Review: Operatic by Kyo Maclear

Operatic by Kyo Maclear

Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler (9781554989720)

A middle grade graphic novel that focuses on the power of music and opera? Yes please! This innovative graphic novel tells the story of Charlie, who has an assignment to find her own personal perfect song. Her music class listens to all sorts of musical genres but the one that resonates with Charlie (and no one else in her class) is the music of opera singer Maria Callas. As Charlie searches for her song, she is thinking of two classmates. There is Emile, who is quiet and intriguing. Then there is the empty desk left by Luka, who was targeted and bullied for his gender nonconformity. As Charlie finds her song, she also discovers her inner diva and the ability to empower those around her.

Maclear’s story is all about the impact that music, specifically the right music at the right time, can have on one’s life. She writes with a deep empathy for young people finding their own way through middle school, focusing on the importance of friends but also on reaching out to others and helping them too. The book is filled with emotion and connection that exemplifies youth and hope.

Eggenschwiler’s art is exceptional. He creates images that perfectly capture the emotions of have a crush on someone, or feeling certain ways in your group of friends. The illustrations move through various single-colors as their main palette from yellows to blues to reds and back. Filled with individuality and creativity, the illustrations are interesting and unique.

A great graphic novel for middle grades, this one speaks to each person being both an individual and a member of the community. Appropriate for ages 11-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Oberg

Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Oberg

Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Oberg, illustrated by Kristin Lidstrom, translated by Eva Apelqvist (9781773061498)

Adrian doesn’t fit in at school. Bullied by some of the kids in the schoolyard, he spends his time in class hoping not to be called on. When he is, his heart pounds and his mind goes blank. He can’t answer even the easiest of questions out loud. He spends lunch alone and his recess dangling from tree branches. On his way home, he does head stands and walks on his hands. At home, his father works early and his mother works late, Then Adrian meets Heidi, a large wolfhound, who bonds with him immediately. The two of them spend all of their time together, she even goes with him to school. With Heidi at his side, Adrian doesn’t need to worry about bullies and he can focus in class and answer questions. But Heidi was someone else’s dog, and eventually Heidi found her owner again. Adrian was left alone again, missing Heidi dreadfully. Until Heidi found him again too. Adrian got to meet Heidi’s owner, and discovered a world of tightropes and performances.

This unique and fascinating book explores the life of a lonely boy who is different than the other children. He is quiet, unpopular and prone to anxiety, and yet he is also brave as he swings from tree branches and does hand stands on ledges. The text in the book is minimal with many of the pages showing only the illustrations and not having any words on them. The words often downplay the emotions that Adrian is feeling, though after he loses Heidi, his grief is palpable in both words and illustrations.

The illustrations are truly the heart of the book. They move from multi-paneled pencil drawings to full two-page paintings. The pencil drawings show Adrian’s everyday life while the large illustrations capture his emotions with a lush clarity. The small moments captured in Adrian’s day make up his life, one after another, small and yet also meaningful.

An incredibly moving graphic novel that invites readers to see beyond a person’s surface. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.

Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (9780062747808)

Jude lives in Syria with her beloved older brother and her parents. As her older brother gets involved in the political battles around them, her parents decide that it is too dangerous for Jude and her pregnant mother to stay in Syria. So Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati to live with Jude’s uncle. America is very different than Syria, much louder and faster, and filled with a language that Jude barely understands. As Jude gets acclimated to living in the United States, she steadily makes new friends along the way. Her love of movies and desire to perform lead her to audition for the school musical. But when the attacks of 9-11 occur, the country that Jude has grown comfortable in changes to be more hostile to Muslims. Jude needs to rediscover what she loves about both Syria and the United States, her two homes.

This novel is written in verse, making for a very readable work. Told in Jude’s voice, the poetry allows readers to see how she feels about leaving Syria, how lost she feels when she comes to Cincinnati, and how she starts to find her way. The importance of English Language Learner classes are emphasized, both in learning the language but also in finding a group of friends. Jude also finds friends in other ways, connecting over shared cultures and shared interests.

Jude’s voice is vital to find in a middle grade novel. My favorite chapters are where Jude gets angry and voices her pain at the injustice of being labeled in a certain way, feared because of her religion, judged because of her headscarf. Those moments are powerful and raw, ringing with truth on the page.

