Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

Cover image for Watch Over Me

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour (9780593108970)

Mila has aged out of the foster care system and has found a job teaching at a remote farm in Northern California. The farm is owned by a couple who have taken in over 40 foster children over the years as well as offering internships, like the one Mila has gotten. Mila finds herself on a beautiful farm and warmly welcomed by the owners. She only has one pupil, 9-year-old Lee, who comes from a traumatized background just as Mila does. But no one told Mila about the ghosts on the farm, about how they would fill dance across the fields and play games together at night. As Mila gets more involved with helping on the farm, learning about the flowers and crops, and helping Lee face his trauma, she finds that her own memories are threatening to overwhelm her as her past continues to haunt her.

This new book from the Printz-award winner is another dynamite read. It’s a novel with such an unusual setting, haunting and remote. It echoes with elements of Jane Eyre and Rebecca while standing completely modern and unique. It may not be classically gothic with its warm and sunny rooms, merry meals together, and companionship, but other moments are pure gothic with the sea, the cliffs, and the ghosts. It’s a tantalizing mixture of sun and shadow.

Mila is a character to fall hard for. She is clearly traumatized by what happened to her before she entered the foster care system, setting herself apart from others even as she longs to be closer to people. She is careful, conscientious, and amazingly kind, everything that her past has her thinking she is not. She is a marvel of layers that the novel reveals with gothic precision at just the right times.

Gorgeously written and filled with icy darkness and glowing warmth, this novel is a triumph. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone

Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone

Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone (9781984816436)

Molly is beyond tired of the dress coding that is happening at her middle school. It’s a dress code that unfairly targets only the girls and then only some of the girls. Molly isn’t the most developed girl in her class, so she often isn’t dress coded though she’s wearing the same outfit as a friend who is. So Molly starts a podcast about the dress code at her school and how inequitable it is. She interviews girls about their experiences, catching the notice of even high school girls who want to share their own middle school stories. Molly also tries to get the attention of the school board, but their petition and requests go nowhere. Soon Molly is leading a significant rebellion at the school, finding her own voice, standing in her power, and not apologizing for what she wears.

It is hard to believe that this is a debut middle-grade novel. Firestone, the author of several young adult novels, really captures what it is to be a middle school girl. The pressures of that age are magnified in this book through the horrible dress code, but are also firmly universal, dealing with body image, periods, friendships, and complicated family relationships. Firestone’s writing is fiery and offers a call to action, positively showing what can happen when you stand up.

The characters of this book are wonderfully drawn with each friend and girl having their own personalities. They each stand out with a unique voice as well, something that is difficult with this large a cast of characters. Molly herself is marvelous, a mix of courage and middle school doubts and fears. The book contains gay characters, who reveal themselves with no trauma and lots of hope, just right.

A dynamo of a middle-grade read that will inspire girls to become activists for their own rights. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Putnam.

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet, illustrated by Claire Fauvel (9780062915603)

This graphic novel from France is a reworking of a novel based on the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II as a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation. Rachel lives at a children’s home in Sevres, France in 1942. Her parents are still in Paris. The children’s home allows its students the freedom to study what they are interested in. Rachel loves photography and developing and printing her own images. She begins to document her experiences of the war. Soon as the danger gets closer, Rachel changes her name to Catherine and gets a new identity. She moves from place to place, leaving friends behind, finding new ways of life with each new place she lands. She works on a farm, helps the Resistance, and along the way finds time to take pictures and find places to develop her film. She even manages to fall in love with a boy who loves photography the way she does. Still, she must leave him behind as well, as she continues to try to find a safe place in a world hunting her down. 

Based on her mother’s story, this graphic novel is a dazzling mix of danger and hope. Billet does not minimize the constant danger the Jewish children found themselves in, hiding in cellars and gaining new identities, missing their families horribly. This book is not an adventure across France, but a fearful dash from one safe place to the next, each move causing more loss and anguish. Billet uses hope and the joy of photography to show that life continued despite the war, but always impacted by it. 

The art is marvelous and the story works really nicely as a graphic novel which keeps the pace fast. All of the danger and the moves from place to place spiral past the reader, as new people step forward to offer Catherine a safe place to live for even a brief period of time. The journey and the devastation are one and the same, even when walking through beautiful French landscapes, there is a sense of loss and dread.

