British debut is a riveting look at mental illness after the First World War. Henry and her family have moved to Hope House, but Henry’s mother isn’t herself and soon is prescribed absolute bed rest, medicated to keep her asleep most of the time and her door is locked so Henry can’t see her. Henry is left in the rented house with her new baby sister and their nanny who also cares for Henry’s mother. Her father has left to work out of the country. Meanwhile, Henry is drawn to the woods on the property and there she meets a woman who lives on her own in a rundown caravan. She also starts to see and speak to the ghost of her dead brother. As Henry works to figure out what is happening to her mother and how she can reach her, doctors begin to threaten to take her mother to an asylum and hint at the kinds of treatments they might do. Henry soon becomes the only one able to rescue them all.
Strange writes with an eye for detail and a flair for metaphors that create a deep and lush mood throughout this novel. Her writing invites us all to explore darkness, the drama of woods at night and to make friends with those haunting us. The historical setting in Britain is particularly well drawn. The invasive treatments for depression are hinted at, just enough for young readers to understand the threat but not enough for them to be truly frightened.
Henry is a grand heroine. She finds herself far out of her depth in this novel and yet navigates dealing with adults with grace and a certain style. She understands more than the adults in the novel give her credit for and in the end she figures out how best to fix the problems herself, with some help from her grownup friends.
This British import will be enjoyed by fans of classics who will enjoy the historical setting and call for one girl to be the hero. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (9780062215918, Amazon)
Newbery-Honor winner Williams-Garcia returns with another book that is filled with love, loss and family. Clayton loves playing the blue with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, in the park. It’s something they do together when his mother works double shifts, since she doesn’t approve of the blues or his grandfather. Clayton knows he is ready for a solo on his blues harp, but Cool Papa wants him to wait a bit longer. Then one night, Cool Papa doesn’t wake up and Clayton is left with his mother’s anger at her father and his own deep loss. School becomes almost impossible for Clayton as he struggles with his grief and when his teacher makes him read the same book that Cool Papa had been reading aloud to him, it is too much. Clayton decides to hit the road, find the blues men that his grandfather played with and join them on their travels. But it’s not that simple and Clayton soon finds himself on an unexpected journey on the New York subway.
This book is simply incredible. Williams-Garcia writes with an ease that welcomes readers deep into the story. She manages in well under 200 pages to tell a deep and rich story that resonates. It’s a story of the power of music to connect generations, of grandfathers who teach and lead, of subways and busking, of urban landscapes and neighborhoods. It’s a story of loss and grief, of self discovery too. It is a multilayered book that will inspire discussion and connection.
Clayton is a wonderful main character with his grandfather’s porkpie hat on his head and his harmonica in his pocket or in his hands making music. He is clearly a gifted musician and it is a treat to have a young character playing music like the blues and then mixing it with hip hop. Clayton is an individual and proud of it, yet he loses one of his main anchors in life and has to find a way forward once again.
Deep and resonating, this novel is a demonstration of real skill and the power of books and music. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Stealing Our Way Home by Cecilia Galante (9781338042962, Amazon)
When Pippa and Jack’s mother died six months ago, everything changed. Their father who had been holding everything together during the last months of her illness, suddenly disappeared into his work. Pippa hasn’t spoken since her mother died. Jack has taken on the responsibility that his father has dropped. Meanwhile, their electricity is being cut off and the children discover that their father has lost his car sales business. Their lives become more complicated as Jack is drawn into his father’s desperation for money and a dangerous scheme. Pippa suspects what is happening and is also struggling at school with her silence. It’s going to take fresh strength as a family for them to come out of this dark time.
Galante has created a multilayered novel that is complex and yet not overly long. She wisely layers in other characters who struggled with loss in their lives too, showing the various ways that people can react to grief. This allows readers to see the response of the father in the book as strange and confusing, much as it seems to Pippa and Jack. The book celebrates the power of family even as it is about one that is entirely falling apart. It is also about the love that makes people do stupid things to keep a family together just as those same decisions tear it further.
