Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry (9781616208967)
San Antonio is not a comfortable place for the Torres sisters. Their mother died giving birth to Rosa, the youngest sister, and their father never recovered from her death, drowning his feelings in drink. When the oldest sister, Ana falls from her window and dies, it takes a great toll on the entire family. A year later, the cracks are beginning to become even larger. Their father is rarely home and when he is he is verbally abusive, demanding, and drunk. Jessica, who got Ana’s bedroom and clothes, mourns her sister by dating the same boy she did. The relationship is violent and controlling, but Jessica can’t seem to move on. Iridian has stopped going to school, reads the same book over and over again, and writes her own stories. She finds herself caught indoors, unwilling to leave their horrible house. Rosa seeks the hyena that is loose in their neighborhood, wondering what special gift she might have and searching for it outside and in religion. The girls all want to escape, and it may just take Ana returning as a ghost to get them free.
Mabry’s novel is exceptional. Her writing is achingly beautiful, telling a story of profound grief and pain. Yet throughout, each of the sisters has bursts of hope, their own unique way forward potentially, if they could just take it. It’s tantalizing writing that creates its own unique emotional tug and writing that offers gem-like moments of clarity before succumbing under the weight of grief once more. The flashes of anger are like lightning on the page, bursts where one thinks things are about to change.
The sisters are all wonderfully crafted and unique from one another. The interplay of their relationships feels like sisterhood, lifting one another up unexpectedly, injuring each other inadvertently and fighting like hell to save the others.
A great teen novel about sisterhood, grief and ghosts. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Algonquin.
Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros (9780062881687)
Efren’s family works hard all day to provide for him and his younger twin siblings, Mia and Max. Efren’s mother, Ama, really holds the family together, creating delicious meals from leftovers every day. He thinks of her as “Soperwoman” because of the delicious sopes she makes. When Ama is seized by ICE and deported, it falls to Efren to watch his younger siblings, getting them ready in the morning, to bed at night, and trying to distract them from missing Ama. Efren’s father is working two jobs and not sleeping at all, just to send money to his mother in order to get her back into the U.S. As Efren’s school work and friendships start to suffer from the pressure he is under and his worry for his entire family, he looks for ways to make sure that his little brother and sister still feel loved, the way his mother would want them to.
Cisneros has created an ownvoices novel for middle graders that grapples with the state of immigration in the United States. The book is timely, speaking directly to situations that children across our country face every day if their parents are undocumented. The level of fear and dread that ICE has for these families, the danger of being deported, and the risks of returning to their families is all captured here,
Efren is a marvelous protagonist. He is smart and has a huge heart as well as an astounding amount of patience towards his little brother and sister. Living in real poverty, his only wish is for his family to be whole, not for a phone, a bigger TV or anything but having his mother back.
A gripping and rich look at the impact of current immigration policies on children of undocumented families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.
A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor (9780062796783)
Lydia was with her mother as she died and soon after is moving to rural Connecticut to live with her Aunt Brat, her wife and their elderly landlord. Lydia brings with her a box of the goddesses that she and her mother created together as they faced the good and bad in their life. She keeps them hidden from Aunt Brat and everyone at her new home, looking for a private place to hang them in honor of her mother. On the weekend after Lydia moves in, the family also adopts a big yellow dog. Lydia isn’t a dog person, having never lived with one, particularly one this large and untrained. Still, Lydia pitches in to help, something that she does a lot with a chirpy voice that doesn’t seem to belong to her. It helps her also cover up secrets like the growing hole in her wall, a tag that might help them find the yellow dog’s new owner, and even a secret of Aunt Brat’s about baby goats.
Connor’s books are always surprising in the best way. She takes very interesting characters and throws them together here in a new family with a new dog and plenty to hide. The result is a book that untangles itself slowly, revealing new truths and interesting hiding places along the way. The setting of rural Connecticut plays a large role in the story, inviting readers to explore the hills and valleys filled with farms and fields.
The characters, both human and dog, are exceptionally well drawn. No secondary character is left without a deeper story, and this is done without crowding the main story out. Still, it is Lydia’s story and she is far more than a tragic orphan who has lost her mother. Instead, she is resilient and hard working, willing to always pitch in to help. As she literally grapples with having a new dog in her life, she is also working on new human friends, fitting into a new family, and finding her way forward with new people to love.