Beautifully written with an amazing Syrian heroine at its center, this book is a great read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray. 

Review: I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca

I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca

I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca, illustrated by Gusti (9788417123598)

Ben loves to paint his nails in cheery colors. He loves looking at the bright colors on his hands. His mother shares her nail polish and so does his friend Margarita, they both have large collections of colors. One morning, as Ben headed to school with red nails, two boys started teasing him, telling him that nail polish is for girls. Ben felt very sad and a few days later, he told his parents about it. His father immediately asked for orange nail polish for his own nails. At school though, more boys started to tease him. Soon Ben was only wearing nail polish on the weekends, removing it for school. His dad though, wore bright nail polish every day, even when he picked Ben up from school. As Ben’s birthday arrives, he gets the best present ever! What could it be?

This picture book offers a very approachable way to talk about gender expectations and how even small expressions of difference are important. The parents in the book are both tremendously warm and encouraging of their son, but the book accurately shows how school can be very different for children who are not conforming to societal norms. The use of nail polish is clever, adding a colorful element to the tale as well as something that Ben’s father can embrace himself.

Gusti’s illustrations are marvelous. Filled with warmth and humor, they celebrate the bright colors of nail polish on each page. Ben’s emotions are shown through the set of his shoulders and his entire posture. When he is sad, he droops over and when he’s happy he bounces on the page.

A great book about gender nonconforming behavior in children and how a school can be a place of safety. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Nubeocho.

Review: Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis (9781547601004)

11-year-old December has moved from one foster family to another over the past several years. As she moves, she has learned not to have many possessions, enough that she can carry them in a couple of bags. One item she brings with her every move is her biography, a book that reminds her why she is special and different from those around her. With her large scar on her back, December believes that she was raised as partially a bird and will eventually have her wings and feathers and be able to take flight. But when she jumps from a tree, she is moved to another foster family. This time, she is taken in by Eleanor, a women with a large garden, bird feeders, bird baths, and who works in an animal rehabilitation center. Eleanor’s quiet and loving approach starts to work on December, much as it does on her wounded birds. As December starts to trust, her desire to be separate from humans and different from them ebbs away. But could she ever give up her desire to fly?

Stark-McGinnis has written a startling debut novel for middle graders. December’s belief that she is a bird is at first alarming as she jumps from a tree, then rather odd, but the author leads readers to deeply understand the injury and damage done to December by first her mother’s violence and then her foster parents. It is a slow and haunting journey as December begins to trust others. Tying her own personal journey to that of a wounded hawk relearning to fly, the book creates a path for December to come alive again.

The journey to trust also includes a wonderful secondary character, Cheryllynn, a transgender classmate of December’s. As both girls steadily learn to stand up to the class bullies, they also learn that doing it together is easier and has a bigger impact. The two girls accept one another exactly as they are, something one doesn’t see enough in books about young girls and their friendships.

A heart-wrenching novel of abuse, recovery and learning to fly. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina

Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina

Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina, illustrated by Doug Salati (9781484780589)

When Lawrence finds out that his teacher wants the students to bring in their collections to share, he is very worried. He doesn’t have a collection at all. At home, he tells his father about not having a collection and his father has an idea. The two of them head into the forest together to see what they can find. But Lawrence doesn’t want to collect bugs the way the spider does and he can’t reach the shiny, smooth rocks that the river has collected. When a sudden storm begins, Lawrence gets separated from his father and finds himself standing near a large tree full of bright-colored leaves. Lawrence calls to the tree and it drops a beautiful leaf down to him. Now Lawrence knows exactly what to collect!

Farina captures the emotions that can accompany an assignment at school, including sadness and isolation. Thanks to the warmth of his father’s response, the two of them tackle the problem, taking action rather than despairing. In the end, Lawrence delights all of the children in his class by sharing his collection freely with them. The book has a touch of magic about it as Lawrence requests leaves from the trees, and they freely offer them.

The art by Salati captures Lawrence’s emotions beautifully. The double-page spreads of the forest are dramatic and could be seen as something frightening, particularly when Lawrence is separated from his father. In the end, the forest becomes something very special, a place where Lawrence discovers nature.