A marvelous balance of resilience, tenacity and war. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch (9781492683742)

Set in a modern world where smartphones have been replaced by companion robots shaped like a variety of animals, this middle-grade novel is a dynamic mix of STEM, science fiction and robot battles. Lacey spends most of her time in her basement cave where she works on baku, the smart pets that accompany everyone around. Lacey longs to get into Profectus, the school that feeds people directly into Moncha, the company behind the bakus. She knows her grades are high enough and her test scores are strong, but she gets a rejection letter. It may be because of her mysterious father who left both their family and Moncha when Lacey was five. Then Lacey discovers a ruined baku in a ravine after saving her friend’s new baku from a fall. She works for months to restore the entire machine and when the cat baku finally comes online, Lacey receives an email that she has actually been accepted to Profectus. Jinx, the cat baku, and Lacey make their way into the elite school, but all is not what it seems both at Moncha and with Jinx. 

McCullough has written a middle grade novel that is perfect for devouring quickly. It offers a hint of middle grade romance along with the science fiction and STEM elements. The technology on display is enthralling, making sense as to why it took society by storm. Readers will long for their own baku too. Lacey’s skill with technology and her dedication to it is shown very clearly, honoring the time it takes to both learn and accomplish this high-level work. The baku battles are written with clarity that allows readers to follow them easily and with strong pacing that keeps the action quick and exciting. 

The relationship between Jinx and Lacey is key to the book. Using a cat form as the baku who is rather aloof and does what he wants to do, rather than being perfectly biddable and helpful, makes it really function. Elements in the novel that may not make sense early on, will by the end of the first novel, though many questions are left unanswered for future books in the series. 

A great first in a new series that may make middle graders look up from their phones. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Sourcebooks.

Review: Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna

Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna

Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna (9781911171539)

A girl talks about how her fear had once been small and helped protect her. However, when she came to a new country, her fear grew much bigger and kept on growing. Her fear kept her in the house when she wanted to go out. Her fear doesn’t want her to go to school. Fear fills the girl’s dreams, evenings and meals. It makes her feel separate and lonely. When a boy reaches out to her at school, they draw and paint together. When they head outdoors, a dog barks at the two of them and suddenly both of them reveal their fears to one another. Her fear steadily gets smaller and more manageable as she begins to try new things and meet even more people.

Sanna, the author of The Journey, returns with her second book that once again speaks to the experience of an immigrant child. The use of Fear as a full character in the book works very well, embodying this large emotion and demonstrating how it can control one’s life. Children who are not immigrants will be able to see their own fears represented here as well, making this a strong choice for discussing emotions.

The art plays a crucial role in the book, particularly in the way that the fears are presented. Sanna creates a fear that is friendly at times and ferocious at others. Fear is soft and changes size, sometimes riding on the girl’s back and weighing her down. When Fear shrinks, it becomes almost toylike and very manageable, conveying that some fear is a good thing to have.

An original look at fear as an emotion. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (9780399544682)

Amal loves going to school in her small Pakistani village. She plans on becoming a teacher herself one day. But after her mother gives birth to a fifth daughter, her mother slumps into postpartum depression. Amal, as the eldest daughter, has to stop attending school to take care of the household. Thanks to her younger sister, Amal manages to keep on learning. But then Amal talks back to the son of the corrupt politician and landlord who runs their village. Amal is taken from her family and forced to work in his household as a servant to work off the debt. As Amal comes to terms with this abrupt change in her life, she has to figure out how to navigate being a servant in a grand house filled with secrets. Now Amal has to discover how connections with others could be the key to unlocking her future once again.

Saeed brings the setting of a small Pakistani village to vivid life in this novel for young people. From the paths to get to her home to the crowded schoolroom to the bustling village market, all demonstrate a warmth and strong community. That is beautifully contrasted with the setting of the grand home where Amal works in indentured servitude. It is a house that is chilly with deceit and secrecy.

Amal is a great heroine, dedicated to reading and learning as much as she can. She is also inventive and formulates solutions to the problems she encounters. At the same time, she also needs to learn to trust others, even those who may have betrayed her before.

