Review: Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (9780823439607)

After Langston’s mother died, he and his father moved from rural Alabama to Chicago. Langston misses his mother and grandmother as well as their way of life in Alabama. In Chicago, it’s hard for him to make friends and lonely in the apartment when his father is gone. Even the food that his father provides is nothing like the skilled cooking of the women who raised him. But there is one part of Chicago that makes up for all of the changes. The public library branch in his neighborhood is not whites-only like the one in Alabama. Hiding from bullies after school, Langston soon discovers the beauty of poetry, particularly that written by a man with the same name, Langston Hughes.

Cline-Ransome is best known for her picture books and this is her first novel. The skilled writing here would never lead anyone to believe that this is a debut novel though. The prose has the flow and rhythm of poetry as it plays out on the page. The connection to Alabama is also strong in the prose, the way that Langston speaks and the way he sees the world. Somehow Cline-Ransome makes all of that clear in her writing alone.

Langston is a fascinating character living in a very interesting time in American history, the Great Migration when African Americans left the south and headed north to cities like Chicago. Langston’s love of reading and books is not only a way for him to find a home in the local library branch but also eventually a way for him to connect with peers over a love of the written word.

Skilled story telling and a strong protagonist make this book a very special piece of historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (9780062795328)

In this sequel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, the focus is on Felicity, Monty’s sister. Felicity desperately wants to become a doctor, but in 18th century England, women did not become doctors. Felicity tries again and again to gain entry to a medical education, but is rebuffed. She is forced to give up her job at a bakery because the kind man who owns it proposes marriage to her. Felicity is not interested in romance at all. When she learns that her childhood best friend is set to marry her medical idol, Felicity heads to Germany to attend the wedding. She is funded Sim, by a rather questionable companion, who poses as Felicity’s maid to gain entry into the same household but for unknown reasons. As things develop, there is another whirlwind adventure across continents in a quest that could be legendary.

Lee has a wonderful wit and humor in her writing. She tells this new tale with the same dance of sarcasm, historical detail and charm as her first book. It is a delight to see Felicity at the center of the novel, as she was a character readers will have loved in the first book but longed to know more about. The book takes place a year after the first ended, just enough time for the dust to settle on that adventure. Lee gives readers glimpses of Monty and Percy, but they do not overtake Felicity’s story.

As readers get to know Felicity better, they will realize that she is a person with no interest in romance or sex. Modern terms would describe her as asexual, but that term is not used in the book. Beautifully, that does not mean that she is cold or distant, rather that she is not interested in kissing or cuddling much and certainly has no designs on romantic futures with other characters. And yet, there is love in the book. Brotherly love, deep connections and real female friendships shine here.

A wonderful second book in an award-winning series, there is so much to adore on these pages. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older (9781338268812)

Magdalys Roca lives at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York during the year 1863. It is a different world than the one we know, with dinosaurs still roaming the earth. While on a field trip to see a theater performance, riots break out in New York City. Magdalys and her fellow orphans are caught in the situation. As she helps her fellow orphans survive, Magdalys discovers that she has a strange ability to communicate with the dinosaurs around her. Discovering that the orphanage has been destroyed in the riots, Magdalys and several other orphans are taken in by New York freedom fighters in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood where people of color have created a place of safety. Magdalys and her friends are soon involved in saving the other children from being taken into slavery.

Based loosely on real history, this novel has just enough historical reality to keep it grounded. Add in the dinosaurs and you have a wonderful novel of alternative history that will keep children enthralled. The pace is fast and becomes almost wild during fight and battle scenes. The children face real horrors of slavery, including a lynching, mobs of people intent of capturing or killing them, and a network of men working to send free people into bondage. The setting of a historical New York City is deftly woven into the story line as well.

It’s not often that you have children’s fantasy books that offer alternative takes on history. It is even more rare that those books have children of color as the main characters in the novel. Magdalys is a great heroine, full of bravery and a sense of purpose as she joins those trying to change the world. She is a natural leader though she views herself as a loner, something that others won’t allow her to be.

A rip-roaring read that will have children longing for a dactyl to ride. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Review: The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr (9781452159584)

When Grisha was a young dragon still learning of the dangers of the world, he is trapped by a magician into the shape of a teapot. He spends decades trapped in that form, decorating the rooms of the emperor and then joining the household of a small family. Luckily, the father of the family knows how to see magic and realizes what Grisha is. When Grisha is finally released from the spell, he is sent to Vienna to join the rest of the world’s dragons there. It is now after World War II and Grisha is one of the lucky dragons who still walks the streets of the city. He meets a very special little girl, Maggie, and they become close friends. But when Grisha starts to remember what happened to the other dragons, the two feel compelled to try to solve the puzzle and rescue the surviving dragons from the magic that binds them. But at what cost?

Weyr has written a very unique fantasy novel for children that is firmly grounded in the real city of Vienna and world history, but adds dragons and other magic as a vibrant layer on top of that foundation. The world building is cleverly done, meshing history and fantasy into something new and very special. The story is accompanied by illustrations done in black and white that are like small framed windows into the story.