A lovely picture book with delicate illustrations and a strong story. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Disney-Hyperion.

Review: Focused by Alyson Gerber

Focused by Alyson Gerber

Focused by Alyson Gerber (9781338185973)

Clea loves to play chess; it’s her favorite thing to do. She likes it a lot better than her classes at school where she struggles to pay attention and follow directions. She’s also having a lot of emotional outbursts now that she’s in middle school. Clea knows that it’s because she’s just stupid and that she doesn’t try hard enough. She thinks that no one around her wants to tell her the truth. Then Clea gets tested for ADHD, and she discovers the reason for her issues at school. Still, it isn’t as simple as just taking medication and having a written schedule. In fact, before she realizes it, Clea has managed to drive her best friend away with her behavior. Clea must start figuring out how to manage her ADHD, her personal life and keep her schoolwork in hand, all while trying to be chosen for chess tournaments on the weekends.

Gerber has once again created a female protagonist who struggles with something beyond their control. I deeply appreciated Gerber’s focus on Clea finding a voice to ask for what she needed and her ability to fall down and get back up again. The book also shows ADHD not as something to blame but as a true issue that a person must manage and deal with on a daily basis. Gerber writes with a sensitivity about ADHD that comes from experiencing the issues herself.

As with her first book, readers will discover a lot to relate to with Clea. Simply understanding invisible disabilities more clearly is helpful for all readers. Those who face similar challenges will find a main character worth cheering for on these pages. Clea works incredibly hard even when she fails, thinks of others often, is a great sister and friend, and still can’t fix this issue on her own. It’s a testament to the power of getting help on a variety of levels.

A personal look at ADHD, this novel is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Review: I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong

I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong

I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani (9781250295088)

A young girl heads out into her day telling herself that today she will be fierce! She dons her clothes as her armor and bravely heads outside into the day. She is undaunted as a pack of dogs out on a walk bound towards her, charming them with bubbles she blows and imagining them as dragons. She waits for the bus with bigger kids, giants that she dares to be near. She heads to the library to learn and explore even more, thinking of the school librarian as the “Guardian of Wisdom.” She stands up to bullies in the cafeteria and makes a new friend. She talks in class even when she feels shy. Now she just has to be fierce again tomorrow!

Written in strong declarative sentences, this picture book is filled with energy and a sense of taking action. The unnamed protagonist of the book is a little girl of color who takes large and small risks throughout her day, including just getting on the school bus. Throughout her day, readers will see her getting all the more strong and fierce, meeting bigger challenges. The illustrations are vibrant and bright with the girl’s rainbow top glowing on every page. The other children at school represent a broad look at diversity too.

This strong picture book offers encouragement for children to be brave and to be themselves. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

 

 

Review: The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins

The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd

The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd (9780525428459)

Lyndie is definitely not a good Southern girl, much to her grandmother’s despair. She tends to find trouble easily and not make friends quickly. When her father loses his job, they move in with his parents. Lady, Lyndie’s grandmother, has specific ideas of how Lyndie should act and even creates a strict schedule for her that gives her no free time. But somehow on Lyndie’s first day of school, she finds an injured fawn on the way to school and ends up not making it to school that day. Lyndie’s best friend is a do-gooder whose family takes in a boy from a local juvenile detention facility. As Lyndie gets to know him, they become friends and share secrets with one another. When Lyndie chooses to put family before friends, she could lose everyone.

The voice in this novel is unique and confident. Set in 1985, the characters are grappling with the impact of the Vietnam War on the men in their community. The book looks at the results of the war and how one suicide can ripple through several families. Shepherd does not make this simple or easy, she allows it to stand in all of its complexity and gives us a young history buff to explore it with.

Shepherd creates an entire world in her writing, one that invites readers in to deeply feel for and cheer for Lyndie even as she makes plenty of mistakes and missteps. Lyndie is a champion though, and readers will completely understand her motivations as she chooses one direction or another. Happily, Lyndie is her own person, filling her days with the history of the region, exploring news on microfilm, and finding ways to live in a new home with rigid expectations.

An exceptional debut novel that invites readers to care just as deeply as Lyndie does. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Kathy Dawson Books.