Galante tells the story from the points of view of both Pippa and Jack in alternating chapters. This is also a clever choice, showing the internal struggles of both children and allowing readers to see the pain that both of them are experiencing and yet displaying it outwardly in different ways. Throughout the book, the setting is vital and important, the lake itself becoming a reflection of emotions and a way to connect to life.
Beautifully written and intelligently crafted, this novel is a remarkable look at grief and families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson (9781481449663, Amazon)
Ozzie is the only one who remembers his boyfriend Tommy. He’s known Tommy since they were young children and they started dating in middle school. Now though, no one remembers that Tommy existed, including Ozzie’s family, his friends, and Tommy’s parents. Ozzie has figured out that the universe is shrinking around him, erasing people like Tommy from existence and rearranging history as if they were never there. Meanwhile, Ozzie’s world continues to change. His best friend Lua is becoming a rock star, his brother is headed to basic training, and his parents’ marriage is breaking up. One bright spot in Ozzie’s life is Cal, a confusing boy he is paired with for a physics project but the feelings developing between them complicate his ongoing search for Tommy.
This book sweeps you up, whisks you into Ozzie’s world and you believe, oh my, do you believe. Even though it’s impossible, questionable, and strange, you are along for the ride and the wonder of it all. This is because the emotions are so strong and real, the terror of life changing and the lack of control, the love between people that survives even though one is gone, the joy of new connections and friends. It’s all there, exactly what young readers are experiencing themselves but shown in a way that no one has seen before.
While Ozzie may believe the universe is shrinking, readers will question that right up to the end. What they won’t question is the world that Hutchinson has created here, filled with vibrant characters that you want to love and befriend. The LGBT themes are strongly written and beautifully presented. While the main character is gay, his friends are just as diverse. Lua is gender variant, striking and dramatic, changing pronouns with outfits. Other characters are asexual, presented in just the same frank and unquestioning way. LGBT characters in the book talk about sex, have sex, explore sex. It’s all brilliantly normal in a book that is anything but.
This is a book you must read to completely understand it. I hope you find it just as compelling and wondrous as I did. Enjoy! Appropriate for ages 14-18.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Released February 14, 2017.
Marin left her entire old life behind, arriving at college in New York two weeks ahead of schedule and with almost nothing with her. She tried to leave that life behind and start anew, but now her best friend Mabel is coming to see her. The best friend that Marin hasn’t spoken to in months, the best friend she hasn’t texted or called. Left alone in the deserted dorm as winter break arrives, Marin can only wait for Mabel to arrive. When she does, they are awkward together and the story of their relationship slowly reveals itself. Along the way, Marin’s unique relationship with her grandfather also emerges. Now it is up to Marin to face everything she has run from for the first time.
I knew on the very first page that this was a book that would consume me. LaCour writes with a precision and yet a naturalness that disarms and embraces the reader. She is delicate at times, allowing the reader to explore and learn. At other points she is direct, pointing out pain, tenderness and loss with care. The tone is uniquely hers, a voice that is beautiful to read, filled with poignancy, hesitation and wonder all the while it fights depression and despair.
This is a novel of hope, a novel that shows how difficult it can be to face loss and betrayal. It is a book that speaks of the power of bridging those gaps in our lives, of finding a person we love once again and allowing them back into our lives. It’s a story of slowly opening that door, the door to humanity and joy that had seemed locked forever. It’s a story of transformation that is simple and yet profound.
One of the best young adult books on loss and grief that I have ever read, this one will find a place in your heart. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.
Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos (InfoSoup)
When Jared Stone discovers that he has terminal brain cancer, he decides to sell his life to the highest bidder on eBay. He gains the attention of a nun, a psychologically-disturbed man of leisure and wealth, a video-game playing teen, and a TV producer. When his posting is pulled down on eBay, only one person is left, the TV producer. So Jared and his family become the focus of a reality TV show and lose their privacy entirely. Jackie, Jared’s 15-year-old daughter, will not willingly participate in the show, figuring out how to avoid the crew and the cameras. But perhaps there is even more that she can do as she starts her own behind-the-scenes YouTube show that tells the truth about the editing and manipulation of her family by the reality show.