Full of dogs, warmth and love, this is another great read from a talented author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (9781524715700)
Lily, her mother and sister move in with her elderly Korean grandmother. In the small town, Lily soon discovers that everyone knows and loves her grandmother, who wears glamorous clothes and tries to offer advice and help to her community. Halmoni has always been special to Lily too, sharing stories of tigers, girls and stars with her and her sister. So when they are heading to Halmoni’s house and Lily sees a tiger out of the car window, she knows it’s from her grandmother’s tales and that tigers are tricksters. As Lily starts to understand that her grandmother is severely ill, she believes that she can help by working with the tiger to release the stories from her grandmother’s jars. The stories emerge and shine in the darkness, returning to the sky as stars and allowing Lily to hear some of the more difficult stories for the first time. Yet, Lily isn’t sure if the tiger is actually real and if the tiger is, can she be trusted to really help Halmoni?
Keller’s novel for middle grade readers explores the complexity of stories both in terms of folklore but also stories of previous generations in a family and the difficulties they faced in other countries and in traveling to the United States. The power of stories themselves is never in question here, shining through as each tale is shared. They connect, explain and inspire. But stories here are also hidden, carefully kept from others so that their pain need not be shared. This too speaks to their incredible power and the importance of them being told. So in the end, whether you believe in the tiger or not, you will believe in the stories themselves and their magic.
This novel is so beautifully written. Readers will experience it as a series of jars to be opened and released by them. The tales themselves are told in language and tones that really make them understood to be part of an oral tradition. The rest of the book, the story of Lily and her family, is layered and fascinating. All of the characters are complex and have multiple dimensions to their personalities. Lily is caught up in her own world of tiger traps and magical jars, but everyone else has their own perspectives on what is happening to Halmoni and their family.
A powerful book of stories, magic and tigers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Books for Young Readers.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith, illustrated by Rachel Wada (9781459821033)
Makio loved spending time with his neighbor, Mr. Hirota in his garden that looked down upon the harbor. He could see his father at work along the shore. Then one day, the tsunami came. It took away Makio’s father and Mr. Hirota’s daughter. Everyone in the village lost someone that day. Silence descended upon the town along with their grief. A noise came that was Mr. Hirota building a phone book in his garden. A phone booth with an old-fashioned phone and no wires connecting it anywhere. Painted white, the booth gave the mourners an opportunity to reconnect with their lost family members, sharing their days from a phone booth on the hill overlooking the harbor.
This picture book is based on a true story of a Japanese man who built a phone booth in his garden to speak with his dead brother, which was then used by thousands of mourners in Osaka to speak to their dead relatives after the tsunami. The tale here is told with a deep grace and empathy that shines on every page. The dramatic impact of the wave both on the land and on the people who live there is shown clearly. The grief afterwards is palpable on the page too.
The illustrations were inspired by Japanese traditional techniques using watercolors, black ink and pencils as well as digital assembly. The resulting images are filled with a powerful mix of light and dark with the black ink giving a dramatic and strong impact.
A beautiful and aching story of loss and community. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (9781368048088)
Lyric, Maine was the ancestral home of Violet’s family, established by her great-great-great-grandmother who survived a shipwreck. Now Violet has been sent there after a wreck of her own, created when she partied too much and almost lost her brother Sam to suicide. Stuck in the small town, she finds a volunteer job at the local aquarium. That’s where she meets Orion, a gorgeous boy her age who knows all about marine life and how to run the cash register, skills that Vi can only dream of having. Orion’s best friend is Liv, who happens to be obsessed with the Lyric shipwreck and can’t wait to meet Violet, a direct descendant. Things get more complicated as Violet tries to help Liv and Orion move forward in a romantic way, Violet tries to avoid romance herself and along the way makes the best friends of her life.
I must admit this was one of the hardest books to summarize. There is so much here that all fits so beautifully into the novel but can’t be easily explained. There is the power of music, the impact of nature, the importance of dreams, the vitality of connection to one another, and the continued reverberation of loss and grief. All of that is here in these pages, written so beautifully that it aches. There are some cliches like Violet shaving her head, but those disappear into the richness of the book, becoming references and anchors to other stories rather than taking up too much space here.