The characters of Grisha and Maggie are compelling. Grisha is immediately fascinating partly because he is a dragon who isn’t quite sure of how a dragon should act. Maggie is a character who has grown up very lonely and then makes one of the best friends ever. Throughout the story there is an air of tragedy, of lost years, of forgotten tragedies. This melancholy only grows larger as the end of the book nears. I recommend having a few tissues on hand.

Beautiful, haunting and tragic, this is a special fantasy for young readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

Review: A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)

Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.

Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.

This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.

A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.

Review: Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant (9781534412774)

Flora is a quiet child, who loves the purple chair in the window of the used book store more than any other place. That’s particularly true now that her parents are separated and living in different houses from one another. Flora has also lost her dog recently, so things feel very off kilter. Even fourth grade seems very different from other school years. Still, as Flora navigates the changes in her life, she also has some happy surprises. She meets Yury, a boy from the Ukraine, who enjoys animals and survival stories too. The two become close friends and soon each of them have new pets in their lives too. Flora’s other friend Nessy is steadily discovering her own talents. And though Flora hasn’t discovered her own yet, she soon will.

Set in Indiana in 1972, Rylant has created a book that captures being a worried and anxious child just right. Flora is quiet and a tad shy, unless she knows something. She worries about different things and her family is gentle and understanding with her. Even as she grows in this short novel, that aspect of her personality is embraced and not being fixed by others. The book itself is gentle in tone, slow paced and lovingly written.

A book that will have a specific audience who will adore it, this one may not be for everyone but will be just right for some children. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (9780553535327)

Ami has grown up on Culion, an island in the Philippines filled with people who have leprosy, like Ami’s mother. Ami loves her home, the others who live there with her, the kind nun who helps everyone out. But then things change and new government rules are implemented. Ami and her mother must be tested to see if Ami is also “Touched” with the infection. When Ami is declared to be free of leprosy, she is taken with the other children to a neighboring island and placed in an orphanage. Watched over by a cruel man who is terrified of disease and by extension hates the children from Culion, Ami slowly makes new friends, longing for news from home. After finding a letter withheld from her, Ami makes a desperate journey to see her mother once more.

Using butterflies as a beautiful metaphor throughout the book, one of strength and fragility, Hargrave has crafted a book that looks past the surface level of leprosy and deeply at the people who suffer from the infection and those who love them. Throughout the book, butterflies emerge from cocoons, appear suddenly and inspire those who see them, die at the hands of a collector, and eventually form a way of life. There is a resilience throughout this novel, a tale of overcoming not leprosy but expectations and limitations of all sorts.

The setting of Culion and the Philippines is brought lushly to life on the pages. From journeys through the jungle with its fruits, fish and streams to the coral reefs that tear at boats to the colony itself, each place is drawn with care. The setting is evoked through sounds, scents and sight.

A complex book that takes a deep look at grief, loss, courage and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Alfred A. Knopf.)

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (9780062570604)

Released April 3, 2018.

This inventive teen novel mixes a zombie apocalypse with American Civil War era history into one compelling read. Jane was born on a plantation, an African-American child to the white mistress of the house. The dead started to rise only days after her birth, so Jane never knew a world without Shamblers. Now Jane is attending Miss Preston’s a school for African American girls that teaches them how to kill zombies. As she nears graduation, she begins to question how the zombies are being managed in her area near Baltimore. Though she is seeing more of them around, claims are being made that they are being exterminated. As the lies that surround Jane come crashing down, she is sent to a new city in Kansas, but life there is even more brutal than the one she has left behind. It is up to Jane not only to save herself but an entire community from destruction.

Ireland’s world building is incredible rich as are all of the details of the story. It makes it almost impossible to summarize the book effectively, because there is so much more to say! Ireland was inspired by the Indian Boarding Schools in the United States and based her model of zombie training schools from them. This book tackles racism in the same clear cut way that you take a zombie’s head off.

Jane is a great protagonist. She is smarter than almost everyone else in the book, cunning as she quickly creates solutions to impossible situations, and still deeply flawed. She is judgemental of others, often misunderstanding them and falls for the wrong people. She is beautifully proud, almost entirely unable to bite her tongue, and always creating trouble for herself.

A wild and bloody book with a fierce protagonist who sears the page. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (9780735232112)

This strong and intense verse novel tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a painter born in sixteenth-century Rome. This fictional account is based on her true story of working in her father’s art studio and becoming more skilled than him in her late teens. As her father brought in a teacher for her, Artemisia first enjoyed his company and then it became something else entirely. Raped by her teacher, Artemisia has to decide whether to stay silent or try to fight back in the limited ways that she could. With her dead mother’s stories of two strong women from history to inspire her, Artemisia did accuse her rapist and found justice hard to come by but worth fighting for.

Told in Artemisia’s own voice, this verse novel is entirely captivating. Firmly feminist in tone and content, the reader learns not only of Artemisia but also of Judith and Susanna, two historical figures who found their own way to justice. Perfectly timed with the #MeToo movement, this novel calls for women to understand their own strength and find their own voices.

Throughout the book, even with the anger and aggravating unfairness of the time, the book has beautifully soft moments filled with art and creativity. Yet it is firmly footed in reality and doesn’t sugarcoat or turn away from impossible choices, horrible violence, and the importance of strength even when you feel weakest.

A necessary and vital call to action, this book shows that women have stood up all the way through history and their voices will not be ignored. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Dutton.