Vlahos tells a story of our time, about the dangers of believing in what we see on TV, of the siren call of money and the problems and advantages that come with using the internet for connections. Told from a variety of points of view, including Jared’s tumor, the book has a dark sense of humor throughout. Despite that humor, there is a sense of claustrophobia that pervades the novel as well, one that is built on the invasion of privacy from the TV cameras and then exacerbated by the manipulation and deviousness that surrounds the family.
Still, there is not despair here, even with a terminal illness as a central theme. It is instead a book about fighting back, being true to yourself and finding a way forward against the odds. A large part of that is Jackie, a girl who doesn’t fit in at school and appreciates her privacy. This is her nightmare scenario as the TV cameras roll and it forces her to reach out for help to people who are like her and can aid in fighting back. Through Jackie, we see how the Internet is more than darkness, it is also a source of hope and connection. It is both things at the same time.
A book of complex issues, the fakery of reality TV, and the dual sides of the Internet, this is a riveting read. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from ARC received from Bloomsbury.
The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli (InfoSoup)
Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli tells the story of a girl who lost her mother as an infant and grew up as the daughter of a prison warden. Cammie isn’t a girl who is silly and lots of fun. In fact, she is fast moving and fast talking, exactly why she has the nickname Cannonball Cammie. Cammie is actually angry most of the time. Her best friend has developed faster and seems to be 17 instead of 13 sometimes. She wants to get on Bandstand and be famous. Cammie though is more interested in riding her bike around town and playing baseball. Cammie thinks that her life would be better with a motherly figure, so she begins to try to get the prisoner assigned as their housekeeper to be more like a mother to her. Then there’s Boo Boo, the prisoner who acts motherly towards Cammie but hides a dark secret. Her father too is a mystery, both present and not there, sometimes at the same time. It’s all a confusing mix of emotions for Cammie, who will need to deal with her own grief both past and present before she can do anything but be angry at the world.
Spinelli has written a completely captivating story in this middle grade novel. The setting is richly created with the prison, a full city and community, and one moment after another where Cammie sets it all ablaze with her anger and acting out. Throughout though, Cammie is far more than just as angry person, she is humanity personified, a girl in search of herself even as she spends her time looking for solutions in others. It’s a compelling story, one that is filled with moments of joy and despair.
Spinelli writes like a wizard, unveiling truths slowly and beautifully. As Cammie storms through her life, she also reveals the truths of others around her. And without revealing the entirely riveting and humbling ending, she creates opportunities where others become more than they have ever been before. It is a staggeringly rich novel that is written with such skill that it manages to read in an accessible way.
A masterful book about loss, childhood and recovery by a master of books for children, this is a must-read and a must-buy for libraries. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Alfred A. Knopf and Edelweiss.
27 Magic Words by Sharelle Byars Moranville (InfoSoup)
Kobi knows that her parents are still alive. When they sailed off on a two month adventure five years ago and didn’t return, Kobi was still able to see them when she used the magic word “Avanti!” It is one of 27 words that her writer mother gave her when she was little and told her were magical. Kobi and her older sister lived with their grandmother in Paris but now are heading to Des Moines, Iowa to go to school for a few months and live with their Uncle Wim. As Kobi tries to adapt to her new environment, she finds herself telling lies defensively as her classmates ask her questions. As the lies begin to catch up with Kobi, she is forced to realize that she has been lying to herself as well.
Moranville has written a book that is a blissful read. She uses small moments to speak to larger issues, captures details that bring the world she has created fully alive. There is Norman who wears clothes to blend in and not be noticed. There is Kobi’s older sister who is struggling with OCD. The entire family fills the pages with art, gardens, food and color. It is a beautifully built world.
The writing throughout the novel is exceptional. There are paragraphs that are completely exquisite. This one appears on page 108 and is about a woman struggling with Alzheimer’s:
Ms. Hancock was like a beautiful picture that had been rained on, then driven over by a car, then left under a pile of leaves to be nibbled by squirrels, and the only beautiful bit left was a tiny patch of incredible blue in one corner.
A strong novel that blends grief, lies, loss and the potential for real magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.