It Wasn’t Me by Dana Alison Levy (9781524766450)
When Theo’s photographs are vandalized at school, he and five other seventh graders spend their spring break doing a Justice Circle. Theo is angry that he has to spend time with the people who may have ruined his photos but also scared that that person targeted him enough to also spoil his pinpoint camera project the next day. But as the Justice Circle works, the five of them discover ways to make new connections: sock puppets, yoga-ball soccer, and lots of candy. Still, as the end of the week nears, no one has confessed to being the vandal and Theo is getting more and more stressed. When one more of his projects is ruined that week, he is convinced he knows the perpetrator. But does he?
Levy’s middle-grade novel cleverly mirrors The Breakfast Club and yet also takes the format in a different direction by adding a mystery. Readers will quickly make assumptions about the different teens themselves. Was it the jock? The weirdo? The goody-goody? The invisible kid? The screwup? One of them has to be the culprit. Still, as the week goes on, readers will question those initial opinions and learn that there is more to each of the characters than a single label.
Strongly written and compellingly paced, this novel is a fascinating look at how justice can be done in a school setting without the use of detentions or suspensions. It asks readers to look deeply at the characters, to join Theo on his journey of learning about the others. As the characters reveal more about themselves, they become all the more human and interesting, and they might just become friends too.
A great novel about the complexities of being a seventh grader and the truths you hide. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
Building Books by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated by Brianne Farley (9781524773687)
Katie loved to build with blocks, from the noises that they made to the way they wobbled and then fell. Most of all, Katie loved building something new. Owen loved reading books, from the smell of the paper to the rustle of turned pages. Most of all, Owen loved reading something new. The two argued about which was best and then the school librarian stepped in. She gave Katie a stack of books to read and Owen a stack of books to shelve. Katie couldn’t settle in and read at all. So she started to build with the books until after a very large topple of a tower, a book on castle engineering caught her eye. Owen meanwhile was reading the books he was supposed to shelve. But then he noticed that books could balance on one another and soon he was building with them. The two admitted to each other that the other had been right, but then they come together and put building and stories into one big idea.
Lloyd writes the stories of each child in parallel with one another. The rhythms and patterns of each of their experiences match one another, creating a great structure for the book. The intervention of the librarian amusingly does not go as she plans, with the children taking their own approach to everything. Beautifully, it isn’t until Katie discovers just the right book for her that the world of reading opens up. Meanwhile, Owen is having a similar experience with building.
The illustrations by Farley add so much to the story. He manages to create amazing structures out of blocks and books, including elephants and giraffes that will have readers looking closely at them and wondering if they could actually be built. The final pages with the two children working together is also incredible. I also love the librarian’s response to what she has inadvertently created.
Funny and accepting, this book shows the power of reading and how it can build into something brand new. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Alfred A. Knopf.
Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner (9781481495561)
AJ just doesn’t feel like he fits in with his two best friends anymore. They are always daring each other to do things and have fantastic lives where they take big risks and brag about them. In contrast, AJ feels short and dull. But then he decides to take a big risk and start talking to a girl he’s had a crush on for years. He’s just not sure how to get Nia’s attention. He knows she is way into vampire novels, so he starts to read them too. Perhaps all it will take is some fake blood around the gums to get her to notice him. However, when Nia does notice AJ, she thinks he’s a real vampire and she has dedicated her life to slaying them. What none of them can see though is that there is a real vampire in their midst! Something they might figure out too late.
This graphic novel for teens and pre-teens is just right for both Twilight fans and Twilight haters. Getting it into the hands of Buffy fans would also be a great choice. Gardner wisely plays on the tropes of vampire novels, using similar character names and book titles. Throughout there is a sense that the reader is in on the broader joke of it all, something that is entirely charming.
Readers will figure out that there is a real vampire long before the characters do and Gardner then lets that play out delightfully. There is no attempt to conceal it, either through the storyline or the art work. And the art work is excellent, offering large panels in a colorful vampire-filled world. It has a cartoon feel to it that makes it approachable and then the humor completes it nicely.
A great pick for fans and haters alike, this one would make a great graphic novel to book talk to middle-schoolers and teens. Appropriate for ages 11-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen (9780735262751)
Felix loves trivia and his gerbil who is named after a famous Canadian game show host. He lives with his mother Astrid, who struggles to keep jobs and tends to tell lies whenever she wants. Living in Vancouver is expensive, so when Astrid loses her job and then offends the person who takes them in, Felix finds himself living in a camper van. It’s only temporary, so Felix starts school and doesn’t explain to anyone where he is living. Astrid uses her ability to stretch the truth convincingly to get him a place in the school he wants and to get them a mailing address. Still, living in a van is not any fun after awhile and as Felix makes new friends, he finds it hard to keep lying to them. But there is a way out, if Felix can win the junior version of a national game show, he might just have enough money to get them back on their feet and into a home.
Nielsen tells a story about the power of hope, the importance of friendship and the creation of a community of people who care. It is also the story of a mother who is struggling with depression and an inability to keep a job. Astrid is a great character, a mother who manages to continue to be sympathetic but also disastrous. She is complicated just like their story of homelessness is. This is not a flat look at homelessness but instead an in-depth exploration of how it happens, the trap of being in it, and the long climb back out.