The writing is exquisite, the emotions on the page are allowed to be raw but also often are hidden from view behind banter or fights about other things. Violet’s bisexuality is shown organically and openly, something that is simply there and innately understood by the reader. Mental illness is treated much the same way with panic attacks, depression, and anxiety all included in the story, important to the plot, but never gawked at.
Beautiful, powerful and full of feeling, this book is amazing. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean (9781536201604)
At first Davie doesn’t believe that Joe Quinn has a poltergeist in his home. After all, Joe has told lies before about his family. But when Davie and his best friend head over to Joe’s house to witness it themselves, they see bread and butter fly through the air, chips hit the wall, and dishes break. Davie himself lost a sister when she was very little, and he longs to know if ghosts are real because if so, she might still be there. But could it just be Joe playing a prank? Perhaps bringing the village priest in will help make things more clear and perhaps it will cloud things even more.
Almond and McKean have created several of the most inventive and incredible graphic novels in the last few years, including The Savage, Slog’s Dad, and Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. It is great to see another of their weird collaborations. This book is not about answering questions about whether ghosts exist. It’s about grief and loss, violence and families, and being willing to live with questions unanswered. It is a book that takes a short story by Almond and turns it into something visceral and pointed, a book for Halloween yes, but also for everyday darkness and wonder as well.
The illustrations by McKean are filled with sharp edges, fractured panes. They have characters who writhe on the page, almost beyond human and filled with amazing flaws. There are times of amazing green grass and sunshine, others of the sun breaking through blood-red clouds, others of filled with shadows of prison bars. The images are stunning in their stretched-out haunting nature.
A graphic novel that is not for everyone, but fans of dark corners will love what they find here. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
Grandpa’s Top Threes by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egneus (9781536211252)
Henry’s grandfather is gardening a lot lately. Henry doesn’t understand, and his mother tells him just to give his grandfather time. But Henry isn’t patient enough to leave his grandfather alone. So he tries out their favorite shared game, asking his grandfather what his top three sandwiches are. When his grandfather doesn’t respond at first, Henry offers his top three and then his grandfather shares his own list. The two of them eat their favorite sandwiches together by the pond. Henry keeps asking for his grandfather’s top threes until one day, his grandfather starts the game, asking what Henry’s top three days out are. So they do all three together, one after another.
Meddour’s story is one of a grieving man who was turning away from his family and then his grandson invites him to return to the world and find joy again. The process is slow and steady, Meddour doesn’t rush it at all, allowing it play out naturally on the page. The relationship between grandfather and grandson is shown as vital and life-changing, with the child taking steps to really impact his grandfather’s life for the better.
Egneus’ illustrations glow with an inner light. The bright red hair of Henry and the bushy beard of the grandfather offer a wonderful play against one another on the page. The images echo the text with their focus on connection to one another.
Full of lots of emotion, this one may bring tears to your eyes. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry (9780823442836)
A little boy thinks that he sees a ghost cat out of the corner of his eye. It reminds him of the cat he used to have but the boy can never get a good look at this ghost cat. The ghost cat seems to sleep on his bed at night, curled up and purring. It plays with cat toys on the stairs. It meows outside of the boy’s door and knocks things off of shelves. But the boy is always too late to see anything more than a blur moving quickly. Then one day, the boy really sees the ghost cat clearly. He chases after it and the cat leads him to something new and very special right outside.
Atteberry tells a wonderfully gentle story here about the loss of a pet and the gap that it leaves. It is also a great ghost story with no scariness at all, just a playful cat ghost doing cat-like things all over the house. The tone is delightfully breathless and wondering, just right for a ghost story. The dashing nature of the bulk of the book slows at the end to allow readers to bask in the new discovery.
The illustrations, done digitally, are filled with warm tones that allow the ghostly form of the cat to really pop. Readers will enjoy seeing the cat fleetingly on the page, moving just away from the boy and the reader.
Comforting and understanding, this book takes ghosts and grief and turns them into something very special. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Neal Porter Books.