A very readable book that invites readers into rural Pakistan and the dangers of corruption and debt. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

 

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu (9781626726352)

Vivian hates her high school with its focus on football, a culture where the football players are kings and can do no wrong, and being harassed in the hallways. Inspired by a box of her mother’s mementos, Vivian who has never broken a rule, decides to start her own zine called Moxie. The zine calls at first for simple things like putting stars and hearts on your hands in support of girls. Along the way, Vivian starts to date Seth, a boy who just moved to town and is different from the others at her school. She also makes other new friends, who are drawn together thanks to Moxie. Soon Moxie takes on a life of its own and other girls are forming events using the name. But when one of her best friends is assaulted by a football player and the school does nothing, Vivian gets angrier and Moxie grows even stronger.

Mathieu has created a novel that is filled with a rage that girls should be feeling. The novel talks directly about the apathy that fills high school life, the unchanging feel of assignments and classes, of riding it out until you can finally graduate and escape. She challenges that, showing that small acts of civil disobedience can create a movement, that girls have power if they take it and that fighting back works. It’s a message that is raw and important, one that takes moxie to live out.

All of the characters in this novel are so fully formed and human. They make mistakes and learn from them. It’s a novel that celebrates that people can transform and get angry and that bravery can come from being part of a movement and insisting on being seen and heard. The book celebrates friendships of girls, new and old, and how those friendships can drift and change but still be strong in the end.

This book raises its voice for feminism and fighting back. It’s a book for all genders and all libraries. Appropriate for ages 13-17. (Reviewed from library copy.)

I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis

i-am-not-a-number-by-jenny-kay-dupuis

I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland (InfoSoup)

Based on the true story of the author’s grandmother, this picture book captures the experience of First Nations people in Canada being sent to boarding schools. Under threat of fines and jail time, First Nation parents were forced to give their children up to the government. When Irene is taken to her new home, she tries to never forget her real home, her parents and their way of life. Irene is called only by a number at the school and told to scrub the brown off of her skin. Her hair is cut off. She is punished when she speaks her native language by a nun burning her hands. Irene is eventually allowed to return home for the summer, where she continues to have nightmares of her time at school. Finally, her parents decide to hide the children rather than sending them back.

This is not a picture book for preschoolers, rather it is ideal for elementary-aged children closer in age to 8-year-old Irene in the story. The horrific treatment of First Nation children is shown with real clarity. The use of Irene’s own voice to tell the story makes it personal and much more painful. While there is a lot of text on the pages, the book reads well and the text is straightforward and necessary to explain the loss of culture and the darkness of the boarding schools.

The illustrations by Newland are almost like painted photographs. They show the family losing their children, the stern nuns, and the punishment scene is carefully captured afterwards in terms of pain and emotion rather than depicting the punishment itself. There is a feeling of constraint and loss in the images of the boarding school and then freedom when the children return home.

A powerful look at Canadian history and First Nation children, this book would work well paired with When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington

catching-a-story-fish-by-janice-n-harrington

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington (InfoSoup)

Moving away from Alabama is hard for Keet. She is moving closer to her beloved grandfather though, which helps. The two of them spend days together fishing, something that Keet used to find challenging because she loves to talk and tell stories. But at her new school, she is teased for her accent and suddenly her words start to dry up. She finds it hard to make friends and even at home she isn’t talking much. Slowly though, Keet starts to find her voice again and makes a new friend. Just as she starts to talk though, her grandfather suffers a stroke and struggles with the slow recovery. Keet though has just the solution, showing him the way forward with stories.

Harrington’s verse novel is pure loveliness. Throughout she plays with various poetic forms, delicately moving from haiku to concrete poems to narrative form with many others included too. She nicely lists them at the end of the book, talking about their difficulty and what makes a poem that form. Her skill is evident throughout with all of the forms as she tells the story of Keet and her progress from losing her confidence and her voice to finding it again. The voice of Keet’s new friend is including in the poems as well, often playing against ones in Keet’s voice.

The characters here are given time to grow and stretch on the page. Keet is a wonderful character filled with a great energy and drive, but also stuck in a lack of confidence that hits her out of nowhere. It is a book about quiet and both its power and the ability to drown in being silenced. It is a book about friendship, about family and the importance of finding your place and your voice.

Beautifully written and strikingly gentle, this book is a celebration of the individual and their ability to speak their own stories. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.