Felix too is a wonderful character. He is bright, funny and written as a twelve-year-old boy. That means that his sense of humor is a little naughty and his sense of integrity and honor is strong. His voice resonates as that of a child his age, not reaching up to be a teen yet. The friends he makes are also depicted well, from his old childhood friend with the warm and messy home to the girl he likes, maybe, and her straight-talking hard-hitting journalism approach.
A nuanced and skilled look at homelessness with great characters to discover along the journey. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Tundra Books.
The Dinosaur Expert by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9780553511437)
In this new book in the Mr. Tiffin’s Classroom series, the class visits the natural history museum. Kimmy loves fossils and has been to the museum many times before. She can’t wait to share everything she knows about dinosaurs with the others. But when she starts to tell the others about dinosaurs, Jake tells her that girls can’t be scientists. As the children walk through the exhibits, Kimmy sees only men’s names on the displays. Kimmy stops talking about what she knows, even when Mr. Tiffin tries to get her to share. When they enter a new special exhibit, Mr. Tiffin points out that a female paleontologist was the one who discovered it. Inspired, Kimmy starts to talk about what she knows.
A book about the power of modeling to inspire young people, particularly girls to get involved with science, this picture book forgoes subtlety and takes the issue straight on. The strength of other children’s opinions is shown very clearly but so is the ability to suddenly shrug that off and be who you are without hesitation when you are inspired by another female scientist. Don’t miss Kimmy’s list of her favorite female paleontologists and their discoveries. Karas’s illustrations are done in his signature style. He shows Kimmy’s emotions very clearly as she moves from questioning herself into owning her knowledge.
A great book to share and inspire science exploration. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Random House.
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman (9780525579649)
A diverse group of students start a new school year in their bright and busy classroom. The urban school has students from around the world, all of them safe in school and welcome to be there. All of the students wear different kinds of clothes to school and bring different food in their lunches. They play together, learn from one another, and celebrate their various cultures. When the children head home, they all make their way to bed thinking of the new friends they have made that day.
Told in rhymes, the text uses “All are welcome here” as its chorus. The focus here is on how different the children are from one another and also how inclusive their school is, making children of all backgrounds, faiths, cultures, and abilities welcome in the same room. The bright illustrations add to the celebration of diversity with children in dark glasses or in wheelchairs and wearing different sorts of headwear that reflect their faith. Throughout, there are big smiles and a lively energy that feel like an active class on the page.
A great book to start the school year and promote acceptance and diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (9780763690496)
Merci’s life starts to really change during sixth grade. She doesn’t fit in at her private school with the other kids, mostly because she is a scholarship student. Her brother Roli seems to be able to fit in naturally thanks to his love of science. As part of her community service for the school, Merci is a Sunshine Buddy. When she is paired with a boy to guide around school, Merci is shocked but opinionated Edna is bothered by how much time and contact Merci now has with the new cute and popular boy. Meanwhile, Merci’s grandfather is struggling. He has started to forget things, calls people by the wrong name, can’t ride a bike anymore and get angry over small things. Other times, he is just as he has always been, immensely patient and loving. Middle school is always a confusing time, but Merci has a lot more to deal with than other kids. Can she navigate family and school without losing who she is?
Medina has created an engaging middle-grade novel that grapples with several big topics. There is a theme of bullying at school, particularly because of differences in social status and culture. At the same time, readers will notice long before Merci does that she is deeply liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. There is her grandfather’s Alzheimer symptoms, something that Merci tries to figure out but is not told directly about until late in the novel. Her confusion and concerns turn to anger when she discovers that she is being treated like a child and not included in knowing about the diagnosis.
Throughout the novel, Merci is a strong character who has a lot more going for her than she realizes. Bringing people into her life and allowing her family and school life to become one is a skillful way to show that being ashamed of one’s family is actually not the solution. Merci takes the novel to figure things out, a steady and organic evolution for her character, a character that young readers will relate to easily.
A winning middle-grade novel that is part of #ownvoices, this is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.
Night Job by Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9780763662387)
Released on September 11, 2018.
On Friday nights, a little boy goes with his father to work. They leave after dark on his father’s motorcycle, head across the bridge, and enter the closed school. His father has a big ring of keys to open the door. They clean the gym first, while the little boy plays basketball. They bring a radio with them from room to room, listening to baseball games. At ten at night, they eat the lunch they brought with them. While his father cleans the library, the boy falls asleep reading on the couch. His father wakes him at four in the morning to head back home, across the bridge. The two fall asleep together curled in the big recliner.
Newbery Medal winner Hesse captures the wonder of going to work with a parent and brings in the beauty of being out at night as well. Along the way, the work of a parent who has a night job is honored. As a child of a teacher, I enjoyed the empty hallways of a school closed for the weekend or summer. It’s a beautiful thing to have those areas be silent and just for you. That feeling is shown here clearly, as the boy makes the spaces his own.
The connection between father and son is a focus of the story and the illustrations. The pictures by Karas are done in his signature style and use darkness and light cleverly. The father and son are shown as a pair throughout the book, highlighting their special time together whether in the bright gym or on the dark road.
A quiet book about jobs, connections and families. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.